Model airplane pilot takes to the skies on 90th birthday

Ray Sexton recently celebrated his 90th birthday in a remote field that was the perfect place to fly radio-controlled airplanes.

“It’s wide open. No power lines. No houses. No one to complain about the noise. It’s just ideal,” Sexton said last week under a partially blue sky in a pasture near the University of Georgia’s Iron Horse Farm in Greene County.

Members of the Athens Model Aircraft Club, who have used this field off Georgia Highway 15 for years, gave Sexton a birthday cake, cards and a trophy.

“How is it knowing the Wright Brothers,” one man joked with Sexton. The Wrights flew the first plane in 1903.

“They were smarter than I was,” Sexton said with a laugh.

Sexton, who has lived in Athens since 1968 and has flown model airplanes for the past 59 years, was surprised by his friends, who only told him they wanted to gather and fly planes for his birthday.

“This is one of the nicest things to happen to me in a long time,” said Sexton, who was born 1927 in Friendsville, Tenn., a small town south of Knoxville.

The club members, who meet monthly at the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, have used this pasture free of charge as a goodwill gesture on the part of the landowner.

Sexton’s joy for model airplanes began in 1958 while he was working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he met a person who flew the planes.

“Back then you had to build everything. You built the plane, rigged it up. That was back in the day when hobbyists were really hobbyists,” he said. “It was a matter of skill and patience.”

Sexton’s son began flying the string control line planes, something Sexton said he couldn’t handle.

“I couldn’t go around and around. I’d get dizzy and I’d fall over,” he said with a chuckle.

In making his early planes, Sexton would take his basic wood frames and coat it with what he called nitrate dope, then lay wet silk fabric around the frame to create the lightweight body. Today, hobbyists often purchase the ready made planes that come in many designs.

Sexton moved to Athens in 1968 for a job in the instrument making shop at the University of Georgia. He met Athens businessman J. Swanton Ivy, who also liked flying model planes, and the pair along with another couple of men started the local club in the late 1960s. They also chartered the club with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, an organization that provides the clubs with insurance regarding injuries and protecting the landowner.

Piloting a radio-controlled plane is not easy.

“Eye and hand coordination. You’ve got to have it. If you don’t, you might as well not even pick it up because everything happens so quickly,” he said.

Drones have quickly taken over as the small aircraft for hobbyists, including those who never dreamed of flying model airplanes, but don’t bother Sexton to use this aerial craft that is easier to fly than radio-controlled planes.

“I don’t have any interest at all. I’m sorry,” he said. “It just doesn’t appeal to me. I like airplanes that work like airplanes and fly like airplanes.”

And he prefers the glow engines fueled by methanol over the new battery-powered models of planes, which are quieter.

“I don’t like to fool with batteries,” he said about the planes that require lithium polymer batteries.

Sexton travels to the flying field with an enclosed cargo trailer containing five model planes.

“If I bang up one, I take out another one,” he said, admitting that he has crashed a few in his day.

He has a model of a Piper J3 Cub and other smaller planes, and even though he has piloted these planes for decades he has yet to sit in the cockpit of the actual airplane.

“I’ve never been in the cockpit of a real plane,” he said. “I’ve ridden in airlines, but never one of these.”

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