FORT WAYNE — IPFW engineering student Joe Smith rode in his first passenger plane just before winter break at the age of 18.
He flew his first plane at the age of 14. But the planes Smith flies are radio controlled, and he’s pretty good at it. At least, the crown prince of Dubai thinks so.
Dubai was where Smith was headed on his first plane ride after the prince of the large city in the United Arab Emirates saw a video of Smith and extended an invitation to him to fly during a large event. He spent two weeks there with his father on an all-expense-paid trip in November.
Even though Smith doesn’t think he can turn his hobby into a career, it’s working out well for him now. He’s making extra money for college and getting opportunities like traveling to Dubai.
Smith said that as a teenager, he was involved in a model engine club in New Haven with his dad. When Smith was about 14, he persuaded his dad to get out the model planes his dad had flown 20 years earlier. Just a year later, Smith flew a radio-controlled plane in a contest and took first place.
“That really put me on the board,” he said.
At 18, Smith is still at it. He’s won that same contest three times and secured sponsorships from 18 companies to test and help design new products and gadgets.
For a contest, Smith performs a choreographed routine set to four or five songs. Judges look for a variety of maneuvers and how well they sync with the music.
About a year ago, Smith submitted a video of a performance for another contest. He was chosen as one of the top two fliers, landing him a performance demonstration in South Carolina.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, known to Smith simply as Hamdan, also saw Smith’s video performance. Hamdan, the crown prince of Dubai, emailed Smith to invite him to Dubai for a performance.
“I thought it was some spam, so I didn’t reply,” Smith said of his initial thoughts on the email.
Hamdan sent another email a week later and told Smith he would pay for him to build a plane and for it to be shipped to Dubai. The next day, a $5,000 deposit was made into Smith’s PayPal account, an online payment service for individuals and companies. The deposit changed Smith’s mind.
“I figured if it was a scam he was getting the bad end of the deal,” Smith said.
Hamdan also invited Smith and a guest for a two-week stay in Dubai during the World Parachuting Championships, where Smith would fly the plane he built for contestants and spectators. Smith said Hamdan went to great lengths to ensure the event was the best it could be in the hopes of hosting it in Dubai again next year.
Three weeks later, the plane Smith built was tested and shipped to Dubai, along with accompanying equipment required to fly the plane. And at the end of November, Smith and his dad boarded a plane for a 15-hour flight headed for Dubai.
While there, Smith said he had “a lot of new experiences,” including having his own personal driver. He said traveling to the Middle East wasn’t as much of a culture shock as he expected. Everyone spoke English, and people were incredibly welcoming, he said.
Smith flew the plane he built for the occasion during downtime in the drop zone where parachutists land. He said the size of the area made him a little nervous.
Usually, for the size of the plane he was flying he would have a large area with half a mile of open space in all directions. In Dubai, he flew his plane in an area about the size of a football field, with people surrounding the area.
“But there were no problems. All the equipment worked properly,” he said. “They loved it.”
Sometimes when Smith tells people about his flying hobby, he gets weird looks. He said most people envision a small plane made out of foam from a large chain retailer.
“Throughout high school, (I got) that weird reaction like, that’s kind of lame,” he said. “But then I show people videos and that changes people’s reaction to what I do.”
And some of Smith’s classmates may not even know that this hobby took him to the Middle East.
Although Smith calls it a hobby, he said when he’s not in school and the weather is conducive to flying – little wind and no precipitation – he’s out at his grandparent’s house in Churubusco flying or working on his planes or upcoming performances.
Currently, Smith is preparing for a big contest in Muncie in July but is still in the early stages of choosing the music he will use to fly. He said he will work on his performance for several months leading up to a contest.
And through his sponsorships, he also has the opportunity to test products and electronic equipment used to fly the planes.
Smith said he’s not sure what field he will pursue with a degree in electrical engineering, or whether it will be related at all to flying or radio-controlled devices.
“It’s not a hobby you can make enough money on,” he said. “Flying right now, it’s just paying for college. And a car.”