Thursday, January 02, 2014

Grass menagerie: Thieves stole a Maryland airplane club’s prized lawn tractor

John Kelly

Gary Heath didn’t believe it at first, doing the sort of double take you do when your brain refuses to comprehend what your eyes are telling you. 

 On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 29, Gary peered into the big metal trailer where the Free State Aeromodelers club stores some of its equipment, only to find that the club’s prized John Deere Model Type D140 lawn tractor (serial number 1GXD140ETCC323493, with 48-inch cutting deck) was gone.

“It’s just so crushing,” Gary said.

The locks that secured the trailer’s doors had been bashed off, and a cable that looped around the tractor’s axle to keep it attached to the trailer’s floor had been snipped. The theft took some planning.

“They had to know it was there,” said Tom Salamon, treasurer-secretary of the club. “They had to bring tools with them: crowbars, saws, whatever the hell they used. They planned it.”

The club has one of the nicest facilities for flying radio-controlled planes and helicopters on the East Coast. It’s in Laurel, not far from the Gardens Ice House, on a road that includes a mulch operation and an asphalt plant, not the sort of neighbors who mind stuff buzzing around.

There are nearly 100 acres that the miniature aviators can fly over and a smooth, grass runway that’s 100 feet wide and 500 feet long. In warmer months, a lawn service comes once a week to mow it, but to keep it in tip-top condition club members manicure the field more often. They’d been using push mowers, but in 2012 they splurged on the $2,000 John Deere, a stretch for the 120-member club.

“Landing in tall grass is kind of like trying to land on Velcro,” said Tom, whose day job is designing swimming pools. “As soon as the wheels touch down, it’s like putting on the brakes. One tends to get a lot of nose-overs, and it makes it hard to taxi. You can’t get a good takeoff roll. So we like to keep the grass groomed on the runway.”

Tom said the tractor was uninsured because no firm would write a policy for equipment stored on leased property. The club is hoping that if I write about the stolen tractor, someone might recognize it and the group will get it back.

I explained that only good people read my column, not thieves.

“It only takes one good person to drop a dime on them,” said Bill Kahl, who writes software code for the Defense Department.

The club traditionally welcomes the new year by flying. On Wednesday morning, about two dozen members had brought various craft, from detailed scale reproductions of a Stearman biplane and a Super Sabre jet to a loud helicopter.

“It’s a bunch of old guys with toys,” said Gary, an electrician.

A bunch of old guys who don’t mind getting up at 7 a.m. on Jan. 1 to stand in the bone-chilling cold.

“We’re all divorced,” joked John McDermott of Silver Spring.

He was fiddling with a handmade plane he’d dubbed the Purple Haze, after the Jimi Hendrix song. The landing gear had come off after a previous rough touchdown, but John was confident he could get it back on.

“It’s been smacked up many, many times,” he said. “It will rise again, like a phoenix.”

For some, the appeal of the hobby is in building the planes. Others prefer buying finished planes off the shelf and flying them. Whichever category you’re in, you’re only as good as your last landing.

“Once you come in that gate, you’re not a doctor or a lawyer or a dentist,” said John, who is a construction supervisor. “You’re an airplane.”

Jerry Richards, a retired FBI agent from Laurel, stood admiring the aerobatics. He oversaw construction of the field in 2000 after encroaching development had forced the Free State Aeromodelers to abandon earlier locations.

“You could actually land a small plane here,” he said.

He meant a plane bigger than the small planes that were turning somersaults in the air.


Tom Salamon fiddles with his remote-controlled plane at the Free State Aeromodelers club field in Laurel on January 1.
John Kelly/The Washington Post