Too Much Screen Time this Summer?
Bring The Kids To The Airfield. Flying radio control airplanes at Lake Casitas
By Clarissa Fishman
It’s a beautiful morning in May, and I’m driving through Lake Casitas. Thanks to the abundant rain storms we had this year, the lake water level is up to 78 percent of capacity — and it’s evident everywhere you look. Nature feels replenished, and it has been a true blessing to witness this lush landscape and burgeoning spring. Today, the hills have already begun turning that signature California golden hue, which has a beauty all its own, but the amount of water we received this winter has us all breathing a big sigh of relief.
If you have ever had the pleasure of camping at Lake Casitas, you know how wonderful it is to relax under a canopy of trees, taking in the views of the water and the mountains of the Ojai Valley. But I’m not here to camp this time. Instead, I’m heading out to watch my husband fly radio control airplanes at the mini airstrip located inside the park. The Ventura County Comets Radio Control Flying Club has been flying all sorts of RC airplanes at Lake Casitas since the 1960s. This is often a surprise to lake visitors — even those who have visited several times — as the air strip is located at the back of the recreation area, below the Osprey campground.
My husband got into this hobby after he could no longer surf due to a shoulder injury, and has been a member of the club for 10 years. He, like all the other Comets I spoke to, talks about how much he appreciates the camaraderie and the friendships he has made, and how much he has learned from the more veteran Ventura County Comets who share his passion for building and flying RC planes. I love going to the airfield and sitting under the shade of a majestic old pine tree, watching them fly with the backdrop of lake and verdant hills.
Big, colorful RC aircraft of all kinds take off and land from an actual, paved runway. There are gas-powered planes, but electric models are the most popular. Depending on the day, you can see RC World War II warbirds like Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Hellcats, and Bearcats. Sharing the runway are other fun planes like 3D aircraft (highly maneuverable planes that perform advanced aerobatics) and even those equipped with FPV cameras (“first person view,” which gives a pilot’s view). There are simple starter planes, and ones so large they need to be disassembled to fit in a van. It’s truly a feast for the eyes. The banter is lively as I watch these guys fly and work on their planes, and they’re always happily helping each other troubleshoot any issue that may arise. The mood is jovial and light as they laugh and rib each other. I smile to myself because these gentlemen, some of them a bit older, have not forgotten how to play!
Among these gentlemen are Alastair Brennan and George Boston, who have both been members for a long time. Alastair, who is currently the club secretary and is also in charge of publishing the newsletter, has been passionate about flying radio control aircraft since he was a kid. His eyes light up as he tells me that he started flying at the lake with the Comets back when he was 13 years old. He has been flying with these guys for over 40 years and has no intention of stopping, because, “There are just too many cool and amazing airplanes to build and fly.”
Alastair’s dad was an aeronautical engineer and was happy to support his son’s passion for building and flying RC planes. Instead of being dropped off at soccer practice like many kids, Alastair would get dropped off at the airfield where he’d spend the day building and flying planes with the old-timers who welcomed him with open arms and taught him all they knew.
One common thread, as you may have noticed, is that these guys really love to share their passion for this hobby. Most of them have had careers as engineers, or in data processing and information technology, or as car mechanics and the like — in other words, they love to use their brains and build things, just as much as they love to fly. “To love this hobby, you have to love building stuff,” every Comet I speak to tells me.
George, who is currently the liaison between the club and the lake management, has also had a lifelong love affair with RC aircraft, and was inspired as a young kid by a bunch of guys he saw at the park near his house. They flew control line planes at the time (also known as U-Control planes), which are attached to a wire that goes in a concentric circle with the plane, about 50 to 60 feet away from the pilot.
George tells me that the original Comets, some whom are still members today, started the club in the 1960s. “There were a bunch of guys that enjoyed getting together and flying model aircraft. At the time, the technology was still in its infancy stages and was just beginning to evolve to make flying radio control more practical.” Some of them were building their own transmitters, receivers, and servos.
The Ventura County Comets Radio Control Flying Club was first started in Ventura for a couple of years but then in 1965 or ’66, according to George, it was moved to Lake Casitas. George recalls that at the time, the lake was still being filled with water. The club found a spot, got permission from the lake, and got some heavy equipment to cut a dirt runway and create a staging area to work on the planes. And thus, the first airfield at Lake Casitas was born. They were there for about four years before the lake level rose and submerged their runway. They moved to another area of the lake and cut another runway, this time actually paving it. The club was there for about eight or nine years but once again, after a very wet winter, the water level rose and encroached on the runway, burying it beneath the water. So the air field of today is actually the third one, and my husband Dave reassured me that this one is above the spillway, so there is no danger of it being submerged by the lake again. It is an incredibly beautiful location with a paved runway, staging area, and shaded working stations, surrounded by the natural beauty of the lake.
Long before he became a regular at the airstrip, George remembers fishing on his boat at Lake Casitas and being mesmerized at the sight of the RC planes flying in the distance. Fascinated by their maneuverability and how well they could fly, he became a member in 2002 after retiring. The Comets warmly welcomed him into the club — like I said, that’s how these guys roll — and he has been actively involved with it ever since.
“There is a bright future ahead for the Ventura County Comets, and I’m happy to share that it is known as one of the best airfields in California in the model aviation world,” George cheerfully tells me.
Any experienced RC pilot interested in flying at the airfield is welcome (just be sure to have either your AMA membership or proof of liability insurance on-hand). Spectators are welcome to watch the planes, ask questions and even, if you’re so inclined, learn how to fly. The Ventura County Comets offer free RC flying lessons to people of all ages. Just click the Contact Us tab on their website and send an email to set up an appointment.
As Alastair says, “When I was 13, I went to the airfield one day and this old guy got up from where he was sitting and let me fly his plane, and now I want to be that guy passing on the love.” My husband Dave, who is also an instructor pilot, feels the same way — it gives him great joy to share his passion for flying and teach people how to fly themselves.
“If you’re interested in taking your kids to do something that is not in front of a screen, come see us,” Dave says. And when you come for a lesson, he adds, don’t worry about crashing. The technology is such today that the instructor pilot can take over at any time, so you can just enjoy the experience of flying. Once you’re ready to purchase your own planes, you’ll have a club full of enthusiastic Comets ready to guide you in the right direction, from choosing the right aircraft to making repairs and improvements.
You will find The Comets at the airfield on Tuesday, Thursday, and weekend mornings flying and dialing in their beautiful array of RC aircraft. But members can usually be found flying just about every other day of the week, as well. The airfield itself is open every day until sundown, when the park closes for the day. There are many events scheduled throughout the year, like Fun Flys and Warbird Days. This year, thanks to the replenished lake, there will be a Float Fly — which hasn’t happened in 10 years because of the drought — where specially-equipped planes take off and land on the lake itself. There is no charge (other than the Lake Casitas entry fee) to attend these events.
Upcoming VC Comets events are scheduled from 8 am to 1 pm with a barbecue and swap meet:
- July 22: Warbird Day
- September 22: Float Fly
- October 21: Quaker Day (as in the airplane)
For more information and to schedule a flying lesson, visit vccomets.com.