So, you are interested in learning to fly radio controlled model aircraft? This section will give you some basic information to help you get started. The following advice is primarily aimed at the prospective fixed wing pilot; helicopters have their own special construction and operating considerations and will be dealt with separately.
It is essential to choose a suitable trainer as your first model. You may like the look of that quarter scale Sea Fury kit taking pride of place in the model shop window, but it is not a practical proposition for a first model, or even a second!
The typical power trainer will be a high wing arrangement, with sufficient stability to allow the model to fly 'hands-off' while the student thinks about what to do, and to be able to fly slowly enough to allow the student time to think. A larger model (up to about 6 foot wingspan) has the advantage of being easier to see, and can also have an advantage in being smoother in flight, but requires more resources when building and repairing. Most trainers are of simple lines and construction both for ease of initial construction and to make any repairs simpler, but there is no reason why it should not have a scale-like appearance, subject to the constraints already described.
Power models should have at least 3 functions: throttle, rudder and elevator, although provided the student is using the services of an instructor, there is no reason why a trainer should not have aileron control as well. The undercarriage arrangement will usually be tricycle, rather than tail-dragger, as this makes ground handling easier. However, there is no reason why a taildragger should not be used if preferred. The engine should be easily accessible and preferably mounted upright or sideways. Inverted engines are useful when trying to hide them in a scale cowl but this can sometimes make starting more difficult than necessary.
There is a huge range of radio equipment available, from simple 2-channel sets to multi-channel, multi-memory computer based sets. As a beginner you should be looking for at least a 4 or 6 channel radio set. If the budget allows, buy the 6 channel set; you can always add more servos, but it is not usually as easy to add extra channels and once you gain your wings you will soon find yourself making use of the extra facilities. For the same reason, it is worth buying a set with as many extra facilities, such as rate switches, mixers or model memories, as possible: you don’t have to use them initially, but is far better to have them available when you are ready rather than having to upgrade your radio equipment.
Any model shop should be able to supply you with a suitable package: it should have transmitter, receiver, at least 3 servos, NiCad or NiMH battery packs and charger. Do not be tempted to buy a set which requires non-rechargeable batteries to be fitted into a battery box. These have 2 problems: firstly the risk of dirty contacts causing failure; secondly there is no reliable way of measuring the remaining charge in a pack so you must fit a new set every time you go flying or risk the batteries going flat mid-flight. Under these circumstances the slight extra cost of rechargeable is well worth it.
I've heard that transmitters are available in different modes. What are they?
The following advice is obviously related to internal combustion engines, but there are an increasing number of options for electric powered models and you may find that the quietness and cleanliness of an electric powered trainer makes it more attractive.
The size of engine is largely determined by the model you have picked - what you may have to decide is whether to go for a 2 stroke or 4 stroke engine.
2 strokes are less complicated mechanically and hence are generally cheaper; they also require less maintenance and have a higher specific power output. However, unless they are effectively silenced they can be louder than 4 strokes and the higher revving engine note can be more obtrusive and annoying.
4 strokes are have a quieter exhaust and also tend to have higher torque and swing a larger prop at lower revs. This gives them a lower pitched and less obtrusive sound. They are more complicated mechanically and so tend to cost more than an equivalent capacity 2 stroke.
The most important aid you can have in learning to fly is an instructor. It is not impossible to teach yourself, but unless you are exceptionally gifted, the process will inevitably result in many hours spent repairing broken models. An instructors guidance will not necessarily prevent the occasional accident, but will increase tenfold the chances of bringing your model home in one piece at the end of the day, and his experience will be invaluable in reducing the time required to reach a solo standard.
An instructor will also pre-flight check your model carefully to ensure that everything is secure and that control surfaces are working in the right direction, a habit which all pilots should get into right from the start.
The traditional arrangement for instruction is for the instructor to get the model airborne and trimmed into level flight, then hand the transmitter to the student. The instructor will then issue instructions to the student to help him control the model.
If the student gets into difficulties the instructor takes back the transmitter and regains control. The delay caused by the physical transfer of the transmitter box can sometimes lead to problems if the model is at low attitude when difficulties arise. This can be overcome by using a dual-control system known as a ‘buddy box’ This allows 2 transmitters to be connected together with a lead, and the master Tx has a switch on it which when held down transfers control of the model to the students Tx. In this way the instructor can allow the student to carry on flying the model even into unusual attitudes yet regain control immediately when required.
Many R/C systems now come with this facility built in, but if not then you may be able to find a club which has a club owned trainer and buddy box system which is used for the initial flying training, reverting to the student's own model once the student gains basic proficiency.
Once the student has mastered level flight and basic turns, the instructor will move the lessons on to how to fly circuits, getting airborne and making an approach to land. You should also receive lessons on how to recognise, and recover from, problems such as stalls or spins.