By Matt Bunke, Community Editor
Jim Gravelle won’t get in a helicopter. He’ll ride in an airplane, but he prefers small ones and is leery of big jets.
Those are ironic fears for a man whose biggest hobby includes both planes and helicopters. But Gravelle doesn’t actually need to get in these particular aircraft. These, Gravelle can control from the ground.
Since the mid 1980s, Gravelle’s biggest passion has been radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters. The Mayer resident says he’s probably owned hundreds of them in the last 25 years, with about 35 in his current collection. Just don’t expect to actually see him in the sky too often.
“Now I know all the moving parts that exist and I’m afraid to get in one,” he said. “I fly from the ground real well, but I get sick when I go up in the air.”
Gravelle’s passion for radio-controlled aircraft technically began as a youngster, though he may not have realized it at the time.
“I started out as an electronics buff when I was about 8,” he said. “I was always working on TVs, trying to make TVs work, changing tubes. Electronics was something I wanted to do as career. I wanted to be a TV repair man back then. So (radio-controlled airplanes) was something right up my alley.”
It wasn’t until Gravelle saw a gyrocopter land in his back yard as a teenager that he became hooked on airplanes and helicopters. Gravelle wanted to build a gyrocopter of his own, and even purchased the plans to build one for $10. His parents quickly vetoed that idea, however.
“I got the plans and my parents said ‘we don’t want you to build that, because you’re going to kill yourself,’ so I never did go on with buying any of the parts,” Gravelle said. “A few years later, when I was about 18, I found a magazine when I was at work that was basically a complete guide of the hobby – cars, boats, airplanes and helicopters – so my friend and I ordered a plane.”
Gravelle said he taught himself to fly that first plane, crashing it “probably 50 times.” But, he’s been hooked ever since. Mayer residents may be familiar with him from his exhibitions at the last several Mayer Rising Community Festivals. This past year, he drew a large crowd for hours as he showed off his large collection of various types of planes and helicopters.
Gravelle also shared his passion with others in the early 1990s, when he started a flying club that flew at Watertown-Mayer High School. That club lasted six or seven years before fizzling out, but Gravelle continued to perfect his craft in his backyard in Mayer. Gravelle said he still spends several hours a day flying or building planes, and can often be found in his back yard behind the Mobil station with a plane in the air. He flies his bigger planes at Old Schoolhouse Park, where there is more space.
Gravelle said he currently has about 30 electric planes and about four or five gas planes. His planes have wingspans that range from as small as 12 inches to as large as 6 feet.
Gravelle said he used to build most of his planes himself, but today, planes are available for purchase in any number of stages, ranging from kits all the way to ARF, or Almost Ready to Fly, which require only a couple of hours of preparation before they’re ready to take to the air. Today, Gravelle said he prefers flying planes instead of building planes, so most of the planes he buys are ARF.
Gravelle spends most of his weekends flying at the Crow River R/C Aeromodelers Club, located in Waverly. Gravelle serves as the safety officer for the club, and said teaching people the safest ways to fly planes is one of his biggest passions.
Gravelle said for anybody that wants to try out the hobby, the best thing to do is visit the Crow River Club. The club has free flight lessons the third Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon.
“Go up to Crow River and talk to the to people there,” Gravelle said when asked of the best advice he could give a beginner. “They’ll tell you where the hobby shops are. They’ll guide you along, show you what they’re using, tell you what’s good and bad. They’ll even guild you as to what aircraft to get for your first one, so you don’t get one that’s too hard to fly.”