Dwane Niedens loves to fly. He caught the bug as a kid and nurtured it while serving in the Naval Air Reserves in Colorado.
“I was in heaven there,” he said.
Niedens joined the reserves in 1947, right before the Korean War, and trained to be an aircraft radioman.
“I got to fly in a lot of airplanes in different places. That was great.”
He was discharged after eight years of service, but he never tired of airplanes.
What's the next best thing to working with real-size aircraft? Building model airplanes, says the 82-year-old Yuma resident. And the bigger, the better.
The veteran airplane modeler has built thousands since he got hooked on them as a kid. “It started at age 7, back in 1937, when I got my first airplane kit for a birthday.”
While other kids played outside, young Niedens was inside putting together a model.
“It upset my parents. When I was supposed to be outside doing the yard work, I was inside building an airplane. I always had the place smelling like glue.”
Those first kits contained blocks of balsa wood with patterns, which he attempted to cut and “have it look like it should.”
As a teen, “I got jobs only long enough to build an airplane. It drove my parents crazy,” said Niedens, now a retired contractor from Carbondale, Colo., who came to Yuma 26 years ago.
His first planes were powered by rubber bands. “I couldn't afford motors.”
He graduated to radio-control airplanes in 1956. He's come a long way since then. The older Niedens went on to build better — and costlier — airplanes.
Some of his motors might cost hundreds of dollars. It's not rare to spend several thousands of dollars in a model.
Niedens prefers scale models. “They're more realistic and they're easier to work with, easier to see when flying.”
He built his first large airplane on a kitchen table with plans taped to a wall. “I never had a real workplace until many years later.”
At a young age, Niedens married wife Phyllis and they had a daughter, so while many of his fellow naval reservists went to Korea during the war, “I never made it overseas like lots of friends of mine.”
Nevertheless, he still got to work and ride in pretty impressive aircraft, such as the PBY-5A Catalina. A model of that plane now sits on a table in his shop.
“I flew in this. I've built several of the flyers I actually got to fly in.”
When finished, the Catalina will have been a three-year project, pretty typical for its size. The model has a 108-inch wingspan and two engines and is made of balsa and plywood as well as some hard wood. It will be watertight for taking off and landing on water.
“This rudder? I worked on it for hours. When I finished it, I didn't like it. I tore it apart and put it together again.”
Building a model plane is very much like building a real plane. Many of the same engineering principles apply, he noted.
Among the planes decorating his place, inside and out of his shop, is a model of the Nieuport 28, a World War I French fighter. He's also built a Nieuport 17.
But his all-time favorite is the Hellcat, a World War II Navy single-seat fighter. “I got to work around them and inside them,” he said.
Having built well over a thousand models, Niedens has traded and sold quite a few.
“I have airplanes that are worth $2,000-plus. But they're hard to sell. Sometimes I give them away. I don't want the money. I had the joy of building them. Being retired, this keeps me busy and out of trouble.”
He enjoys the challenge of building the airplanes. “There's a lot of engineering that goes into it. Although I have a plan, it doesn't always go like the plan. You have to work things out as you build. A lot of times I have to make my own (plans).”
And occasionally Niedens will crash a plane, which can sometimes prove fatal to the model.
“It's exhilarating (to fly), but also fearful. Am I going be able to fly it without crashing? Sometimes I land and I'm kind of shaking.
“I worry a lot. I always say I'm a fair-weather flyer,” he added, laughing.
He might give it another shot this weekend, during the Yuma Aeromodelers Radio Control Model Airplane Air Show and Fly-In at the club's airfield in Blaisdell.
Niedens enjoys sharing his hobby with club members, which number about 150.
“We have a lot of good airplane modelers in this area. It's a really great club. It was organized before I got here and I've been here for 26 years. I've been a member all that time. We have a really big airfield.
“This weekend should be fun.”
The skies over Blaisdell will be filled with soaring airplanes this weekend. The Yuma Aeromodelers will hold its annual Radio Control Model Airplane Air Show and Fly-In at the club's airfield located at Blaisdell, north of Yuma.
The show will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. A fly contest and hobby swap meet will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Airplane modelers will bring their radio-controlled aircraft from as far as Phoenix, Lake Havasu and El Centro, according to event chairman Dave Bartholomew. Organizers are anticipating jets, helicopters, scale aircraft and many static display aircraft.
Boy Scout Troop 53 will offer food concessions.
Spectators are invited to watch the air show. A $5 per vehicle donation will be requested.
The field is located five miles north of Yuma, off Highway 95, at mile marker 33.
Yuma Aeromodelers is a group of about 150 radio-control enthusiasts affiliated with the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The club promotes model aircraft activities by building and flying model aircraft and teaching new members to fly them.
Many club members are winter visitors from across the nation.
For more information on the event or the Yuma Aeromodelers Club, visit www.yumaaeromodelers.com or call Russ Verbael at 1-406-781-7233.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.