Top of the World

You've never heard of him, but Mike Willcox is one of the best on the planet at what he does

Yeah, okay, you're right -- Mike Willcox flies toy airplanes. And flying toy airplanes, especially when you're 35 years old, is about as hip a hobby as stamp collecting.

But do you get free trips to Europe and Asia, where you're mobbed by autograph seekers, feted by mayors and pestered by those hoping to gain just a little of your magic touch?

Are you the best American to do whatever it is you do? Are you the Michael Jordan, the Wayne Gretzky, the Joe Montana of anything? Mike Willcox, who grew up in Kingwood, is. And if you have a problem because the "anything" that he's a god at is flying toy airplanes, he's not too worried about it. Being a world champion can bring you that kind of self-assurance.

Daniel Kramer
Willcox competes against The Tank, a top pilot from the Ukraine...
Photos courtesy of Mike Willcox
Willcox competes against The Tank, a top pilot from the Ukraine...

Willcox doesn't just fly toy airplanes, he fights them. He is among the very elite of an obscure sport called control-line combat, where two competitors engage in dogfights where they try to cut streamers off their foe's plane.

It's a world full of sneaky, rule-breaking Ukrainians, of planes speeding at 125 miles per hour that can turn 90 degrees on a dime, of two competitors facing off in a 13-foot circle while thousands -- sometimes tens of thousands -- cheer madly, blow airhorns and scream for their favorites. It's a "hobby" where Russians are paid to practice and compete full-time and are celebrities, and Americans are looked down on as hapless amateurs messing with the big boys.

Planes plow into the ground, elbows are smashed into faces when the judges aren't looking, and a hundred little dirty tricks have to be watched out for -- or tried -- before you go home a winner.

And if you're American, and you do come home a winner, no one is likely to care much.

If you're Russian, the government gives you a $40,000 check to go along with your medal. If you're American, you can put in your thousands of hours of practice, even more hours studying film, you can take your own trips overseas to train with the greats, and when you win the world championship -- something only one other American has done in almost 30 years -- you can wonder why you bothered. You can even -- even as a god -- have a moment of doubt and turn to (gasp!) some other, lesser form of toy airplanes, like remote-controlled aircraft.

But if you're Mike Willcox, if you're still known in Europe as "The Scandinavian Killer" because of a famous string of victories over fliers from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, you can't stay away for long. And you soon get back to your hours of practice and your endless film study. And you get ready to head to Spain in July, where you're hoping to become the first American ever to win two world championships.

Willcox, a genial, laid-back kind of guy who recently took a video-production job in Dallas, has always been an absolute stone-cold natural at his specialty. He can barely remember a time when he wasn't flying model airplanes, his commercial-pilot father having turned him on to the hobby at age four. By age seven, he was crushing 15-year-olds in a national meet and taking third place in the junior division.

"By the time I was 14, that's when I started to be big, get well known around the country," he says. "I won some really big contests; the first really big one was out in Seattle, it's called the Bladder Grabber. I think I got, like, an $8,000 stereo or something."

When he was 16, the Academy of Model Aeronautics paid his way over to what was then the USSR so he could study with and play against the best in the world. And that's when the Bladder Grabber champ became hooked in a big way.

"Once I got over there and I saw -- those guys are all professional and they did it for a living and it was kind of neat to think that I was in that category, that I was good enough to compete at that level," he says.

Like the Soviets, the Russians today are able to make a living at the hobby because the best get tabbed to do it as part of their armed-forces service. They generally dominate the sport and have for years. So a 16-year-old going over there and holding his own was like a high school freshman QB showing up Peyton Manning at a Colts training camp.

How does he do it? First you have to understand what the sport involves.

Two pilots step into a 13-foot circle, which they are not allowed to leave. They each have a handle, which is connected by two 52-foot wires to a simple gas-powered plane that costs maybe $40.

The planes each trail an eight-foot streamer made of plastic or crepe paper; the trick is to maneuver your plane during the four-minute match so that your propeller (or perhaps your wing) slices off a bit of the streamer. You get 100 points for each "cut."

You also get points for staying in the air. So when crashes occur -- and they do, often -- you need good mechanics who can run out, get the streamer off the downed plane and attach it quickly to a backup and get that plane in the air.

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