Bob Schumann has an intense passion for radio-controlled aircraft. In his garage workshop in Oro Valley he’s designed and built — from the ground up — everything from ultra-lightweight electric birds to 25-pound dual-engine, gas-powered models.
He has one problem, though. The town bars model airplanes from public parks.
Since 2006, Schumann has pleaded with Oro Valley officials for a chance. Now, his lobbying may have paid off.
On Wednesday, the town council should vote on an ordinance that would amend the parks and recreation code to allow Schumann and other fliers to pilot their electric-powered planes at the Naranja Town Site.
“We’re trying to get across to the parks and recreation department that we’d be a complement to the town,” Schumann said.
He may have succeeded.
Recently, he and fellow fliers treated a group of town leaders, including Councilman Al Kunisch, to a winged demonstration.
“I’ve supported them from Day 1,” Kunisch said.
The councilman considers flying model planes a good use of the quiet 213-acre plot on West Naranja Drive, not far from town hall.
Schumann, a 72-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Kansas City, Kan., has built and flown radio-controlled planes since the 1980s. But, he confesses, his love of planes stretches back much further.
As a kid, he remembered his dad taking him to the airport where they watched planes from all over the world take off and touch down.
He and his father even built a few model fliers, but, as grew older, Schumann lost interest and found other diversions.
“Then you drop out of that and you discover girls and cars,” he said.
But he’s always been a tinkerer, and his garage stocked with lathes, table saws and his beloved model planes — some with wingspans of nearly 6 feet — attests to that.
“I build stuff,” Schumann said. “I’ve been building stuff forever.”
Some of that stuff has been enjoyed by people everywhere.
Earlier in his career, Schumann designed and built a movie projector, the kind found in theaters across the country throughout the 1970s. It allowed a single person to operate multiple projectors at once with a greater level of automation.
Later he got into classic car restoration. Now his passions have flown full-circle, as he’s returned to his hobby roots.
But, the planes he’ll fly at the Naranja Town site are slightly different.
Most fliers prefer gas-powered planes. They’re big, fast and incredibly loud.
Though he too flies the gas planes, Schumann and his crew, the Sonaran Desert Fliers Club, plan to fly only electric-powered planes at the town park. The electric models are smaller, lighter and infinitely quieter than gas-powered planes.
In fact, the planes are so quiet that when Schumann fired up one of his featherweight fliers in his Oro Valley living room last week for a demonstration, the bird sounded only slightly louder than an electric fan.
“That’s why it’s beautiful for an urban field,” Schumann said.
His club used to fly in an open lot near Interstate 10 and Tangerine Road, but the land owner, who had allowed them to use the site as a home field, in 2006 decided to try to sell the property and asked Schumann and crew to move.
The Sonoran Desert Fliers have been all but grounded ever since.
Without a base of operations, the group’s ranks have dwindled to but a hardy few. Some joined other clubs or stopped flying all together.
That’s not to say Schumann and others can’t fly elsewhere.
On Tucson’s far-west side, west of Saguaro National Park, a group called Tucson International Modelplex Park Association has a 160-acre flight center. The site looks like an airport in miniature, with 750 feet of runway and a covered area for fliers and spectators.
Other model plane airfields dot Tucson and Catalina.
Schumann has flown at the other sites many times, but the long drives makes flying a daylong event. Besides, he added, most of the pilots at the other airfields fly gas and alcohol-based glow fuel, not electric.
“This is like a Ford and Chevy comparison,” Schumann said of the rivalry between gas and electric fliers.
The gas-powered aircraft typically have roaring miniature two-stroke engines. The electric planes use batteries similar to the kind found in cell phones.
The power-source for electric planes also came from other modern conveniences — hard-drive motors from laptop computers.
Still, most diehard model aviators stick with gas, though some have come around to electric, Schumann said.
One thing gas and electric fliers seem to agree upon is the third-estate of model flying, model glider pilots.
“Those guys think they’re better than everyone,” Schumann said jokingly.
If the town council does vote to allow flying at the Naranja Town Site, only electric planes will be allowed. That’s just fine for Schumann.
“We’re just some old guys trying to have some fun,” he said.
But even if everything works out for Schumann and the Sonoran Desert Fliers, their time in the park could be short lived.
Town residents will vote on the fate of the open lot in November.
Then, townspeople will decide whether to accept a secondary property tax to pay for construction of the proposed $80-million park there.
If the measure passes, construction could begin as early as January 2009 and the Sonoran Desert Fliers once again will be told to move.
“Should voters approve, as soon as dirt starts to move, they would have to find another site,” said Ainsley Legner, Oro Valley’s parks and recreation director.
Legner said the group wouldn’t be able to fly during construction, and that after the work is completed, the town’s liability would be too great to allow them to fly in the park.
Even if the group agreed to fly only in the early morning hours during the week, when few people use soccer and baseball fields, Legner said that flying likely wouldn’t be permitted.
Most of the field maintenance gets done during weekday mornings, Legner said.
Town officials may consider allowing the aviators to use other parks, Legner said.
Schumann understands the liability issues, but wishes the Sonoran Desert Fliers could work out some long-term agreement with the town to use the park. He sees the park as a good way to expose today’s youth to model airplanes.
“You wouldn’t casually take your kids out to TIMPA (the flight grounds on the west side), but you would take them to the park to see some people fly,” Schumann said.
Still, the chance to fly closer to home — if only for a short while — makes Schumann happy. It’s a chance to share with folks his passion for model plane flying and act like a kid again.
“It’s just fun to show off,” Schumann said. “You don’t outgrow that.”