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Learning to fly RC airplanes
- ground school
If you're thinking of learning to fly rc airplanes, my little ground school here will give you some fundamental but essential info on the basics of radio control flying. And you'll be pleased to know there isn't an exam at the end!
You've already taken the first step to becoming a confident rc pilot by finding this website. Now this page will give you a fundamental understanding of the hobby; all the important info about learning to fly rc airplanes has been condensed in to 10 easy lessons, with relevant links to pages of RC Airplane World where you can read about the topics in more detail.
If you get stuck on any words or terms then please use the rc flying glossary - it's fun and easy to use, and you can find the meanings (serious & amusing) to all the common rc flying words and terms that you're ever likely to hear at the flying field. Any word shown in bold on this Ground School page can be found in the glossary.
So get yourself comfortable, grab a drink and a snack and we'll begin! Your lessons on the basics of learning to fly rc airplanes are...
- RC - how it all works.
- How an rc airplane moves and turns.
- Number of channels.
- Different types of power unit.
- Trainer RC airplanes.
- RC flight simulators.
- Join a club or self-teach?
- Buying your first RC airplane.
- Getting airborne.
- Practice makes... perfect?
Incidentally, before we do begin, all the above topics and more are covered in detail in my e-book The Beginner's Guide To Flying RC Airplanes, along with everything else you need to know about getting started in this exhilarating and somewhat addictive hobby!
The e-book answers all the questions that you're likely to want to ask, and takes you step-by-step all the way to get you flying an rc airplane quickly and safely.
Right, back to the lessons...
1. RC - How it all works
The letters rc (also RC or R/C) stand for radio control. You'll often see rc airplanes referred to as remote control but technically this is an incorrect term. Radio control is the correct term because the airplane controls respond to radio signals that pass through the air from the transmitter (abbreviated to 'TX') to the receiver (abbreviated to 'RX').
The transmitter (also often just called the radio) is the main box that you hold in your hands and use to control your airplane. The receiver is located inside the airplane and receives the radio signals sent out from the transmitter.
The signals are sent to the plane in the same fundamental way as traditional television and radio broadcasts are sent. Signals are generated whenever you move a stick or flick a switch on the TX, and they are emitted via the antenna, or aerial.
All radio signals operate on a frequency commonly measured in kilohertz (kHz), megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). The TX and RX must be operating on the same frequency for them to work together and the gadget that determines which frequency channel the radio system uses is called a crystal. Both the TX and RX need a matching crystal to function. However, crystals are only necessary in traditional MHz radio systems.
Traditionally radio control systems operate on designated frequency channels in the MHz ranges, but more recently (since the early 2000's) a newer radio technology, called spread spectrum, has come in to existence and has become commonplace throughout the hobby. These newer rc systems use the 2.4GHz frequency band and are far less susceptible to unwanted radio interference. It's a much better and more advanced technology and 2.4GHz radios have all but replaced the MHz ones for radio control use both in the air and on the ground (i.e. rc surface vehicles).
2.4GHz systems don't require crystals to operate because the technology and method of operation is different to the MHz systems.
Regardless of the rc system being used, once the radio signals are picked up by the receiver, via the receiver antenna, they are passed on to the servos (and ESC - Electronic Speed Controller - in electric powered planes) inside the model and converted into physical movement.
Servos are connected directly to the control surfaces of the airplane by linkages, so any movement of the servo is passed directly to the control surface that it is connected to.
The end result is that when you make an input at the transmitter, something on the airplane moves to control the plane.
For more information on how it all works:
- Radio control gear - what it is, what it does.
- Radio control functions - what an rc system can do.
- Radio control frequencies for rc airplanes (MHz).
2. How an rc airplane moves and turns
So now you know that radio signals are sent to the airplane when you operate the transmitter, but why does the plane do what it does when you move the sticks?
All controllable airplanes have control surfaces which are attached (hinged) to their parent flying surface. Different control surfaces have different purposes.
The primary control surfaces are rudder, elevators and ailerons.
The most basic rc planes will only have rudder control; the rudder is the moveable hinged section of the vertical stabiliser, or fin, at the rear end of the airplane. It controls the left/right directional movement of the airplane, or yaw to give it its correct name. When the rudder deflects left the plane turns to the left and when the rudder deflects right the plane turns to the right.
The elevator is the moving hinged section of the horizontal stabiliser, or tailplane, also at the rear of the airplane. Elevators control the pitch attitude of the plane - whether the nose of the plane is pointing up, down or level.
When the elevator is deflected upward the airplane will point upwards and thus begin to climb, or fly level but with a 'nose up' attitude if engine power and/or forward airspeed isn't sufficient to cause a climb. When elevators are deflected downwards the plane will pitch downwards and begin a descent. When the elevators are held level, then the airplane will fly level (when correctly trimmed).
The ailerons are the moving sections (hinged) of the wing and are located on the trailing edge (rear edge) of each wing, generally towards the outer end, or wing tip, but sometimes along the full length of the trailing edge. Ailerons always come in pairs, one left and one right, and they move in opposite directions to each other. That's to say that when one deflects upwards the other deflects downwards and vice versa.
Ailerons control the roll of the airplane about its longitudinal axis; left aileron up / right aileron down causes the plane to roll to the left and right aileron up / left aileron down causes the airplane to roll to the right.
When ailerons are applied the airplane will roll in that direction; when up elevator is applied simultaneously the airplane will enter in to a banked turn in that same direction. This is how airplanes are made to turn if they have no rudder control.
For more information on how airplanes move and turn:
3. Number of channels
Every operation that is controllable on an rc airplane is referred to as a 'channel'.
The most basic plane will be just 1-channel which could be either motor control on/off (electric) or rudder movement. A 2-channel rc airplane will likely have motor and rudder control.
To get a true feeling and understanding of radio control flying you should get a plane with three or four channels. A 4-channel plane will have throttle (motor power), elevator, aileron and rudder control whereas a 3-channel powered plane will have either rudder or aileron control but not both.
More complex airplanes have more channels, for example landing flaps and retractable undercarriage. There are no set rules as to how many channels an rc plane must have, it all comes down to the number of functions the pilot wants to have control over.
For the majority of 'sport' and club level rc pilots a 3, 4 or 5-channel airplane is the most popular. If you're wondering how many channels there can be, some top-end transmitters allow for 20!
For more information on how airplanes move and turn:
4. Different types of power unit
With the exception of rc gliders, all rc airplanes need a motor of some kind to generate the thrust to pull (or push) the plane through the air.
The two primary power types are internal combustion (IC) and electric power (EP). IC is a collective term that covers all engine types that run on fuel; these are petrol (gasoline), glow plug, diesel and turbine. Glow plug is sometimes referred to as 'nitro' but is exactly the same thing, just a different name. To confuse things even more IC powered airplanes, particularly glow plug ones, are sometimes just referred to as 'gas' planes even though this name suggests that they're gasoline powered when in fact they use a different type of fuel.
There are many many different choices of both IC and EP rc airplanes available and the size of the engine or motor used depends on the size and weight of the model, as well as the desired performance.
There are several pros and cons to each type of power unit, but it is fair to say that electric powered rc planes have now become mainstream, considering that a couple of decades ago they were barely available.
Newer electronic technology has improved their performance and flight capabilities to the point that a well-equipped EP airplane can easily match an equivalent size/design IC one in terms of speed, duration and aerobatic performance. That just wasn't possible when I started rc flying!
The advent of low cost and Ready To Fly EP planes has really changed the hobby, and there is no argument that you can get started for less with electric. With that said, there are still many beginners who prefer to start with an IC airplane and this is perfectly acceptable.
For more information on power types and IC/EP rc airplanes:
- Electric rc airplanes.
- Gas (glow plug) rc airplanes.
- Model airplane glow plug engines.
- Gas vs. electric rc flying.
5. Trainer RC airplanes
Learning to fly rc airplanes is best done on a trainer airplane. These are planes that have certain built-in design characteristics to make them nice and stable in the air.
The biggest giveaway is the position of the wing in relation to the fuselage. If the wing sits on top of the fuselage then there's a good chance that the plane is indeed a trainer. High wing airplanes always make the best trainers because they are very stable and forgiving; the weight of the fuselage below the wing means that the airplane will always want to naturally level itself if left to fly on its own (providing that it is correctly trimmed by the pilot).
Another giveaway is the amount of dihedral - the upward 'V' angle of the wings when looked at from the front of the airplane. More dihedral means more stability in the air and hence easier flying. Also, rc planes that rely only on rudder for directional control (i.e. no ailerons) will have more dihedral compared to one with ailerons, because the dihedral aids the turn of the airplane when rudder is applied.
When learning to fly rc airplanes, always go for a trainer style airplane before any other. When you've mastered the basics, then you can move on to other design planes which are more aerobatically capable.
For more information on trainer airplanes:
6. RC flight simulators
RC flight simulators offer the best way of learning to fly rc airplanes without any risk of crashing and damaging a real model. A sim is something I strongly recommend, and there are shopping options at the end of this page.
The flight simulator is software that runs on your home computer and will either have its own transmitter-style controller or will let you use your own transmitter to power the software. Modern rc flight simulators running on a modern, powerful pc are extremely realistic and are an excellent training aid.
If you are serious about learning to fly rc airplanes and your budget will stretch, do consider buying one of the better sims such as Phoenix, RealFlight, Reflex XTR or AeroFly. Alternatively look at the FMS simulator which is a freebie download, and Clearview is another option.
RC flight sims let you learn to fly an rc airplane (or helicopter) in complete safety and they will teach you the co-ordination and reactions you need to fly the real thing. Obviously there are some differences between flying a virtual plane and a real one, but the basics are the same and a sim can be an invaluable tool for the beginner to the radio control flying hobby.
For more information on rc flight simulators:
7. Join a club or self-teach?
Getting yourself along to a local club and seeking one-to-one instruction is the best way of learning to fly rc airplanes, no question. Most rc flying clubs will have dedicated instructors and some clubs even have a club trainer airplane for beginners to learn on, so you don't have to buy your own until you know you want to get in to the hobby for sure.
Club instruction is usually undertaken with a Buddy box system; your TX is connected to the instructor's TX with a cable (or perhaps wirelessly) and he can give you or take away from you control of the airplane simply by flicking a switch on his TX. It's a very safe and proven method of rc flight instruction.
If you can't or don't want to join a club, and don't know anyone who flies rc planes, then self-teaching is your only other option, in which case you definitely need my e-book!
An rc flight simulator is invaluable in this situation, and there are many electric powered RTF airplanes out there that are suitable for the beginner looking to self-teach.
Self-teaching with a 3-channel airplane is easier than a 4-channel one but many newcomers to the hobby do successfully self-teach with a 4-channel plane, it's just that the learning curve is a bit steeper.
For more information on joining a club or self-teaching:
- RC airplane club directory.
- Club instruction.
- How to fly rc airplanes.
- Beginner's Guide To Flying RC Airplanes.
8. Buying your first RC airplane
This is a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, but the time will come when you're ready to start learning to fly rc airplanes for real and consequently you need to part with your hard earned cash!
You now know that trainer airplanes are the best planes to learn on, but what about the size, power type and form of construction? These are all things that need to be considered when shopping around for your first rc plane.
Size: rc airplane size is primarily given in wingspan, the overall length of the wings from tip to tip.
A 'good' size plane to learn on is around the 50 inch (1200mm) mark but to be honest this is only a very vague generalisation. If your flying space is small then you'll need a smaller plane, or maybe you prefer something larger. Most foam RTF electric park flyer type rc airplanes fall in to the 40" to 60" wingspan range and many rc trainers will be this size too. IC planes will likely be larger than electric, but that's no hard and fast rule.
You can, if you prefer, go much smaller and learn on an 'ultra micro' rc plane such as the HobbyZone Champ. The biggest downside to this size airplane is that it's easily effected by wind and so learning to fly rc planes like these is best done on calm days. But the Champ is a very popular little trainer and very affordable.
Power type: you might already know whether you want to fly IC or EP and the decision often does come down to personal preference.
If you're restricted to flying in a public space, such as a park, then electric is the way to go. EP planes have a much lower nuisance factor because they are, generally, very quiet compared to a noisy IC model. Learning to fly IC rc airplanes might mean you need to join a club to make use of their flying field.
EP planes require fewer accessories (i.e. no engine-starting equipment) and are, generally speaking, cheaper to buy so you can definitely get started for less with an electric rc plane.
Construction: essentially your choices are traditional balsa/ply or foam. Ready To Fly electric foam rc airplanes are very common these days and widely available. They're convenient, relatively cheap and easy to repair as well as being more durable, generally speaking. A balsa/ply rc airplane can be durable but will almost definitely suffer more damage in a bad crash, and can be complex to repair - even worse if you have no modelling experience.
So if you're looking for the quick and convenient way to get started in the hobby, foam is the way to go. As you gain experience you can move over to traditionally built airplanes, if that's what you want.
Throughout this website, RC Airplane World, you'll see links to particular rc planes. All of the aircraft mentioned in this site have been carefully chosen because they are perfectly suitable for anyone learning to fly rc airplanes and indeed have been designed for exactly that.
But if you're not happy about buying a model online without seeing it first, the best thing to do is to get along to your local hobby shop and talk to someone face to face. But be aware that there are some model shop owners out there who have no interest in your personal experience of getting started in the hobby, they just want your money! If you feel that you're getting bad advice and the guy is just trying to sell you the most expensive thing in the shop, come home get online and join an internet forum to get some impartial advice. Top forums I can personally recommend are RC Groups, RC Universe and Model Flying (UK).
9. Getting airborne
Rather than give this lesson here, please visit the RC Airplane World flight school pages when you're ready.
10. Practice makes perfect (almost)
Once you've got a few flights under your hat and have the basic feel of flying rc airplanes, there's one sure way to improve your flying skills - practice!
Confidence only comes with experience and the more often you fly, the better you'll get at it. If you have access to an rc flight simulator then great, get on it as much as you can - that will certainly accelerate your training.
But when learning to fly rc airplanes be prepared to have the odd 'air incident'... Any rc pilot who tells you he or she has never crashed a model plane obviously hasn't been flying one for long enough!
RC airplane crashes are, sadly, all part of the hobby and you will damage your plane sooner or later. But don't worry, just keep practising as often as you can and you'll quickly improve your skills and become much more confident with your airplane.
The most important thing to do is to enjoy the flying and try to laugh at the crashes! (so long as no-one gets hurt...)
Well hopefully now you know a lot more about learning to fly rc airplanes than you did at the start of this page.
Please continue to browse RC Airplane World, use the links on this page or the site map to find out even more about this great, addictive and increasingly popular pastime and why it's just "silly not to do it!".
Learning to fly RC planes on a sim
There's no question that an rc flight simulator is invaluable when learning to fly rc airplanes. Yes it's an additional cost, but that cost will very quickly be recouped, believe me!
How to fly rc airplanes.
RC airplane training methods.
Beginner RC airplanes.
Best beginner planes.
RC airplane controls.
RC flight simulators.
RC flying do's and don'ts.
RC flying FAQ.
RC flying glossary.