Model stunt plane hobbyist's passion will take him to world championships next month

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 28, 2014 

Kenny Stevens fell in love with airplanes at age 9, and he still loves them at age 54.

He's particularly passionate about airplanes of a certain size — ones that weigh about 65 ounces and have electric engines.

Stevens flies and builds delicate, control-line model stunt planes, and he does both with world-class skill.

Next month, the Lexington auto mechanic travels to Wloclawek, Poland, where he will be one of two pilots from the United States competing in the World Cup for control-line planes. That event is only a warmup for the FAI World Championships for Control Line Model Aircraft, also in Wloclawek, where Stevens will be one of 12 pilots representing the United States. Fliers from 63 countries will be there.

It's a bit like the NBA Finals for model airplane fliers, except the winners don't take home any bonus checks.

"There are no cash awards," Stevens explained. "Only the joy of doing it."

In control-line flying, the pilot stands on the ground and maneuvers the plane using two 65-foot lines attached to the aircraft. Delicate wrist movements direct the airplane through complex stunts while it buzzes in a circle around the pilot.

Simple in theory. Not in practice.

The slightest mistake can cost valuable points in competition, or crash the plane, which is made of balsa wood, carbon fiber, aluminum and Kevlar, covered with tissue paper.

"They're extremely fragile," Stevens said. "If one of these planes hits the ground, it's gone. They just destroy themselves."

In previous years, Stevens powered his planes with gas engines. A few years ago, however, he switched to tiny, but more powerful, electric engines powered by lithium batteries.

Since Stevens spends months working on every plane he builds, any crash would be a devastating setback.

He began flying model planes at age 9 with his father. A year later, he was competing in the junior class at the U.S. national championships.

At first, he did the flying, and his father built the planes.

"Building from scratch is not something you can do at that age," he explained.

Stevens' interest in building grew under the influence of the late Lew McFarland of Lexington, who flew in the model plane world championships in 1964 and 1966. Stevens later completed a model plane that McFarland started to build but wasn't able to finish. It's on display at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky at Blue Grass Airport.

Today, Stevens' approach to building model planes is, well, "obsession is a pretty good word for it," he admits.

He usually buys far more balsa wood than he needs for a plane, then meticulously evaluates each piece to find just the ones he wants.

He's been known to visit hobby shops, weighing every available sheet of balsa and listing them in a logbook for future consideration.

"Assembling a plane can take five months," he said. "But I may spend four months in a makeshift paint booth I have in the basement. Usually, about 20 coats of paint go on, but a lot of it gets sanded back because paint really is quite heavy."

The detail work is essential because any unnecessary weight in the plane can be the difference between winning and losing a competition. And since Stevens builds a new plane every year, the amount of time he puts in is enormous.

"I tell people there is therapy is sanding," he said.

Stevens tried out for the world championships twice before making the cut for 2014 by winning one of the top spots in a qualifying event last August.

He then spent nine months building a plane to fly in Poland, and more time getting comfortable piloting it. The new plane also had to be designed so it could be disassembled and stored in a metal container for the flight to Europe.

In Poland, Stevens and other pilots will fly a pattern of 14 specified maneuvers — loops, upside down laps, inside and outside squares and other tricks — under the critical eyes of judges. The routine takes only minutes, but there is no room for error.

"It's 51/2 minutes of absolute, total concentration," he said.

Whatever happens in Poland, Sevens said, he plans to decompress afterward and take his wife, Deborah, on a Mediterranean cruise.

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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