The RC aircraft club has members flying their planes across Rothenbach Park daily.
Anthony Lassiter was just a kid when he got his first RC plane.
It was a simple design, using a rubber band wind up system to take to the air. Lassiter grew up in New Mexico and had plenty of wide open spaces to let his plane go. In those days, he was just happy it flew.
The plane wasn’t much, but it still soared through the sky. After seeing his plane take off and move through the air on its own, he says he was hooked — how could he not be?
“You have something that can fly — who wouldn’t like that?” Lassiter said. “There was just no turning back.”
That plane was his first, but far from his last. Lassiter grew up, pursued a career in neurology and became a doctor, all the while keeping his passion for model aviation with him.
He now shares that passions with more than 100 other pilots in Sarasota. Lassiter is a flight instructor at the Sarasota RC Squadron, a radio control aircraft club that rests at the top of Rothenbach Park at the east end of Bee Ridge Road.
RC pilots take their planes, helicopters and other flight craft to the field every day to learn, practice and push themselves with the hobby they love. If you’ve ever been in the park and heard the buzzing of an aircraft overhead, it’s likely a RC squadron member testing out their wings at the top of the hill.
Some members grew up loving planes, others found it to be a familiar practice after leaving the military. Others still dove into the hobby later in life. Lassiter makes it clear that all are welcome on the field.
“We have a lot of people who come to us and say, 'I’ve always been interested in model aviation, I’m retired now with plenty of time. Is it too late for me to start?’” Lassiter said. “We tell them ‘It’s never too late.’”
The club is a mix of people driving to the top of the hill throughout the week, sometimes with their own planes and sometimes just to watch others fly theirs. Many have been part of the space for decades.
Plenty of pilots use foam planes and work their way up to sturdier fare. Electric models have become popular starting point as of late for their convenience.
“They’re easy, there’s no cleanup and there’s no noise,” Lassiter said. “You just pop them out of your car and go.”
Other planes run on a mixture of alcohol and nitro methane, a holdover from engines designed in the '30s and '40s.
More experienced pilots use turbine-powered planes — large craft that use jet engines and use jet fuel to rocket up to 200 miles an hour at the field.
They’re maneuverable, if you know what you’re doing.
“At 200 miles an hour, there’s not really margin for error,” Lassiter said.
Jamie Sullivan has a similar story to Lassiter and many others in the squadron. He got his first plane when he was seven, but he never was quite able to fly it.
“My dad did the classic thing where he thought he should do it first,” Sullivan said. “He immediately crashed and killed it.”
He really got the aviation bug when joining the Air Force. After leaving, Sullivan began looking more into RC craft and now has a series of electric planes he takes out to the field. Other times he just heads up to be with other squadron members and help spot them when they’re flying fast.
Many have fond memories of the simple planes of their youth, but few can argue that evolving technology hasn’t improved model aviation. Better air communication and more reliable controls and frequencies in the last 20 years have improved the hobby in Sullivan's eyes — it’s harder to crash your plane or have a control snafu where it just flies away, never to be seen again.
“You have less to blame on somebody else when you crash.” Sullivan said.
Which isn’t to say crashes don’t happen. Sullivan jokes that if a pilot hasn't crashed a plane once or twice, they haven't been flying long enough.
The squadron is always recruiting new members and offers training for potential pilots at the field. New members start out with foam planes and learn the basics before moving up to higher-performance craft. Instructors are on hand when pilots are learning to fly jet planes and can take over the craft at a moment's notice.
For those interested in joining, Lassiter promises it's perfectly fine and fun to find your own level of comfort and type of plane and give it a go.
"It's like everything else, you can get a huffy bicycle for $80 or you can buy a $12,000 racing bike," Lassiter said. "But both will get you there at the same amount of time, there's a wide range of planes (to try)."
The squadron as in-house flight training programs members use to better handle planes as well.
Chuck Slenker is one such member, a retired Air Force pilot who flew planes in the '60s. He felt the aviation bug again after retiring and started building model planes on his own time. Eventually he discovered the RC Squadron and hasn't looked back.
“It’s not a lot different from (flying planes) but you’re getting out and having fun doing it (at the field),” Slenker said. “It’s a lot more fun than getting shot at.”
He’s a few months into his training — he trains three or four days a week at the field and works on a simulator at home — and is close to finishing and flying as a full-fledged member. He’s looking forward to that day coming soon.
“This is just an incredible place,” Slenker said.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.