This article appears in the June issue of 400 Life.
Cliff Whitney has always been a fan of stuff that flies.
The longtime Forsyth County resident first learned to fly control-line model airplanes as a kid. A story in his dad’s Popular Mechanics magazine inspired Whitney to get his sailplane pilot’s license at 14. He went on to get his licenses to fly gliders and then regular airplanes. Throughout a successful 23-year career at Wolf Camera, the former Atlanta-based photo empire, Whitney stayed active in the aviation field, even running a hang gliding shop in Tennessee called Sequatchie Valley Soaring Supply.
When Wolf Camera went bankrupt, Whitney lost his job in 2001, but he quickly developed a knack for selling model airplanes out of the hangar at his home on Stoney Point Airfield in Forsyth County. Eventually, the business grew so big he needed more space.
Enter Atlanta Hobby.
Whitney’s hobby shop has morphed over the years as the industry has changed, from emphasizing electric model airplanes and later to recreational drones.
Today, Whitney’s business is still a go-to source for model airplanes, boats, cars and more, but it also focuses on commercial drones, offering customers a one-stop shop to purchase equipment, learn how to use it, get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and also provide technical support.
Some of the biggest players in media have come to Atlanta Hobby to outfit their organizations with drones: Fox News, ABC, National Geographic, Tyler Perry Studios.
“This is not a typical hobby shop,” Whitney said.
How did you meet Tyler Perry?
He came in here, and I didn’t know who he was, so I treated him like everybody else. I walked around with him for awhile and then I left him alone. He just started piling stuff on the counter — a lot of stuff.
When he left, everybody was standing around with their eyes about this big. They said, ‘Do you know who that was?’ I said, ‘No, but he had a lot of money.’ They said, ‘That’s Tyler Perry!’ So that’s how I met Tyler Perry.
Where’s your favorite vacation spot?
Lake Tahoe. It’s the most spectacular place that I have repeatedly visited.
Probably the most scenic place was a motorcycle trip with my son from San Francisco up to Oregon along the coast. You can get so absorbed in it because every single turn is breathtakingly spectacular, and you look down and you’ve driven 300 miles.
What’s your favorite kind of food?
We go to Rick Tanner’s Grille & Bar a lot. Rick’s a good friend of ours. One of my model airplanes is hanging in his restaurant.
What’s your favorite genre of music?
I am a prog rock fan — Yes, Pink Floyd. We would travel anywhere in the world to see Pink Floyd or Yes concerts.
How do you unwind from a busy day at the business?
A couple ways. One, we’ll sit out of the hangar [at Stoney Point Airfield] and watch the sunset. We’re very blessed to be in a beautiful place to live. Or two, if it’s a nice evening, I’ll go fly the airplane. It’s called a Citabria.
Where did you get your interest in the hobby industry?
My dad was into model airplanes as a kid. His dad taught him. My dad was a prolific builder. He could build anything from anything. He also wanted to dabble in general aviation. He built a gyrocopter when I was 15.
How are hobbies still relevant to today’s younger generations?
If you look at how our industry effects other industries, it’s very powerful. I just saw the movie “Apollo 11.” Neil Armstrong learned to fly model airplanes, as did Buzz Aldrin. It teaches you how to build, how to use glues, about different materials.
And then the electronic side of it. I learned computer programming. What a powerful thing to learn computer code. And all of the racers that the kids really like, they have to programs those things. But they’ve built a skill set at that point.
I really like turning kids on to aircraft. I like giving them their first rides in a real airplane.