Flying the friendly skies...of the Metrodome

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January 10, 2005 // UPDATED 1:47 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Where Duante Culpepper\'s footballs soar, so do these pilots\' planes

They go by names like Gypsy, Hellraiser, Blade and Zoom-Zoom.

The model airplanes hover above the 50-yard line on the Metrodome turf when the stadium is a sea of empty blue stands. A crew of pilots operates the pint-sized planes from the sidelines - controlling the electric-powered aircraft with radio controls.

The pilots work on perfecting their techniques. Some are experts on fancy moves, such as the "vertical torque roll," a move that causes the plane to rapidly spin around while the plane's nose is pointed toward the ceiling and the tail toward the football field.

Other pilots focus on endurance. One of the longest flight times recorded in the Dome is 61 minutes, said pilot Jim Ladwig. Typically, an average flight time is about 20 minutes.

Most of the planes weigh less than 12 ounces (about the weight of a typical soda can) and are constructed from Styrofoam, plastic and balsawood. Model planes that weigh more than 20 ounces are banned from flying in the Metrodome; gas-powered planes are also prohibited.

Low-end models cost about $100, while some of the fancier varieties can go for prices as high as $2,000.

The pilots observe other rules to keep the skies above the football field friendly. The planes are restricted to a height of 100 feet above the Dome's artificial turf - about 90 feet below the Dome's roof.

Pilots must also to fly the planes in counter-clockwise circles to avoid in-air collisions. Despite that rule, two planes crashed in the morning of the day a Skyway News photographer and reporter checked out the makeshift airport. One of the planes was sidelined with a broken wing.

The pilots belong to a group known as the Minnesota Area Radio Control Electric Enthusiasts (MARCEE). The club has about 75 members from Minnesota and neighboring states.

The model-airplane pilots have used the Dome as an airport during the past two winters. Club pilots also operate their planes at other Twin Cities community centers.

Ladwig, who coordinates Dome airtime with the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, called the stadium an "ideal location" for the electric-powered planes.

"There's no wind, it's big and there's no bad weather," Ladwig said on a recent afternoon as a handful of planes swirled above his head.

Gene Leclerc, a model-plane enthusiast from Bloomington, added that the airtime in the Dome is more fun than flying solo above the clouds alone. On a busy afternoon or evening session, about eight planes can be spotted zooming above the turf.

"It's just fun. It's camaraderie," Leclerc said, who operated a shock flier - an aerobatic model plane built in Germany with a powerful motor. "We're trying to maintain an attitude and an altitude."

Ladwig said the Dome pilots fall in two categories.

"Some pilots are flying these model airplanes to sort of simulate full-scale airplanes, and some are either designing or modifying their airplane to see what performance they can get out of something they created," he said.

The Metrodome has also hosted flying sessions for Twin Cities school kids for the past 15 years, Ladwig said.

The students operate rubber-loop-powered "free flight" models that stay aloft for 45 to 90 seconds. The model planes maintain speeds between 5 and 10 mph - a slower pace than the electric-powered planes that reach speeds up to 20 mph in the Dome.

The youth groups fly the planes three to four times during the winter in the Metrodome, depending on availability. Ladwig, a volunteer who assists the young pilots, said the exposure to aviation is rewarding for the students.

"They learn that something they put together can fly and can fly pretty impressively," he said.

Ladwig said the adult pilots also glean insights about aviation from the model aircraft. "You learn a lot about plane behavior. Anything you do, you can undo and redo," he said, adding that learning how to fly a model plane takes "planning, preparation, precision, patience, perseverance and practicality."

The flying privileges are also restricted to MARCEE members who pay $5 per Dome session, although nonmembers are free to watch the graceful model planes zoom above the football field.

Ladwig and the other turf-bound pilots say they get as much or more satisfaction out of operating the model planes as flying real planes.

"You're not up there risking your neck," Ladwig said. "It's low-cost flying. It requires a bit of technique to just go around in a rectangle. There's always the reward of something you built going out there and doing what it's supposed to do."