Top of the World
Daniel Kramer

Top of the World

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.


Mike Willcox

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.

But that bare-bones description hides a world of subtleties. A pilot can "feed the streamer" to an opponent -- trick him early in the match into cutting off your entire streamer, then spend the rest of your time methodically cutting his at 100 points a slice. At which point the opponent has little choice but to ram you and make you crash -- but he has to do it so it looks like an accident, because doing it on purpose will get him disqualified.

There's also an intricate physical battle going on within the circle, as the helmeted pilots lean over and into each other, trying to maintain control of their planes. It can look at times like a polite square dance, at other times like an intense battle under the boards at an NBA playoff game.

"There's a circle marshal out there whose job it is to keep you from getting overzealous, but there's still a lot of muscle going on," says Laird Jackson, a longtime flier and event judge who's an OB-GYN professor at Philadelphia's Drexel University.

Winning or losing can sometimes be a matter of luck, sometimes a matter of careless engine preparation, sometimes a bad call from one of the judges.

But Mike Willcox mostly wins, and he mostly wins because he's obsessed with the sport when it comes to preparation and he's a Zen master of it during the intense four minutes of a match.

"To be like okay, or upper-middle in the sport, it's mostly going to be about the physical skills, how you're going to control the airplane," says Mark Rudner, an MIT grad student who's flown with Willcox for almost 20 years. "But then to really be good, like his level, you really have to have your head in the game...There's a lot of mental stuff going on."

As the planes buzz around the circle, feinting, soaring or swooping, Willcox is calculating something every second. "What Mike will do is he'll come and put a move on you, and if you do the same thing twice to get away from that move, he knows where you're gonna be if he does it again," Jackson says.

"Stuff happens in a split second and I'm able to analyze it and interpret what's going on there and counteract it extremely quick," Willcox says.

Some of it is a physical gift: "Because my reflexes are really fast, I fly probably the quickest airplane out of anyone in this country, so I can sit there and make maneuvers that other guys can't do because they just don't have fast enough hand-eye coordination," he says.

But a lot of his success comes not from natural skill but from the hours he puts in practicing, studying video and visiting the world's best fliers.

"I know a few talented pilots but they can't get good results because they don't like working," says pilot Alex Prokoviev, e-mailing from Moscow. "Mike was the first and only American to come to Russia for many years for special training and maybe this helps with his results, but overall it has to do with his high level of dedication."

Tom Skinner, a college student from Ohio, found out what that level of dedication was. As a high school graduation gift, his parents flew him to Kingwood for a weeklong "boot camp" of instruction from Willcox. (Says Skinner: "[Mike] was like, 'Holy cow, you're really coming?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, this is a lifetime chance here -- get a week with the world champ for free? I mean, come on.' ")

Before Skinner came down, Willcox sent him tapes from his extensive collection. He also told Skinner to have someone tape him so he could analyze him for flaws and give him tips on what to improve before heading down to Texas. And then it was a week of flying during the day and watching tapes at night.

Willcox says he takes pains not to be "obsessed" with his hobby. He doesn't fly practice flights all the time; just in the six-week period leading up to a big meet. At that time, sure, he'll fly a couple of hours each night and six hours on the weekend "just to get dialed in," but he says he keeps it in perspective.

"I can't say I figure I spend too much time doing it," he says. "I guess I figure as long as I'm single I could spend more time doing it, and spend as much [money traveling] as I could, and then if I got married down the road, priorities would change."

(And if you're out there saying, "Not much chance of that happening as long as you're flying toy airplanes," be assured Willcox has a steady girlfriend.)

He's good at what he does because he spends a lot of time on it, and he spends a lot of time on it because he's good at it, and therefore enjoys doing it. Simple as that, to him.

Some guys his age spend their off-hours endlessly playing online poker, fantasy football or getting carpal-tunnel from their Xboxes. Willcox sees his hobby as no different, except that it's a bit analog in this digital age.

Willcox has long been considered one of the best pilots in America, but when it comes to winning a world championship -- well, the Jamaican bobsledders were the best bobsledders in their country, but it didn't get them very far at the Olympics.

Since the formal control-line World Championships were begun in 1978, only one American has won, and that was back in 1982. That flyer, Tom Fluker, and Willcox are the only Americans to ever finish even in the top three at the event.

After poor performances in the Ukraine in 1998 and France in 2000, Willcox wasn't overly confident as he prepared for the 2002 event in the eastern German city of Sebnitz. "You have to realize you can go out there and the worst guy can beat you if you don't handle the situation right," he says.

But it was in Sebnitz -- with some pilots camping out on the fields like it was a toy-airplane Woodstock -- that he made his mark.

It was the biggest event ever: 86 pilots from 27 different countries. "A friend of mine was on the team and it was his first time to go to one of these things, and he was like 'Holy cow, is this normal?' and I said, 'No, I've never been to one this big. Whoever wins this sucker has to be one heckuva pilot.' "

He sailed through the first few rounds, earning his "Scandinavian Killer" name, and ended up in the finals against the best Russian pilot, Boris Faisov, and a Ukrainian known only as Vesych. (His first name's Valdimir, but using that is apparently not ominous enough.)

You want to get control-line pilots mumbling about dirty tricks, just mention Ukrainians. And Vesych added to their reputation in his match against Willcox.

"I was able to pull one off on him and make him take my whole streamer, I mean right off the bat, and that's like death," he says. "And so I leveled off, to just get some time and regroup and not do anything stupid -- it's kind of a game to let him think about the mistake he's just made. Well, he flew over and hit me, knocked my airplane out of the air...He tried to do it really fast so that maybe the judges wouldn't see it, but he wasn't fast enough and it was extremely obvious. It's an extremely dirty tactic."

That disqualified the wily Vesych and gave the match to Willcox. Now Willcox entered the finals against Faisov, needing to win only one match in the double-elimination tournament, while Faisov needed to beat him twice in a row.

Going up against Faisov for the world championship had special meaning for Willcox. "He's one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet," he says. "That guy, I try to model myself after him. He's one of the best sports -- a lot of the Russian pilots tend to be pretty dirty, but this guy is actually really clean, and it's amazing that he does as well as he does flying with such a clean strategy. Which I like -- I wouldn't want to be really good but known as a dirty flier."

Willcox had met Faisov as a teenager, when the older Russian -- already a star -- had been generous with his time and gave him a few tips.

So there he was, needing only one victory to realize a lifelong dream, flying a pilot he respected, knowing he was going to get a clean match.

And what happened? "I flew like crap in that match," he says. "The wheels came off."

He had flown too defensively, said his mechanics and his teammates, American pilots flying other events. He had 30 minutes to get his head together for the winner-take-all final four-minute round.

"I don't usually get nervous, but I definitely was nervous that day. I had some butterflies going on," he says.

Willcox got a cut on Faisov almost immediately, and then tricked the Russian into taking his whole streamer. Faisov tried to get the lines tangled so that Willcox would crash, but instead his plane plowed into the ground. By the time 90 seconds were gone, it was obvious that if Willcox could just avoid some truly embarrassing mistake, he would take home the gold.

"So then you have a couple of minutes there flying, thinking about everything that can go wrong," he says.

The four minutes finally ended, and Mike Willcox was champion of the world.

"It was definitely a tremendous feeling, it was the best experience in my whole life, it was a dream since I was a little kid to do that," he says. "And then to actually be there, to have that opportunity and to actually do it against the guy who's kinda my hero in the hobby, it was great."

He received his gold medal at a huge banquet that night, standing tall on the podium as the "Star-Spangled Banner" played. "It was supercool," he says. "Then I came home and they had a huge party for me."

And then...he learned just how little it all meant.

The AMA (the Academy of Model Aeronautics) -- the same group that had at one point paid for Willcox to study in Russia -- no longer cared much about control-line combat.

They wouldn't even put him on the cover of their magazine, Model Aviation.

"Some of the writers wanted to put my picture on the magazine, and they said, 'No, it's not that important,' '' he says. "And I was like -- man, you talk about being mad, I mean, they take a picture of some guy's workshop, and it's some theme to the magazine that month but there's nothing 'important' to it."

The AMA, he says, is now more interested in "sport fliers," folks who get remote-controlled planes at the store and fly them in parks (after buying the necessary insurance from the AMA).

"That's cool, and it's kind of a window and gets us some exposure for our hobby, but those pilots, as fast as they come in they go out because they don't get sucked in by the competition and everything," he says.

Eventually enough control-line fans complained that Willcox got a thumbnail photo on a cover.

"It was pretty disappointing, to be honest, to do all that work and everything" and have to fight for recognition, he says.

"The frustrating thing is that the Russian guy I won against, if he'd have won he would have been paid by his government the equivalent of $40,000," he says. "And here's little old Mike, we can't even put his picture on the cover. Over there, they're on magazines, on TV and doing it for a living and stuff. Here it is, I did this big old feat, and our organization, they didn't really want to recognize it."

(The AMA's marketing department isn't very helpful about all this. Call them, even merely for a list of all contest winners, and nothing happens; eventually they stop returning calls.)

It all left a bitter taste. "I thought I would give back to the hobby, try to work with the organization to help promote it, and it was like talking to deaf ears. The more I talked the more angry I got...They weren't interested in the competition end of the hobby, and they actually preferred less people to go to the competitions because then there was less chance of some spectator getting injured and the insurance for the organization going up," he says.

And so...he gave up control-line flying in favor of remote-control. "I thought 'That looks like fun,' and I decided to give it a shot. So I spent a lot of time the next two years flying r/c, maybe more than I should have," he says.

While this wasn't exactly a dark-night-of-the-soul descent into coke and hookers, in the control-line world it might have been the equivalent of Meryl Streep giving up dramas for porn. And it worked as well as Michael Jordan's stint in baseball. When it came time to defend his championship in 2004 -- in America, no less, at AMA headquarters in Muncie, Indiana -- Willcox had to settle for fifth place.

"I had a rematch against the guy I beat at the world championships, and I just made a mistake and he beat me, is what it came down to. He just flat-out beat me," he says.

Was it all just a result of a letdown after finally winning the title? "Maybe so...When I was there it was like I had it, I wasn't sure what to do -- for the past 16 or more years all I wanted to do was to be the world champion and then I was the world champion. It was like, 'Okay, now, what do I do now? I have to set new goals,' " he says.

The loss at Muncie was a wake-up call. No longer is he flirting with remote-control or wondering what his purpose is in life (at least the hobby part of his life). His purpose is to win another world championship, doing something no American has ever done.

The doubt and the disappointment are gone, and the Scandinavian Killer is back.

"I'm extremely fired up again...I'm hungry again and I'm like, 'Okay, let's go see if we can do it again,' " he says.

He'll get his chance July 17 in the historic Spanish city of Valladolid, a couple of hours northwest of Madrid.

"I feel really good, I have a lot of experience, and I've been flying well," he says. "I've been back to Russia once and the Ukraine once since the [2004] world championships, and I've won two world cups...It was like, 'Hey, I'm not the world champion anymore, do I still have what it takes?' So I went over to the world cup and won a pretty big one."

The world cup trips helped him remember why he got hooked on the sport in the first place. "It's cool -- the level that I'm at, those guys have such an appreciation for it and it's fun to be able to go over and compete at that level. There's two reasons: One is the travel, it's nice to go see a different country and all that, and the other thing is the competitions and the friends and that side of it."

And that's what he tried to make sure his girlfriend understood about him. "She has her hobbies, like racing ten-speed bikes," he says. "I said, 'The important thing to me is you don't have to like my hobby, but at least understand it and respect it and appreciate it because it's made me what I am today.' I have friends all around the world, I'm in the television-production business because of it, and it's been my life."

Friends all over the world, celebrity status, excelling in a chosen pursuit -- what's not to like? Why isn't that worth endless hours of practice, five days a week of lifting weights and running, and perpetual reviewing of videos?

The answer is clear to Mike Willcox. And that's why he couldn't care less if you think toy planes are geeky. You're not the one getting the free trip to Spain, where you're going to be treated like a celebrity.

So sneer away if you must. Or maybe you should wait until you become world champion of something.


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