Electric RC Airplane Basics
You are the pilot of a roaring P-51 Mustang as you zoom across the sky performing maneuvers that make those around you speechless with awe and send your foes fleeing in terror. No one knows, or even suspects, that it is your first day flying an electric RC airplane. Wake up! Stop dreaming! It's not going to happen! You'll have to learn to fly first!
The Radio Controlled (RC) Airplane hobby has been around for years. I first tried my hand at it about 20 years ago, but didn't have the time to devote to learning the basics and ultimately gave up. I have recently gotten back into the hobby and have learned that there are many things available now that make learning much easier. My intention with this article is just to get you started, not teach you how to fly. I will give you some resources for learning to fly as well though.
In this article I will talk about what you will need to get started with an electric RC airplane. Electric RC airplanes use batteries instead of a liquid fuel (nitro). I won't go into nitro fuel RC airplanes in this article. I have flown with both and found that the electric is easier for a beginner to start with. Using an electric RC airplane you can charge the batteries and put them in, do your preflight checks, and go. Nitro planes require a little more preparation and initial expense. I'll leave writing about the nitro plane basics to someone else!
Before you start, do some research. Go to your local hobby shop or online and talk to people who fly RC airplanes. Visit a local flying club and just watch them fly for an afternoon. Ask lots of questions. Do plenty of research on the internet. There are many good RC forums with a wealth of information. Two that I visit often are Wattflyer and RC Universe. This research should give you an idea if you want to take the plunge into the electric RC airplane hobby.
FIRST, SOME BASIC THOUGHTS
While all of us would love to be the person described at the top of this article, zooming around the sky at will on our first day out, it is just totally unrealistic. You will need to start flying with a trainer of some kind. No, it won't be a Mustang or some high speed sport plane, but don't let that discourage you. As you learn on the trainer you will become more and more confident and controlled flight will become more natural.
I also highly recommend that you start out using an RC Flight Simulator program. Now many beginners reading this will dismiss the simulator as an unneeded expense, or waste of time, and I understand that. I know you want to get flying, not “play on a simulator”. I was the same way. But trust me on this, the simulator is money and time well spent. I'd rather crash a hundred times on the simulator than go out once with my new plane and come home with a garbage bag of parts.
It is very beneficial to join a local RC flying club and/or find a local instructor that can assist you in learning to fly. A good instructor can get you up in the air and flying properly much faster and easier than you can on your own. They have been where you are and have learned many tips and techniques that you'd never learn on your own. Listen to them! I do understand that not everyone lives where a club or instructor is available. Don't let that discourage you. You can learn on your own, just understand that it takes much more time to learn flight techniques and makes the simulator an even more important item.
Consider joining the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). They provide insurance, information and other benefits to members. Most clubs will require AMA membership before joining the club or flying with them.
START WITH THE SIMULATOR
Make the flight simulator your first purchase. There are many good ones available, some for free and some that you have to buy. Check the reviews and discussions online and talk to other flyers to get an idea of which program might be best for you. I use the Phoenix RC Flight Simulator. Another popular one is the RealFlight RC Simulator. There are many others that are good as well, so again, do some research and see what you think you'd like.
When you get the simulator also make a note of the price of that high performance plane you really want. Now when you start using the simulator go ahead and try flying that high performance plane first. Count how many times you crash it in the first hour and calculate how much money you would have thrown away if it was a real RC airplane, not a simulation. This should convince you that the simulator was inexpensive by comparison. Now switch to a trainer in the simulator and start learning takeoffs, simple flight, and landing. Many of the programs have trainer functions and there are many flight instruction guides, both online and in book form that can help you become familiar with basic RC flight. As you get more comfortable with the simulator, add in some wind. Most of the sims have a setting for this. This is important because depending on where you live, perfectly calm days may be rare, so you'll need to know how to fly with some wind.
Many simulators will allow you to plug your transmitter into your computer and use it with the sim. This is a big help because you are using the same actual transmitter with the simulator that you will be using in the field. I'll cover transmitters later on so just make a mental note of that option for now.
Also, if you are used to computer flight simulators, such as MS Flight Simulator or a warbird sim, take note that the RC simulator will be entirely different. With the RC simulator you are flying from one spot on the ground, just like where you would be standing in real life. You are not in the cockpit like you are in other non-RC flight simulators.
YOUR FIRST ELECTRIC RC AIRPLANE
Start with a trainer! I'll say it again, start with a trainer! If you don't, you will crash, probably within a minute (if that long), and go hometo your spouse with an expensive bag of RC airplane debris. It's even worse if it happens in front of your spouse! Now understand that you will crash a trainer, but they are made to be much more forgiving on impact and much more controllable.
Many trainers are made of a foam type construction, so that they are lightweight and more resilient during a crash. This also helps them glide in a more stable position than a large, heavy weight plane made out of other materials. The light weight and lower speeds of a trainer allow you time to correct flight mistakes more easily and will lessen the damage in a crash. Take note, though, that the lighter weight makes the airplane more susceptible to wind effects.
Select a high wing trainer as they are more stable. A high wing trainer has the wing over (or on top of) the airplane's fuselage (body). I won't go into detail as to why they are more stable here, as the explanations of that can easily be found online.
You'll probably want to start out with a trainer that is Ready-To-Fly (RTF). RTF packages have all the basic equipment you need to get started. This would typically include the plane, transmitter, battery, and charger. I started out with the HobbyZone Champ RTF package. Another good choice is the HobbyZone Super Cub LP and there are many others. Talk to flyers and read the forums and you will get an idea of what would work best for you. Here again, the advice of local club members and hobby stores can also be very beneficial. If you get an RTF electric RC airplane it will already be outfitted with a receiver, motor, etc. making it ready to fly. You will also get a basic transmitter, a battery, and a basic battery charger.
I had mentioned above that some transmitters can be connected to certain RC flight simulators. Depending on the RTF package you get, your transmitter may or may not be compatible with your simulator. If you are wanting to use the same transmitter with both the sim and the real RC airplane, I would check for compatibility before you buy. If the RTF package transmitter won't work with the sim you can buy a more advanced model of transmitter that will. Its an added expense so you'll have to decide what you want to spend on your new hobby. I have a Spektrum DX6i that I used with both the simulator and the Champ when starting out. There are many other brands and types of transmitters available, so again, do your research and see what would work best for you.
Most electric RC airplanes use “LiPo” (Lithium-ion polymer) batteries. They provide less weight and a longer run time than other battery types, such as NiMH (nickel-metal hydride). Take note though that, as with all batteries, you should use care when using and charging LiPos. Handled properly they are safe, but mishandled they can be dangerous. There is a great deal of information available on the proper charging and use of LiPo batteries, and RTF airplane packages such as the Champ include specific directions and warnings in their instruction manual. Please take the time to make sure you fully understand how to handle batteries safely!
TIME TO FLY
If you've reached this point you are probably anxious to get in the air! Again let me suggest getting some help from an instructor at a local RC club to get you started. Whether you are doing that or going it alone, make sure you read the airplane manual and understand it. Follow the directions step-by-step. The instructions will vary depending on which airplane and transmitter you have, so I cannot give you specifics here. Choose a safe flying area as outlined in your airplane's manual (bigger planes need a bigger area). Make sure you have completed all the manual specified safety, function, and range checks. Set a maximum flight time limit based on the batteries and airplane you have so that you don't over discharge the battery. You can get a good idea of time limit from other flyers, online info, forums, etc. When you are sure that everything is in order, you are ready to fly! You will experience both enjoyment and nervousness as you take to the air. That's the thrill of flight! Enjoy!
See my detailed review of the HobbyZone Champ here.
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