Walking into the College of Fine Arts building at Carnegie Mellon University on a blistering June day, a few summer-stay-behinds found themselves in the shadow of a graceful creature. In a flash of microfilm sheen, it beat the hot air with delicate wings, an image out of time, perhaps more at home with the huge dragonflies of the Jurassic period. Framed against the ceiling's classic murals, however, this winged creation bears more of a resemblance to Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machines.
Watching the vehicle with a glint of pride in his eyes is its creator, Ben Saks of Garfield.
"I'm a builder of things, and these airplanes happen to be the most beautiful things I've ever made," said Mr. Saks, who works in CMU's architecture department. "When other people see [them] fly, it makes them feel a certain way. I think as an artist, to make something that gives someone a sense of wonder or inspiration, that's the most gratifying feeling."
Indoor model planes capable of sustained flight
Ben Saks builds small, rubber band-powered planes that are so light they must be flown indoors. He is a competitor in the hobby of ???indoor,??? a distinct branch of flying model airplanes. (Video by Brian Batko; 7/3/2012)
Called "indoor" by its enthusiasts, it is much more than a pastime. In Mr. Saks' own words, it is an "international competitive aeronautical hobby," or sport, depending on your definition of the word. The participants build their planes with the ultimate goal of keeping them in flight for as long as possible.
In the 21st century, mobile model airplanes have diversified well beyond the limited options of the early 1900s, and radio-controlled aircraft dominate modern competition. Indoor flying could be considered the ultimate cult sport: Mr. Saks estimates that only about 1,000 people compete worldwide, and only about 100 go to the F1D championships, indoor's pinnacle competition. The F1Ds are held every other year, and the next one will be Aug. 8-13 in Belgrade, Serbia.
What the sport lacks in followers it makes up for in simplicity and beauty. Powered by a single rubber band-wound propeller, one may fly for more than 30 minutes. For a plane with a 4-foot wingspan, the world-record flight time is a staggering 61 minutes. For the smaller 2-foot version, the record is 42 minutes -- still longer than some commercial airline flights.
The planes' ability to stay aloft for so long with such a small amount of power is almost entirely due to their weight, or lack thereof. With the rubber band, the plane weighs about 1.8 grams. To compare, a dollar bill weighs about a gram.
Mr. Saks has been building the ultralight planes since he was first introduced to them in high school. The Science Olympiad program challenged participants to build and fly a plane weighing less than 10 grams. Since then, he's flown in the F1D championships, no small feat.
"Preparing for the F1D program, if you're on the United States team, would involve building six to seven brand-new planes," he said. "One of the biggest problems I have is I have nowhere in Pittsburgh to fly these planes."
The conditions must be ideal. Any air currents might damage the plane, which is made of balsa wood and microfilm close to a half a micron thick. Again, for comparison, a human hair is 100 microns thick, on average. That means that the building must be large enough for the plane to fly unobstructed, but without air conditioning.
Difficulty finding such a place may be one of the reasons that the population of indoor fliers is not taking off, eight-time world champion Jim Richmond of Carmel, Ind., said in an email interview.
"I believe the future could be very bright if more people knew about it and if more sites were available," he said. "As it is, we are sort of dwindling away as potential new talent often finds their entertainment in the new electronic devices rather than working for a month to build a plane."
Though competitors are typically middle-aged men, Mr. Saks is only 27. Brett Sanborn, 26, of Bel Air, Md., was introduced to the sport while attending high school in Flint, Mich., also through the Science Olympiad program. He thinks people will continue to discover indoor.
"Since the '60s, they've been saying 'Oh, the hobby's dying. We can't get enough young people,' " Mr. Sanborn said. "Well, I'm 26, and I've been flying competitively since I was around 16.
"It just seems like we always have enough young people to sustain it, and we don't want to compromise it or change the rules to make it less challenging. ... I think it's cool as it is, we just need to promote it more, and get it out there."
In 2009, Mr. Saks began working on a documentary about indoor flying. With the working title "FLOAT" (http://floatdocumenary.com/documentary), the film follows some of the competitors through a full two-year championship cycle, from the end of one F1D competition to the next. Through two fundraising campaigns on Kickstarter.com, he raised a total of $36,100 toward finishing the film, which he hopes to release in the spring of 2013.
He'd also like to start a club in Pittsburgh, but the limited amount of suitable flying locations have made it almost impossible. Mr. Saks hopes his film will help by increasing awareness both of the hobby and the fliers.
"The main goal of 'FLOAT' is to document the hobby in its current state, to raise awareness of indoor to other people who might be interested in it, to tell the story of these people who are so passionate about this and to show people their stories."
Elliot Alpern: email@example.com. First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM