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50 years of soaring safely from the ground

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Jim Thompson’s fingers may not move as quickly as they used to while maneuvering his radio controlled airplane and the white hair underneath his cap reflects his experience. But the passion in his eyes hasn’t aged a bit.

“I’ve always liked (aviation),” said Thompson, a lifelong resident of Brainerd who has found an equally long hobby in remote controlled airplanes. “I flew air models, and even full scale planes too, all of my life, since the 1950s.

“I love all of it.”

Thompson, a charter member of the Paul Bunyan Fly Club since it revved up in the Brainerd lakes area in 1962, proudly boasts more than 100 handcrafted planes that have taken flight.

But he’s not the only one.

Gathering more than 20 members out to Jim Kounkel Field — a privately owned field on Kounkel’s farm south of Brainerd near St. Mathias — the Paul Bunyan Fly Club has found a niche in the hearts of airplane hobbyists across the area.

“We’ve seen a little bit of a drop in numbers,” said Don Grandlund, who, like Thompson, has created his fair share of remote airplanes, roughly 90, and is known as the club’s electronics guru. “And we’ve moved around from place to place, we flew a few years out at the (Brainerd Lakes Regional) Airport and then were over at the county fairgrounds for 35 years.

“But we always have people coming out to enjoy themselves and talk about airplanes.”

The club includes members in their 80s down to its youngest member, Tanner Harris, who is just 9.

“It’s fun flying the airplanes,” said Tanner, who joined the club a little more than a week ago after visiting the field numerous times over the past three years with his dad and member, Troy Harris. “I was having so much fun with it that I decided I wanted to join.”

Beginning alongside his dad with a trainer box — a controller connected to another controller that is manned by a more experienced flyer — Tanner became the first of Harris’ five sons to catch the model airplane bug.

“Tanner seems to be the only one that’s really gotten into it,” said Harris, who joined after hearing about the club from a friend. “But I wasn’t always into it myself, so my other kids weren’t as exposed to it as he was.

“But the great thing is you don’t have to be a certain age to come out here and fly. We have a great group of guys and the nice thing about a club like this, when you join, you can use all of these guys’ experiences and learn.”

Harris adds that the atmosphere, both in the air and on the ground, is what draws him out to fly for hours at a time.

“I could easily be out here for six to eight hours and so could most of these guys,” said Harris. “And to add to the fun, when we come out here we set up a potluck with shaded tents and bring our wives and children and really make a day out of it.

“Just sit around and talk airplanes and everybody takes turns flying. It’s just a lot of fun.”

And like Thompson’s passion, the fun hasn’t aged a bit.

“It’s something you do until it stops being fun,” he said. “And that just hasn’t happened yet.”

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).