If a sodden rice paddy feels soft and forgiving underfoot, it is not a merciful place to set down an airplane at 200 mph. And that’s only one of Mike Selby’s reasons to look nervous as he watches his A-10 Warthog—a 10-foot-wide, 65-pound, hand-built model—begin its maiden takeoff roll down a rough asphalt runway near Bangkok, Thailand. Selby, who spent over $12,000 and the better part of a year fabricating and building this radio-controlled jet, stands runwayside with his thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans, trying to look relaxed as he draws on a Cuban cigar. But he can’t stop tapping his foot. Next to him, pilot Ray Johns, a U.S. Air Force general and test pilot who has flown everything from Air Force One to the U2 surveillance plane, chews a wad of gum with anxious rapid-fire chomps and leans back against the weight of the control console hanging from his neck.
It’s been nearly a year since Johns last flew one of Selby’s finished models, at the Top Gun competition in Lakeland, Florida, and the memory haunts them both. Top Gun, held each April, is the de facto world championship of radio-controlled scale-model aeronautics, an invitation-only event that hosts some 130 entries, jets and prop-planes alike, from around the world. Selby had spent the two years before the event building and tweaking his Embraer Tucano 312 (a Brazilian turboprop fighter trainer), and the plane had a grip on first place going into its final competition flight. But suddenly, as it went into a tight turn, the plane stopped responding to Johns’s control inputs. “We saw it jink to one side, and then it just keeled over and dove into the forest,” Selby says. “We had to rent a helicopter to recover the pieces.”
Now, half a world away, Selby’s chance at redemption is taxiing into place on the runway: a sophisticated new plane that’s already creating a buzz among the top echelon of the model-aeronautics community. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he blows the event away with the A-10 this year,” Top Gun organizer Frank Tiano told me earlier by phone. He’s seen pictures and specs. “It’s big, it’s a jet, it’s twin-engined, it has an extremely high level of detail and function. As far as I can tell, there’s rarely been an airplane this ambitious, with as much character and as much charisma.”
But it’s not an airplane—model or full-size—until it flies. Johns, from his position halfway down the runway at Bang Nam Prio, commands bystanders to silence and seems to grow taller as he pushes the remote-control throttle forward. The A-10’s twin engines scream to life, turning the head of a straw-hatted woman herding a group of water buffalo on the other side of the runway.