Radio-controlled planes have some Modesto residents seeing UFOs
Feb 14, 2010 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
They come in peace.
Those lights you've seen swooping and swerving across the Modesto night sky are not extraterrestrial. They do not want to be taken to your leader. They're not even unidentified anymore.
Instead, the culprits are a bunch of model plane enthusiasts who have attached lights to their radio- controlled aircraft and fly them through the night sky for fun.
"This was never intended to be seen as a UFO," said Robert Merrill, the de facto captain of the Nor Cal Nite Fliers. "We figured we'd try something, fly at night. Next thing you know people are calling the cops, TV and thinking they're UFOs. We never really thought it'd be this kind of a spectacle."
The 39-year-old Modesto resident and a group of about eight other men often meet at Modesto Hobby & Crafts, off McHenry and Bangs avenues in north Modesto, for their night flights.
They've flown all over Modesto and across the area, including Ripon and Tracy.
The crafts have about a 6-foot wingspan and weigh about 2 pounds. Each flier has customized his lights design.
Merrill, who had been flying model planes for about eight years, came up with the idea in August when he found the lights online from a manufacturer in Hong Kong.
The 1-meter adhesive LED strip is about a quarter-inch wide and comes in red, white, blue, green and amber.
Because they run on batteries and turn off to glide at altitude, the crafts are nearly soundless. In flight, the planes resemble a graceful, digital albatross.
So why fly a $250 model plane at night when it's, well, dark?
"I think (it's) just the calmness of it. The whole thing is, when you get off work, you bring your plane out to the park and literally kick back in a chair and fly them," Merrill said. "Nighttime, you can fly it farther because the lights are so bright you can see it farther than in the daytime."
Some members admit the E.T. factor adds to the excitement.
"Honestly, the most fun is messing with people," said Modesto resident Rick Sanchez, 40. "People will see the lights (from their cars) and their heads will hang out the windows. It's amazing how many people think they are UFOs."
The group flies almost every night that the sky is clear. Manteca resident John Gilmore, 46, started about eight months ago.
"The challenge of it interested me. And it's definitely a challenge," he said. "We're having fun. We're not trying to freak anyone out or cause problems. It's just good, clean fun."
The Modesto Police Department is well aware of the group. Lt. Clint Raymer said he first saw the lights driving to his north Modesto home. He has since talked with the men and discussed the pertinent municipal city codes.
"They're not supposed to fly them in the city limits," he said. "But the industrial area (off Bangs) is fine. I see the cars pulled over and people gazing at those things in the sky. They catch people's attention; they're neat to see."
He said the planes haven't set off anything close to a "War of the Worlds"-level hysteria. While the department has fielded a few UFO calls, Raymer said "it's not a burden."
"Whenever I see people looking, I pull over and tell them it's remote-control planes," he said. "It kind of takes the fun out of (it) then."
Modesto Airport has fielded a handful of calls about the lights in the sky. Airport manager Jerome Thiele said the Federal Aviation Administration has an advisory circular with guidelines for model aircraft standards.
The circular encourages "voluntary compliance" and includes cautions about operating near airports, hospitals and schools. It recommends flying no higher than 400 feet.
"I just want to make sure that they don't intentionally fly close to the airport and keep clear of the medical helipads close to the hospital and other populated areas," Thiele said.
No specific complaints about the model crafts have been filed with the FAA's Flight Standards District Office in Fresno. FAA Inspector Jim Henry said the advisory circular is meant to encourage hobbyists to be careful in the airspace.
"We can do the enforcement if it's an egregious danger to the public," he said.
Merrill said he was familiar with the FAA advisory and that the group never tries to interfere with active aircraft.
"If we see a plane fly by, we'll move away," he said. "We try to stay out of people's way."
The group caused a minor commotion over Super Bowl Sunday when members flew their planes near Briggsmore Avenue. Modesto Hobby & Crafts owner Joe Keevil said drivers stopped along the busy thoroughfare to rubberneck at the night sky. Police later came and asked them to stop.
"We try to stay away from busy roads now," said Keevil, who doesn't participate in flying planes but knows all the men from his store, where they all met.
Even from their north Modesto flight area, the planes and their lights can be seen all around town. Merrill said he can fly as high as 1,000 feet with his craft. He has heard reports of sightings as far away as Maze Boulevard near Highway 99 and in Riverbank.
"Every single night (we fly) somebody comes out and wonders what they are, if they're a UFO," Merrill said. "We sort of laugh about it."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.
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