Whether you have a coach or you are trying to learn to fly on your own, you
will need to be mindful of these six areas if you are going to become a
successful RC pilot. After many years of working with new flyers at our club,
and coaching flyers on the forums, there are a few things I have seen as the
key areas to stress for new pilots. Some get it right away and some have to
work at it. They are in no particular order because they all have to be
learned to be successful.
1) Wind - The single biggest cause of crashes that I have observed has been the
insistence upon flying in too much wind. If you are under an instructor's
control or on a buddy box, then follow their advice, but if you are starting
out and tying to learn on your own, regardless of the model, I recommend dead
calm to 3 MPH for the slow stick and tiger moth type planes. Under 5 MPH for
all others. That includes gusts. An experienced pilot can handle more. It is the pilot,
not the plane that determines how much wind can be handled.
Let me share a story:
The wind was around 8 mph steady with gusts to 12. That was strong enough that some of the experienced pilots flying three and four channel small electric planes chose not to launch their electrics. This new flyer insisted that he wanted to try his two and three channel parkflyers. Crash, Crash, Crash - Three planes in pieces. He just would not listen. Sometimes you just have to let them crash. There is no other way to get them to understand.
Many parkflyers can be flown in higher winds by AN EXPERIENCED PILOT. I
have flown my Aerobird in 18 mph wind (clocked speed) but it is quite exciting
trying to land it.
Always keep the plane up wind from you. There is no reason for a new flyer to
have the plane downwind EVER!
2) Orientation - Knowing the orientation of your plane is a real challenge,
even for experienced pilots. You just have to work at it and some adults have
a real problem with left and right regardless of which way the plane is going.
Licensed pilots have a lot of trouble with this one as they are accustomed to
being in the plane.
Here are two suggestions on how to work on orientation when you are not
Use a flight simulator on your PC. Pick a slow flying model and fly it a lot.
Forget the jets and fast planes. Pick a slow one. Focus on left and right
coming at you. Keep the plane in front of you. Don't let it fly over your
An alternative is to try an RC car that has proportional steering. You don't
have to worry about lift, stall and wind. Get something with left and right
steering and speed control. Set up an easy course that goes toward and away
from you with lots of turns. Do it very slowly at first until you can make
the turns easily. Then build speed over time. You'll get it! If it has
sticks rather than a steering wheel even better, but not required. Oh, and
little cars are fun too.
3) Too Much Speed - Speed is the enemy of the new pilot, but if you fly too slowly the wings can't generate enough lift, so there is a compromise here. The key message is that you don't have to fly at full throttle all the time. Most small electrics fly very nicely at 2/3 throttle and some do quite well at 1/2. That is a much better training speed than full power. Launch at full power and climb to a good height, say 100 feet as a minimum, so you have time to recover from a mistake. At 100 feet, about double the height of the trees where I live, go to half throttle and see how the plane handles. If it holds altitude on a straight line, this is a good speed. Now work on slow and easy turns, work on left and right, flying toward you and maintaining altitude. Add a little throttle if the plane can't hold altitude.
4) Not enough altitude - New flyers are often afraid of altitude. They feel
safer close to the ground. Nothing could be more wrong. Altitude is your
friend. As stated above I consider 100 feet, about double tree height where I
live, as a good flying height and I usually fly much higher than this. Fifty
feet, is minimum flying height for new flyers. Below that you better be lining up for landing.
5) Over control - Most of the time the plane does not need input from you.
Once you get to height, a properly trimmed plane flying in calm air will
maintain its height and direction with no help from you. In fact anything you
do will interfere with the plane.
When teaching new pilots I often do a demo flight of their plane. I get the
plane to 100 feet, then bring the throttle back to a nice cruising speed. I get
it going straight, with plenty of space in front of it, then take my hand off
the sticks and hold the radio out to the left with my arms spread wide to
emphasize that I am doing nothing. I let the plane go wherever it wants to
go, as long as it is holding altitude, staying
upwind and has enough room. If you are flying a high wing trainer and you
can't do this, your plane is out of trim.
Even in a mild breeze with some gusts, once you reach flying height, you
should be able to take your hand off the stick. Oh the plane will move around
and the breeze might push it into a turn, but it should continue to fly with
no help from you.
Along this same line of thinking, don't hold your turns for more than a couple
of seconds after the plane starts to turn. Understand that the plane turns by
banking or tilting its wings. If you hold a turn too long you will force the
plane to deepen this bank and it will eventually lose lift and go into a
spiral dive and crash. Give your inputs slowly and gently and watch the
plane. Start your turn then let off then turn some more and let off. Start
your turns long before you need to and you won't need to make sharp turns.
I just watch these guys hold the turn, hold the turn, hold the turn, crash.
Of course they are flying in 10 mph wind, near the ground, coming toward
themselves at full throttle.
6) Preflight check - Before every flight it is the pilot's responsibility to
confirm that the plane, the controls and the conditions are correct and
acceptable for flight.
Plane - Batteries at proper power
Surfaces properly aligned
No damage or breakage on the plane
Radio - Frequency control has been met before you turn on the radio
(this has gone away with 2.4 GHz systems)
A full range check before the first flight of the day
All trims and switches in the proper position for this plane
Battery condition is good
Antenna fully extended
For computer radios - proper model is displayed
All surfaces move in the proper direction
Conditions - No one on the field or in any way at risk from your fight
You are launching into the wind
Wind strength is acceptable ( see wind above )
Sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes
All other area conditions are acceptable.
Then and only then can you consider yourself, your plane, radio and the
conditions right for flight. Based on your plane, your radio and local
conditions you may need to add or change something here, but this is the bare
minimum. It only takes a couple of minutes at the beginning of the flying day
and only a few seconds to perform before each flight.
If this all seems like too much to remember, do what professional pilots do,
take along a preflight check list. Before every flight they go down
the check list, perform the tests, in sequence, and confirm that all is right.
If you want your flying experience to be a positive one, you should do the
same. After a short time, it all becomes automatic and just a natural part of
a fun and rewarding day.
I hope some of this is useful in learning to fly your plane
If you're thinking of learning to fly rc airplanes, this RC Airplane World Ground School will give you some fundamental information on the basics of radio control flying. And you'll be pleased to know there isn't an exam at the end!
If you get stuck on any words or terms don't forget to use the rc flying glossary; fun and easy to use, you can find the meanings (serious & amusing) to all the common rc flying words and terms that you're ever likely to hear at the flying field. Any word shown in bold on this Ground School page can be found in the glossary.
So get yourself comfortable, grab a drink and a snack and we'll begin!
(Incidentally, before we do get started, don't forget to check out my ebook The Beginner's Guide To Flying RC Airplanes for a complete introduction to rc flying).
OK, your lessons on the basics of learning to fly rc airplanes are...
The letters rc stand for radio control. You'll often see rc airplanes referred to as remote control but technically this is an incorrect term. Radio control is the
correct term because the airplane controls respond to radio signals that pass through the air from the transmitter (abbreviated to 'Tx') to the
receiver (abbreviated to 'Rx').
The transmitter (also often just called the radio) is the main box that you hold in your hands and use to control your airplane, the receiver is located inside the airplane and receives the radio signals sent out from the transmitter.
The signals are sent to the model in the same fundamental way as television and radio broadcasts are sent. Signals are generated whenever you move a stick or flick a switch on the Tx, and they are emitted via the antenna, or aerial.
All radio signals operate on a frequency commonly measured in kilohertz (kHz), megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). The Tx and Rx must be operating on the same frequency for them to work together and the gadget that determines which frequency channel the radio system uses is called a crystal. Both the Tx and rx need a matching crystal to function. However, crystals are only necessary in traditional MHz radio systems...
Traditionally radio control systems operate on designated frequency channels in the MHz ranges but more recently a newer radio technology, called spread spectrum, has come in to existence and has
become commonplace throughout the hobby.
These newer rc systems use the 2.4GHz frequency band and are far less susceptible to unwanted radio interference. It's a much better and more advanced technology and 2.4GHz radios are quickly replacing the MHz ones for radio control use both in the air and on the ground.
2.4GHz systems don't require crystals to operate because the technology and method of operation is different to the MHz systems.
Regardless of the rc system being used, once the radio signals are picked up by the receiver, via the receiver antenna, they are passed on to the servos (and ESC
- Electronic Speed Controller - in electric powered models) inside the model and converted into physical movement.
Servos are connected directly to the control surfaces of the airplane by linkages, so any movement of the servo is passed directly to the control surface that it is connected to.
The end result is that when you make an input at the transmitter, something on the airplane moves to control the plane.
For more information on how it all works:
So now you know that radio signals are sent to the airplane when you operate the transmitter, but why does the model do what it does when you move the sticks?
All controllable airplanes have control surfaces which are attached to their parent flying surface and different control surfaces have different purposes. The primary control surfaces are rudder, elevator and ailerons.
The most basic rc airplanes will only have rudder control; the rudder is the moveable hinged section of the vertical stabiliser, or fin, at the rear end of the airplane. It controls the left/right directional movement of the airplane, or yaw; when the rudder deflects left the plane turns to the left and when the rudder deflects right the plane turns to the right.
The elevator is the moving hinged section of the horizontal stabiliser, or tailplane, also at the rear of the airplane. Elevators control the pitch attitude of
the airplane - whether the nose of the plane is pointing up, down or level.
When the elevator is deflected upward the airplane will point upwards and thus begin to climb, or fly level but with a 'nose up' attitude if engine power and/or forward airspeed isn't sufficient to cause a climb. When elevators are deflected downwards the plane will pitch downwards and begin a descent. When the elevators are held level, then the airplane will fly level when correctly trimmed.
The ailerons are the moving sections (hinged) of each wing and are located on the trailing edge (rear edge) of each wing, generally towards the outer end, or wing
tip, but sometimes along the full length of the trailing edge. Ailerons always come in pairs, one left and one right, and they move in opposite directions to each other. That's to say
that when one deflects upwards the other deflects downwards and vice versa.
Ailerons control the roll of the airplane about its longitudinal axis; left aileron up / right aileron down causes the plane to roll to the left and right aileron up / left aileron down causes the airplane to roll to the right.
When ailerons are applied the airplane will roll in that direction; when up elevator is applied simultaneously the airplane will enter in to a banked turn in that same direction. This is how airplanes are made to turn if they have no rudder control.
For more information on how airplanes move and turn:
Every operation that is controllable on an rc airplane is referred to as a 'channel'.
The most basic plane will be just one channel which could be either motor control on/off (electric) or rudder movement. A 2 channel rc airplane will likely have motor
and rudder control.
To get a true feeling and understanding of radio control flying you should get a plane with three or four channels. A four channel plane will have throttle (motor power), elevator, aileron and rudder control whereas a 3 channel powered plane will have either rudder or aileron control but not both.
More complex airplanes can have more channels, for example landing flaps and retractable undercarriage. There are no set rules as to how many channels an rc airplane must have, it all comes down to the number of functions the pilot wants to have control over.
For the majority of 'sport' and club level rc pilots a 3, 4 or 5 channel airplane is the most popular.
For more information on how airplanes move and turn:
With the exception of rc gliders, all rc airplanes need a motor of some kind to generate the thrust to pull (or push) the model through the air.
The two primary power types are internal combustion (IC) and electric power (EP). IC is a collective term that covers all engine types that run on fuel; these are petrol (gasoline), glow plug, diesel and turbine. Glow plug is often referred to as 'nitro' but is exactly the same thing. To confuse things even more IC powered airplanes, particularly glow plug ones, are often just referred to as 'gas' planes even though this name suggests that they're gasoline powered when in fact they use a different type of fuel.
There are many many different choices of both IC and EP rc airplanes available and the size of the engine or motor used depends on the size and weight of the model, as well as the desired performance.
There are several pros and cons to each type of power unit but it is fair to say that in recent years electric powered rc planes have become hugely popular. Newer electronic technology has improved their performance and flight capabilities to the point that a well-equipped EP airplane can easily match an equivalent size/design IC one in terms of speed, duration and aerobatic performance. That just wasn't possible a decade ago!
The advent of low cost and Ready To Fly EP planes has really opened up the hobby in recent years, and there is no argument that you can get started for less with electric, but there are still many beginners who prefer to start with an IC model airplane and this is perfectly acceptable.
For more information on power types and IC/EP rc airplanes:
Learning to fly rc airplanes is best done on a trainer airplane. These are planes that have certain built-in design characteristics to make them nice and stable in the air.
The biggest giveaway is the position of the wing in relation to the fuselage. If the wing sits on top of the fuse then there's a good chance that the plane is indeed a trainer. High wing airplanes always make the best trainers because they are very stable and forgiving; the weight of the fuselage underneath the wing means that the airplane will always want to naturally level itself if left to fly on its own (providing that it is correctly trimmed by the pilot).
Another giveaway is the amount of dihedral - the upward angle of the wings when looked at from the front of the airplane. More dihedral means more stability in the air and hence easier flying. Also, rc airplanes that rely only on rudder for directional control (i.e. no ailerons) will have more dihedral compared to one with ailerons, because the dihedral aids the turn of the airplane when rudder is applied.
When learning to fly rc airplanes, always go for a trainer style airplane before any other. When you've mastered the basics, you can move on to other design planes which are more aerobatically capable.
For more information on trainer airplanes:
RC flight simulators offer one of the best ways of learning to fly rc airplanes without any risk of crashing and damaging a real model.
The flight simulator is software that runs on your home computer and will either have its own transmitter-style controller or will let you use your own transmitter to power the software. Modern rc flight simulators running on a modern, powerful pc are extremely realistic and an excellent training aid.
If you are serious about learning to fly rc airplanes and your budget will stretch, consider buying one of the better sims such as Phoenix, RealFlight, Reflex XTR or AeroFly. Alternatively look at the FMS simulator which is a freebie download, and Clearview is another option.
RC flight sims let you learn to fly an rc airplane (or helicopter) in complete safety and they will teach you the co-ordination and reactions you need to fly the real thing. Obviously there are some differences between flying a virtual plane and a real one, but the basics are the same and a sim can be an invaluable tool for the beginner to the radio control flying hobby.
For more information on rc flight simulators:
Getting yourself along to a local club and seeking one-to-one instruction is the best way of learning to fly rc airplanes, no question. Most rc flying clubs will have dedicated instructors and some clubs even have a club trainer airplane for beginners to learn on, so you don't have to buy your own until you know you want to get in to the hobby for sure.
Club instruction is usually undertaken with a Buddy box system; your Tx is connected to the instructor's Tx with a cable and he can give you or take away from you control of the airplane simply by flicking a switch on his Tx. It's a very safe and proven method of rc flight instruction.
If you can't or don't want to join a club, and don't know anyone who flies rc planes, then self-teaching is your only other option.
As previously mentioned an rc flight simulator is invaluable in this situation, but there are many electric powered RTF airplanes out there that are suitable for the beginner.
Self-teaching with a three channel airplane is easier than a four channel one but many newcomers to the hobby do successfully self-teach with a four channel plane, it's just that the learning curve is a bit steeper.
For more information on joining a club or self-teaching:
This is a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, but the time will come when you're ready to start learning to fly rc airplanes for real and consequently you need to part with your hard earned
You now know that trainer airplanes are the best planes to learn on, but what about the size, power type and form of construction? These are all things that need to be considered when shopping around for your first rc plane.
Size: rc airplane size is primarily given in wingspan, or the overall length of the wings from tip to tip.
A 'good' size plane to learn on is around the 50 inch (1200mm) mark but to be honest this is only a very vague generalisation. If your flying space is small then you'll need a smaller plane, or you might just prefer something larger. Most foam RTF electric park flyer type rc airplanes fall in to the 40" to 60" wingspan range and many rc trainers will be this size too. IC planes will likely be larger than electric, but that's no hard and fast rule.
You can, if you prefer, go much smaller and learn on an 'ultra micro' rc plane such as the HobbyZone Champ. The biggest downside to this size airplane is that it's easily effected by wind and so learning to fly rc planes like these is best done on calm days. But the Champ is a very popular little trainer and very affordable.
Power type: you might already know whether you want to fly IC or EP and the decision often does come down to personal preference.
If you're restricted to flying in a public space, such as a park, then electric is the way to go. EP planes have a much lower nuisance factor because they are, generally, very quiet compared to a noisy IC model. Learning to fly IC rc airplanes might mean you need to join a club to make use of their flying field.
Also, EP planes require fewer accessories (i.e. no engine-starting equipment) and are, generally speaking, cheaper to buy so you can definitely get started for less with an electric rc plane.
Construction: essentially your choices are traditional balsa/ply or foam. Ready To Fly electric foam rc airplanes are very common these days and widely available. They're
convenient, relatively cheap and easy to repair as well as being more durable, generally speaking. A balsa/ply rc airplane can be durable but will almost definitely suffer more damage in a bad
crash, and can be complex to repair - even worse if you have no modelling experience.
So if you're looking for the quick and convenient way to get started in the hobby, foam is the way to go. As you gain experience you can move over to traditionally built airplanes, if that's what you want.
Throughout this web site you'll see links to particular rc airplanes (and other models). All of the models mentioned in this site have been carefully chosen because they are perfectly suitable
for anyone learning to fly rc airplanes and indeed have been designed for exactly that.
But if you're not happy about buying a model online without seeing it first, the best thing to do is to get along to your local hobby shop and talk to someone face to face. But be aware that there are some model shop owners out there who have no interest in your personal experience of getting started in the hobby, they just want your money! If you feel that you're getting bad advice and the guy is just trying to sell you the most expensive thing in the shop, come home get online and join an internet forum to get some impartial advice.
Rather than give this lesson here, please visit the RC Airplane World flight school pages when you're ready.
Once you've got a few flights under your hat and have the basic feel of flying rc airplanes, there's one sure way to improve your flying skills - practice!
Confidence only comes with experience and the more often you fly, the better you'll get at it. If you have access to an rc flight simulator then great, get on it as much as you can - that will certainly accelerate your training.
But when learning to fly rc airplanes be prepared to have the odd 'air incident'... Any rc pilot who tells you he or she has never crashed a model plane obviously hasn't been flying one for long
enough! RC airplane crashes are, sadly, all part of the
hobby and you will damage your model at some point in time sooner or later. But don't worry, just keep practising as often as you can and you'll quickly improve your skills and become
much more confident with your airplane.
The most important thing to do is to enjoy the flying and try to laugh at the crashes! (so long as no-one gets hurt...)