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Omaha Magazine

The World of Spins, Loops, and Barrell Rolls

Apr 26, 2023 03:01PM ● By Mike Whye
Frank Trouba, Jack Wilhelmi, and Bud Kilnoski

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Anyone who catches a conversation between Frank Trouba, Jack Wilhelmi, and Bud Kilnoski may start to believe that they’re some of the hottest pilots around. Their conversations are laced with references to historic military aircraft, including the B-25 and P-51—famous planes that were participants of the thrilling air races of the 1930s—pleasure aircraft, biplanes, and open cockpit fuselages.

It’s true, the men have put their aircraft through countless tight turns, loops, rolls, barrel rolls, and high-speed passes mere feet above the runway. They have taught others how to let their aircraft drop into spins and swoop back into the sky just before hitting the ground.    

However, Trouba, Wilhelmi, and Kilnoski aren’t daredevils—they’re not even in the cockpits. Radio-transmitters in hand, they direct to-scale model airplanes skyward by flipping switches and pushing small joysticks that control the small aircraft’s speed, rudder, elevators, ailerons, and more. 

Wilhelmi and Kilnoski began flying model planes in the 1950s; two thin, plastic wires streamed between a plastic u-shaped handle and a model airplane circling above. Each model was powered by a small gas engine that buzzed like an oversized mosquito.

Trouba, meanwhile, started flying powered scaled-down aircraft a little differently. 

“I did free flight in high school,” he said of the scale aircraft that had no controls.  “You let them go and hoped they stick around the area.” 

Sometimes they went farther than planned, which called for the pilots to throttle a different engine.  

“One of the key equipment pieces in free flight is motorbikes to go into the country to find the airplane,” Trouba recalled. “I did that for a few years but after I got married I put the modeling aside for awhile.”  

“I started [flying] control line with my dad when  I was about 12,” recalled Wilhelmi, now 76. “I’ve had my hands on some kind of an airplane since then.”  

Kilnoski, 81, similarly learned to fly control line aircraft on a field near his grandfather’s house in Council  Bluffs, his home today. Eventually, as radio-controlled aircraft became available in the 1960s, he adopted the technology.  

Trouba, 89, who lives in southwest Omaha, was prodded by his then 12-year-old son to take up RC flying. Kilnoski and Wilhelmi weren’t far behind.  

“There really wasn’t any RC to begin with, not commercially,” said Kilnoski, who owned a craft store in downtown Council Bluffs. “The first guys doing radio control were building their own radio systems before they appeared commercially.”    

For many years, Kilnoski, Trouba, Wilhelmi, and many other RC enthusiasts, met once or twice a week to fly off a field near the juncture of Interstates 29 and 80 in Council Bluffs. Everyone took care not to fly over the traffic, but Kilnoski believes that the sight of a half-scale Piper—similar to the real ones flown by law officers—caused some motorists to mind their speed in the area.

Overall, the construction of most RC aircrafts has remained consistent. Many start as kits that come with instructions and precut pieces of balsa and plywood, a few plastic items for the engine cowling and canopy, plus a couple stiff metal wires and rubber wheels for landing gear. The wood was assembled to form a very lightweight framework for the fuselage and wings. Then, pieces of an equally lightweight durable plastic film are cut to fit over the openings; when heated, they shrink to create drum-tight coverings like the skin of a real airplane. Others, start from scratch. 

The first flyable model aircraft were powered by slingshot—rubber bands—before the advent of gas-powered engines in the 1940s. With the gas engines, pilots had to first spin the propellers with a finger for them to cough to life, hopefully without nicking any skin. Today, one can push a switch to turn on an electric motor, and they’re quieter than the gas engines.

“You can fly an electric into your neighbors’ backyard and they won’t hear it,” Kilnoski noted. 

He said the days of the gas-powered engines are numbered, partly because the electric motors are becoming so popular that it’s expensive to find the right fuel. He used to sell a gallon of the special fuel used for the model airplane engines for $6.88 a gallon in his hobby store. Now, it’s about $28 a gallon, he said.  

Models have come in various styles, colors and sizes.  At first, they were rather small, something that could be carried in one hand. Now, they’re larger, averaging a quarter scale of the real thing.
“I like the smaller ones where you don’t need a mechanic to creep under the wings to work on the airplane,” Trouba said, who has built around several hundred scale aircraft. “What I didn’t build for myself, I built for others.”

For some years, Kilnoski would buy two of a model, give one to Trouba to build as an example of what the kit looked like when built, and then put the other kit up for sale in his hobby shop.  
“I built the kits for free and he didn’t charge me for it,” Trouba recalled. “It was the best of both worlds.”

Not long ago, the men banded together to build a half-scale model of an airplane called the Spacewalker to present to a friend in eastern Iowa who had flown the real thing in airshows. Detailed down to the instruments in the cockpit’s control panel, the model was the spitting image of the real low-wing, single-cockpit, red-and-yellow airplane designed to resemble an aircraft of the 1930s. Even at half scale, the RC model had a wingspan of 14 feet and the craft weighed 85 pounds. 

To simulate jets, some modelers began using high speed fans to pull air through ducts to emulate jet engines. Recently, some models have appeared with scaled-down jet engines that actually burn fuel.  

“They sound like real jet engines, and they smell like you’re at an airport,” Wilhelmi observed. 
While a beginner’s prop job can cost below $100, which includes the engine and RC equipment, a jet-powered one can run up to nearly $10,000. Such models can reach speeds upwards of 470 mph.

When RC flying began, the controls were simple: turn left and right and fly up and down. Gradually, the electronic equipment has advanced what can be accomplished both in the air and on the ground.  Some transmitters can operate jointly, so an instructor can take over for a nearby student in case trouble arises. 

“The hardest part is landing,” Wilhelmi conceded. “Because once you take off, you’re committed.”  

There are a lot of simulators now on computers said Jack, and a lot of young kids will get on them and practice.  “It doesn’t take them long to solo.”.  

Wilhelmi advised that RC beginners should learn by joining a club. 

Kilnoski cautions beginners who think they can buy an expensive kit and fly it without proper help from others.  

“I think that’s a shame because it’s a great hobby and that’s a real poor way to get introduced to it,” he lamented. 

For example, it’s simple to command a plane flying away to turn left or right.  But when it’s coming at the pilot, suddenly things can get confused, as the directions flip. 

Sometimes pilots of real aircraft think handling an RC plane is similar—but it’s not.  Kilnoski recalled how, every so often, a pilot from Offutt Air Base would visit his hobby store to buy an AC aircraft.  

“I’d tell them I teach every Wednesday evening and they’d reply something like, ‘I’ve got 26,000 hours of flying a real plane’ and blah blah blah,” he recalled. “I’d tell them there’s a difference between flying a real airplane when you’re in the seat and standing on the ground with an RC transmitter. 

“They’d go off and then they’d come back and ask, ‘Which night is it you teach?’”

For information about RC flying in the Omaha metro, visit and

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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