The Northeast Electric Aircraft Technology Fair (NEAT Fair) is a gathering of RC hobbyists who enjoy designing, building, and/or flying electric-powered models. I like all three of those things. So I've been itching to attend NEAT for a long, long time. I finally got my chance to stop in this year and experience this unique event. Since I could attend for only one day, I decided that I would leave my models at home and just observe.
Genesis of the NEAT Fair
The inaugural NEAT Fair was held in 2000, a time when electric-powered flying models were still a fringe element of the RC hobby. The motors, batteries, and electronic widgets available to electric-minded hobbyists were all rather crude by today's standards. Any measure of success required forethought, ingenuity, and daring. NEAT provided a rare opportunity for those early innovators to compare notes and show off their latest breakthroughs.
Things have certainly changed in 18 years! Electric-powered aircraft are now a huge facet of the hobby. The availability of off-the-shelf models with great performance means that you no longer have to be an expert just to get off the ground. Even so, there are still modelers who are constantly nudging the state of the art and trying new things. For them, the NEAT Fair remains a Mecca.
NEAT is officially a 4-day event. This year's show ran from Thursday, 9/14 to Sunday, 9/17. Some eager participants began setting up as early as the previous weekend. When I arrived on Saturday morning, the entire flightline was filled with pop-up canopies and tents. Event director, Tom Hunt, told me that more than 300 pilots were registered.
The event takes place just outside of Downsville, a quiet town in the Catskill Mountains of New York. More specifically, NEAT is held at the Peaceful Valley Campsite along the Delaware River. This location presents an interesting dichotomy for NEAT goers. Upon arrival at this event celebrating technology and innovation, participants will likely find that their cell phones and other modern electronic leashes are mere paperweights in this remote valley. Yet, no one that I spoke with seemed to mind spending a few days off the grid.
The Saturday Experience
The NEAT Fair is a mixture of organized events and open flying. I arrived with just enough time to say hello to a few friends and grab a quick lunch before the noon flight demonstrations began. At other events I've attended, demo times are reserved for factory pilots to show off their latest and greatest products. That's certainly a part of the program at NEAT, but anyone with a novel or interesting model can also get their time in the spotlight. I was able to see a wide variety of really fascinating stuff.
Once thing that stood out for me during the demo flights was the selection of really large models. Size was once a significant barrier for electric aircraft due to the cost of the necessary batteries and power system components. That barrier is eroding. There were several manufactured and homebuilt models with wingspans larger than 8 feet (2.4m)--some were MUCH larger. These airplanes not only looked good, but they flew with power, precision, and long duration.
While taking photos of the demo models, I realized what an unusual flying location Peaceful Valley is. It is, quite literally, a valley. Pilots standing at a flight station are face-to-face with a tall, tree-covered mountainside. The mountain is not close enough to present much of a collision obstacle. It is, however, an interesting visual challenge. Rather than blue skies, the models flew against a mottled green backdrop of foliage. I found it challenging to see some of the military-themed aircraft with green or camouflage paint schemes. By the same token, many of the lighter-colored models contrasted extremely well. I suppose it's just a matter of getting used to the environment.
If there is a yardstick that illustrates just how commonplace electric-powered RC models have become, it must surely be our collective willingness to put them in precarious situations. The foam airframes that surround many electric setups have become cheap, durable, and to some pilots, expendable. The radio gear and power system from a crashed foam model can often be salvaged and installed in another airframe. I think that there is something very liberating about flying a model that you consider sacrificial. Apparently, numerous NEAT attendees agree. The fair hosted several events which fed this appetite for destruction.
For the "Mass Warbird Launch", anyone with a military aircraft model was invited to share the sky. I believe there were around 60 models in the air at once. Getting that many aircraft launched without excessive casualties required a little coordination. The primary motivation for getting all of the airplanes launched safely was merely to maximize the potential mayhem at the end of the flight. All pilots were instructed to land at the same time while also aiming for either of 2 traffic cones placed on the runway. At the signal, the airborne warbirds broke from their orbits and converged on the orange cones in a wild scramble. It was like "musical chairs meets demolition derby". I had fun watching, but the participants seemed to enjoy it more than anyone.
Another event intended for unloved models was "Lobster Combat". Two target airplanes flew around while towing long streamers. These models were relentlessly chased by a gaggle of contenders attempting to cut the streamers with their wings or propellers. Several participants made cuts and earned themselves a lobster roll for dinner. An equal number of pilots plowed their airplane into the ground during the attempt. Again, carnage was encouraged and rewarded with cheers.
The Watery Runway
The campground has a pond nestled against the tree line on the far side of the runway. Pilots willing to negotiate the relatively tight flying quarters were rewarded with an idyllic location to fly their floatplanes and flying boats. Everyone seemed to love the recent addition of a wooden ramp that allowed them to launch and retrieve their airplanes without tromping through the shoreline vegetation.
Thayer Syme brought his Stevens Aeromodel SkyBuggy on floats. This pudgy, cartoonish little model looked right at home flying off of the water. Thayer passed the transmitter to anyone willing to have a go at flying the SkyBuggy. This, of course, developed into an informal contest to see who could make the smoothest landings. Some landings barely created a ripple. Others, well, not so much. Everyone had a ball and the SkyBuggy handled the abuse without a scratch.
Not every flight at the pond went so smoothly. More than a few airplanes flipped over and had to be retrieved with a long stick or a tennis ball tied to a string. The good news is that the dunked models were generally good to go after dumping out the water they had taken on.
A subset of NEAT attendees made their way to the local high school gymnasium on Friday and Saturday evenings. They showcased the smallest and lightest flying machines in the RC universe. In fact, the weight limit set for these indoor models was 2 ounces (57 grams). Most were below that threshold by a wide margin.
You would think that models designed and built for such a specific purpose would all appear relatively similar. After all, form follows function, right? Not here! I witnessed a huge variety of very small, extremely lightweight airplanes. The creativity and ingenuity of these models just blew me away. I am confident in stating that the most innovative and cutting edge aircraft at the NEAT Fair could be found soaring above the free throw line.
Some micro-models were made of traditional materials such as balsa and tissue paper. Others used foam. Joe Malinchak had a whole fleet of amazing foam models. The largest ones were 1/48-scale. That's the same size as the plastic display models that I built as a kid. I never imagined anything that size could be made to fly…and fly well.
Not impressed by 1/48-scale RC models? How about a 1/72-scale, 6.8-inch-wingspan (173mm) F4U Corsair that tips the scales at 4.2 grams? Or maybe an A-10 Thunderbolt with a 4.5-inch (114mm) wingspan that weighs 2 grams? Joe's models aren't just tiny, they look good too. He applies accurate colors and details to the outer skin of his models by printing on the thin foam sheet with an inkjet printer.
It wasn't only RC models flying around the gym. Several rubber band-powered free-flight models were also present. It was mesmerizing to watch them slowly circle the court in a graceful arc. Their owners tuned them to climb within the confines of the gym…hopefully running out of power just before reaching the overhead lights. Then, they would slowly glide back down for a graceful landing.
Ready for More
Much like Walt Disney World or the Smithsonian, it's really impossible to see everything that the NEAT Fair has to offer in just one day. I never made it down to the quad-racing area. And I had to leave before the night flying began. Heck, I never even walked the entire flightline! Now I understand why everyone told me that you can't truly experience NEAT without spending the night--and that is precisely what I intend to do next year.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.