Choosing your first radio-controlled airplane can be thrilling but also frustrating if you are a beginner. There are so many RC planes available and evaluating all the offers will take some time and patience. Here is a guide that will limit the frustration, emphasize the thrill, and help you find the best beginner RC plane for you.
guest post by John Bichler
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Some characteristics of a good beginner airplane are the following:
Stable: If you let go of all the control sticks (and the airplane is not directly above the ground and pointed down) the airplane should recover itself so that it is flying level and in a straight line.
Slow and Light: The lighter and slower the airplane the less damage will occur upon impact. Also, it gives you more time to react to and recover from mistakes resulting in less unwanted impacts with hard objects and thus more time spent in the air learning how to fly and getting your orientation straight.
Easy to Repair: The easier it is to build your airplane and the less time it takes to get it in the air the more opportunity you will have to learn how to fly. The same is true for repairs. It also makes learning to build and repair a lot less discouraging when you don’t have to pick up a pile of toothpicks every time you crash and then have to figure out how to glue them back into the shape of an airplane.
Cheap: This is a tough requirement as the word means different things to different people. One person thinks a sale price on one of the top name brand items is “cheap” while another can buy an entire power system for their airplane for that same “sale” price.
I tend to prefer to spend less money and will generally try to buy non “top name brand” items. Any of the “less popular” items that have been somewhat thoroughly tested by others, or myself, I am willing to consider particularly if it costs so little that it won’t really hurt if it doesn’t work, but if it does work then you have a whole lot of money left over to spend on other things. If it works well for the purpose that it was made and costs a whole lot less than another version that works as well, or possibly marginally better, I will most likely buy the cheaper one.
It should be understood that when buying “cheap” gear there will sometimes be a failure or you might get a dud, but as long as you take the time to test everything and follow safe flying practices I have found that even with replacements it is still possible to get away for less than one of the more expensive items. Yes, I will occasionally buy something that has a popular name and is a little pricier, but your price/quality thresholds are something you will have to figure out for yourself as you progress (however no figuring out will be necessary to complete any of the airplanes covered on this website, it has all been done for you).
A beginner airplane usually has “polite” flying characteristics because of how it is designed. It should be low in weight, have a large wing area for its size and weight, and have some dihedral.
The weight and wing area are used to calculate wing loading. The lower the wing loading (the larger the wing area is, compared to the weight of the airplane), the slower the airplane is able to fly. However, an airplane with a very low wing loading will also be more sensitive to wind and get blown around more easily compared to an airplane with a higher wing loading.
Dihedral is what gives a beginner plane its stability. It acts almost like the feathers of a shuttlecock causing the airplane’s body to “hang” from the wing. It will cause the airplane to want to fly upright when no other control inputs are being given. It also changes the way the rudder affects the movement of the airplane.
Usually, the rudder will cause the airplane to yaw left or right but with the addition of a wing with dihedral, the rudder input will cause a combination of yaw and roll resulting in the airplane banking to either the left or the right. It is almost like having ailerons on the airplane but a little simpler to control for a beginner (this is also why the rudder on a 3 channel beginner airplane is usually assigned to the aileron channel on the transmitter).
Electric RC Airplanes for Beginners: Components Explained
Basic Parts of an Airplane:
- Propeller: This is spun by the motor of the airplane and generates thrust to move the airplane forward.
- Fuselage: The “body” of an airplane.
- Wing: The part that generates lift to keep the airplane in the air.
- Horizontal Stabilizer: The part of the airplane’s tail that helps to keep the airplane stable in the pitch axis during flight.
- Vertical Stabilizer: The part of the airplane’s tail that helps to keep the airplane stable in the yaw axis during flight.
- Basic Control Surfaces (Ailerons, Elevator, Rudder): The parts of the airplane that you have control over to influence its movement through the air.
- Ailerons: The parts on the wing that cause the airplane to roll left or right.
- Elevator: The part attached to the horizontal stabilizer that causes the airplane to pitch up or down.
- Rudder: The part attached to the vertical stabilizer that causes the airplane to yaw left or right.
- Landing Gear: The wheels and supporting framework that the airplane usually lands on.
General Parts of an Airplane:
The propeller is turned by the motor of the airplane. A combination of the diameter and pitch of the propeller and the speed at which the motor spins the propeller, the propeller generates thrust to either accelerate the airplane or maintain a constant speed. If too little thrust is generated to maintain a constant speed the airplane will slow down.
The fuselage is the “body” of an airplane. Its purpose is to connect all the different parts (wing, tail, etc.) together. It also houses the power system, radio system, and any other items you wish to put inside or outside, assuming the airplane can handle the extra weight.
As the airplane moves through the air, air passes over and under the wing and it generates most of the lift required to keep the airplane in the air. There are a few opinions as to how this lift is generated but I will not go into it.
The horizontal stabilizer is part of the airplane’s tail that helps to keep the airplane stable in the pitch axis during flight. It is also where the elevator connects to the airplane.
The vertical stabilizer is part of the airplane’s tail that helps to keep the airplane stable in the yaw axis during flight. It is also where the rudder connects to the airplane.
Control Surfaces (Ailerons, Elevator, Rudder, Flaps):
The control surfaces are the parts of the airplane that you have control over so as to influence its movement through the air. Each control surface has a different purpose and more than one can be used in conjunction to achieve the desired movement on the airplane.
- Ailerons: The ailerons are located on the outside portions of the trailing edge of the wing. They move in opposite directions and cause the airplane to roll (or bank) to the left or right. When looking at the airplane from behind, if the left aileron moves down, the right aileron will move up and the airplane will roll to the right. If the right aileron moves down, the left aileron will move up and the airplane will roll to the left. The airplane rolls to the side on which the aileron is up.
- Elevator: The elevator is attached to the horizontal stabilizer and moves up and down. It causes the airplane to pitch up or down. When looking at the airplane from the side, if the elevator moves up, the airplane will pitch its nose up. If the elevator moves down, the nose of the airplane will pitch down.
- Rudder: The rudder moves left and right and is attached to the vertical stabilizer. It causes the airplane to yaw left or right. When looking at the airplane from the top, if the rudder moves left, the airplane will yaw to the left. If the rudder moves right, the airplane will yaw to the right.
- Flaps: The flaps are found on the inside portions of the trailing edge of the wing. They move in the same direction and increase (flaps move down) or decrease (flaps in line with wing) drag to allow the airplane to remain airborne at slower speeds, particularly useful for takeoff and landing. However, they are not often found on smaller electric RC airplanes and are not usually required, but can be a nice “scale” detail or even a functional detail on certain RC airplanes. None of the beginner planes covered on this website will have or need flaps.
The landing gear is made up of the wheels and the supporting framework that the airplane usually lands on. The landing gear is often omitted on some of the smaller electric RC airplanes when flying over grass, because the wheels catch on grass when taking off or landing. This could result in damage to the airplane when it flips over or the if the landing gear is ripped from the airplane. In cases where the landing gear is removed the airplane is landed on its belly. One also finds retractable landing gear which allows for the landing gear to be retracted in to the airplane during flight so as to reduce drag and allow the airplane to fly faster and more efficiently. Steerable landing gear refers to landing gear that one can control using the transmitter so as to steer the airplane while it is still on the ground to improve the airplane’s ground handling.
Basic Parts of the Radio System:
- Transmitter/Radio (TX): This is the controller that you hold in your hands, that you use to control the airplane.
- Receiver (RX): This part goes in the airplane and receives the commands that you input on the transmitter and then tells the servos when and how to move.
- Servos: These parts are what move the airplane’s control surfaces according to what the receiver tells them.
The term “frequency” as used in the RC hobby refers to the different radio carrier frequencies used to operate RC vehicles. These frequencies are measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), which translates to “million cycles per second” (MHz) or “billion cycles per second” (GHz).
In the USA there are a number of frequencies used for RC vehicles today (frequencies allowed for use with RC vehicles do differ from country to country so please check locally for your frequency options or restrictions).
Here is a quick breakdown of the frequencies and their application for RC in the USA:
- 27MHz and 49MHz – These frequencies can be used for any RC vehicle, they also frequently used for small toy RC vehicles and are thus not the primary frequencies used for RC airplanes.
- 50MHz – This is the amateur frequency band. While it can be (and is) used for RC vehicles a valid amateur radio license is required. This also is not the primary frequency used for RC airplanes.
- 72MHz – This frequency is limited to use for aircraft only. It has been the primary frequency for RC airplanes for a long time and will continue to be. It is broken up into 50 separate channels (11 through 60) and at any one time in one location one of each of the channels can ideally be used without any interference from other pilots. However, if two people are in the same area and happen to be using the same channel, there is likely to be interference and one or both of the aircraft will not function correctly. If you are flying at a club field there is usually a way that the channel usage is controlled so that two people do not try and fly on the same channel at the same time, but if you are flying at a public park it is a little more difficult to know if you are the only person on that channel. If you are careful and make sure you are not flying near (within a few miles) a club field and check with anyone else that might be flying at the time, you should be alright to fly.
- 75MHz – This frequency is limited to use for surface-based RC vehicles, such as cars, trucks, boats, etc. It is not legal in the USA to use this frequency for an airplane.
- 2.4GHz – This is the newest frequency that has been employed for all RC vehicles. It has revolutionized the hobby in that there are no longer radio conflicts between people flying, driving or sailing on the same frequency resulting in a possible crash or other mishaps. The 2.4GHz transmitter antenna is significantly shorter than its 72MHz counterpart and it has also allowed for 2.4GHz receiver antennas to become very short, simplifying installation and making antenna routing pretty much a thing of the past.
72MHz and 2.4GHz are the most popular frequencies used for RC airplanes. Even though 2.4GHz has quickly become the most popular frequency there are still many people that use the 72MHz frequency and will continue to do so. For the most part, an RC vehicle will behave the same regardless of which frequency you choose to use, as long as your receiver receives a clear signal from your transmitter and there is no interference from other sources compromising the signal received by your receiver.
Channels generally refer to the number of inputs you have to control the airplane. Most beginner airplanes have 3 channels. Some beginner airplanes have 2 channels but I will not be dealing with any of these on this website as I do not personally see them as a good choice. Then there are some beginner airplanes that have 4 channels, these are generally a little more of a handful and usually a little more involved/difficult to learn on. While there are some good 4-channel beginner planes out there, at least for now, I will not include any on this website to keep things as simple as possible, but I hope to in the future. There are many more channels available on full-scale and model airplanes but they are not a requirement for a beginner and thus beyond the scope of this website. Also your Transmitter and Receiver can have more channels than you intend to use, if your airplane only requires 3 channels, then you only use 3 of the channels out of whatever number your Radio system has available.
- 2 Channel Airplanes: Usually the 2 inputs you have control over are rudder (or variable thrust) and throttle. The rudder (or variable thrust) turns the airplane left or right and the throttle controls speed and “up” or “down” (more throttle results in the airplane climbing and less in the airplane descending). While these planes can fly quite well, the lack of elevator control makes them harder to control in windy conditions as you are not able to fly the plane “down” by applying down elevator and many of these planes have been lost due to getting blown away. Or if you find yourself needing to pull up out of a less than desirable situation, the throttle does not usually provide enough “up” and you will most likely leave a plane sized impression on that which you were trying to avoid.
- 3 Channel Airplanes: For a beginner 3 channel airplane the inputs you have control over are rudder, elevator and throttle. These are a good place to start as they allow you to be in more control than the 2-channel airplanes, but not too much so that it becomes overly confusing to learn on. Note that there are some more advanced 3 channel airplanes that use ailerons, elevator and throttle, but these are usually beyond the skill level of a beginner and thus outside of the scope of this website.
- 4 Channel Airplanes: For a beginner 4-channel airplane these airplanes are usually supposed to be flyable using primarily the same channels as the 3 channel airplane but an additional, aileron, channel is added. This could be helpful to further ones flying skills and in some cases even be helpful to learn on if you have an instructor or feel you have the coordination to attempt one of these planes by yourself, right after you have memorized the Safety portion of this website.
- 5+ Channel Airplanes: These airplanes are mostly beyond the scope of a beginner’s abilities and while they are something to work towards for some, I have spent all my time flying 3 and 4 channel airplanes. While I do at times enjoy the added maneuverability of a 4-channel airplane I still really enjoy a nice relaxing flight on a easy to fly 3-channel airplane and I’m sure this will stay true for my foreseeable future in this wonderful hobby. But there are many other facets of this hobby, that are enjoyed by many, that would be impossible without these extra channels (eg. scale planes, sailplanes, gliders etc. some of which require a whole lot more than 4 channels). Some of the things that the extra channels could be used for are: flaps, retractable landing gear, steerable landing gear, bomb drop doors and any more.
General Parts of the Radio System
There are 2 main “modes” of transmitter used around the world. All that this means is:
- Mode 1 transmitters the Left Stick controls throttle and rudder and the Right Stick controls ailerons and elevator.
- Mode 2 transmitters the Left Stick controls rudder and elevator and the Right Stick controls ailerons and throttle.
In the United States, the primary mode used is Mode 2. While this is the mode that I fly and will be discussing on this website, I will do my best (as far as is possible) to refer to channels rather than the control sticks so that the information is a little more globally applicable.
Most aircraft transmitters in the USA have 2 primary control sticks (Left and Right sticks), these are used to control the 4 primary channels (usually: aileron, elevator, rudder, and throttle) on your airplane. For the 3 channel beginner airplanes, you will only use 3 of the 4 channels (rudder, elevator, and throttle). Some of the Ready to Fly (RTF) beginner airplanes will be supplied with a transmitter that has a “slider” control on the left and a control stick on the right (the slider controls throttle and the left stick, rudder and elevator). There are also switches and/or dials and/or buttons on some transmitters, used to control different programming functions/features or different channels on your airplane. While all these extra features are useful and serve a purpose they are not really necessary for a beginner and I will add more information on them at a later stage or as needed.
Some functions that might come in useful should your transmitter have them are dual rates and exponential. Dual rates refer to being able to program or set your transmitter for high or low rates. With the high rate setting, moving the control sticks will result in a higher range of motion on the control surfaces of your airplane whereas on the low rate setting, movements on the control sticks result in a limited range of motion on the control surfaces of your aircraft. The benefit of dual rates is that it tames” the airplane a little. Low rates is useful because if one is inclined to overreact and to make large movements on the control sticks or you have a very twitchy or sensitive airplane, then your larger control inputs don’t result in over-controlling the airplane. Exponential is useful as it can be used to “soften” the effect of the control sticks around their center positions. It is often hard to not move the control sticks at all when you are holding them in their neutral positions and these small movements can often result in your airplane responding to them without you intending to. By adding some exponential in your radio programming these small, sometimes unintentional inputs, are softened and do not effect your aircraft unless a slightly bigger movement is input on the control stick. HOWEVER, neither dual rates or exponential are required to be able to fly and without them you will more likely learn more precise and finer control, but they can be a great help and also are very useful down the RC road.
While the picture above shows the transmitter sticks and their effect on the controls of average 4 channel airplanes, a 3 channel beginner airplane has one less channel (no ailerons). On a 3 channel beginner airplane, the rudder is usually assigned to the aileron channel on the TX, while the rudder channel on the TX is left unused. This is because of the way a beginner airplane usually responds to rudder input.
A receiver (RX) is a part of the radio system that you install in your airplane. It receives the signal sent out by the transmitter and then decodes the signal and transfers the relevant commands to the servos and ESC.
The primary differences between receivers are:
- the number of channels and
- the different frequencies within which they operate.
Beyond that, their purpose is the same and under normal circumstances, they perform similarly.
The primary duty of the receiver is to do just that, receive. When you input commands on the transmitter these commands are transmitted by the transmitter and then received by the receiver. The receiver decodes this signal into the separate commands you input on the transmitter and then relays them to the servos to move the relevant control surfaces and to the ESC to control the speed of the motor.
Servos are used in RC airplanes to move the control surfaces and perform a number of other optional functions that can be installed on the airplane (i.e., retracts, steerable landing gear, bomb drop hatches, camera triggers, etc.). Servos come in various sizes, speeds, weights, and strengths.
Servo strength, torque, is measured in either ounces per inch (oz-in) or kilogram per centimeter (Kg-cm). Servo speed, (sec/60) is measured in the number of seconds (usually some fraction of a second) it takes a servo to move its arm through a 60 degree angle.
A new servo will also usually come with a set of servo horns (or arms), these attach to the little output gear at the top of the servo and function as little lever arms to convert the rotation of the servo gear to a slightly more linear push and pull movement further out along the servo horn. Note that this movement is not perfectly linear, it is still just tracing the outline of a larger circle, but it is close enough for most applications. Most servo horns have a few little holes long the length of the arms and these can be used to adjust how much “throw” you want out of the servo. The further the hole used is from the servo output gear the more the push-pull movement and the closer the hole is to the servo output gear the less the push-pull movement.
On the airplane control surface, there is usually a control horn, this is similar to the servo horn except that it attaches to the control surface of the airplane and transfers the linear, push or pull motion from the servo to a rotation about the axis of the control surface. Connecting the servo and control horns is generally a pushrod, which is basically a rigid rod that transfers the servo horn motion to the control horn.
Another option, besides the pushrod, is to use a pull-pull setup where a non-stretchy thread or wire is used to connect opposite ends of the servo horn to corresponding ends on the control horn and the result is that the force on the control horn is a pull force in both directions. The general advantage of this type of setup is that it saves weight though it is usually a little more complex to implement correctly than a pushrod.
In electric airplanes, to keep the overall weight down, you would generally select the lightest servo that still possesses the strength and speed necessary to perform the selected task. How to select the correct servo can be challenging, my personal preference is to look in the airplane manual at what is recommended. If the recommended servos are out of my price range (which they usually are) I will look online for a cheaper alternative with similar specifications as those recommended. Another option is to visit and search through some forums, multiple people out there have most likely built the same plane and posted about which servos they have had success with. I believe there are also some calculators floating around the web that can assist in servo selection but I have not yet had the need to try one.
Basic Parts of the Power System:
- Motor: This spins the propeller.
- Electronic Speed Controller (ESC): This controls the speed at which the motor spins.
- Battery Elimination Circuit (BEC): This regulates the battery power to the level that the receiver (and the rest of the Radio System) require (The BEC is usually built into the ESC, but you can also buy external BECs).
- Battery: This provides power to all the electronic parts of the airplane
General Parts of the Power System:
The purpose of the motor is to spin the propeller. It is the power-plant of the airplane.
There are two types of motors used for electric RC airplanes:
brushed motors and brushless motors.
These motors were the first type of motors to be used in electric RC airplanes. While they are still used in a few airplanes today they have largely been replaced by the newer brushless motors.
Brushed motors get their name from the fact that they have brushes inside them. They require a brushed ESC to work. They are generally less efficient and heavier than an equivalent brushless motor. Brushed motors are often found in “Ready to Fly” airplane packages but even those are slowly moving over to using brushless power systems.
Brushless motors are the latest development in electric RC motor technology. They are lighter, more powerful and more efficient than their brushed equivalent.
Brushless motors get their name because they do not have brushes inside of them. Brushless motors require a brushless ESC to work.
There are two main types of brushless motors: Outrunner and Inrunner motors. On an Outrunner motor the outer casing (or bell) is the part that rotates. With an Inrunner motor, on the other hand, the core of the motor rotates while the casing remains stationary.
Terms related to motors:
- Speed: This usually refers to the different brushed motors eg. Speed 400, Speed 250 etc. The different Speed values imply motors of different sizes and capabilities.
- Kv: This value indicates the number of revolutions per minute (RPM) that the motor can produce, when not under load, per volt of input from the battery. Example: If you have a 2000Kv motor and are using a 12 volt battery the total RPM that the motor would theoretically produce, while not under load, would be 12 x 2000 = 24,000RPM. This is a theoretical value and in reality will differ based on quality of manufacturing and definitely by your choice of propeller.
- Input Power Rating: This value measured in watts refers to the maximum input power that can be supplied to the motor without it overheating. The actual input power is relative to the choice of propeller and throttle stick position. The input power can be calculated for any given combination of these factors by multiplying the input voltage and current. This value should be equal to or smaller than the motor’s power rating.
Electronic Speed Controller (ESC)
The Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) is what controls the speed of the motor on an electric RC airplane. It also usually contains a Battery Elimination Circuit (BEC) which converts the battery voltage to a level suitable for the receiver and servos.
There are two types of electronic speed controller, brushed and brushless. They are named according to the type of motor they are able to control. A brushed ESC can only control a brushed motor while a brushless ESC can only control a brushless motor. The difference in appearance between the two types of controller is: the brushed ESC has two wires that connect to the motor and the brushless ESC has three wires that connect to the motor.
There are a few different types of batteries being used in electric airplanes today. Some are used more than others as technology advances and better batteries are made but here are the basic types:
- NiCad (Nickel Cadmium): these are of the first rechargeable batteries that were used in electric airplanes and are not the most popular primary source of power anymore.
- NiMH (Nickel-Metal Hydride): These batteries were an improvement on the older NiCad batteries and are still often used as receiver batteries and to power a transmitter but even these are beginning to get used less and less.
- LiPo (Lithium Polymer): These batteries have been around for a few years now and are probably the most popular choice for a primary power source in electric flight. While they can prove to be dangerous if not treated with the proper respect they are constantly being improved and larger capacities with greater discharge abilities are being made available quite frequently. They are also lighter for the same capacity as the older NiCad and NiMh batteries and as weight is a large factor to take into consideration in electric planes this is why they are favored over the older types of battery.
A123 (LiFe, Lithium Ferrite): These batteries have most of the benefits of the LiPo type batteries except that they are a little heavier for the same capacity as a LiPo battery. However, they are also safer and can take a lot more abuse than a LiPo battery. Due to their weight they are usually preferred for larger electric airplanes.
Some Terms Related to Batteries:
- mAh: Capacity of the battery in milli Ampere hour (sometimes Ampere hour, Ah). Theoretically, this specifies how much current (measured in mili-ampere or Ampere) the battery can supply for a period of one hour.
- C rating: Maximum continuous discharge rating of the battery. Theoretically, this number when multiplied with the capacity of the battery in mAh (or Ah) gives the maximum current that the battery can supply for an extended period without overheating. It is also used to specify at what multiple of the battery capacity the battery can be safely recharged (the recharge C rating is generally much smaller than the discha.
- S: This specifies how many battery cells are connected in series to make up the battery pack.
- P: This specifies how many battery cells or even separate smaller battery packs are connected in parallel to make up the battery pack.