By MATT MILNER
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — When you're good, you don't have to brag. Chip Hyde is very, very good.
Hyde, a soft-spoken Californian, is one of the best pilots in the world, at least as long as his feet are on the ground. He flies radio-controlled planes.
But the word “fly” doesn't do him justice. In his hands the plane seems to be less a machine and more a creature. It flips, hovers, dances and dives. With just the barest hint of a breeze he can stand the plane on its tail, then make it sidestep into a twisting blur shooting across the field.
How good is Hyde? Hummingbirds get jealous when they watch the 13-time national champion.
Of course, hummingbirds don't have 37 years of experience to fall back on.
“I started when I was four,” Hyde said.
Hyde's dad flew model airplanes. That's how he learned. By the time Hyde was eight or nine his father had become his mechanic. He won the national championship earlier this year and, in addition to the 13 wins he has finished second 15 times.
So what was Hyde doing in a sunny field just south of Ottumwa Regional Airport on Saturday morning?
Saturday saw fly-ins across the country in support of the Wounded Warrior Project. The events raised money to help soldiers returning from combat. Ottumwa was fortunate enough to host Hyde.
Ottumwan Joel Wilson said his involvement started when he saw a story on CNN about soldiers' suicides. The rate, nearly one per day, is appalling. The initial goal was 50 fly-in events, one in each state.
Organizers underestimated the support.
“We have 176 air shows going on today,” Wilson said, including one in England and another in Puerto Rico.
A glance at the field showed how enthusiastic people are about their model airplanes. Dozens sat in the morning sun. Some represented historical aircraft, like World War II bombers. Others had capabilities no human pilot could stand.
One unassuming plane lay away from most of the others. It wasn't as big as many others and certainly wasn't as flashy. But everyone kept an eye on it. Where other planes could maneuver, this one was a pure sprinter with a top speed of 200 mph. It was scheduled to go up about noon.
Wilson pointed it out to visitors. And once people knew what it was, they all wanted to see it in the air.
But not everyone was flying. Some were helping others learn. Five dollars got newcomers a surprisingly long flight, which instructors hoped might bring new members to the Ottumwa club.
Mark Snowden kept close to the training area. He made a special effort to talk with young visitors, whose enthusiasm he clearly shared.
“This is it for me. The trainers. I love seeing people get on it for the first time,” he said.
Just about everyone remembers their first plane. It's like listening to classic car enthusiasts talk about their first cars. They remember every detail. How it handled. How they learned tricks. Even someone with Hyde's decades of experience recalls how it felt.
And Hyde knows what keeps him coming back for competitions and visits with flying clubs.
“It's the people,” he said. “There's really good people involved in the hobby.”
One of the newer people is Matt Stringer. Like Hyde, Stringer is a Californian. And, also like Hyde, he's someone to watch. More than one person said Saturday that Stringer is one of the faces Hyde sees in his rearview mirror when he checks who is coming to challenge him.
Stringer is also racking up flying championships, and he's only five years into his competition career. Some competitions require precision execution of specific maneuvers. Others allow freestyle flying. Stringer does both of those and is getting into helicopter competitions for good measure.
“I do pretty much anything,” he said.
Stringer says it without a hint of boasting. It's a simple fact.
When you're good, you don't have to brag.