“When you grew up you wanted to fly didn’t you? Everybody does.” said Red Cross Volunteer William Kahl. While members of his Wounded Warrior Remote Controlled (RC) Helicopter Program don’t ever leave the ground, Kahl believes they experience, “the next best thing.”
Every Tuesday patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center convene in the Occupational Therapy Department to practice on simulators, perform model maintenance and converse about a variety of RC aircrafts.
“It’s tough to learn this by yourself,” said Kahl. “You really need someone to help you out and I discovered that the hard way.” When first attempting to enter the world of RC Aircraft, he claimed to feel overwhelmed by both his lack of piloting skill and mechanical knowledge. “You really have to learn to master those two things at the same time. Once you get that together you’ll be able to enjoy it. That’s what the class tries to help us do.”
Kahl instructs wounded warriors how to assemble and repair models from individual parts and pieces; a task he admits is neither easy, nor cheap. The helicopters used in the class are hobby grade, which means they are more complex and expensive than ones commonly found in toy stores. Most of the attendees to the class use models with 24 to 35 inch diameters blades that can range in price from $1,000 to $2,500.
According to Kahl, the hobby’s high price of entry typically sends people running away from what he admits is a “rich man’s pastime.” However, due to the generosity of his connections through the Red Cross, local hobby stores and a variety of non-profit organizations, he’s able to keep his class attendees well trained and amply stocked for free.
Crashes for beginners are inevitable and expensive, said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (HN3) Ian McClanahan who has, in his 5 months participating, built two different helicopters and a gas powered airplane. “However, with this program we have a vast collection of parts and supplies. [Kahl] actually looks forward to us breaking aircraft, that way we come back and work on them.”
To teach flying skills, Kahl supplies the group sessions with several high-end gaming laptops in order to run computer flight simulator programs. Utilizing special attachments identical to radio controllers, everyone involved in the program gets the chance to hone their skills before taking expensive equipment to the skies.
Donated copies of the flight program are supplied to those interested, and the class and frequently holds simulated flying sessions online. Gathering in groups as large as 10, participants can fly side-by-side and offer critiques and advice to advance each other’s skills.
These simulated airfields are the testing ground for fledgling pilots, like first time flier Spec. Tomas Carrasquel. Originally an Army mechanic for Black Hawk helicopters, Carrasquel found himself behind the controls and airborne for the first time after only a few minutes of instruction. “I want to keep trying. I am going to get a helicopter soon,” he said.
The class focuses on a hands-off approach to instruction, opting more to see veteran fliers gently nudging novices in the right direction. It’s common to see a participant crash in the simulator and receive praise and suggestions for improvement from a colleague nearby. “It’s kind of like a little community,” said Kahl. “It’s a nice little place where we know one another and help each other out.”
While not a therapist, Kahl believes having a positive hobby like the one offered in the helicopter program can be beneficial to those suffering both physical and mental disabilities. “I had one guy who lost his dominant hand in a firefight, express interest in the class,” he said. “I never thought [he] was going to be able to fly with just one arm, but he shocked me. He flies better with one hand than a lot of the guys do with two hands. What I thought was his biggest challenge turned out to be one of his biggest successes.”
HN3 Ian McClanahan hopes to use the experiences he’s gained in the class to turn his hobby into a career after he retires from the military. “In 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration is going to release rules about how you can use [drones and other remote controlled devices] commercially,” he said. “I could definitely see myself working with a company using helicopters with cameras to get a new angle on car crashes, or to inspect the underside of bridges. They’re doing that in Japan right now.”
The Wounded Warrior RC Helicopter Program is held every Tuesday at 1 p.m. in the America Building Occupational Therapy Department. To find out more about the program contact Kahl at Wjkahlssmd@nestscape.com or 301-318-8552.