Model flying - an overview

The hobby of model flying ('aeromodelling') has been growing since the early part of the 20th century, and it's important to note that flying model aircraft aren't by any means restricted to radio control.

It is, however, fair to say that rc aircraft do make up the largest sector of the model flying hobby and this has been reinforced since the late 1990s, with the rapid advance in electronic technology. This ongoing global electronic revolution has changed the face of radio control flying, making it more affordable and available to the masses than ever before.

But before reliable radio control appeared in the hobby world, aeromodellers were enjoying flying a wide variety of free flight and control line model airplanes.

The 1930s saw a pre-war surge in such airplanes as model diesel engines were developed. Then post-war times saw an even bigger interest in model flying, with so many minds having been enthused by the arial activities of the war period.

An early bang bang rc systemBut electronic components were big and bulky during that time, and it wasn't until the mid 1950s that homemade single channel radio control systems were being built by enthusiastic and knowledgeable modellers and electronic experts to put into their large-scale free flight model airplanes.
These early, home-developed radio control systems paved the way for commercial rc systems to be designed and produced (MacGregor being one of the first, an early Tx shown right, image from, and these started to become available during the 1960s. Radio control has grown in popularity ever since.

Such early radio control systems were known as Galloping Ghost or Bang Bang systems and the video below shows why!...

Radio control has certainly come a long way since those days!

Free flight and control line model flying

These are two terms that refer to non-rc model flying. These two often overlooked sectors of the hobby are still popular today, but not quite as much as radio control.

A free flight model airplane is one that is flown under its own power but has no means of directional control from the ground. In short, the engine is started and the airplane is launched and left to fly on its own.

Launching a free flight model airplane

Above: launching a free flight plane. Image ©

The plane will have been trimmed in advance, perhaps with a small trim tab on the trailing edge of the rudder, or the rudder itself may be set. This trim will determine the flight pattern of the plane, wide circles following a steep climb-out being the common option.

Free flight planes can be rubber powered, electric powered or IC powered. Rubber and electric (and CO2 gas) airplanes can be flown indoors if they are small enough, in fact indoor free flight meetings are a very common thing.

To limit a larger free flight plane's engine or motor run time, there are electronic cut-off gadgets available that are time-sensitive. These are programmed to shut down the engine/motor after a set amount of time, leaving the airplane to glide safely back to land.
Previous to these gadgets becoming available, and in the days if IC powered planes only (i.e. pre-electric flight), the only way to limit the run time of the engine was to put an exact amount of fuel in the tank.

There are no hard rules for free flight times, but the longer the flight, the more chance there is of the airplane going astray if it hasn't been properly trimmed, or if wind conditions aloft aren't as expected.

As satisfying and exhilarating as flying a radio control plane is, watching a free flight model airplane make its own way around the sky is equally as fulfilling, maybe more so in many ways.

Incidentally, there is a class of free flight that allows a single radio control channel to be used on the rudder. This is called Radio Assisted Free Flight, and is reminiscent of the early days of rc aeromodelling with single channel systems.

Control line

Control line model flying, also called U-Control depending on where you live in the world, is still a popular sector of the hobby and is an important mark in the history of model flying and aeromodelling.

Developed in the late 1930s, it was the first method of controlling a model airplane and as miniature model diesel engines became more available and more powerful during this decade, so control line flying became more popular.

A control line airplane has 2 long control wires connecting the elevator to a handle, not unlike a kite handle, that is held by the pilot. The pilot stands in one spot and flies the plane around himself, rotating all the time with the plane.

By moving the handle forward or back, the wires pull or push on the elevator giving altitude control to the plane. By doing this, the pilot can perform a variety of maneuvers all within an imaginary hemisphere, the size of which is determined by the length of the control wires.
There is no need for directional control of course, as the airplane is forced to fly the circle around the pilot.

Control line flying

Above: a control line airplane in action (look for the 2 control wires). Image from Webshots.

Control line airplanes don't need to be big (although they can be) but they can be very fast. Speed records, races and combat games are just a few of the arial activities that control line pilots can enjoy.

Control line flying is sometimes, unfortunately, compared to hurling a brick on a string around your head, by those not in the know! Nothing could be further from the truth - because of the speed of the planes and the proximity to the ground, it takes skill and concentration to fly a control line airplane well.

Below is a short video of some control line action...

A factor of control line flying that mustn't be ignored is dizziness! Standing in one spot and spinning round repeatedly makes a person dizzy, yet this is exactly what control line pilots face. But with practice, the dizziness can be suppressed and won't be a dangerous problem!

Both free flight and control line airplanes will always be loved by many, and they will always make up a big sector of the model flying hobby. But radio control will probably always take the #1 spot in the popularity ranks, and this has been reinforced in the last decade or so with so many new manufacturers producing rc airplanes.
Whether you choose to get into radio control, free flight or control line, model flying is an excellent and exhilarating hobby. It'll get you outdoors and mixing with plenty of like-minded folk. But beware... it's very addictive!

Early aeromodelling on film!

Below is a great video of historic model flying fun, with some early free flight, control line and radio control planes in action...

So great to see what our hobby looked like in the past. Clearly a very popular hobby back then, too!


Related pages & resources

Related pagesRC model flying.

Related pagesNational Free Flight Society (US). (External link).

Related pagesControl line tutorials. (External link).

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