Electric RC airplanes
- how EP changed the hobby...
Without doubt electric rc airplanes (electric power or 'EP') have been responsible for introducing a huge number of people to the radio control flying hobby in recent years, and it's easy to see why.
Foam Ready To Fly ('RTF') electric planes such as the 3 channel HobbyZone Super Cub LP and the 4 channel E-flite Apprentice 15e, both shown below, have become very popular airplanes for beginners to learn on, either from scratch or as a natural progression up from simpler one or two channel rc planes.
Such airplanes have certainly made learning to fly an rc plane easier than it ever has been, and that's great news for the radio control flying hobby.
Incidentally foam construction has become the industry standard material for electric RTF airplanes, although of course traditional balsa/ply planes are still widely available as kits and in ARF form, and to a lesser degree in RTF form.
Indeed it's probably fair to say that foam RTF EP rc planes (man that's a lot of abbreviations!) have flooded the market in the last few years, but what was once a questionable product has become mainstream to many fliers around the world.
The quality of such electric rc airplanes has improved dramatically to the point where mass-produced scale foam airplanes, like warbirds for example, are nearly as impressive as a scratch built one made by an experienced modeller over many months! And can be bought for a fraction of the cost, too.
It's a good reflection of how the top manufacturers have really raised their game, and brands like HobbyZone and E-flite (along with ParkZone) are big names in electric flight these days; HobbyZone being aimed at the complete beginner with their foamie range while E-flite target the more experienced flyer with a mix of foam and balsa electric aircraft.
Planes from such big-name brands, like the two pictured above, are great value and have brought countless people into the radio control flying hobby; indeed the Super Cub is one of the most popular electric rc trainers to date.
But with that said, smaller electric rc airplanes such as the HobbyZone Champ also bring a large number of people into the hobby and such planes make self-teaching very easy indeed. They're also a great solution if you have limited flying space!
Above: the HobbyZone Champ is an excellent, low-cost introduction to rc flying
As previously mentioned, HobbyZone planes are geared towards the complete novice and although simpler two channel planes are available in the range, you really need at least three channels (motor, rudder or ailerons & elevator) to get a true taste of flying a radio control model airplane. The good news is that self-teaching with a 3 channel rc plane is a perfectly realistic option.
A four channel rc plane (motor, rudder, elevator & ailerons) like the Apprentice 15e has a marginally steeper learning curve but the rewards are greater with smoother flying and more aerobatic capabilities for when you've mastered the basics. Although self-teaching with a 4 channel plane is a bit more involved, it's still very doable and plenty of beginners do it without too many problems.
So a 3 or 4 channel electric rc airplane is going to give you the best experience if you're serious about the hobby.
If you just want something simple then a 2 channel plane should suffice, but be warned that such planes are more toys than anything else.
You can read more about channels and rc airplane controls here.
You'll see that the electric rc airplanes shown above all have similar design characteristics and this is the fundamental 'trainer' type plane that you should buy to learn on - but more on that further down the page.
Electric RC airplane progression
Some when back in the early 1990s I tried electric flight as a clean alternative to my glow powered planes, the plane was an MFA Magifly, if I remember correctly.
It was so heavy and underpowered, despite using the recommended components, that it just never got airborne! A nasty stall immediately followed its maiden hand launch, and that was the end of that - I returned to flying my glow plug planes somewhat disappointed and disillusioned.
Since then electric radio control flight has come a very long way indeed and electric powered rc planes are commonplace; I'd hazard a guess that they've outnumbered IC (internal combustion) planes now.
Electric rc airplanes are continually evolving and they are now at the point where they can match a glow plug powered plane in terms of flight times and performance - an unthinkable idea just a few years ago.
Popular 4 channel RTF glow-powered trainers are now available as electric versions, and two fine examples are the E-flite Alpha 450 and the HobbiCo NexStar Select EP, both shown below. The Alpha isn't available RTF, as its glow-powered cousin is, but can be purchased in ARF and PNP form.
But not only are manufacturers producing IC-equivalent EP planes, aeromodellers are converting them themselves.
Pictured right is my own 60" span Edge 540 intended to take a glow plug engine, but I converted it to electric power. This kind of EP conversion is very commonplace now, and again it just goes to show how much the hobby has progressed in recent years - roll the clock back just a few years and converting such a plane to EP would have been a real struggle, if not impossible.
So the variety of electric powered rc airplanes available to us today is vast and growing all the time; it's very easy to become overwhelmed by the choices you have but selecting the correct plane to begin with is so important and will have a major impact on your initial enjoyment of and success in the hobby. Buy the wrong type of plane to learn on and you'll have a bad experience; buy something suitable for beginners and you'll be successful!
On that note, my e-book The Beginner's Guide To Flying RC Airplanes will get you sorted and answer all the questions you have about getting started.
There's no doubt that as we continue to progress through the technological revolution that has already changed the face of electric rc, electric airplanes just keep getting better and better. Powerful brushless inrunner and outrunner motors, Electronic Speed Controllers (ESCs) and lithium polymer (Li-Po) flight battery packs are now commonplace, giving electric rc planes even better flight performance than ever before.
The diversity of EP plane design is widening also. Large scale, multi-motor electric powered planes are now commonplace at the flying field, alongside micro rc planes. Just about anything is possible with electric power these days, and that can only be great news for this ever-evolving pastime.
And manufacturing quality is good, so long as you stick to the top brands. You only need to browse product ranges such as E-flite to get an idea of what's around in good quality, mass-produced electric powered radio control flying these days.
Above: EP rc planes come in all shapes, sizes and types these days, but stick to the better known brands for quality.
Points to remember when choosing electric RC airplanes
With so many electric rc planes available nowadays, choosing a suitable model does need some consideration.
Fortunately the process of selecting the right plane for your needs can be kept simple so long as you keep a few basic guidelines in mind. Many RTF electric rc airplanes are designed for the beginner, but there are also many that are not.
Here are a few of those thoughts that you should remember when choosing and buying your first electric plane:
- Airplanes that are of a high wing design (i.e. the wing sits on top of the fuselage) always make the best airplanes to learn on because of their natural stability in the air.
An alternative to this design type is the rc powered glider.
- An RTF (Ready To Fly) airplane is far better if you have no modelling experience; it's the best way of getting airborne with the least amount of frustration.
- Size matters! A plane with a wingspan of between 30 and 50 inches is the optimum size for learning. Much smaller and you'll have trouble seeing what it's doing, much bigger and it could be too much of a handful. That said, micro-size planes like the Champ do have their place for beginners, especially if you're limited with your flying area size and/or budget.
- Check out availability of spare parts before you buy - you will need them at some time or another. A proper replacement part is a safer option than a bodged repair.
- Choose an rc airplane that is durable and easily repairable after minor damage; for example, foam planes are tougher and easier to repair than balsa wood ones.
- Be aware of who you're buying from - with the increased popularity of the hobby in recent years comes the increase of unscrupulous sellers who are only interested in your money rather than your success in and enjoyment of your new hobby.
- Do research. Internet forums and video sites are great places to seek further advice, or ask at your local hobby shop, or club, if you have one.
If you keep the above pointers in mind then you're halfway to having a successful first flight!
Sound systems for electric RC airplanes
It's probably fair to say that many aeromodellers like the noise of an internal combustion engine in a radio control plane, but these days you can make an electric powered rc plane sound realistic.
RC airplane sound systems have been around for some time, but only for larger IC airplanes due to their size and weight.
Thankfully now there is a great system available for smaller foam (and traditional balsa) electric planes. You can read about it on the MrRCSound system page, but here's a video of such a system in an electric P-51 Mustang, a very popular choice of radio control airplane...
Andrew Lawrence, who has developed and produces these systems, has single handedly made yet another exciting change to the face of the rc flying hobby by making these units available. This is the first time that your average electric 'park flyer' size rc plane can feature authentic engine (and gun) sounds, so hats off to Andrew for achieving that!
Well hopefully this page has introduced you to EP within the hobby. Learning to fly an electric rc airplane is a fun and exhilarating experience but you do need to simplify the game as much as possible in your early days.
Keeping the above points in mind should help you do that, and once you've got a few hours flying under your hat and built up some confidence then you can consider moving on to larger and faster planes.
Flying rc airplanes in general is a great (,exhilarating and addictive!) hobby and making a sensible choice of plane when starting out will make a big difference to your enjoyment and success in the hobby. The great news is that there will be an electric plane to suit your needs wherever you are in the hobby, whether total newbie or experienced rc pilot.
See "The Beginner's Guide To Flying RC Airplanes" e-book for more info on flying electric planes.