Learning to Fly RC Planes – Lesson 2: Before your first flight

a guest post by Tony Murano for RC-helicopters.net

Prerequisites: Ideally done at least one hour simulator time with one of the trainer models. In simulator can take off, turn with coordinated elevator to maintain altitude.

Objectives: Establish budget, purchase plane, prepare the plane for first flight, new simulator exercises, exercises for people who don’t have a flight simulator (because they don’t have a PC perhaps).

Don’t forget, if a term confuses you check it out in the glossary.

Establish the budget

Before you begin looking at planes you should have a budget in mind. You probably want a budget of somewhere between $150 and $250 (Assuming you are Australian and these are AUD – if you are from overseas you need to figure out local prices). If you are looking at buying a sub $100 plane unless it is second hand, chances are your plane will not have enough performance, or be robust enough for you to learn to fly.

Unfortunately, although quite a bit cheaper than it once was, RC flying is still a somewhat expensive past time. In many ways, if you can’t find that much money you might be better off waiting until you can, or looking at other hobbies. Also, if friends have found and referred you to cheaper trainer planes then consider them – I’ve presented info on planes I know, and I think that sub $100 you are not going to get anything new that does the job.

It is better to save for 3 months for a plane that flies, than 6 weeks for the wrong plane that crashes and disintegrates on its first flight.

If you buy a good robust trainer your ongoing budget should not need to be that much. You might need to replace a couple of parts, but these should have a modest cost.

Plane Selection

Hopefully, you haven’t already bought the aircraft, or if you have, you have bought a beginner’s aircraft. If you have a 4 channel warbird then in my opinion, that bird needs to sit on the shelf for a couple of months while you skill up on a trainer. You will fly your warbird someday, but not for a little while yet (unless you want a twisted pile of busted foam/balsa).

These are the characteristics you want in your trainer:

  • Three channel controllable (even if it is upgradeable to four channel)
  • Docile
  • Robust (can take some bumps and bruises)
  • Self-correcting (has dihedral on the wings – the up angle of the wings from the fuselage)
    There are three trainers I am going to talk about below, but there are many others.
  • The third is so widely recommended that I are sure it is a good plane based on reports. The planes are the Electrafun XP, The Hobbyzone Supercub and the Multiplex Easystar.

Electrafun XP

The Electrafun XP is a 3 channel pusher prop trainer that comes with everything you need to start flying. Its main strengths are its price (it is about as cheap as you get for an all in package), its performance (which is quite decent from the base package), robustness and availability of spares.

Its weak point is the build quality (which can be a bit random from kit to kit).

Depending on where you buy it this plane will cost you around $130-$150. It is stable and solid in flight, and provided she is correctly trimmed will prove to be a good trainer. Parts are widely and cheaply available – for example, a new main wing will only set you back about $12.

The plane has a surprisingly good flight envelope, and it will take quite a while before you are bored of it. The one downside is that it is not a pretty plane.

If you check the sidebar on the right you’ll see plenty of notes about Electrafun XP, and how to prepare it etc.

For the FMS simulator program, I use the Vortex Extreme model which performs somewhat like the Electrafun. You can download the model from the FMS downloads page.

Hobbyzone Supercub

The Hobbyzone Supercub is another all in one package like the Electrafun XP. It is a little more expensive (around $200-$230), but its strengths are its scale looks (it looks like a real plane) and quality of manufacture. Like the Electrafun XP, it is also robust and has a docile flight envelope. In terms of robustness the Electrafun XP probably still has the edge slightly by having the pusher prop. One small gripe about the Supercub is the avionics (flight electronics) that come with the plane. They are non-standard and so can only be replaced by other Hobbyzone parts. If you want to upgrade the Supercub to a normal transmitter later you will need to upgrade the servos, and speed controller at the same time.

The non-standard transmitter of Supercub is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the custom transmitter means the pilot doesn’t have the opportunity to make mistakes about which control stick to use turn the plane, as only one of the two sticks moves left right. On the other hand, with the slider throttle amongst other things means the controls are not teaching the pilot all the things they need to know for the next plane. On balance, the transmitter is probably a positive overall for beginning pilots. It is just a shame it is not easier to switch to a proper transmitter later.

In the FMS Simulator program, there is a modified “lite cub” which flies much like the Hobbyzone Cub. You can get that model from the FMS Downloads page.

Multiplex Easystar

Unlike the other planes discussed above the Easystar is not an all in one kit. Instead, it is just an airframe, which you need to add other components (like an engine, receiver, servos, batteries, and transmitters) to for a complete flying package.

Its price of around $90 seems very reasonable except that the avionics are normally the most expensive part of any aircraft, and a complete Easystar (without a transmitter) would be unlikely to come in at less than $170, with a good transmitter adding anywhere between $150-300+ dollars.

Why would you spend so much? One of the problems of the all in one package is that the electronics used are not usually of high quality, and cannot be safely moved to other models. This will mean, for example, that you will end up flying your second plane with a different transmitter to the first plane.

Buying something like an Easystar from the outset will mean that rather than spending some amount of your complete package on a radio that you won’t use after your first model, you can put that money towards getting a good radio to start with. This is a bit of a risk. You might decide flying is not for you, in which case you will have spent more than you needed. However, if you decide to stick with the hobby the more expensive radio will have saved you money on your next plane.

I don’t know much about the Easystar in particular as I haven’t flown it, but I imagine its flight characteristics are quite similar to the Electrafun XP although it seems to have a lower wing loading (see the glossary if you don’t know what that means) which means it can glide further and maintain level flight at lower speeds. It certainly has a very good reputation as a trainer, and there is plenty of information on the web about it.

Other Beginner/Trainer Planes

There are quite a few others in this category including Aerobirds and the like. Be very cautious of so-called trainers from places like eBay. They normally aren’t, and those guys will say anything to move product.

Not Training Planes

Here are a few planes many people try to fly as trainers which are definitely not that:

  • Any low wing warbird (in fact pretty much any low wing aircraft altogether) including the Parkzone Mustang, FW-190, and Spitfire – these are not beginner’s planes.
  • Accipter Badius – this is a great plane, but an aerobat not suitable for beginners.
  • Extrafun – not an Electrafun, an Extrafun – these are midwing aerobats as well, and definitely not for beginners.
  • Parkzone Stryker – although some people eventually learn on this they usually have a pretty mangled aircraft, and to be honest they very rarely have good habits – deltas are both tricky and easy to fly for different reasons.

A good question might be why people end up with unsuitable planes. Sometimes unscrupulous hobby shop owners are blamed, but I are not sure that is the problem, at least not most of the time. One thing I have seen happen is that the beginner, in a rush of enthusiasm, rejects the advice from the salesperson for a more sedate, appropriate training model and insists (sometimes without realizing it) on looking at aircraft beyond their capabilities.

So, if you go to the shop, make sure you listen to what the salesperson tries to tell you. If you get this training right then one day you will fly that warbird/parkjet, safely, for many many enjoyable flights. But if you take her home as your first plane the odds of not destroying her in the first 5 flights would have to be about 100 to 1. Enough said about that we suppose.

Preparing for your first flight

So you get home from the shop with the model, put the batteries on to charge, assemble the model, and get ready to head to the oval to fly her – after all the salesperson said you would be flying in 50 minutes. What they didn’t mention was that without the right preparation you will be crashing in about 50 minutes and 12 seconds.

Before you fly your new model there are two very important things to do, particularly if you are trying to fly solo.

  • Get your plane correctly trimmed and prepped for its first flight.
  • Get some practice on the simulator.

Getting the Plan Trimmed and Prepped for Its First Flight

After you’ve followed the assembly instructions that come with the plane, and set up your control linkages (the rods that connect the servos to the rudder/elevator etc) you also need to decide where to connect the linkage to the control horn (glossary). Generally, you want the least sensitive position, which means the hole furthest from the control surface. If you’ve done a lot of simulator practice, and have some finesse about how much control input you give (so it’s not always full rudder for example) then maybe you can choose the middle hole for the control horn.

There are two parts to trimming – the first is where you trim the control surfaces on the ground by lining the control surface up with either the horizontal or vertical stabilizer (so elevator with the former, rudder with the latter) so that it is parallel. This is called trimming by eye.

To trim by eye we need to turn on the transmitter (TX), make sure the throttle closed, put the charged battery into the model, and then look at the position where the control surfaces come to rest (they will jump to a position when power is applied). By the way, always make sure your TX is on when the plane is connected to its battery. Using the trim tabs adjust the control surface using the TX until it is parallel with it stabilizer. It must be exactly parallel. A difference of even three millimeters will make your plane turn and be very difficult to control in flight.

If you find that you cannot trim the surface to “neutral” (parallel with the stabilizer) using the trim tabs (after maximum throw in one direction the surface still isn’t neutral) then you need to mechanically adjust the trim (yes unplug the battery from the model, turn of your TX etc). How this is done will depend on the model. If you have an Electrafun XP these notes might help. If you have a Supercub or other model that uses threaded rods you will need to rotate the control horn connector until the right distances are achieved.

In an ideal world, your control surface will trim correctly somewhere reasonably close to the middle position for the trim tab on your TX. If your surface is trimmed by eye at a maximum extreme then you should make a mechanical adjustment to bring the trim tab position back closer to the middle of the range on the transmitter. This is because once we have the plane in the air we also need to “trim in flight”. Trimming by eye will hopefully stop the model from spirallling out of control on the first launch/takeoff, but until we fly her we wont find out about the more subtle trimming we will need to keep her flying straight and level without input. If when you fly her you cannot trim her, because you can’t go any further in that direction, you will have the unenjoyable experience of flying an out of trim aircraft. This is difficult and annoying for experienced pilots. For a complete beginner the chance of disaster is very high.

So, do your best to trim your plane by eye and then if possible take it back to where you bought it (if you bought it locally). A good hobby shop will happily look over your model once you have tried to trim it and give you advice on what is right and wrong – in fact, they will probably be glad that you have bought it back to them for their opinion.

If you didn’t buy it locally there might still be people that can help you. Check the Internet RCUniverse and RCgroups forums. You might even find another parkflyer in your local area.

There are often other steps to preparing your plane. On Electrafun XPs it is often a good idea to put some tape on the wings which will save you the cost of many wing replacements. I have some notes on this and other things for the Electrafun XP. Supercubs benefit from a layer to tape to protect the leading wing tips and the leading edge of the aircraft. Just lay a long piece of clear packing tape (fiberglass laced tape is better if you can get it) lengthways along the leading edge, centered over the edge and just fold it over the top and bottom of the wing to make it flush with the wing. For other planes, check the Internet etc. for the info – rcuniverse, rcgroups, and wattflyer are all good forums (put those words into google).

To save yourself money it is best if you do these strengthening preparations before your first flight. If your plan is fly once, then do the preps you are ignoring the fact that your first flight is likely to be one of the hardest on your aircraft.

The undercarriage on the cub is good and worth using. The undercarriage for the Electrafun XP isn’t worth the trouble (it is worth playing with when you have some more experience perhaps).

Simulator Exercises

Now that you have chosen your trainer it is time to start practicing with that particular plane only in a simulator. So choose a simulator, find your model, or one close to it if your plane is not available, and make sure your actual control layout is the same as your model in the simulator.

Okay, here are some exercises:

Takeoff, Fly at least 10 Figure 8s, setup approach, land: Flying figure 8s is a little more challenging than flying a four-cornered box because you turn a different direction at each corner. This will start to test your orientation skills. So, figure eight circuit is away from you, turn slowly right, towards you, turn slowly left, repeat. Reverse the directions and just see if your orientation holds out for the whole flight.

While you are flying try coordinating the elevator to make the plane turn faster, and maintain altitude through the corner. If you are still losing altitude in corners, then make sure you use the straight sections of the circuit to restore the same altitude.

Intentional stall turns: Stall turns are what happens when an aircraft with high dihedral (the up angle in the wings) is given rudder inputs that take it past the point where its wings are almost perpendicular (at right angles) to the ground. If you get an orientation loss this is possibly what will happen to you, where you continue to turn the plane in the wrong direction. Eventually what will happen is the plane will stall, and rapidly lose altitude until it restores enough airspeed and recovers (providing it doesn’t meet the ground first). Practice a few intentional stall turns with some altitude. Just feed in rudder until the plane falls out of the sky. Use some up elevator to restore level flight.

Throttle Control: Up til now you may have just been flying with full throttle all the time. Try something else now. As you are flying your figure 8s see what the minimum throttle you need to keep the aircraft airborne and flying comfortably is. You may notice you need to use the elevator to keep the plane level, but that there is more than enough airspeed to fly. As a plane flies faster it will generate more lift, slower less lift. This means that when the elevator is trimmed for a level flight it is actually trimmed for level flight at a particular throttle position.

Landings: Now that you know which model you are trying to fly with it is time to put in lots of landing practice. For your first flight, we are going to do a power off landing. So get your approach setup (about 10 meters off the ground and about 40 meters away) and close the throttle.

Now, here comes the hard part because it is counterintuitive and doesn’t feel right. Dive the aircraft – just slightly, just below its natural glide curve. Here we are attempting to build up enough airspeed so that we can flare properly just above the ground. When you are about 1 foot off the ground use a very slight up elevator to make the aircraft fly parallel the ground. Eventually, the airspeed will drop to just above stall point (at which stage there won’t be enough lift to hold her up, and she will gently settle onto the ground).

If you don’t dive there are a few things that can happen, and none of them are particularly good, and unfortunately, FMS probably won’t actually teach you about any of them (there are limits to the simulator). Here’s a summary of some of the stuff that goes wrong:

Electrafun XP – as you just let your plane glide in you will lose so much airspeed that it no longer responds to controls. The plane may start to roll in one direction or the other, and no amount of rudder will do a thing about it. The EF has quite small control surfaces and needs reasonable airspeed to respond to controls. Also, the plane will probably fly further than you expected, overshoot the landing area and typically end up in the one tree on the whole field.

Super Cub – If you just let the super cub glide in it will hit the ground hard, nose over, possibly bust a prop and the cowling. However, there is a fair chance it will be okay as well.

Easystar – from what I have seen behaves a bit like an Electrafun – starts to porpoise (stall recover, stall recover) and gets a bit thingy about responding to controls.

So – here is the point – powered aircraft cannot land at glide speed – you need to dive (just slightly) below the glide curve so that you have enough airspeed to flare, and settle the plane.

So get plenty of practice trying to land your plane. Forty meters out, ten meters up, cut throttle, slight down elevator for airspeed, and then just slightly flare at about 1 foot. Hold the plane parallel to the runway until it settles.

Okay – one more exercise for simulator landings. As you are typically landing towards yourself you are in a prime position for an orientation error with the aircraft close to the ground (the worst of times). We need to spend some time practicing this as a slight breeze, or a change in the trim of your aircraft at different airspeeds may mean it doesn’t land entirely straight.

So, set up a landing as normal. At about 5 meters altitude close your eyes and give a quick jab full left, full right, full left rudder input. Open your eyes, and either recover and land or power up and go around for another approach. Try this a few times – you need to push one way, opposite and back the same way to disorient your brain, otherwise it will remember what you last did and correct by doing the opposite. By varying the jab time just slightly you should be able to well and truly mess it up, and force it to figure out how to correct the aircraft (remember – think of yourself in the pilot’s seat).

I Don’t Have A Computer – What Do I Do? Okay – if you don’t have a computer obviously you can’t spend much time on the simulator. Now that you have your plane you need to spend some time learning the associations I spoke about in Part 1.

Turn on your TX, close the throttle, connect the battery to your model and sit inside, behind the plane looking at its tail and working the controls. Watch the controls, how they respond. Practice giving small inputs, smooth large inputs etc.

Once you think you’ve got this right if you can get someone to “drill” you. Setup as before, and get the person to call out things they want the plane to do (“Pull Up”, “Nose Down”, “Turn Right”, “Turn Left”). You give a smooth but decisive input to the controller, hold it, check that you made the correct choice, and then ask the person to call out the next one.

If you have that working well then turn the plane so it is facing you. Now have your helper call out either “Pull Up”, “Nose Down”, “Plane’s Left”, “Plane’s Right”, “Your Left” or “Your Right”. Now you will need to do the transposition on the fly. Once again, make a smooth decisive control input as soon as you can, hold it, and check that you made the right decision.

Once you’ve done this thank your helper and let them get back to whatever they were doing. Now you want to try practicing some coordinated turns. Give moderate rudder and a little elevator. Try this in both directions. You won’t know exactly how much you need of each until you fly, but learning to coordinate this maneuver will help you.

Finally, with the battery in the plane unplugged and your TX off, spend some time playing with the throttle, just getting a sense for how it feels. Without looking at the controller you need to be able to set the following throttle positions easily: Closed Throttle, Quarter Throtte, Half Throttle, Three Quarter Throttle, Full Throttle.

Like most mental things once you have it you need to practice to reinforce it. Your first session of doing these exercises may take 30 minutes or maybe more. Come back to it half a day later and run through the same thing (probably only taking 5 minutes this time), and then practice it the next day for 5 minutes. By now you’ve made a good start on getting these associations built. If you have time, keep on practicing before your first flight.

Planning Your First Flight

Prerequisites: Have plane, have practiced on a simulator and can take off, fly circuit and land most of the time.

Objectives: Identify where you are going to fly, Watch the Weather, More Simulator Exercises.

Choosing The Right Venue

Model planes take a lot of space to fly, and beginners need a little more space again. If you are using any of the three planes identified you need to plan to have an area at least 80-100 meters square on either side (90-110 yards), ideally completely free from any obstructions.

As you are traveling about in your day to day life keep an eye out for such a space. Ideally, it will be reasonably flat, you don’t want anywhere that is tightly surrounded by people’s houses if you can avoid it. Apart from an actual cricket field and other sports ovals, there are all sorts of other spaces (Farm paddocks {make sure you get permission from the owner}, parkland, etc. You probably want to avoid anywhere that has a significant amount of water (definitely not the beach), and as already mentioned, best if your space isn’t infested by trees.

Why is so much space necessary? On your first flight, the odds that adrenaline and a little bit of panic are going to kick in are reasonably high. You need enough time (space) for that to happen, you to realize you still have control of a plane, and correct. You need enough space to start turning in the wrong direction, realize your mistake and turn it back the other way. The Electrafun XP, at cruising speed, will cover 50 meters in 5-6 seconds. That is not long for you to have to make a decision on your first flight about which way to turn. And (this is a really important point), unlike a car, you can’t just stop. Your plane needs continual control whilst in the air. Whilst you can take a moment or two to figure out what is going on, you can’t just stop and reassess the situation – so, do yourself a favor and find a field big enough.

Picking the Right Weather

For your first flight, you want to have zero, or as close to zero wind as possible. Getting this can be tricky and frustrating.

Generally, the lowest times for wind will be either early in the morning, or late in the day before sunset. Keep an eye out and figure out which of these is the quietest where you live. The tips and leaves of trees will give you your easiest indication of wind when you aren’t actually in it (like if you are in the car).

If you can’t find a zero wind day then how much wind could you attempt to fly in. A lot will depend on how much simulator time you have done, and which aircraft you have. The Electrafun XP is very susceptible to breeze and so it really does require light wind conditions. The Supercub is a little more stable in slightly heavier breezes.

For the Electrafun XP, you wouldn’t want the wind to be more than a slow walking pace (0-3kmph/0-2mph). For the Supercub, for your first flight maybe a briskish walk (0-6kmph/0-4mph). However – no wind is best.

How do you figure out how fast the wind is – attach some ribbon to your transmitter aerial and walk somewhere where the air is still. Note how much the ribbon deflects from the vertical for a slow walk and brisk walk.

Other things

Try and make sure you aren’t going to be distracted while flying – if you are one of the unfortunate people that needs to carry a mobile for work in your own time then either pick a period when you aren’t on call, or just make a mental note before the flight that if the phone rings you let it go to voicemail and check it after you land.

If you’ve got someone experienced who can give you a hand think about whether you would like them to or not. If you would try and tee up a time that suits them.

Simulator Exercises

Given you are going to have to land your plane for real shortly I thought I might run through how to land again, and then you can take this stuff and practice on the simulator.

For your first flight, I are going to suggest a dead stick (no power) landing. There are lots of reasons that dead stick landings are good, and with these trainer aircraft, they are usually reasonably easy to achieve because these trainers have nice low wing loadings meaning they glide quite well. Probably the most important benefit to a dead stick landing as a beginner is having one less control to think about.

This diagram will hopefully explain how a deadstick landing is done. The distances are approximate, and may not work for all trainer aircraft depending on their flying speed etc, but they should be good estimates. If you don’t work with meters much you can just substitute yards directly – close enough for this exercise.

The critical thing for a dead stick landing is that you must dive below the glide angle so that you have airspeed to flare at the bottom of the dive. Most planes glide angle is steep enough that the aircraft will actually be damaged if it hits the ground at that speed and rate of descent (although honestly – your trainers are so tough they will take it but no reason not to try and get it right from the start).

So, give that a go and see how smooth you can make your landings in the simulator.

One more simulator exercise for you. Try flying with a little bit of wind. For FMS just put in 1 m/s winds with no gusts. Just try this for a while. It will be a good chance for you to get used to real flying where the model cannot be relied upon to react perfectly to your instructions because of other factors.

Your First Flight

Prerequisites: Ideally you have done the exercises suggested in previous parts. At the very least you have read them.

Objectives: Complete your first flight.

I are only going to say a few things about your first flight because much of the prep work to make it a success has already been done in the last parts.

This will be an exciting and memorable occasion.

Okay, the few things I will mention are:

  1. Use the electric flight checklist before you take off.
  2. Read through the maiden flight checklist – this stuff applies to you as well.
  3. Have a flight plan – I are going to take off, climb to 50 meters, fly five four-sided circuits and then land (or something like that).
  4. Make sure where you position yourself for takeoff you have heaps of space to take off and climb to altitude.
  5. Once you are up and at altitude set your throttle to about 3/4. This will stop the plane from going too fast, and building up too much altitude.
  6. During your flight pay particular attention to your altitude – a common mistake is to let the plane lose altitude on every turn until eventually a turn is attempted to close to the ground, panic strikes and the plane goes in. Try and use a coordinated elevator on turns to reduce the loss of altitude, and in the straights, climb to reestablish your cruising altitude.
  7. Don’t be afraid of altitude – it is your friend. Your cruising height should be well over the height of any trees at the park (even propellers). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the plane is more controllable close to the ground – there is only pain in that approach.
  8. When it is time to land let yourself lose a little altitude on each turn until you are at about 10-15 meters above the ground when you make your last turn into the wind and start your landing approach (as we spoke about in Part 3).
  9. Remember when landing you must dive below the glide angle for your dead stick landing. Dive, flare, land. If you run out of room on a landing you can either wave off and go around if you have enough power and altitude, or just force the plane into the ground. Try to avoid letting it reach the trees though. If you are going to wave off, make the decision early.
  10. If your plane is going to go in, make sure you close the throttle before it hits. This will substantially reduce the amount of damage that is done.

I wish you all the best of luck. I think you are going to do well if you have followed the notes and done the things I recommended up to this point.

In the next part, we are going to talk about what to practice over the next few flights.

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