The first time that I flew an RC plane at night, it was illuminated by a few chemical glow sticks that had been hastily taped in place. Unsure of success, I used an old model that wouldn't be missed if things went badly. It was a seat-of-the-pants, half-baked experiment by any measure. Looking back on that experience, it's hard to believe that the soft light of the glow sticks was adequate for me to see the model very well. Yet, the concept was sufficiently proven, and so began my still-active interest in night flying.
These days, modelers can choose from a variety of very bright off-the-shelf lighting systems to illuminate their favorite airplane. There are also several Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) models with factory-installed lighting systems. Today, we'll take a look at some of the choices that are available for a moonlight stroll around the flying field.
My use of glow sticks was limited to just a few experimental flights. I soon moved to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to brighten my night flyers. LEDs are ideal because they are adequately bright, very efficient, and they are available in a wide variety of colors. My initial experiences with LEDs required that I pair each diode with a resistor to establish the desired amperage. Setting up a simple model with a couple dozen LEDs required a little Ohm's Law and a lot of soldering.
Before long, prefabricated strings of LEDs became available. These lights have the LEDs and resistors integrated together on a flexible strip with an adhesive backing. You just snip off the length of light strip that you want and attach a 12-volt DC power source. LED strips are not an RC-specific product. They have been embraced by the DIY crowd for custom PC cases, car accents, home theater lighting, and many other applications.
While they are not the only lighting option available, LED light strips make the task of creating a night flyer a real no-brainer. Many electric-powered airplane models use a 3-cell Lithium-Polymer battery, which has 12.6 volts at full charge. It is a simple matter to tap into this battery to also power the lights.