Beginners Guide


Ground school for new pilots.

With a new generation of slow, very easy to set up and fly models at our fingertips, many new modelers are discovering the joy of radio control (RC). For the newcomer, these smallish, backyard-flyer designs have eliminated the necessity of traveling to a local club's flying field where larger, more complicated RC model airplanes are required to fly. We can now fly at almost any convenient field, whether it is a local baseball diamond, a schoolyard, or a soccer field. If you have a fairly large yard, the fun of RC flying can be right outside your kitchen door! But learning how and where to fly safely requires a bit of knowledge and some new terminology. The following highlights some of the considerations that might not be obvious to the fledgling modeler.

What makes a good trainer? 
If you've never flown an RC model airplane before, you might be tempted to buy one that has a lot of visual appeal, such as a scale model or an advanced sport flyer. Though many of those types of kits are fairly easy to assemble, the models can be very difficult to fly if you have no previous experience. Your first plane should be a good trainer—something to cut your teeth on before moving up the performance ladder. A lot of excellent trainers are available. Here are some basic things to consider when deciding which one is right for you.

The simple truth is that your first—and maybe your second—airplane will be damaged in the course of your learning how to fly. Knowing this, you should look for a trainer that has relatively few parts that can be easily repaired if they are broken. Wood and foam are high on the easy-to-fix list; molded plastic is more difficult to repair. 
Cyanoacrylate (CA) glue, e.g., Crazy Glue and epoxy are the most common adhesives used for gluing wood parts together, and aliphatic resin, Elmer's white glue, is excellent for gluing foam pieces back together.

Parts availability
Sometimes it will be easier to replace damaged parts than to fix them. Try to select a model that has replacement parts readily available from the manufacturer. Some model kits come with extra wings just in case you damage one beyond repair. Parts such as motors, batteries and speed controls get damaged or worn out, so be aware that you can simply replace these parts instead of having to buy a new model.

Some trainers are easier to fly than others. Talk to people who have different kinds of models and find out how stable their models are. A good indicator of how stable and, thus, how easy a model will be to fly is how much wing dihedral it has and how long the tail moment is. If the model has a fair amount of dihedral angle (5 or more degrees) and the tail is fairly long, it will fly more stably and smoothly, and this will make it easier to learn how to control it.

Control setup
Before you buy a model, check its control setup. Some trainers have rudimentary controls that offer only a little control-surface deflection. Others have a more standard primary-control setup that gives you complete rudder, throttle and elevator control. More advanced designs also have aileron control. For your first couple of models, however, primary control is all you'll need.

Accessory equipment
Finally, check to see whether the model you like comes with all the equipment you'll need to fly it. In the long run, it is less expensive to get everything in one package. Your kit should include all the materials needed to completely assemble the model: a motor, a propeller, an ESC, a battery pack and a battery charger. Some of the more complete kits also come with a radio system that includes the transmitter, a receiver, servos and a switch harness that will turn the radio on and off. Starting out with all the equipment you'll need to assemble your model plane is the best way to get airborne.

What's Involved?
To be successful with RC flying, you have to evaluate several elements: the type of model that interests you, the area where you plan to fly and, of course, yourself as the pilot. Let's look at what's involved.

Types of models. Perhaps the most difficult part of the hobby is choosing which airplane to buy. So many planes are available today that it's easy to get confused. Backyard-flyer models fall into three basic groups: builder's kits, where the airplane has to be built; almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) kits that require only a little assembly; and ready-to-fly (RTF) kits that require almost no assembly. A benefit of RTFs is that they are often available as a package deal that includes all the required hardware and radio gear.
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The basic builder's kits are less expensive than ARF or RTF kits but require the additional purchases of model glue, basic tools, covering material and the power system and radio gear. If you enjoy building things and are looking for a project that will last a few weeks, then this is for you. You should be comfortable reading a plan and following instructions. You'll need a designated small work area with a table or workbench; cutting and gluing the pieces that make up an RC model can be a little messy, so it shouldn't be done on the kitchen table.

ARFs are basically kit airplanes that have been partially built and covered for you. The fuselage, the wing halves and the tail surfaces come ready to be joined. After you've glued or bolted the tail surfaces to the fuselage and assembled the wing, you'll only have to install the radio gear and the power system. The wing halves are often joined with a metal joiner rod or a brace, so you won't even have to glue the panels together. You simply slide the joiner into a slot or a hole in the wing root, and then slide the panels together. The rubber bands that hold the wing to the fuselage prevent the panels from coming apart. This makes transporting and storing your new airplane a bit easier. With some ARFs, the motor and the servos come already installed. Simply connect the control linkage, and you're ready to go.

RTFs are very popular because there's little to do but charge the battery, strap the wing into place, and turn the radio on. These very durable models are often made of formed plastic and rigid foam. Some RTFs come with conventional controls (rudder and elevator), while others have more rudimentary controls that simply turn the plane left or right. Some feature throttle control, while others have an uncomplicated arming switch that turns the motor on and runs it until the rechargeable battery's power has been used up. Several newer designs even come with spare props and wings so you don't have to go back to the hobby shop if you break something.

Regardless of your modeling experience level, there are several backyard flyers to choose from. Stop at a local hobby shop, and see what best suits your fancy.

Basic equipment. To assemble most builder's kits and ARFs, you will need some basic shop tools. These include: small flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers, a hobby knife with several new blades, long-nose pliers, an Allen-wrench set, a small adjustable wrench and sandpaper. For some of the more involved models, where you'll need to install the motor and electronic speed control (ESC), you should have a small, 30W soldering tool, some soldering flux and 60/40 rosin-core solder. Most models come with instructions that specify the supplies and tools required to build the model. To save time and effort in the long run, check the instructions and get all your equipment together before you start building your model.

Flight Simulators
A very good learning tool for any RC pilot is an RC flight simulator computer program. Advances in personal computers and microprocessors have enabled simulators (sims) to evolve to a very high degree of realism. Although not a total replacement for real-world flight training, virtual training in the comfort of home does help teach the student pilot's thumbs and eyes to work together. Because of his practice at home, when the student goes to the flying field and has a radio in his hands, he will react more quickly. Less “think time” means more time to correct for piloting errors. Another advantage of flight sims is that they extend the flying season for those who live in cooler climates. You can “fly” all winter long and never leave the house.

Several flight sims are available, and they all work roughly in the same way. The sim presents a model airplane image on the computer screen, and the plane reacts to your control inputs. Some sims come with a control box that looks very much like an RC transmitter; other systems provide an interface that lets you connect and use your own radio. You can choose from several models provided by the program, or you can create new models or represent your own.

Most sims offer a choice of flying environments, so you can fly from a typical flying field, the surface of Mars, or anywhere in between. Also, you can adjust weather elements such as wind direction, crosswind velocity and gusts. You can make the flight simulation as easy or as difficult as you like. Most programs also include a few helicopter simulations.

By training yourself with a flight sim, you can greatly reduce the time it will take for you to learn how to fly your model. You can also continue to fly even when the weather isn't cooperating. Bring the excitement of RC flight indoors and have fun.

Before Flight Training
There are some basic things you'll need to know after you've built your model and have made sure that everything is working properly. Let's call it “Before flight training.” If you have just built your first backyard flyer, the best way to learn how to fly is by asking an experienced friend to teach you. If, however, you want to learn to fly by yourself, here are some things to be aware of.

Radio frequency. The radio that controls your model is on a specific frequency, and when you switch it on, it transmits a continuous signal. If someone else is using the same frequency as you are, the two radios will interfere with each other and cause both of you to lose control. Before you go out and fly, you should make sure you are at least three miles away from an established RC model flying field. You can ask the people at the local hobby shop whether there is a field nearby, or you can check with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) at for a list of RC clubs in your state.

Flight direction. Up and down are easy; no matter in which direction your model is heading, up will always be up and down will be down. Left and right are another matter. When you and your model are both facing in the same direction (i.e., the model is flying away from you), your left and right will be the model's left and right. If you move the stick to the right, your model will turn right and so on. But when the model is facing toward you, i.e., flying back toward you, its directions, relative to your stick command, will feel as though they have been reversed. When you push the stick to the right, the model will turn to its right, but that will be to your left! This is known as “returning control reversal,” and if you are not prepared for this condition, it will claim your new model.

If we don't turn the model, it will soon be out of sight. To keep your model in the flying area, you have to think constantly about which way you want to turn your model. Holding the turn too long or turning in the wrong direction will cause it to spiral into the ground. When the model is coming toward you, pushing the stick toward the side with the lower wingtip will level the wings and prevent the turn from becoming so tight that you get confused.

Wind. The direction and strength of the wind have a great effect on your model. It's best to fly early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low and the wind is generally at its calmest, and this gentle air is good for beginners. Look at the trees around your flying area and note how much the wind causes the leaves and branches to sway. Is there a flagpole nearby? How much is the flag waving in the breeze? In a heavy wind, you may find you have no control at all over the model and it may be carried away by the wind. For your first few flights, the less wind, the better.

Launch. Always launch the model into the wind. Face into the wind and hold the model above and slightly in front of you. Launch it by taking a few quick steps and lightly tossing it into the wind with its wings level. Release it with its nose pointing at the horizon or slightly below it. Don't throw it upward at a high angle; it will stall and lose lift.

Landing. When flying, try to keep the model upwind from you. If you allow it to get too far downwind, at the end of its flight, it may not have enough power for you to bring it back to land. When it is time to land, keep the wings level and land straight into the wind. Throttle back and allow the model to descend gradually; don't dive toward the ground, or you'll increase the model's speed and make it difficult to land gently. Just as the model is about to touch down, gently apply up-elevator to keep its nose up slightly. Downwind and crosswind landings are difficult and may cause you to damage the model when it touches the ground. Whenever possible, land into the wind, not going with it. Landing upwind allows the model to settle onto the ground gently.

Your flying area. It may seem obvious, but you really need to evaluate the size and condition of the area in which you want to fly your model. Do you want to fly it in your backyard or at a local park? Is there a school nearby with a wide-open soccer field that's calling your name? The size of your flying area will dictate the size of the model airplane that can be safely flown there. Here's why:

The size of your model and how much it weighs will affect how quickly or slowly it can fly. Its speed then affects how quickly you can turn it, and the turning radius determines the size of the airspace you need. Yes, I said airspace—not the size of the field. Models can fly great distances away from you, and you could fly it so far away that it would be difficult to see and to control. Look for a flying site that allows you to keep the model close without your running it into trees or buildings. And for safety reasons, don't fly it over a road with traffic.

Most backyard flyers have small landing gear and wheels, so they can't taxi and take off from the ground. For this reason, you'll have to hand-launch the model (or have a friend hand-launch it for you). After the model has used up its battery charge, it's time to land. Small models can take off from hard, paved surfaces such as large parking lots, but remember that if you crash your model into a hard surface, it's more likely to be damaged. The safest areas to fly from are grass fields; tall grass is also great, especially if you're teaching yourself how to fly. Tall grass will cushion the model when it lands and could prevent it from being damaged in a hard return to earth.

Establish a “flightline.” When flying in an open field, it's good practice to define an imaginary safety line that helps separate your model from the people who are watching you fly. Don't fly the model in a circle around you; keep the model's flight path in front of you, and have observers stay behind you. This gives an added margin of safety for everyone.

Small, slow, lightweight models. These can easily be flown in an area that's roughly the size of a baseball diamond. This is the minimum area in which to fly a model safely. Compare your backyard or a nearby vacant lot to a Little League diamond, and ask yourself whether you can safely fly there. You should be able to hand-launch the model and fly a circular course or a figure-8 pattern. If your model is very light and agile, you will, in time, be able to fly it between trees and over fences, but in the beginning, make sure your flying area is clear of obstructions.

Slightly heavier models. Because they fly a little faster, these planes will need an area that's roughly the size of the baseball diamond and the outfield. Sporting complexes often have two diamonds in one field, and this is ideal. Of course, you'll have to wait for a time when the home team is not practicing or striking out the visitors. If you're lucky enough to have a backyard this big or you live near a vacant lot, you're all set. Please, don't fly your model over other people; it can be distracting and is definitely unsafe.

Bigger and faster models. These models should be flown in a football field or a soccer field. Typically, you should stand on the 50-yard line so you have a lot of space all around you. Large local parks may have this much open area, but regardless of where you fly, before you throw your model into the air, ask someone whether or not you can do so. It's the polite thing to do. People who are walking dogs and kids who are playing nearby are all attracted to model airplanes, so be aware of what's going on around you. Let people know you're out there; be seen and have fun.

Before you fly
Well, you're almost there; you've built and prepared your model and you've found a great place to fly it close to home. Is there anything left to do before that first flight? Yes; you should be aware of a few details that can make the difference between your having a great flight and a bad one. Let's see what's left.

Balance. Did you balance your model? Did you check to see whether the model's center of gravity (CG) is in the proper location? Every airplane kit instruction booklet should explain where the balance point should be. For a straight wing, this point will usually fall somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the chord back from the leading edge (LE). With a sweptback wing, the CG will be farther rearward; again, check the instructions.

To check the model's balance point, install the receiver (RX) and the battery pack and attach the wing to the fuselage. Support the wing with your fingertips—near the fuselage sides—and test the model's balance; move the receiver and battery until it balances level or slightly nose down. This is the balance point, and it should match that specified on the instructions. If it doesn't, try moving the RX and battery again; if that doesn't work, add a little weight to the nose or the tail until the model balances where it should. This is vital. A nose-heavy model will probably fly satisfactorily, but a tail-heavy one might not be controllable.

Control direction. One of the most common causes of a first-flight crash is that a model has its controls hooked up backward. Test your controls to make sure that they don't bind and that they move the control surfaces (rudder, ailerons, etc.) in the proper directions. Turn the transmitter (TX) on first and then turn on your model's RX. Make sure the TX's trim levers are centered, and check the control surfaces to make sure that they are straight and in their neutral positions. While facing in the same direction as your model, move the control stick to the right; the rudder should also move to the right. If your plane has ailerons, when you move the stick to the right, the right aileron should move up and the left aileron should move down. When you pull the elevator stick back toward you, the elevator should move upward; it should move downward when you push the stick away from you.

This is also a good time to check the throttle and to make sure that the motor is turning in the correct direction. When the throttle is pulled all the way back, the prop should not move. As you push the throttle stick forward, the prop should respond proportionally and should blow air back over the model. If your airplane has only an arming switch (no throttle), make sure the prop spins in the right direction (counterclockwise when looked at from the nose of the plane).

Warping. Having assembled the model, make sure that the wing panels are straight—no twisting or warping. Look at each wing panel from the tip to the root (toward the fuselage), and make sure their angles match. If one tip has more positive or negative angle than the other does, your model will try to turn in one direction or the other.

To fix a warped wing panel, gently twist it into the opposite position, and then have a helper use a heat gun or a high-wattage hair dryer to remove the wrinkles in the covering. When the covering has cooled and the wrinkles have disappeared, release the panel, and it should be straight.

Check to make sure that the tail surfaces are also free of warps and that the wing and horizontal stabilizer are properly aligned.

That's about it. Make sure your RX and drive batteries are fully charged and that the TX batteries are also in peak condition. Check the little light indicator or the meter on the TX face and make sure your radio system is working properly. Have fun.

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