Thoughts on flying a radio controlled model airplane

Today, I want to talk a little bit about getting ready for your first flight.  Assuming you have acquired your model and have someone that will help you with the first flights, let’s go over pre-flight checks and get familiar with the feel of the radio transmitter.  You will need to be familiar enough with how the transmitter feels in your hands so that you can manipulate all the controls without having to look at the transmitter while flying.  It is mandatory that you never take your eyes off the plane while it is in the air.  Even one brief moment can cause you to lose track of your plane and what it is doing.

Starting and tuning of the engine can wait until you are at the flying field.  For now just work on getting familiar with the feel of the transmitter and with the action of the controls.  With the battery fully charged according to the radio manufacturers instructions, place the plane on the floor in front of you with the nose facing away from you.  Next, turn on the transmitter and then turn on the receiver.  It is recommended to always turn the transmitter on first and to turn it off only after the receiver is shut off.  Once the radio equipment is turned on all control surfaces should be in the neutral position.  The throttle will be in the position that corresponds to the position of the  throttle stick.

Now, let’s go over the controls and how each affects the action of the plane on the ground and in the air.  Radio control transmitters are set up in one of four different “modes”.  This means that each mode has the joysticks set up to actuate different controls on the plane.  We will be talking about using a transmitter that is set up for mode 2 operation, because mode 2 more closely imitates the action of the stick or yoke in a full scale plane ( the kind you ride in).  Also, most four channel trainers are flown in this mode.

    In Mode 2, the left stick controls the position of the throttle.  The speed of the engine can be adjusted all the way from idle speed (left stick all the way to the rear) to maximum speed (left stick all the way forward).  The rudder is controlled with the left stick also.  Moving the stick to the left steers the plane to the left and movig it to the right steers the plane to the right.

With a model that has a tricycle landing gear system, the nose wheel is connected to the same servo that controls the rudder.  They work together to control the plane when moving it around on the ground and during takeoffs.  Please note that it is recommended to move the sticks on the transmitter only enough to accomplish the desired action of the plane.  “Over controlling” the airplane is often the cause of crashes for beginners.

The ailerons and the elevator are both controlled with the right stick on the transmitter.  Ailerons are the movable portion of the trailing edge of the wing and control the longitudinal roll or banking of the aircraft.  Banking the plane to the right means to turn it to the right and this is done by moving the right stick to the right.  To bank or steer to the left move the stick to the left.  The ailerons are tied together at the servo and move in opposite directions of each other.  In order to bank the plane to the right, the right aileron moves upward and the left moves downward.  The opposite is true for banking to the left.

The elevator is the control surface that controls the climbing and descent of the airplane.  It is also controlled with the right stick.  Moving the stick to the rear gives the plane up elevator and moving it forward gives the plane down elevator.  Again, it is very important to point out that radio controlled airplanes are very sensitive to any changes that you make to the controls whether intentional or accidental.  The plane will react very quickly to any command you give it.  Move the sticks only as much as needed to achieve the desired results.

Having explained what the controls do and understanding the need for complete familiarization with the transmitter, let’s move on to the necessary pre-flight checks and then get on with the “dry flight”maneuvers.   Each time you go flying there are several things that you must get into the habit of checking out.  The very first thing you need to do is to determine if anyone else is using the same channel or frequency as you are.  There will be some method of controlling which airplanes can be flown at the same time.  Someone at the flying field will explain to you how it works at their field.  This is important because if you are flying your plane and someone else turns on a transmitter that is on the same channel as you are using, you will lose control of your model and very likely your plane will crash.  Just follow the rules and you’ll be okay.

After you are cleared to use your transmitter,  you need to do a radio check to make sure all control surfaces move in the correct direction.  I have seen even experienced pilots forget to do this and run into trouble immediately after the plane is airborne.  After you and your flight trainer are certain that the controls are working as they should, one more check and then you will be ready to start and tune the engine.  There is some controversy on the best way to to do the radio range or distance check.  One way is to check the system with the transmitter’s antenna pushed in and move the transmitter at least 50 feet away from the plane and have someone observe the control surfaces both with the sticks at neutral and while the sticks are being moved.  This is to check that the radio works at a distance from the transmitter.  You will watch for any jitter or unsteady movement of the control surfaces.  If everything sits perfectly still when the sticks are not moving and move smoothly when the sticks are moved slowly, then you are good to go.

Some people advocate that you have the engine running when you do the distance check and others insist that you leave the antenna fully extended and move much farther away.  Both ways seem to work okay and I have done it both ways with no bad results either way.  The main thing is be sure to check it out.

For your “dry flight” practice, sit with the plane facing away from you and get familiar with the amount of movement you get of the control surfaces with a given amount of stick movement.  This may sound a little silly and I remember when I was doing this with my first plane, it drove my wife and kids crazy, because the output of the transmitter would interfere with the TV, however it is important that when the instructor is helping you that you know exactly what to do without having to think about it.  It will also help build your confidence for that first flight.  This is something that can be done indoors or out which makes it a good thing to do periodically through the winter.  Practice moving the sticks slowly and smoothly.

    As you practice, talk yourself through each step of the flight.  Taxi the plane out onto the runway… point it into the wind…slowly open the throttle… let the plane gather some airspeed… steer with the rudder and nose wheel…  keep it going straight down the runway…  open the throttle more… ease back on the elevator… begin the climb… not too steep the plane is still not up to full speed… gradually gain some altitude… after getting about 100 feet in the air, begin a left turn by gradually giving some left aileron… as the plane begins to turn feed in a little up elevator… as the plane reaches the end of the turn return the elevator to neutral position and gradually return the ailerons to neutral…

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it.  Keep practicing and we’ll be talking about morein flight” controlling and then we will see if we can get it landed next time.  And, maybe we will have some videos on the art of crashing.  See you then and remember your comments are welcome.