The aim of these articles is to help those of you who don’t have access to a handy R/C pilot. Having someone who’s ‘been there, done that’ can be very helpful and great support when starting out.
The forums are excellent places to find information and good advice but so much of it is buried in opinion and discussion that finding that gold nugget in over 60 pages of comment can often be tricky if not impossible. These articles are the result of almost 20 years in the hobby and thousands of hours helping pilots and answering questions in person and on my YouTube channel.
So, before we get into the next lot of nitty-gritty, let me have a quick chat about ‘Safety’. Now before you skip this bit and move onto the next section remember this – almost all pilots who’ve been flying for long enough will have at least one (and usually more) scars from mishaps. These days technology in the models and radios make accidental start-up of the motors a lot less common. Fail-safe technology in the receivers will cut the power to the engine in the event of something odd happening. Even with all of that, you (or the people around you) can get hurt if basic common sense and checks don’t happen. Always fly with consideration and make sure that you and the model are ready and safe to fly.
What else do I need?
Last time we looked at some of the considerations when choosing a model to learn with. Choosing the wrong model is the single most common problem that I see with struggling pilots and it’s amazing how much difference having a model that flies well, is easy to set up and repair and is fun to fly can make.
Using lower quality radios when learning can add an extra thing to work with when you start out but with decent radios costing around £100/£120 now, there isn’t the need to struggle with the horrible plastic radios that I did when I moved back into flying many years ago.
There are other things that you need apart from the radio and model so let’s cover those this time, as well as a few other pieces that I’d recommend getting your hands on if you’re learning to fly.
Often, a new pilot will have a goal in mind when they start out. Many will have watched hours of YouTube videos of someone flipping and rolling an airplane at a display, they may want to fly multi-rotors through a disused factory, or you may just want to soar in the sunshine and see the view from a very different perspective.
Having a goal in mind is very handy but it’s common for pilots to start out in one direction and then find that another part of the hobby becomes their first love. I started out with helicopters then moved into multirotors before finding a fixed-wing. Modern fixed wing is a much more relaxed ‘zen’ experience and an escape from the everyday.
So with an idea of where you want to go with the hobby (and an open mind!) let us look at the other things you’ll need.
You’ll need to power the model, most of the models you’ll bump into these days are electrically powered. Electrically powered models are quieter, cleaner and faster to get into the air than other motor types. The most common battery types you’ll come across now are Lithium Polymer batteries (LIPO for short).
LIPO batteries pack a lot of punch into a small package and can deliver a huge amount of power. They come in all shapes and sizes, capacities and voltages too. The other benefit of LIPO batteries is that they have a very flat discharge curve. A fully charged 3S LIPO battery will have 12.4 volts, empty it will have 10.5 volts. This is great for radio control as there is still plenty of voltage left when the pack is ‘empty’.
You don’t run LIPO packs down to completely empty like most of the other batteries you may have come across and most electronics in the model will stop the battery from being discharged below this ‘empty’ point to avoid problems too.
Each battery is made up of a number of cells and each cell is 4.2 volts fully charged. Connecting these cells together is how battery manufacturers get higher voltages. Connect three in series and you get 3 x 4.2v. That’s how we get 12.4 volts and that’s where the ‘3S’ comes from – it’s shorthand for ‘3 cells in series’.
The only other thing I’ll mention here is the capacity of the battery – this is how much energy is stored inside. Think of a battery like a water tank and the capacity of how much water that tank holds. The more capacity the more there is to take out, and the longer it’ll last before it’s empty.
Don’t worry about all of that for now – use the LIPO battery that the model specifies and make sure you store them safely and don’t over-discharge them.
I like to have at least two or three batteries for the model at the field so I can get some decent flying in before heading for home. When you start out your brain will hurt after only part of a single pack so it’s less important to have lots of spares.
Safety Tip: Do not use a battery that has been physically damaged or appears to be ‘puffed up’. LIPO batteries can last for a few years if cared for but err on the side of caution.
LIPO Battery Chargers
These are chargers that understand how LIPO batteries work and can safely charge (and discharge) them. In some ready to fly (RTF) models they will supply a basic LIPO charger that will charge the battery but take many hours to do so. A more capable LIPO charger can charge a battery in less than 30 minutes which is handy if you have more than one you need to charge. Always charge them in a LIPO-Safe bag for safety and never leave a LIPO battery unattended when charging.
It’s also a great idea to use the ‘Storage charge’ function on the charger you have to drop the voltage in the pack to a nice safe level if you’re not going to use the battery for a while. Store the batteries in a tin or LIPO safe bag when you’re not using them.
There are lots of videos showing LIPO batteries bursting into flames but you’ll notice that the packs suffer some pretty extreme abuse to do so. Puncturing the packs, overcharging them or short-circuiting them can cause the packs to fail in spectacular fashion. Treat them with respect, and you shouldn’t experience any problems.
Most LIPO batteries need to be charged at something called ‘one ‘C’’. So a 2200mAh pack needs to be charged at 2.2 Amps, a 1300mAh pack needs to be charged at 1.3 Amps and so on. Follow the manufactures instructions for the ones you have.
I ‘Balance’ charge the packs every 4-6 times and that ensures that all of the individual cells in the pack are at exactly the same charge level. Doing so will help keep your LIPO batteries are top condition and help prolong their life.
The power of the simulator
One of the most commonly overlooked parts of a pilots kit is a simulator. These are not expensive and most modern radios feature a USB port that allows you to plug them into a computer and control the simulator with the same radio you use to fly in real life.
Crashing a virtual wing, plane or quadcopter in a simulator allows you to learn the same lesson but avoid the costly repairs. Just press the reset button and you’re ready to go again. Another benefit is that the simulator can also fly when the weather outside is too dark, wet or windy allowing you to keep practising and refining those hard-won skills as you learn to fly. A simulator can’t replace the practice in the real world (your heart doesn’t hammer in your chest in the same way when you fly!) but it can save you lots of time and pay for itself in only a few avoided crashes.
Always treat time on the simulator like you would flying for real – go with a goal in mind and push yourself to keep trying that move that is still giving you trouble.
There are two main ways to fly a model:
- Line of Sight (LOS): the traditional way of flying an R/C aircraft that involves the pilot looking at the model in the sky and maintaining visual contact at all times.
- First Person View (FPV): where the pilot flies the model using the image from a camera mounted on the model and displayed in goggles or a screen in front of them.
For some pilots flying LOS is hard. Think about it for a moment – when the plane/quadcopter is flying away from you then the controls on the radio work as expected. Right moves you right, left is left. But as you start to turn and face another direction then the controls become
different. The most extreme version is what’s called ‘nose in’ where the model is facing or flying towards you. In this attitude left becomes right and right becomes left.
This can be a tough thing to deal with but it’s all part of the learning process. Before FPV this was just one of those things you have to deal with (and something we will cover together in the coming articles) but too often pilots now just put it into the ‘too-hard’ box and fly FPV.
FPV is great as the controls are always the right way round and you don’t have to deal with any of the issues from changing orientation. The danger is that if you skip the steps needed to mater safe reliable, controlled LOS flight then you can end up with problems if you fly and the FPV gear stops working.
It’s tempting to get some cheap FPV goggles and gear when you start out but my advice would be don’t – yet. Learn the basics of LOS flying and master those so you have a safe fall-back way of controlling the model in case of a problem.
Now we’ve talked about all the pieces you need we can get into the business of setting up the model, starting to fly and looking at and radio tips and tricks that will help you have a fun learning experience.
As learning to fly fixed-wing and multirotor have many things in common but as much different we’ll start out with the multirotor first, until next time!
Written by Painless360