Chad Kapper is most often the man behind the camera. For years, he has worked hard to create quality YouTube content with Flite Test and Rotor Riot, which have informed and inspired whole new generations of RC enthusiasts, myself included. He’s helped build remote controlled and autonomous flying devices of literally every shape, size, color, and capability.
The RC community wouldn’t be where it is today without him, nor would the FPV and drone racing communities.
A young Chad building his first Quadcopter, circa 2010, from an unreleased video.
All Images courtesy of Chad Kapper / StoneCap Productions
Over the years, things have escalated. For his latest project with Rotor Riot, he managed to organize a road trip for some of the best FPV pilots in the world to fly within the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor. The result is a video with a new perspective on a city lost in time and on a human-made disaster that shaped world history.
Mr. Kapper was gracious enough to correspond over the course of many emails to answer my questions.
AAC: Which kind of craft do you like to fly the most?
CK: I can enjoy flying anything, but I’m really into mini quads right now. I really enjoy DJI products, also. When I wanna get the shot… give me a Phantom 4!
AAC: Favorite servo connector type?
CK: In my opinion, Futaba makes superior radio systems with bad interfaces and stupid little nubs on the side of their servo wire to make them idiot-proof. This makes them difficult to work with other manufacturers' gear that doesn’t make way for the stupid little thing! So as far as servo wire, it’s JR for me!
AAC: Where's the most astonishing place you've flown?
CK: I think it’s quite obviously Chernobyl. There’s nothing I love more than venturing to a remote location with a unique culture. I really don’t think there are too many places on earth that rival Chernobyl for uniqueness. Ukraine, in general, was way more interesting than I expected. The educational aspect of travel is the best way to learn, in my opinion. I’d love to visit a ghost city in China or a remote desert oasis next.
Even the wildlife of Chernobyl liked hanging out with Chad
AAC: What's it like organizing a trip to the site of the worst nuclear accident in human history?
CK: It was very surreal. I really enjoy exploring new cultures, but this was even more interesting. It’s a "displaced" culture. Aside from the whole abandoning a new city (Pripyat), the Ukrainian people have been struggling with their identity since the split from Russia. When I would tell people I was going to Chernobyl, they would say “Wow! I’d like to visit Russia sometime.”
It was one of the most amazing and memorable moments in my life. And to experience it with my son, friends, and colleagues was super-special! Standing on top of the building where Tommy crashed a few levels below was where the weight of what happened there hit me like ton of bricks. Walking 20+ flights to the top and emerging above the nature-attacked landscape was impactful, to say the least. To see so many high-rise buildings empty was sobering. No matter what, you can never really feel the experience unless you’re there.
That trip is when I realized what Rotor Riot could become. It revealed a bigger vision… exploring culture through a common hobby. Connecting and making new friends you otherwise would never have known. There are so many amazing, crazy, and sincere people on this earth. What better way to break down walls and connect with people you normally would never meet in a lifetime!
I heard so many scary stories about Ukraine. Everything from evil political agendas, to con men, to drugs… I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t exist. But I know we met a group of about 30 people that love the hobby, love Rotor Riot, and were nothing but kind, humble, and fun-loving. I experienced a great time with really wonderful people. The Ukrainian Association of Drone Racing and their president Oleksii were more helpful than I could have ever imagined!
AAC: The 'Russian woodpecker' was a powerful radio signal that could be heard world-wide on shortwave for years. You've been to the source at Duga-1, stood in its shadow, and talked to the locals. What do you think it was for?
CK: I didn’t know much about Duga, and didn’t really care… until I got there. Wow! this thing was just amazingly huge. But the really impressive part was the small town built behind it. There were a handful of buildings needed in order to run this behemoth! Even though all the copper and anything of value were stripped from this location, there were harnesses and conduits for what must have been hundreds of miles of wire! The number of server racks and room after room that was previously filled with equipment just boggled the mind.
I have no reason to believe Duga-1 was anything more than one half of a transmitter/receiver system for a massive RADAR. I’m fairly certain the site we visited was the transmitter.
AAC: Every project of yours I've seen has been a blend of light-hearted fun and a touch of the spectacular, with a deep technical education about complicated topics. I've never heard you describe yourself as a "STEM educator", but that's what's going on here.
Are there any principles you've developed for how to engage viewers on YouTube while providing the information needed to teach? How do you choose and develop projects that satisfy both sides of what is typically seen as a dilemma?
CK: Education has always been something I was naturally passionate about yet, simultaneously, I loathed most common teaching methods! I struggled to learn like others. I can’t spell worth a damn and it took me forever to memorize my multiplication tables… Hell, I still use my fingers to count and move my lips to read. I gave up becoming an astronaut when I was in 5th grade because I was told I had to have good grades to even be considered. When I was in high school and I got a job at the Disney store, they wouldn’t trust me to run the register because I couldn't remember the proper sequence of buttons to push.
In school, I was not respected and didn’t seem too bright. At home and with my friends, I was the one everyone brought their broken toys to fix. My mom used to bring me little do-dads she would find around the house and I could immediately tell her what it was, what it went to, or how it worked. I was a tinkerer and enjoyed learning on my own. I learned by doing and making mistakes. My problem was I had poor retention but high comprehension. Learning in the 80s was all about remembering. It was painful!
Many people can learn by reading, but almost everyone can learn by “doing”.
As hard as my mother tried, I can’t say I had a good childhood. Movies were my escape. TV was my babysitter. I became a pop-culture junky. I grew up on MTV and late-night horror flicks. We were poor and most of my toys came from garage sales. The two things I did most were: I watched the boob-tube and tinkered with electronics.
I wish I could say that I built Flite Test and Rotor Riot as some secret mission to educate America, but really I just made the shows that I wished existed when I was young. Something that was entertaining and empowering that taught me something without the shame of failure or rotting my brain.
AAC: It seems you have mastered the art of subversive science education. Tell me all your secrets!
CK: The secret? First, let people know you care about them. Second, inspire them to do something, even if they fail. Third, over deliver what you promise.
I am truly passionate about helping people connect, feel valuable, and have fun… but most of all I don’t ever want anyone to feel stupid or ashamed for not being able to learn.
That’s what drives me.
An early, rare, before-the-camera appearance by Chad Kapper with David Windestål, talking Flite Test, the Scientific method, and that time they ran a Space Mission!
AAC: What's your preferred color of loctite?
CK: Whatever color is close to me when I need it. I wish they made orange though!
AAC: Why orange?
CK: Because it’s my favorite color! I wish I had a deeper answer.
"Chad Kapper is someone I respect at all levels as he really makes you want to aspire to be more like him. I'm not talking about being successful in life, but the way he treats it and helps others as he goes about achieving his own goals" - Chad Nowak (Supreme Champion, 2015 Drone Nationals)
AAC: You've been heavily involved with the Maker community for years at all levels—from Flite Fest, Drone Racing, FPV, to publishing free designs for a camera-stabilized quad-copter made from wood! Is there anything you'd like to say?
CK: I want to thank the community for just being there to talk. For their genuine desire to learn from one another and pushing limits! I truly believe this maker/tech/RC community can innovate faster than any organization or company on earth!
AAC: If you could ask for one thing from thousands of engineers and makers, what would it be?
CK: Just stay positive and inclusive.