By Reggie Ellis

Bill Shannon has spent his entire life with his head in the clouds - and at 63 years young, he wouldn't have it any other way.

As early as he can remember, Bill was riding in an airplane with his father, uncles and cousins. By the age of 6 he was building his own airplane from mail order kits. While Bill was a third generation Tulare County farmer, he longed for a career working with airplanes, so he moved to San Jose to take a position with as a mechanic with airplane manufacturer Lockheed Corporation. After he was drafted to serve in Vietnam, he moved back to Tulare County and the family farm in Lindsay.

&#8220My family flew mostly for sport,” Shannon said. &#8220I loved to just get up in the air and look down and see how the world looked.”

As he got older, Shannon knew he couldn't keep up with the physical demands of flying a full size airplane. But about 19 years ago he picked up remote control flying and continues to look to the sky.

&#8220It's very relaxing once you learn to control the plane,” Shannon said. &#8220It takes my mind off of everything else. You forget about the rest of the world. It's just you and the plane.”

Shannon's love for remote control airplanes inspired him and a few others to form the Thunderhawks, a group of RC airplane enthusiasts who meet for camaraderie and friendly competition. On Sept. 23, several Thunderhawks members met for an open Fun Fly at its RC-scale airstrip along the railroad tracks just south of Waterman Industries, Inc. on Spruce Road between Exeter and Lindsay.

&#8220When you are learning this is much more challenging than flying a full-scale airplane,” Shannon said. &#8220In an airplane you can feel the plane's movement and can see everything in front of you. With a remote control, everything happens much faster and you have to think ahead.”

Shannon said airplane pilots have come out without any RC experience and have crashed every time. Shannon said flying an RC plane requires excellent hand-eye coordination and a sensitive touch on the control stick.

&#8220The first time flying on your own, it's not if you are going to crash but how soon,” said Dan Brown, a Thunderhawks member from Porterville who has been flying for about 10 years. &#8220It's kind of like playing the piano. You can't think about what keys you are going to press because by then it's too late. It has to be automatic.”

Richard Walker of Lindsay said he learned how to fly the hard way.

&#8220I learned flying out over an alfalfa field so it wouldn't damage the plane as much when I crashed,” he said. &#8220I spent more time looking for the plane and later fixing it than flying.”

A few years ago, Walker joined the Thunderhawks and learned tips and pointers from the more experienced pilots. &#8220I did it backwards. You should always join a group like this first, otherwise you are going to waste a lot of time and money.”

Planes come in all shapes and types from military models to jets powered by electric to turbine engines. The average RC plane has about a 60-inch wingspan and is fitted with a 1.4 to 1.7 horsepower engine. But some planes can be as large as 80-inch wingspans with a 4 or 5 horsepower engine. The Thunderhawks suggest beginners purchase a training plane for about $100. The most costly items are the engine ($70 and up) to the radio control system ($230 and up), but both of those can be transferred from one plane to another. RC stores and websites normally sell beginner packs that include all three. Some assembly is required.

Membership dues go to pay for raffle prizes, runway maintenance, lease of the land and the club's charter. The club's accept all types of RC planes including, military, 3-D or trick planes, jets, sport planes and helicopters.

Shannon said once a beginner is ready to fly, they can come to an event where one of the club members can connect their control to the trainee's. If the trainee gets in trouble, the trainer can press a button and take control of the plane to prevent a costly crash.

&#8220It's about 95% crash proof on a cord with an instructor,” Shannon said.

It takes the average beginner about eight hours of flying time to be able to fly on their own. Brown taught all three of his sons to fly, something he and his youngest still do together when they get the chance.

&#8220It was my pleasure to spend time doing this with my boys,” Brown said. &#8220This really is a family sport, something people of all ages can enjoy.”

Shannon said the age of members ranges from 14 to 86, but they would like to see younger members join to keep the Thunderhawks strong. He said the hobby is always changing with new technology and that the thrill of flying never gets old, even if the pilots do.

&#8220If you get hooked on flying at a young age, nearly everyone stays with it,” Shannon said. &#8220It is something you can do your whole life and can pass down to your children.”

Finally, a hobby where kids never hear their parents say, &#8220Get your head out of the clouds.”

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