Model airplane aficionado Yohay Hahamy recreates aviation history with exacting detail.
Story by B.C. Rausch + Photos by Lisa Staff
These flying machines would conjure up envy and disbelief from Wilbur and Orville Wright.
In a home workshop devoted solely to model-airplane making, Hilton Head resident Yohay Hahamy builds remote-controlled (RC) model airplanes of exacting detail and precision out of balsa wood and sophisticated lightweight carbon fiber. It takes hundreds of hours to create each exquisite replica.
From the age of 10, living in Israel, Yohay was captivated by planes and the Israeli Air Force. “Whenever an airplane went by,” he said, “I would lift my head.” Back then the scale airplane models he constructed were made of paper and plastic, using paper scale kits and glue.
He emigrated to America in his mid-20s and quickly discovered a model-airplane flying field and club in Illinois (Tri-Village RC Club). “Before then I didn’t know anything about the model-airplane industry or that there were clubs for model makers.”
He joined the club, bought a finished airplane, then bought a kit. Following a detailed set of plans, he shaped the plywood and balsa wood and “started to learn how the machine and its parts work together.
“When I first joined the club, building airplanes was a months-long process, and my fellow members were very helpful,” he explained. “You have no chance of flying the finished plane by yourself at the outset. It’s an acquired skill, and club members help teach and instruct every step of the way.”
Today, 35 years later, the model-making world has been greatly changed with advances in electronic components, jet engines, sophisticated motors and batteries. Airplanes still can be built from kits or from scratch. Another option is to buy an ARF (almost-ready-to-fly) kit that comes about 80 percent complete, typically only needing minor assembly and all electronics installed, which still takes up to 60 hours.
With the availability of ARFs, fewer and fewer hobbyists build from scratch. But it remains Yohay’s passion and relaxation. “This time is just for me,” he explained. “It’s my passion to build, repair and fly these planes.”
Balsa and light plywood are still used, along with fiberglass, carbon fiber and high-density foam. Glues, epoxies and accelerators bond the materials together. Weight is strategically calibrated, including the length and pitch of the propeller blades. Each plane features nearly all the controls found in a “real” airplane, including a fully operational telemetry communications system.
Models are available in varying weights and wingspan sizes. Motors are available in glow fuel, gasoline and electric, which are powered by lithium-type batteries. There are even jet engines (EDFs — electric ducted fan engines) that run on lithium batteries. Over a certain size, however, and the planes need to have gasoline-powered motors. Aficionados even make multi-rotor and helicopter models.
These craftsmen also differentiate between sport planes, which are of their own design, and scale planes, exact replicas of airplanes past and present. Yohay constructed a scale model of an Israeli Air Force P-51 Mustang (#38) fighter plane used to cut communication cables during the war, right down to the regulation insignias and logos.
“It’s up to the individual how exacting and detailed he wants the finished product to be,” he explained, adding that there are various levels of hand-finishing and adherence to scale. But each plane has a specified engine type as well as lights, retractable gears and a “pilot” in the cockpit. In flight the model planes Yohay builds can reach up to 130 miles per hour.
The radio technology that controls the planes also has evolved. With frequency-hopping technology, there can be 100 planes flying at the same time, automatically switching frequencies as they travel, similar to how drones are operated and regulated.
And when planes crash, which they do, it’s usually due to pilot error— either in the plane’s assembly, construction or controlling it when airborne.
Model airplanes and clubs fall under the auspices of the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics), which represents hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members in the U.S.
Locally, there are two model airplane clubs, one in Ridgeland (Jasper County RC Flyers) and the other (Tri County RC Club) in Savannah, off Chatham Parkway, where Yohay flies.
The Tri County R/C Club has a private field with all amenities and offers flight instruction. The club supports the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force by donating all proceeds from its annual October Fly-In.
Visitors are welcome to observe and see if they get bitten by the bug: Weekends are the most active time, depending on conditions, particularly wind and temperatures.
A full-size Israeli Air Force P-51 Mustang fighter plane is shown above a remote-controlled model built by Hahamy.