Any given Saturday at Burnaby Lake Park, music professor Nikolai Maloff and computer programmer Geoff Dryer can be found engaging in a showdown of aeronautic spectacle. In the skies above, lightweight, mini-engined planes dodge gliders with 13 foot wingspans.
Below the air traffic, fellow flyers unpack hand-painted model airplanes of various sizes from the backseat of their cars.
So long as the rain holds off, flyers congregate at the park every weekend to loop-de-loop through the skies. Yet come late January, the group was told it would be grounded – literally – for nearly three months of valuable practice time.
Model plane enthusiasts are one of the many groups prohibited from flying during the Winter Games due to airspace restrictions imposed by Transport Canada, even though security officials do not see such groups as a threat.
From opening day of the Games on January 29 to the closing of the Paralympics on March 24, hobbyists such as parachuters, hang gliders and balloonists must also refrain from using the airspace within three areas clustered around two central sites – Vancouver International Airport and Whistler Athlete’s Village.
“We’ve been told we cannot fly for almost two months. All of the members of the club feel that this is a massive overkill,” said Brad Trent, president of Hood’s Up Flyers, an electric-only club that has been flying on an allotted field in Burnaby.
“There is no way that a group of guys at Burnaby Lake Park are going to be a risk to athletes, officials or any other groups at the Olympics.”
Some flyers have invested upwards of $100 000 in flying equipment and fees for practice space.
Three months of restricted flying practice will affect their performance in highly anticipated international competitions that occur throughout the summer months.
The report outlining the restrictions warns that all traffic within the designated airspace will be monitored by surveillance radar during the Olympics. Unauthorized aerial activity will be subject to intercept by military aircraft.
“The flight procedures and restrictions are similar to those implemented for other major international events,” said Sara Hof, a representative for Transport Canada, in an e-mail. “They are based on internationally accepted standards.”
No incident of model plane employment in a terrorist attack has yet been reported. Many of the Hoods Up members pointed out that anything with wheels or wings could pose as a security threat during the Games.
Staff Sargeant Mike Cote with the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit acknowledged that model plane clubs have been in operation for many years and are a part of the community.
“These are not illegal groups. The club that meets at the same field every Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning?” said Cote. “We’re certainly not concerned with them.”
Scott Esplen is the president of the Radio Control Flying Club of British Columbia, a group of 160 flyers that are currently struggling to find a usable aerial field in the Vancouver area. Esplen’s group will also be hit by airspace restrictions.
“I’m very responsible when I fly, I don’t take safety for granted at all,” said Esplen. “I don’t know if security is worried about something going out of control, but if they think someone is going to do something on purpose, it’s going to be the unorganized person.”
“They’re not stopping people with bad intentions, they’re punishing the guys that are doing it right. I think it’s crazy.”
“Old men flying planes”
The Hoods Up Flyers forwarded concerns about the restrictions to the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada. The association offers liability protection and acts as a government liaison for clubs all over Canada.
The relationship between model plane flyers and governing authorities that regulate model clubs, such as Transport Canada, has been positive in the past. Association president Richard Barlow was annoyed by the restrictions, but also hesitant to push the issue further.
“We’re talking about an association of close to 12 000 people that fly model aircraft recreationally, for fun and competition,” said Barlow. “Canada competes in world championships, we are insured for $5 million in liability, and we train our members to fly responsibly.”
Members of Hoods Up Flyers are skeptical that the issue will receive any attention if Transport Canada’s restrictions are challenged. While some are outraged, others seek a compromise that Geoff Dryer, vice president of the club, said is far from likely.
“We’ve got no political pulse,” said Dryer. “A bunch of old men flying planes is not a great lobby.”