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How to Get Into Hobby RC: Taking Off with Airplanes

By Terry Dunn

The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not.

Previous installments of this series have covered tips for getting started with RC quadrotors, cars and boats. While those are all fun RC vehicles (and there is more to come regarding each of them), my greatest enthusiasm for RC revolves around airplanes. The reasons for this are difficult to pin down. I suppose I was born with an incurable fascination for flying things. Aeromodeling has always provided an avenue for hands-on exploration of that interest on a practical and affordable scale.

The Delta Ray’s SAFE stabilization system does indeed make the airplane very easy to fly…even for beginners. It does not, however, remove all crash risks.

In a more cerebral sense, creating RC airplanes simultaneously feeds my cravings for scientific and artistic stimulation. On top of all that is the excitement and challenge of actually flying these widely varied machines. I don’t expect that all RC enthusiasts share my depth of interest and satisfaction in the hobby, and that’s OK. It’s an activity that you can simply mingle in if you choose. There are, however, a few initial summits that you must climb in order to get started at a practical level.

Choosing the Right Path

The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not.

The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not. Even pilots of full-scale aircraft often lack all of the key skills to be RC flyers. There are countless stories of a father and son bringing their new RC plane to the park the day after Christmas. They arrive full of excitement, perhaps fueled by Snoopy-like dreams of vanquishing the Red Baron. More often than not, those dreams end up in the same garbage bag as their short-lived model aircraft. It’s a shame to hear these stories because a little guidance on the front end can often make the difference between disgruntled one-timers and enthusiastic rookies.

In my opinion, making a successful first flight in this hobby requires three basic things:

1. A rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics

2. An airworthy model suitable for beginners

3. Basic piloting skills

There are many ways to attain this triad. Some roads are worn, while others are less-travelled. I will attempt to explain a few of these approaches and you can choose the path that suits you.

Bernoulli Who? Model Airplanes 101

When I suggest a quick study of aerodynamics, I am really only referring to learning the science at its most fundamental level. My rationale for this is two-fold. First of all, such knowledge will help you to understand the conditions necessary for your airplane to begin, remain, and cease flying. Knowing these requirements is the first step to attaining the skills you will need to make your aircraft succumb to your will.

The other reason for having a basic understanding of aerodynamics is so that you can competently inspect your model for airworthiness before each flight. Simply knowing which way the control surfaces are supposed to move in response to your inputs is a crucial factor. Countless airplanes have been reduced to kindling due to reversed controls on just one of the surfaces.

While I urge you to absorb the basics of aerodynamics, I will also warn you to realize that RC models and full-scale aircraft do not play by the exact same set of rules.

While I urge you to absorb the basics of aerodynamics, I will also warn you to realize that RC models and full-scale aircraft do not play by the exact same set of rules. RC aircraft are surprisingly tolerant of all sorts of aerodynamic atrocities that would leave a Cessna or Boeing stuck to the runway. For example, my favorite RC parlor trick is to fly one of my airplanes with the wing installed backwards! Of course, that specific ability is not universal, but you get a sense of the wiggle room involved. At the same time, a handful of aspects are critical to RC airplanes. Once of these aspects is the balance point of the model (commonly called “Center of Gravity” or “CG”). Something as simple as relocating the airplane’s battery a few inches aft could render a previously tame airplane unflyable. Learning the difference between the critical factors and the loose ones will help you focus your efforts and court success.

There are numerous books and websites devoted to teaching the aerodynamic fundamentals specific to RC airplanes. I think any of them could be a great resource to have for a RC newbie (or vet), yet all of them delve much, much deeper than necessary just to begin flying. Perhaps the best initial source of data is the manual that will come with your first model. Most manuals (especially those for beginner-oriented models) should include critical data such as control surface movements and CG. Increasingly, these manuals also provide hints and tips for your first flights, some of which may be specific to your airplane. Be sure to read it cover to cover and absorb any jewels of wisdom that it offers.

The Right Tool for the Job

Many aspiring RC pilots begin the hobby with aspirations of flying their own downsized P-51 or SR-71. It often comes as a disappointment to them when they learn that, with few exceptions, such racy models are totally inappropriate for novices. What beginning pilots need are slow and docile designs that give them time to think about their control inputs before the airplane smacks the ground. Over time, those movements will become automatic and allow you to graduate to the speedier and/or more aerobatic designs you may crave.

Many aspiring RC flyers believe that they can start off flying powerful fighters like this large P-47 Thunderbolt, but it takes some training and experience to reach this level.

Historically speaking, RC trainer aircraft are boxy, non-descript machines. Their primary charm lies in their stability and ease of flight. Trust me, once you take the controls, your excitement will overshadow any aversion you may have to the model’s aesthetics. With that being said, it is worth mentioning that some manufacturers have recently made attempts to introduce more visually appealing trainers. This may be done through clever design attributes or artificial stabilization systems. Either approach is valid, so your choices are numerous…perhaps overwhelming.

Unfortunately, many RC models that are marketed as trainers are wholly unsuited for the job. Some are decent models that are only appropriate for experienced pilots. Others are B-grade junk that should be avoided by modelers of any skill level. Ebay teems with examples of both, as well as some of the good stuff. But how is a neophyte RC buyer supposed to know the difference? I think the best way to see through the haze is to avoid Ebay and visit a local hobby shop. They have the knowledge to steer you towards the things you need. Local prices are quite often as good as when ordering from US-based online retailers. You also get the added benefits of receiving one-on-one advice and the warm fuzzy that comes from supporting a local small business. Some hobby shops even offer used equipment at a significant price break.

This Great Planes Avistar Elite represents a modern interpretation of RC trainer designs that have been around for decades. The formula still works, although other philosophies are emerging.

Depending on the set-up you choose, expect to spend anywhere from $150 to $500 on an airplane and the necessary accessories. The more expensive stuff doesn’t necessarily do a better job of teaching you to fly. Quite often, the price difference is reflected in equipment such as the radio system. The more expensive versions will typically include feature-rich radios that can be used when you graduate to higher performance and more complex models. The equipment you get on the low side of the price bracket may be of limited use once you tire of the trainer (if that ever actually happens).

Leaving the Nest

You may have been surprised when I suggested that you have flying skills before you actually fly. That seemingly impossible goal is made plausible with computer-based RC simulators. I can’t overstate the value of simulators in clearing the initial hurdles of learning RC piloting. Sims are not just a resource for new pilots either. They remain an indispensible training tool even for accomplished flyers who compete at the highest levels. I’ve yet to meet a sim owner who didn’t feel that it improved their skills drastically while also saving them countless dollars in airplanes that would have likely been crashed while learning those same skills at the field.

As a rookie, the main benefits that you will glean from using a simulator are learning to deal with the ever changing orientation of a flying model, as well as getting a feel for the subtle movements required to fly it smoothly. Knowing that your actual airplane is not at risk eliminates any anxiety that could impede the learning process. Furthermore, a simulator allows you to log practice flights no matter the time or weather conditions. With so many benefits, there really isn’t a question of whether or not to buy a simulator. The only question to ask is “Which simulator should I get?” I use RealFlight. Several others are available at a wide range of price points.

Going Solo

Until just a few years ago, it was commonly accepted that anyone who wanted to learn to fly RC airplanes needed some sort of personal instruction. Even with my three aforementioned prerequisites being in place, having a calm, experienced hand at your side can make the difference between your first flight ending with high-5s or condolences. An instructor may only need to talk you through the steps from takeoff to landing. More likely, they’ll assume command a time or two and avert an imminent crash.

Having a capable mentor to guide you through the first steps is the best way to learn to fly RC. Even expert pilots like Les Morrow (left) and John Johnson realize the value of having an extra set of eyes and a competent co-pilot when they are on the flightline.

Recent advancements have caused some modelers to depart from that traditional “instructor required” mindset. They feel that the new breed of super-resilient foam airplanes and/or flight stabilization systems can effectively replace the services of an instructor. The assumptions in that thinking are that the foamie airframe could absorb the inevitable crashes of a ham-fisted rookie, and a stabilization unit would help prevent crashes in the first place. My experience suggests that the basic premise has some merit. I’ve flown (and crashed) tons of foamies, and I’ve used a variety of electronic stabilizers; I’ve just never done either with an eye towards flight training for rookies…until now.

Testing the Delta Ray

The HobbyZone Delta Ray is one of those trainer models with claims that you can teach yourself to fly. It utilizes both foam construction and a stabilization system. For about $180, the RTF (Ready-to-Fly) version includes everything you need to get started. This includes the airplane, a 2.4GHz radio system, a LiPo battery and a charger. Most of the airplane is assembled at the factory. All that remains for you is to tape some of the airframe components in place. It should take less than an hour to get it ready for flight. You should, however, devote more time since you will be reading the entire manual first…right? Don’t fret. It’s only twelve pages of information.

The HobbyZone Delta Ray utilizes tough foam construction and a built-in flight stabilizer to make it a beginner-friendly airplane in spite of its swoopy, futuristic looks.

All foams are not created equal. Some are brittle and/or react to paints and glues. Many RC manufacturers now use a version of Expanded Polypropylene (EPP), which overcomes both of those problems. The specific variant of EPP used on the Delta Ray is called Z-Foam.

Based on my previous history of abusive behavior with other Z-Foam airplanes, I didn’t feel terribly compelled to intentionally thrash-test the Delta Ray. I know this stuff is tough. Moderate impacts usually cause nothing worse than scuffs or wrinkles in the surface. Breaks and cracks can be quickly repaired with cyanoacrylate adhesive (“super glue” or “CA” in hobby-talk). Sometimes you can even massage deformed Z-Foam parts back into shape with a little hot water.

The stabilization system built into the Delta Ray is called SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope). It provides three flight modes (beginner, intermediate, experienced) that are selectable via a toggle switch on the transmitter. In beginner mode, SAFE limits the airplane’s maximum bank angle (roll axis) in a turn and also prevents the nose from being commanded too much up or down (pitch axis). These limits help keep the pilot from getting into a situation that could require assistance.

Intermediate mode gives the pilot a little more freedom in pitch and roll, while still keeping the leash attached. Experienced mode removes all limits and allows you to fly to the extent of the airplane’s ability (which is surprisingly broad). There is also a panic mode button on the transmitter that will return the airplane to straight and level flight no matter what flight mode you are using.

This view of the Delta Ray’s included radio transmitter shows the 3-position toggle switch that controls the flight mode as well as the panic mode button used for escaping sticky situations.

In my experience flying the Delta Ray, it performed exactly as advertised. In beginner mode, it will take off by itself when you add throttle and the wings stay level until you command it to turn. The SAFE system makes constant corrections that make it seem as if the airplane is impervious to outside forces. When the time does come to turn the Delta Ray, it requires significant movement on the control sticks to do so. As an experienced flyer used to much more delicate movements, I initially found this unsettling. However, I can see the benefit for flyers who have not yet refined their technique.

Moving into intermediate mode had the expected results of more controllability as well as increased sensitivity to control inputs. The airplane was still quite tame by most standards. I then switched to experienced mode to see what the Delta Ray could do. I was surprised to be able to perform a variety of aerobatics including rolls, loops, and inverted flight. I had fun with it.

Using experienced mode allowed me to intentionally put the airplane into some precarious situations and see how the panic button would handle them. No matter what attitude the Delta Ray was in initially, the panic button instantly hauled it into straight and level flight. I also tried the manual’s suggested “easy landing” by shutting down the motors and holding the panic button. Those landings were bouncy, but damage-free.

If you get in a pinch, the Delta Ray can even land itself without damage.

The Upshot

If you insist on learning to fly by yourself, whether due to pride, antisocial tendencies, or a lack of local help, the Delta Ray has convinced me that it can be done. I am equally convinced, however, that your learning experience will be shorter and less bumpy if you do get help. I have several reasons for this opinion.

While the SAFE stabilization system makes the Delta Ray exceptionally easy to fly, it is not an all-encompassing safety net. When my son was flying the model, he became disoriented during a turn and engaged the panic button. The airplane responded as expected, but it was now headed directly for the parking lot! I had to take over quickly and change course to prevent a potentially expensive mishap.

If you simply must do it alone, perseverance and a tough, stabilized airplane like the Delta Ray offer you the best shot at earning your RC wings.

Furthermore, I found that flying in beginner and intermediate modes masked a trim issue with the model. When I switched to experienced mode, it constantly wanted to roll to the right, even with the transmitter’s roll trim maxed-out. I had to change the length of the physical control linkage to correct it. It was a simple field fix that took only a few seconds to execute. Even so, I was left wondering if the same issue would have left a rookie scratching his head above a crashed airplane.

My advice is to get help if you can. Once again, a local hobby shop can usually point you in the right direction, probably towards a local RC club. If you simply must do it alone, perseverance and a tough, stabilized airplane like the Delta Ray offer you the best shot at earning your RC wings.

In future articles, I will explore some of the many facets of RC flying and the hobby’s incredible potential for artistry and creativity. Post your questions and comments below!