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Looking for New Skies

Just short of the intersection of Gum Springs Road and Route 50 in Loudoun County, there is a gravel lane, which cuts into a thick lining of trees. At the other end of this make-shift road is an unexpected surprise Ñ a runway with planes flying high above. While the flight-path for Dulles International Airport does not redirect planes here on busy days, nor are there commercial airliners taxiing for take-off, the Northern Virginia Radio Control Inc. has been using this airspace for more than 30 years.

"We've been here forever," said Donny Boss, a NVRC member since 1988. "But with development with the way its going, I think we're in jeopardy."

The drive out to the Arcola Flying Field explains Boss' concern. With development flanking the highly used Route 50, it is evident the sprawling nature of development in this once rural area. Amidst the threat of losing this land, the NVRC is attempting to secure a bid for the Sully Woodlands Regional Master Plan, a collection of park land in the western part of Fairfax County. The Sully Woodlands Regional Master Plan will be the largest park planning project ever attempted by the Fairfax County Park Authority. With more than 4,000 acres of land being planned for use, Boss noted "We're just trying to get our hat in the ring for some space."

The NVRC estimates that they would need roughly 45-50 acres of land for a safe flying field. Five of these acres would be developed for a runway and parking lot while the rest of the area would be designated a safety "overfly zone." But while the possibility of a new flying field might be exciting for some members, the connection to the Arcola Flying Field is still strong.

"They've had this for many, many years," said Marc DeFields, a member of the club. "There used to be horses that would just watch the planes fly." For the most part, these horses are gone and while the forest that surrounds the field is still deep, the future of the field is just as dark.

The NVRC, which obtained its charter from the Academy of Model Aeronautics in 1961, has seen progress within its own membership over the years. With almost 300 members, the club holds numerous activities and events throughout the year. Ranging from Pylon racing to a Snow Fun Fly, which requires a set of skies attached to the plane, this club is a year-round commitment.

What Boss refers to as an "addictive hobby," on any given day the closely cropped field is filled with retirees out for a morning flight or fathers teaching their children the precision of flying a model aircraft.

"It was a very slow progression." Tony Kasmar said of the flying field's development. "First we cleared the trees and then we put in the parking lot. Now we even have a helicopter pad."

This development throughout the club's operation also extends to training young pilots. At a time years ago, the only way to learn was to take a plane out and give it a whirl. Today there are more sophisticated ways of honing your flying technique. Referred to as a "bunny box," this radio control attaches to an instructorÕs via a USB chord, allowing the instructor an over-riding capability in case of an emergency. Likewise, flight simulator technology has been incorporated in recent years to teach students the subtleties of controlling a plane, without the consequences of real life.

"Before, a person might crash their plane on the third or fourth time out," explained Boss, "but with simulators people come out to the field already knowing what to do."

While simulators will teach a person the basics of flight, there is no substitute for knowledge of the flying space. One corner of the Arcola field has been dubbed a "sucker hole" for its unusual downdraft of wind, which can be a challenge for the unsuspecting flyer. Search parties often trek into the surrounding woods looking for a lost plane. Sometimes they come back empty handed, and other times with two or three previously lost planes.

With the Fairfax County Park Authority advancing on a decision for land use, the NVRC is voicing its opinion en mass. At a Park Authority meeting held last week, two-thirds of the attendees were members of this club. Having leased the current land in Loudoun since 1970, and through four different owners, the NVRC is afraid that within the next two years, development might overtake their long string of good fortune.

But seasoned flyers like Kasmar understand that while a move might close a chapter in the clubs history, it will open up another.

"It always takes time to adjust." Kasmar said.