May 7, 2004  




A Bird’s Eye View of SLAC

By Linda DuShane White

Steve Williams (RD) loves to fly planes. In recent years, he has used his radio controlled plane to take spectacular photographs of the coast and of the SLAC site. Williams is active in the Peninsula Aeromodelers, a club with a runway located next to the ocean in Half Moon Bay.

An aerial photo of SLAC taken from the remote controlled plane. (Photo by Steve Williams)

Williams’ enthusiasm is catching. “I first got interested in radio controlled planes back in 1967 when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. I used to fly a little airplane with a one-button radio in Tilden Park. Later on in the ‘70’s I built a Heathkit and I flew it for many years down at Redwood Shores.” His current plane is called an ARF or ‘almost ready to fly’. The kit is quick and easier than designing your own.

Aerial photography came around recently due to the availability of small, light weight high quality cameras. In the 1970’s heavy 35 mm cameras or instamatics were problematic because they didn’t have autowind and could only take one picture at a time. The advent of lightweight digital cameras introduced the possibility of using the radio controlled airplane for something useful since you can now take one picture every three seconds continuously for 12 minutes.

Williams’ largest plane has a seven foot wingspan, a brushless electric motor, nickel metal hydride battery 3AH (ampere hours) and 19 volts. It uses an electronic shutter between the radio receiver and the camera. “I bought it just for the purpose of flying high. It is a very gentle large flyer that can be seen from far away with its bright colors.” He needs to be able to see the plane when it gets up high enough (~1,500 feet) to get dramatic shots, and this one is easy to see. A Sony U30 4.5 ounce, 2 megapixel camera that stores about 250 pictures was installed in the plane.

Williams uses his photographs as way of sharing SLAC with others. “It occurred to me that SLAC as a facility was pretty interesting. The pictures make a good way to communicate with people, to let them know what SLAC is all about.”

Williams also owns several smaller electric-powered planes mainly to fly aerobatics: rolls, loops and snaps. Picture miniature Blue Angels, unmanned and navigated by radio! His collection has a few park flyers, including one that looks like a ladybug. “I used to fly alcohol-powered engines planes,” says Williams. “They are banned in many parks and ballfields because of the loud noise they make and they are messy because of the castor oil in the fuel.”

Although they have a lot of power and fly quite well, Williams has sold his nitro-alcohol engines since electric planes have virtually the same performance without the mess and noise. “The advent of brushless electric motors and excellent high-capacity batteries that were developed for cell phones can power a plane for a long time, 10 or 20 minutes.”

Williams came to SLAC in 1966 while working on his thesis for Berkeley. In 1969 he returned as a PostDoc, and has been at SLAC for a total of 34 years. He was away for four years for two separate forays. He went off to work in a medical research environment and found doctors got all the credit. He went off to industry and found out the financial people got all the credit there. “I’m glad SLAC keeps hiring me back. I came back to SLAC in 1988. SLAC is for physicists and that’s where I want to be. It’s run by physicists for physicists. I’m not leaving again.”

For more aerial views, see the Picture Gallery:



The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Tuesday May 04, 2004 by Emily Ball