So you want to get into and learn how to fly RC planes? You do not know where to start? In this in-depth but quickly readable guide, we shall cover everything from how to choose your first RC plane to how to take-off and land to moving around in the air and even some basic aerobatics!
If you are a complete beginner, I recommend that you read the whole thing from top to bottom. The knowledge will save you from a lot of confusion, frustration and money. Enjoy!
How to choose RC plane for beginners
As a fledgling pilot, you need to pick your first RC plane wisely. Why is this true especially for beginners? Because you, sir, are going to crash while you learn. Like they say, “It is not a matter of WILL you crash but WHEN you will crash”.
What does that mean for you in a practical way? Well, get a plane that is cheap with parts that are easily replaceable. Ideally, it should be made from foam. Foam damages are easily reparable and cheap to replace unlike other materials.
Sure, it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing to look at, but that’s okay. Your immediate goal is to get up in the air and teach your muscle memory to fly RC planes and do it cost effectively! If someone says your plane looks ugly, kick them (Just kidding!)
The easiest and the quickest way to get up in the air is to get a RTF (Ready to fly) RC plane. This is simple. Go to a local hobby store or an online web store and buy an RC plane that comes in a box, ready to fly as soon as you charge up the batteries and bind your transmitter to the receiver.
Another more challenging (but rewarding) path to take is to build your own RC craft! This has the added benefit of not only making it less daunting and easier to repair your own RC plane in case of crashes, but it also serves as a skill development exercise in RC plane building!
Flying RC planes are fun but trust me, building is fun in its own right! There are plenty of resources out there in the internet that will help you with the process. For example, you can find RC plane plans made by someone else and follow it, possibly adding your own ‘spice’ to it.
Number of channels
As a beginner, you need to keep it simple. You do not want to overwhelm yourself with too many controls at once when you are just starting out. RC planes comes in different channel varieties. Usually, 4 channel and 3 channel versions. A 4 channel RC plane comes with 4 different controls – Throttle, Rudder (rotation), Aileron (side to side tilting) and Elevator (Up and down).
A 3 channel RC plane is usually enough for a beginner to feel challenged! These planes either lack Rudder or Aileron. In most cases, they have the Throttle, Rudder and the Elevator controls. Master flying around with these controls first before getting a 4 channel RC plane capable of more maneuvers and aerobatics.
Obviously your plane needs fuel or some sort of power to function. There are different possible options for this. As a beginner, it is best to stick to LiPo batteries. They are powerful, easily rechargeable and long lasting with proper care.
Most RTF RC planes that you get in your hobby store will require a LiPo battery to be powered. For now, unless you have a friend or a mentor, avoid the complications from a fuel source like gas!
That’s it! No complications. To summarize, get a 3 channel, cheap, foam made, LiPo battery powered RC plane as a beginner.
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Understanding your RC plane
First, you need to understand the controls of your aircraft. Go ahead and pickup that transmitter of yours and examine it like a curious cat. Here is an overview of the typical transmitter:
Note: Your transmitter control positions may vary and not be exactly as described here. Check your user manual!
- Power button is pretty straightforward. Use it to turn your transmitter on and off
- This stick is for both Aileron/Roll and Throttle. Throttle determines how much total power is drawn by the motors, determining how high your RC plane will go. This is essentially the accelerator for your RC plane. Aileron (or Roll) is used to sway the RC plane sideways, either to the left or to the right.
- This stick is for both Elevator and Rudder. Elevator control is used to pitch the RC plane. That is, to move it forward and backwards. The rudder control is used to yaw the RC plane. That is, to rotate it about its axis.
- Power indicator determines how much power is left.
- Bigger antenna usually is better.
6 to 9. Dual rate controls can be used to switch up how sensitive each control is. This is essentially ‘tuning’.
Aerodynamics and flight basics
Now I’m not an aviation professional, but to understand how your plane flies, you must know what the Bernoulli’s principle states. I’ve covered the basics in the quadcopter flight mechanics post and the same thing works here.
The gist of this is that the wing of a basic RC plane is constructed in such a way that the air that passes the top of the wing has to travel more distance relative to the air that travels the bottom of the wing. This creates a low pressure air at the top of the wing, relative to the bottom of the wing.
The higher pressure air at the bottom of the wing will want to travel to the lower pressure area at the top, causing the upward push onto the wing and voila, you have the plane flying.
Newton’s third law of motion also comes into play in generating the lift. Air is a fluid, like water. The airflow from the rotors pushes downwards, creating the ‘action’. The ‘reaction’ is the lift.
Before you make your way to flying, it is important to do some important checks to make sure you have the best flying experience.
- Make sure your battery is charged properly. This is important not only to have a long lasting flying experience when you head out, but also to ensure that your batteries last in the long run.
- Make sure the battery is not damaged, unusually hot or puffed up.
- It is important to ensure that your servos and motors are working properly. Manually rotate the motors and servos with your hands, while the power is turned off. If there is resistance, you might have a problem. It is also important to recheck the servos and motors with the controller, while they are powered up!
- Make sure the parts of the plane, like the wings and tail are all fitted together tightly. You won’t have a pleasant flying experience if your plane parts are loose. Consequences may vary from putting extra load on the motors to straight up crashing in the first few seconds.
- Make sure the transmitter is bound to the receiver and that it is properly trimmed. Perform mini flight tests (without taking it off the ground) to test the sensitivity and nature of the transmitter controls. Adjust the trims before making a full-fledged flight.
- Make sure the propellers are balanced.
- Remember these important bits before taking off:
- Keep a safe distance from the RC plane. Make sure there are no other people or pets on the take-off runway.
- If you are about to crash, turn the throttle down to zero immediately. This will ensure minimum damage to not only the parts of the plane but also to objects and living things it might crash into!
- Avoid trouble. Try not to break any laws. Make sure you are thorough with the UAV laws and regulations within your country.
Where and when to fly
Before you head out, check the weather! This is especially true for beginners. If it is too windy where you plan to fly, pick another spot or day. If it is winter right now, pick another season. Winter is arguably the worst time for a beginner to get into the hobby, unless you have an expert friend to observe you and bail you out if things go south.
If you cannot wait for winter to be over, use a flight simulator instead of actually heading out. Trust me, the chances of you crashing down are already high. The unpredictability of winter will only make it worse. Save yourself from the loss of money and the frustration.
If the weather conditions are all good, where do you go to fly your plane? Pick an open spot where there are little to no people, pets or objects such as trees around. Grass is more crash friendly than concrete, so keep that in mind.
If you aren’t particularly an introvert, look out for RC flying clubs in your local area. They usually have their own flying spaces where they head to and are extremely ideal for beginners. Members of such clubs can be extremely helpful to you as a beginner and their guidance can be invaluable.
Make sure you avoid places where your RC plane can potentially crash into people. This cannot be stressed enough. Propeller strikes for example, can not only be injurious but can also cause death. You do not want to get into legal trouble because of your RC hobby!
Other example places to avoid flying near are airports, construction sites and nuclear power plants. Flying near airports can be extremely dangerous as your RC plane can potentially crash into real life sized plane causing devastating consequences. You do not want to be the reason for that!
Fly RC planes : Take-off and Landing
Before actually flying the aircraft around, the first thing as a beginner is to master take-off and landing. Flying around is of no use if you cannot safely get back your RC craft onto the ground!
The take-off is a very simple process. You throttle up to about half and after you gain enough momentum, pull down on the elevator. Make sure you do not over do this as it can cause your craft to loop around and crash back onto the ground before even taking off. Take-off in the direction of the wind.
As you do this, it is important to make sure that your RC plane does not have a tendency to tilt or yaw to one side. If this is the case, you may need to adjust your controller’s trim settings to fix this before doing this exercise. This is important because if you do not do this you are prone to crash.
After you have taken off it is time to land. Throttle down and gradually let the craft lose its altitude. As it nears the ground, throttle down completely and pull on the elevator to make a smooth landing. You do not want to crash land, especially nose-in (with most beginner RC planes), as this can damage your propellers.
Here it is important to make sure that your craft has lost all its wing energy before you pull on the elevator to land. Otherwise, your craft will take off right back up and you will have trouble making a smooth landing.
Make sure you spend some time taking off and landing. Do not let your RC plane go too far up or too far from you. Your goal with this exercise is to take off and land immediately, all in one straight line.
You do not learn to steer your plane with this exercise, but you will learn how to keep the craft in the course and to bring it back to level should it go off.
Spend a couple of hours doing this exercise to truly master taking off and landing your craft. It is important to be confident in yourself to bring back the RC plane down safely before you fly it around.
Flying the RC Plane
Now it us officially time to get your craft in the air and learn to fly it. In this exercise, your primary goal is to learn how to turn your craft and to maintain altitude. It is important to get your basic flying skills to mastery before attempting crazy maneuvers.
Learning to make turns
First off, you have to take off and gain enough altitude so that if you make any mistakes it will be easier to recover from it without crashing.
Once you are up in the air, it is now time to practice making right turns with your RC plane. For a beginner level 3 channel RC plane, the turning will be the yaw control in most cases.
Don’t hold the turn. You want to quickly turn and elevator to finish the turn. This is because as you yaw the craft, it will lose altitude. Also, if you hold the turn for too long, it will go into crazy maneuver mode.
Ideally, to make a turn, you simply tap the yaw control ever so slightly followed up by the elevator. And to balance it off, you tap the yaw control to the opposite direction of the turn as the turn is finishing, to regain the plane’s balance.
After you have practiced making repeated right turns, practice making left turns. After that point you may combine things up by first making a right turn and then a left turn etc.
Maintaining orientation/direction when the plane is far away from you
Note that when the plane is not facing the direction you are facing, your sense of orientation may get confused. This is especially true when the plane is flying towards you and is far away from you.
When the plane is flying towards you, the turning controls get reversed. That is, left becomes right and right becomes left. When the plane is far away from you, you may find it difficult to know if the plane is flying towards you or away from you.
The simple solution for this is to turn the plane to any one direction slightly. If the controls are reversed, then it is obvious that the plane is flying towards you.
Recovery from stalling
Sometimes you may find your plane gaining and/or losing altitude drastically. If that ever happens, the first thing to remember is – DO NOT PANIC! Also, do not throttle up or frantically use the elevator control.
If the RC plane stalls, usually the easiest way to recover is to throttle down and make a slight elevator in the direction of the stall. Throttling down and turning away from a stall also works as this tends to drain the energy away from the stall, settling it.
In most trainer lever RC crafts, throttling down alone will get it to level itself automatically.
Practice gaining and losing altitude
When you are in the air, it is not only important to practice making turns but also to learn how to properly gain and lose altitude as and when required.
You will already learn some altitude control from learning how to turn, but practice making some slow and steady altitude gains and losses. This will prepare your reflexes to react in times of need and also prepare you to land and take off effectively.
Fly figure 8s
After you have practiced making turns and gaining/losing altitude, it is now time to train your muscle memory even further.
Climb up in altitude and fly ‘figure 8s’. This is done by first turning in one direction, letting it fly in a cross section and then turning in the other direction and repeating this process.
This will teach you to make turns and corrections fluidly. It will also prepare you for more advanced moves and aerobatics.
Practice making figure 8s in both clockwise and anti-clockwise directions. You can also spice it up by gaining and losing altitude slightly during the course of the figure 8s. This will make your muscle memory adapted to multiple moving parts. Flying in a square pattern is another thing you can try.
Remember- When in trouble, throttle down and adjust elevator and/or yaw to recover.
When is it time to come down?
It would be nice if you could fly your RC craft forever, but unfortunately you will have to come down eventually. With most flights you can expect a flight time of about 10-15 minutes before your battery gives up.
However, it is important to note that it is not wise to let the battery completely drain when in air. The obvious consequence is that your plane will crash down before you can land. The other indirect and insidious consequence is that the battery’s life span will reduce or worse, it may even burst into flames.
The other times when the party is over is when you can hear weird sounds from the plane. This can range from crackling or wobbling sounds from the propellers, servos or motors. Do not let the craft stay in the air if that is the case. You do not want to damage your RC craft and/or its parts beyond repair. Time to bring it down and take a look!
Now that you got a feel for the basic flight mechanisms, it is now time to move up to aerobatics! Yes, you finally get to impress your friends (and yourself) with classy maneuvers.
Note that with a beginner level 3 channel plane, you cannot do all the maneuvers. For example, if you do not have the aileron control on your 3 channel plane, forget doing rolls.
An important thing to keep in mind is that altitude is your friend! Be liberal with making altitude. This will give you enough room to correct your course if things go wrong, before crashing down.
In order to perform a loop, it is ideal to fly in the direction of the wind. You need all the speed you can muster. Perform a slight nose dip by pushing the elevator to add on to the speed and then immediately pull on the elevator.
At the top of the loop, throttle back and decrease the elevator. Once it reaches back to the bottom position, forward elevator to get back to level and regain balance.
As a beginner doing loops, it is advised that you do not perform this move when the plane is flying towards you as the controls get reversed. Learn how to make a loop when the plane is flying away from you and across from you!
And remember – If things go south, throttle down and get it back to level.
With rolls, fly your RC plane into the wind and pitch up slightly to prepare for the move. You do not need speed with this move. Aileron to either side until the plane rolls to that side and makes a complete roll. As the plane is near finished with the roll, Aileron to the other side to counter act and regain balance.
Note that at that point, the nose of your plane maybe pointed downwards and it might have lost altitude. This means that you have to roll quickly, especially at low altitudes. You also have to pull back on the elevator to regain full balance and level.
Flying RC planes inverted
Flying RC planes inverted is probably one of the first things that popped up in your mind when you thought ‘aerobatics’. It is definitely an amazing and classy move!
Note that when you fly inverted, the Elevator and rudder controls are inverted too, so this move might take some time getting used to.
In order to perform the move you can either roll into the inverted flight and roll out of it or loop into the inverted flight and roll out of it. Never pull on the elevator to get out of an inverted flight as this increases the chances for a crash ten-fold. Pulling out will also take a toll on your batteries, motors and frame.
Always roll out of an inverted flight. This might take a while getting used to, but you’ll get there!
Different planes behave differently and it is really important to get a feel for the aircraft at hand. If it is your first time with a particular plane, go up enough in altitude where recovery is possible and test the sensitivity and tendencies for that particular aircraft before actually performing the moves.
A flight simulator like Real Flight can be immensely valuable for you as a beginner. Such flight simulations are life-like, so the skills you learn from flying around in a flight sim are immensely transferable to real life.
All this, with the added advantage of a restart button if you crash. Unlike real planes, you do not have to weep and go through all the trouble of fixing or getting a new plane. You just have to hit the restart button if you crash and voila, you are good to go again!
Do you want to save hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars from crashing and fixing your plane, while learning to fly an RC plane? Do not think twice, just go ahead and get a flight simulator. It will not only be valuable to you now as a beginner, but will also serve its purpose throughout your RC career, keeping your skills sharpened during bad weather and the like!
What if you crash?
Crashing can be really frustrating and demotivating, especially for a beginner. Now I have covered a lot of this in the crashed quadcopter post, but I’ll reiterate again and give you some plane specific tips.
The first thing to remember if you crash is to try not to weep too much. You completely wrecked that flashy new RC plane you bought? You are not alone! It happens to the best of us. It is part of the hobby and so, leverage it as a learning experience instead of beating yourself (and your plane).
Keep your cool, do not throw away your craft into the bin yet! Nine times out of ten, the damages from a crash are easily fixable. Do not just walk away thinking you’ve lost it all. Unless it is completely impossible (like crashing into an inaccessible area), go ahead and recover the damaged craft and its pieces ASAP.
After you have recovered the crashed plane, it is now time to calmly asses what is damaged. Start from the propeller. Is the propeller worn or damaged? Time for a replacement. Move onto the motors next. Check if it is working properly with no obstruction. Check if it is damaged and in need of a replacement or merely obstructed from sand/mud/grass it collected from a crash.
Next, you check if the ESCs, servos and batteries are all well. If not, replace them. Note that the chances of damaging EVERYTHING in your craft in one crash is unlikely. A simple replacement if one or two parts may be more than enough in most cases.
If all of your parts are working properly, time to do a frame/body assessment. Check if and where the damage is done and use tapes, CA or hot glue to fix it. Usually gluing the damaged part, followed up by taping it should do the trick! Make sure the plane is firm and back to normal after the fix.
Do a pre-flight check before heading out again.
That’s all folks! Remember the cheesy but true words – ‘Practice is key’. Do not lose heart if you crash or find it difficult to fly the RC plane. Use simulators lavishly. It is definitely fun as a beginner, but the real fun begins when you have reached a certain level of mastery. You can even consider FPV flying at that point! But even then, you will not be completely immune to making mistakes. Improve yourself as both a builder/repairman and a pilot. It will be worth it!
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