BENTON CITY -- Pilots of radio-controlled miniature aircraft now have their choice of runways at Higgins Field in Horn Rapids Park off Highway 225.
Their low-flying machines can risk a cross wind on the original strip or opt for a head-on course on the newly built 300-foot runway, which is especially helpful on a bright afternoon near Benton City.
"Our new runway is oriented perfectly to avoid the sun issue and take into account the prevailing winds," said Clarence Corriveau of Richland, a member of the Miniature Aircraft Association.
"I can't tell you how many airplanes we've lost in the sun on the east-west runway," Corriveau said.
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Having the second runway means greater opportunities for the RC pilots at Higgins Field, which is the 75-member club's base of operations and also includes a shop building and a clubhouse/kitchen.
Higgins Field was founded in 1992, and its facilities are on land leased from Benton County at the 900-acre Horn Rapids Park.
"We started the club around 1989 in West Richland at the soccer fields, and when we moved out to Benton City it was just sagebrush" said Rudy Higgins, who lives in Richland. "There were just four of us that first year, and it just keeps growing."
The aircraft association is responsible for the facilities and upkeep, said Adam Fyall, county sustainable development director, who also serves as liaison for the parks and recreation commission.
The commission and aircraft association recently completed a joint project to build a second runway at the field, which Fyall said is a major improvement that makes the facility one of the best in the western United States.
Fyall said the association came to the county with a proposal for the second runway that would be oriented to make the most of prevailing winds and minimize sight issues with the afternoon sun.
Using a $3,000 donation from an anonymous donor, the association installed about 1,000 feet of irrigation lines, 64 sprinklers and hydroseeded along the sides of the 300-foot flight strip. The county agreed to pay the $13,000 it cost to build and pave the runway, Fyall said.
Higgins Field's first runway, a row of cottonwood trees, parking, clubhouse/kitchen and irrigation system were installed by the association, while the county built the restrooms and the shop building.
"I'm impressed by what they've done, and they've met the obligation to do improvements," Fyall said. "They've been good tenants."
Higgins quipped, "I haven't heard any complaints."
Corriveau said, "This is a unique facility in having an active group and a well-kept facility."
The second runway, Corriveau said, is ideal for staging regional activities such as the International Miniature Aircraft Convention, which is Sept. 28-30 at Higgins Field. It will bring aircraft from Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Next month is the Indian Summer Fly-In -- the Miniature Aircraft Association's primary fundraising event of the year.
This past week, pilots and their RC aircraft put on a demonstration during the county's parks and recreation board meeting at Higgins Field.
"You people have done an excellent job here. The improvements will last a long time," said commission member Hank Sauer.
Corriveau said RC aircraft are highly maneuverable and can do all that full-sized airplanes can do, if not more because the ground-based pilot doesn't have to deal with G-forces.
Most miniature aircraft have wingspans around 60 to 80 inches, and can be powered by electric motors or piston-powered combustion engines.
Some are kit built to resemble full-size airplanes, and can cost several thousand dollars; others are designed and built out of a type of lightweight foam that allows quick assembly and easy repairs when damage occurs in flight or on the ground.
Higgins, born in 1946 in Pasco, sheepishly admitted his collection of aircraft had got a bit out of hand.
"I had lost count, but I've really shrunk it down to about 17," he said.
The hobby has gotten high-tech in recent years. Ted Leskovar of Kennewick said he got into miniature aircraft about a year ago while looking for a way to scare away geese and ducks that were flocking to his property. He soon picked up the hobby and is focused on flying RC aircraft equipped with on-screen display.
A camera on the aircraft shows what a pilot would see and transmits the video image with GPS references to the RC controller, who uses special goggles to watch the flight from the cockpit perspective in real time.
In addition to getting the visual, Leskovar said the video display shows altitude, speed and direction.
For Fyall, the parks board is proud to have Higgins Field as part of Horn Rapids Park.
"My board likes having venues for nontraditional uses -- things that don't have a home anywhere else," Fyall said.
Looking for more fun?
Benton County also features the Tri-Cities Shooting Association range off Highway 225, a disc golf course at Two Rivers Park in Finley, and allows equestrian trail riding, bicycling riding, dog tracking and dog trials at Horn Rapids Park.