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Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Wilczek, an electronics technician in Naples, Italy, shows off some of his radio-controlled vehicles. His newest addition is the helicopter one his right.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Wilczek, an electronics technician in Naples, Italy, shows off some of his radio-controlled vehicles. His newest addition is the helicopter one his right. (Jason Chudy / S&S)

NAPLES, Italy — “If you’re not into motors, you won’t fit in our family,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Wilczek as he packed his radio control models back into his car.

The Little Falls, Minn., native is an electronics technician by trade and a tinkerer by nature. He builds then drives, flies or sails his handful of radio control, or R/C, models at and around the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Lago Patria receiver site where he works.

Wilczek’s gone from motocross as a kid to drag racing Ford Mustangs with his father as a young adult and into R/C models in his junior year in high school.

“For me, it’s just that I’m kind of a motor head,” he said. “The little engines and things are intriguing.

“My uncle had a helicopter way back when, for as far as I can remember,” Wilczek said. “I wanted to get a helicopter back in high school, but it was out of the question for cost. So I got a plane.”

Since then, he’s invested thousands of hours, and thousands of dollars, into R/C cars, two planes, a sailboat and his latest model, a helicopter.

“I just got it a month ago,” he said. “I’ve got it put together, I’m just working on getting it off the ground and flying it without wrecking it.”

Finally, Wilczek made his maiden flight, and maiden crash. There was no permanent damage, just a bit of broken plastic and a little damaged pride.

Crashes, he explained, are part of the hobby. He uses rubber bands to attach the wings of his Cessna aircraft, he explained, to allow easy separation if the aircraft crashes.

There are a few fairly obvious places on the Cessna’s body where the pieces have been glued back together. “With my planes, I just keep on rebuilding the same ones I’ve had forever,” he said.

Wilczek said that his crashes have only been bad enough to “keep it down for a couple of weeks and then it’s up and going again.”

The addition of the helicopter to his fleet has taken a bit of money.

“[The] helicopter, just basically getting everything new, cost $1,500,” he said. But a basic airplane costs less, even with the required radio control unit. “You can get a pretty decent one right now for under $500.”

Wilczek said he and his wife, Jamie, who “owns” her own R/C truck, head to the receiver site to drive and fly. Towering red and white antennas are spread out through the large, brush-filled area, northwest of Naples, which will eventually become the new Allied Forces Southern Europe headquarters.

Jamie said that it was only natural that she got involved in the hobby.

“It’s because we drag race at home,” she explained. “There’s no drag racing here, so this is the closest we get. We go all the time. Whenever I have a free evening or weekend, we go.”

They’ve sailed only once, however, taking their sailboat to the nearby Lago Patria with a friend.

“There was so much muck and goo it got stuck,” Jamie said. “No one wanted to get into the lake, so I rolled up my pant legs and got it.”

She later found out there are leeches there. “Lago Patria is not the best lake to put it in,” Jamie said succinctly.

So together the Wilczek family will stick to racing and flying. Or at least Joseph will stick to flying. “She doesn’t think she’s coordinated enough for it,” he said. “[With] the helicopter and the airplane, you’ve got to have a lot of hand-eye coordination.

“Everything is constantly moving around because of the direction the aircraft is facing,” he explained. “[It’s] not really difficult, but it takes a certain amount of skill and practice to get it to where you’re proficient.”

Jamie had a different take.

“Most of the time [my truck] runs better than his aircraft, helicopter or trucks, so I can beat him there,” she said.

Most of the people he’s raced or flown with in Italy have been co-workers, some who got interested after seeing his models.

“If you really want to see if you want to do it, you’ve got to find somebody who’s got something,” he said. “You can try theirs to see if it’s for you or not.”

In the three years Wilczek’s been stationed in Naples he has had only limited contact with Italian R/C hobbyists. They run on-road cars, he said, which are different than his 1/8th scale four-wheel drive car.

To race at their track, he’d have to buy a different car, but he’s not in the market for one right now.

“I’d like to go to the 60-size helicopters,” Wilczek said. He currently flies a 30-size helicopter.

The larger 60-size models are able to do aerobatics that real helicopters can’t do.

“They call it 3-D flying,” he said, “where you can fly it upside down ... and do all the tricks with them. You can actually hover upside down.”

First, though, he’s got to master his smaller helicopter, which has already been glued back into working order.

His dream of 3-D flight will have to start with a simple radio controlled hover.

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