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Flying High Underground
by Rebecca Black, Staff Writer

Senior Dave Rigotti recently spent nine hours each day for five days in a Romanian salt mine 700 feet below ground. The still air of the salt mine is ideal for flying delicate balsa wood planes, which weigh not much more than a dollar bill. This October, Dave and two other teens from the United States defeated twelve other nations to win the world title in model airplane flying.
The world championships are held in Romania because the salt mine is the only underground structure of its kind not on a U.S. Airforce base. The 210 feet tall cavern is below a small, simple Romanian village, where American brand names are unknown and things like electricity and indoor plumbing are a luxury.
Flying an indoor model airplane is not just about winding a propeller. Contestants build the super-light planes themselves out of balsa wood, and there are no how-to books or assembly instructions. The planes are 30 inches long, with a wingspan no greater than 22 inches. Building a plane to stay aloft for the longest possible time requires patience, skill, and a lot of trial-and-error.
Once the plane is in the air, there are no radio controls to keep it from hitting a wall. To steer the plane, Dave and his teammates had to send up a weather balloon three feet in diameter above the plane and hook the plane between the wing and propeller. They could then slowly pull the balloon and plane in a new direction. Because helium in expensive, the balloons were filled with hydrogen instead. Having so many of the Europeans smoking around the tanks of hydrogen was worrysome, but no accidents occurred.
Dave started flying the planes on the middle school Science Olympiad team in the “Wright Stuff” competition. Since then, he has refined his skills at competitions across the country. He qualified for the world championships in Romania at nationals last June. His father, “…has past experience and was a great help. If I was stuck on something, there was someone there who knew how to do it.” His father used to fly indoor model airplanes, as well as one-seater, open cockpit planes during the 80’s. Though Dave doesn’t see himself as a commercial pilot in the future, he would enjoy having his pilot’s license to fly a small plane for the fun of it.

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