Thirty years ago, at Whittier Narrows in Southern California, a group of hobbyists gathered to compete in a contest dedicated to a cherished childhood pastime: flying control-line model airplanes. These planes, controlled by 60-foot cables and an internal combustion engine, were popular from the 1940s to the 1970s, before radio-controlled airplanes became the norm.

Since 1988, the event, now known as the Vintage Stunt Championships, has been held annually in Tucson, and today, it's the largest control-line event in the Southwest. Although the control-line model-airplane community is relatively small, hundreds of people turn out each year for the VSC, which this year is March 13-17.

A variety of competitions are planned. The stunt contests start early each morning, because of more ideal weather conditions. During these contests, each pilot performs a series of tricks with his or her plane in about six minutes, then receives a score from the judges on how perfect their loops, figure-eights and other maneuvers were. There are several different specialized stunt contests individuals can compete, such as Ringmaster, Super 70s, Old Time and Classic. Each has its own set of rules.

A fan favorite of the VSC is the appearance competition. Unlike more modern model airplanes, these planes are never bought from a craft store. Each plane is meticulously handcrafted and hand-painted, and takes hours to complete. The planes are laid out in rows on the ground, and judges then arrange them from best to worst appearance. According to VSC contest director Jim Hoffman, this is one of the most popular parts of the competition, because everyone is together and can see all the beautifully made planes at once.

Because flying control-line model airplanes is a hobby of the past, the VSC is a chance not only to compete, but also to celebrate history and keep the tradition alive. A new and popular part of the VSC is the exhibition event. Participants are invited to bring a unique item related to control-line model planes from the past and show it off. This event isn’t a competition and is open to anyone who has something special they want to share.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the event, for the first time since the first VSC back in 1988, all the contestants will pose for a group photo. Although the participants come to Tucson to compete, Hoffman said for him and many others, it’s really about the community that has formed over 30 years.

“Most of us have been doing this most of our lives, we all know each other, and there’s a camaraderie that goes with that,” Hoffman said. “People go there for the camaraderie and to see the airplanes and to be together more than the actual competition. As much as I enjoy all the other stuff, the hugs and the gratitude from so many people that have become lifelong friends are really my favorite part.”

The Vintage Stunt Championships, March 13-17, will take place at Christopher Columbus Park and the Hotel Tucson City Center. Admission is free. To learn more, visit or contact Jim Hoffman at 480-329-3316 or [email protected].

— Emily Balli