I have more guilty pleasures than most. Marine aquaria (one 80-gallon and two 55-gallon tanks), movies (1202 DVDs at last count), fossils and gemstones (too many to count), MMORPGs (World of Warcraft, Counterstrike, Battlefield II), photography, wood working, paint balling, scuba diving, deep sea/freshwater fishing, target shooting and cars. Although any one of these can be financially devastating, I've managed to enjoy myself without living in a cardboard box. I also love to fly radio-controlled aircraft, a hobby that nearly cost me everything.
I bought the German-built model I'd been eyeing, a robust, ample-winged plane powered by a rear-mounted electric motor. Its generous dihedral meant forgiving behavior, the perfect plane for relaxed Sunday flying. I packed up the dog and kids and went to the local high school for its maiden flight.
The plane left my hand with a gentle push and floated overhead in slow, lazy circles. It wasn't just easy to fly, it was super-easy. No matter what stupid moves I made, simply letting go of the stick brought it back in line.
Some 20 minutes had passed, enough time to leave me completely mesmerized. I didn't take much notice of the lady walking her toy poodle until I heard the thud of my nine-year-old hitting the ground. Cole had been holding the leash of our gigantic Labrador, Nikki, looping the end around his wrist. Like a miniature cowboy dragged behind a horse, Cole shot across the grass, his 60-pound mass barely touching the ground as Nikki sped towards his new 'friend.' I threw down the RC controller and ran to intercept.
Two skinned knees and a shaken old lady later, all was back in hand. Cole actually wanted to do it again-the dragged behind the dog part. At this point, I had totally forgotten the plane until I saw the controller. Panicked, I scanned the sky, not willing to accept $200-worth of foam, plastic and servos had floated away. For several minutes, I attempted to control various birds until I realized they were organic. Utterly pissed, I was about to smash the controller into the ground when one of the boys spotted it. I'm guessing it was about a mile and a half away, a virtual speck. I held the stick hard right, hoping it would simply spiral into the ground. I blinked and it was gone.
Hoping its final resting place would be Cal State Fullerton, a sprawling campus now empty for Thanksgiving, I took a general heading and left in a cloud of tire smoke. Frantically searching every field, rooftop and parking lot, it was not to be found. Time to embrace the horror. Almost. Part of me did not want to search further east-that was the freeway. Please God, don't let it land on the freeway.
Apparently, He's got a sense of humor, because that's exactly where it came to rest. On the northbound corridor of the Pomona freeway, resting between the carpool and the far left lane.
Although the posted speed is 65 mph, most people average 80 to 85 mph with the occasional 90 mph driver. A big rig's wake picked it up and placed it smack dab in the freeway's center lane. From the overpass, I had a perfect view of the ensuing catastrophe.
Measuring five feet wide, the plane was a daunting obstacle. Although its structure was on a par with a bag of tortilla chips, it still looked like a small aircraft. The first car bearing down was a BMW 7 Series. I could see the guy with a cell phone jammed between his shoulder and chin while he fiddled with something on the passenger seat. Looking up at the last second, he pitched the car hard right and went into full ABS. Given the angle and speed, I was certain the car would spin. It didn't. All those electronic stability systems came into play and did their thing. The guy lurched in his seat and I'm pretty sure his double mocha soy latte sprayed the cabin. It could have been worse.
Although traffic was fairly light, a tight bunch of cars approached. An E-Class wagon accelerated around the group and into the lane my poor plane occupied. Like the BMW, the Merc swerved hard enough to pitch itself sideways, but didn't. I saw the guy mouth the F-word as he sped on. A few more cars narrowly missed the aircraft (mostly Hondas and Toyotas), aided no doubt by the electronic sentries within. Eventually, a cement truck ran over it, turning the entire thing into so much foam popcorn.
I don't think I've ever been so relieved in my entire life. What could have become a fatal mishap was reduced to a few startled drivers and spilled coffee.
I learned several things that day. Firstly, tie the dog to a tree. Secondly, electronic stability controls are the most significant automotive invention in the last 10 years. Although their first iterations were somewhat intrusive, current stability systems (DSC, PASM, ESP) are so transparent they barely register.
The first few minutes driving with a new partner used to be typically punctuated by a pregnant pause; each occupant nervously eyeing the traction control button.
If I don't turn it off, he'll think I'm a big pussy with no skill, thinks the driver.
If he turns off the traction control, we're dead, thinks the passenger.
Lately, the systems tend to stay on, at least until it's safe.
I will never forget my experience with our last long-term 911. I let an intern drive while snapping a few pics of the instrumentation.
"I'm gonna turn the PASM off to see what this baby can do," he said.
With those words barely uttered, he proceeded to throw the Porsche onto a center berm, its wheels suspended several inches from the road. The real tragedy was that Porsche's stability management would most likely have allowed him to do the powerslide he wanted.
Are we learning yet?