Learning to Fly a Radio Controlled Aeroplane


I had been interested in Radio controlled flight for some years but some early experiments with a small glow-plug powered training plane showed that it was not something you could do very quickly, or without some help.

The trouble with the glow plug powered machine was that it was noisy, fast, unstable, unreliable, messy and dangerous. It was also expensive to get started when you added up the cost of a plane, engine, radio gear, tool kit, fuel, starting apparatus etc....

However with the advent of electric flyers, the idea of taking a plane up the local park and teaching yourself to fly had become a realistic possibility. Electric trainers are designed to be quiet, slow and stable. 

 The plane purchased was the 'Electra-Fun'. It was designed for the novice pilot. The specification was:

 Wingspan - 1020mm (41")

  • Wing Area - 14 sq. Decimeter
  • Length - 750mm (30")
  • Motor - 380
  • Battery - 8.4v (NiCd)
  • Radio - 3 channel 27mHz AM.
  • Flight Time - ~15mins

  

 

 

The Electra Fun was also very good value. 60 included the plane (mostly assembled), 3 channel radio gear (installed), a battery, 2 chargers (one mains and one 12v) , a 300 series motor installed, 2 propellers and even a spare main wing.

The Electra-fun was designed to be naturally stable in flight, it had no ailerons and had a simple 'spar type' chassis made from carbon fibre. It had a high wing for stability and the propeller was mounted behind the wind so that it was not venerable in a crash. The wing itself had a 'progressive dihedral' profile to aid stable flight. The undercarriage was of the trailing wheel design, rather than a trike style, to make landings as simple as possible.

This design of starter plane is not unique and many similar planes are available from different manufactures, some with V-tail some with different undercarriage etc...... but the reason I picked this model was that it was the cheapest one to have 3 channel control. The 3 channels were elevator, rudder and throttle (although the throttle was either on or off), and I thought this would give a better introduction to full flight controls than 2 channel designs which typically have no elevators.

   

Maiden flight.

The park was cold and a slight breeze was blowing form the north. The plane was hand launched into the wind under full power and immediately started climbing. In fact it climbed so steeply that full down elevator was needed to maintain level flight.

Unfortunately the plane passed in front of the sun (which was low in the sky) and the result was a rough landing followed by a cart-wheel and some damage to the wing which had shifted and got caught in the propeller. One front wheel also got a bit bent.

 

Wind Damage from first flight

However a further 2 or 3 launches proved that the plane was easy to fly and that landing was possible. Quite soon, the wind was picking up and things were getting difficult to control, so the test flights were ended.

 

Flight Diary

The following flight diary gives a feel for my flying progress and also some notes about things learnt along the way.

 

 

 

         

2nd and 3rd flights

Before the next flight the control wire for the elevator was adjusted so that the plane didn't climb so much. This adjustment proved just right and after re-trimming the plane climbed much more progressively.

These next flights took place 2 days later. The weather was still cold but the wind had dropped which made flying easier. This time the plane was flown much further from the transmitter and much higher too.

The flights were very successful. Some gliding was tried and this was followed by 2 controlled landings. The 3rd landing was not so good because it was forced due to battery exhaustion.

The fast charger was tested in the car which took 20mins and work perfectly.

Then more good flying was completed including a loop and some more tidy landings.

A Second Battery

Although the fast charger allowed repeated flights with only a 20min break, a second battery would allow for almost continuos flying.

The standard battery was a 7 cell Nicd totalling 8.4v and 600mAh. There were possibilities to enhance this performance but that would mean batteries which were a different size and hence a different weight and requiring a different charger. So the decision was taken to just duplicate the original battery.

The components were purchased from the local Maplins store (similar to radio shack) and the results are shown below. The new battery was not as professional as the original one, but it was functionally sound.

No connectors to match the original plug could be found for the new battery and so all the plugs were changed to use standard 'Tamiya' ones, including the ones on the chargers and in the plane. Care had to be taken to get the polarity correct at all the connections to avoid damaging the batteries or the chargers.

The results allowed for almost continuous running at the airfield with a refuelling stop of course, to change the batteries over.

   

Flight 4

Disaster. After a good initial launch and climb to a high altitude the descent began well but then got too steep and ended up in a vertical dive at full speed. The plane hit the ground nose first at high speed.

The result was a badly damaged wing which had twisted and been cut by the rubber bands. The propeller had also come off. Inside the fuselage things were OK and the battery had been cushioned by the foam in the nose cone. The tail and radio gear were all OK.

Most disconcerting was that the cause of the crash was uncertain. The radio was functioning correctly, but the plane wouldn't pull out of the vertical dive. It may have been the weather which was a bit gusty possibly the plane was trying to pull out of the dive into the wind, but the real cause was unknown.

**NOTE : Since writing this document I have heard similar reports of this type of incident with these trainer aircraft. It seems quite common not to be able to pull out of a fast dive even with full elevator applied. Apparently the thing to do is cut the power to get the aircraft to recover. **

   

Flights 5 & 6

Flight 5 was needed to get some confidence back in flying and to check that the repairs to the wing had been successful. The photo on the right shows the repaired wing fitted to the fuselage, in fact this photo was taken after the flight in which the wing performed very well. The wing had been repaired using a combination of super-glue and insulation tape.

Multiple landings were performed on this test run as well as gliding.

Flight 6 was also a check that the home-made battery was OK. The battery was fine but the plane seemed a little more nose heavy than with the original one, so re-trimming was needed to get level flight.

   

Flights 7 & 8

There was more good flying and lots of good gliding on this test flight which meant battery life was significantly improved. Some low-level manoeuvres were also performed where there was less margin for error, to improve pilot skill.

The low flights were also more interesting to watch.

   

Flights 9 & 10

This session concentrated on landings. 10 or 12 landings were made with the first battery (including one touch 'n' go) and all were good. The second battery did some higher flying and gliding.

It was also possible to make tighter turns now by using the rudder and elevators together. Up 'til now only the rudder had been used to turn and the elevators to maintain height. This would perform a very wide turn because adding too much rudder would result in the plane starting to spiral downwards. However by adding some more elevator to the banked turn, a very tight change of direction could be made.

Flights 11 & 12

Today was a bit more windy so gliding wasn't possible and hence battery life was significantly shortened. However the windy conditions were good for practising keeping control of the plane as the gusts tried to blow it off course. It was also found that when travelling into the wind the plane would naturally climb and when travelling with the wind, it would descend. This was to be expected because the wind blowing over the wing would increase lift, but it was good practice to add some up elevator when travelling with the wind to avoid loosing too much height and visa versa when travelling into the wind.

This test flight was also used to improve flying towards the pilot. Left and right was still getting mixed up some of the time, I thought I would be OK with this technique have driven RC cars and boats in the past, but with the plane I was currently only getting it right about 60% of the time.

Two loops were performed in these flights as well, both of which were satisfactory and some low level flying at full power which was good to watch.

   

Flights 13, 14 & 15

The conditions for flying were perfect today so 3 flights were flown back to back. No dramas occurred, the flights were in control all of the time. Tight turns were performed as well as several landings. The smoothest landings were when full up elevator was applied just before touch down. This gave the narrowest angle of attack on to the landing strip and helped the plane roll along after landing rather than digging in.

A strip of tarmac was found in the park which was facing into the breeze, so a ground take off was completed, which was great to watch.

Flights 16, 17 & 18

Three more flights were performed back to back. The tarmac strip was used again and in one flight the plane took off from the strip, circled round and landed back on the strip.

6 ground take-off's were completed in total and all landings were good.

During these last 3 flight the plane felt like it was in full control. I felt I knew how it could turn, how it could climb, how it would behave into and out of the wind etc......

               

Flights 19 & 20

The weather was a bit more windy today but still flyable. Some loops were performed, which were good but one was a little too low for comfort. Some really high flying was tried followed by long gliding sessions. All landings were good.

Another pilot who had turned up to fly in the park complimented me on my flying which was nice.

               

Flights 21 & 22

The weather was a bit gusty today and the results were a couple of minor crashes. Luckily the only damage was to the section of wing which had previously been repaired. Despite the missing section of wing the plane still flew OK.

The problem was that running into and out of the wind everything was OK, but when turning across the wind sometimes one of the wings would get picked up and the plane would become almost inverted and would loose height. Despite the wind some good landings were performed although some landings had to be made with the power on, to stop the plane going backwards.

               

Conclusion

So it is possible to teach yourself to fly with a simple electric powered plane such as the 'Electra-Fun.'

The hardest part was undoubtedly the first flight. After launching (assuming that the plane flies) you had to gain control of the plane quite quickly to avoid loosing it and you also had to land at the end of the flight after perhaps just 10 minutes of practice. This is quite a lot to take in, in just a short time but it is possible.

I may not be the best person for advice but here are my tips for a successful first flight. Based on my limited experience, you should :

  • Pick a calm day
  • Switch on the transmitter and check your control surfaces and the range.
  • Launch the plane into the breeze (if there is any). This will ensure the plane flies in a straight line
  • Immediately after launch let the plane climb, don't rush into a manoeuvre
  • Try and trim the plane to give level flight while it continues to climb away from you.
  • Once at a safe height apply some rudder to bring the plane round - not to much, just enough to circle round.
  • If you get into trouble just let go of everything and let the plane settle.
  • Do all your practice at a reasonable height. It was temping in early flights to try and fly close by to see what was going on but this gave no time to react. Flying higher gave more time to react and try different things before the plane crashed or better still give the plane time to recover itself by releasing the controls.
  • When landing turn the engine off and glide into the wind to give the slowest ground speed. Landing in a specific spot is difficult so just concentrate on a narrow approach angle and keep the plane level, let it land where it wants.
               

After about 50 flights the Electra was retired and sold to make way for the Twinstar II. This was a much larger, twin engine plane, bought with the idea of doing aerial photography.

 

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