Tell me about RC Airplanes.
January 5, 2010 9:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm exploring the idea of getting involved with R/C airplanes. Please help me decide if this is a good idea, and if so, how I should go about it.

So, recently the idea of remote controlled airplanes has caught my eye. The problem is, I have no idea where to even begin, or if this is even a good idea.

I live in a small city (Lubbock, TX, about 250k people) but there are certainly open fields and such within easy driving distance. Am I allowed to fly planes in a large park, and is that even a good idea?

My main question is about cost and barriers to entry. How much is it likely to cost me to get starter with a basic plane, and the controller or whatever else I need? I want something that has similar control surfaces to a real plane; I understand the basic aerodynamics of flight and would probably be frustrated if I couldn't control the elevator, for example.

If I crash it (ok, ok, WHEN I crash it) am I pretty much going to have to buy a new plane or are these things pretty resilient?

And finally, what else can you tell me about the hobby, and what places can I go to read more? Searching on Google reveals thousands of results and it's hard to find the good stuff.
posted by DMan to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
One option is to go cheap.

I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of AirHogs r/c aircraft, both the planes and helicopters. Precision they are not; in many cases it's difficult to trim them so that they fly straight and level.

But! They have surprisingly long battery life per charge, they are pretty durable, and they're a lot of fun.

They cost about $40-$60 each, at Target stores. Some models are cheaper, but you'll want the ones that have three controls: thrust, pitch, and yaw. You'll need to look closely at the box, to ensure that the right hand controller moves in four directions.

For the planes, the pitch is controlled by a tail aileron controlled by a magnet. Two considerations: often, this doesn't move unless thrust is powered, and the little magnet can jam after a crash, so check it before re-flying.

And the outside planes can fly pretty far, but r/c control is rated as 300 ft. So it can get away from you, and you can easily lose sight of it. I had one fly, as I latter mapped it, over a half a mile before crashing; it took me hours to find that thing. (Yes, it was flyable after; the planes are basically made of durable foam plastic, which also means you can fly them in parking lot without worry you'll scratch someone's paint.)

The inside planes are fun too, if you have a large enough room (I used large meeting rooms at work, with the excuse of a "team-building exercise".) Note that as they are light and use infrared r/c which the sunlight swamps, they simply can't be flown outdoors.

For the helicopters, trim really really matters, and it's a bit luck of the draw: some of the helicopters I simply could never trim successfully. I almost always got the larger sized helicopters; the really small ones are too small to be stable.

So $40-$60 will get you a week of fun before you, your nephew or your colleagues destroy it, which for me is an acceptable ROI -- the whole point is you can have reckless fun without worry or guilt.
posted by orthogonality at 9:42 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of my husband's hobbies, and it seems to me that the most expensive parts are the ones you can reuse indefinitely (the actual remote, for example) and the planes do seem to be pretty durable.

My husband likes to go fly in parks or on school soccer fields or similar spaces during times when they're not too crowded. Weekend mornings seem generally good for this, before everyone's out and about.

The first plane he bought when he started this (he did it as a kid, this would be his revisitation of the hobby I'm talking about) was this Slow Stick.
posted by padraigin at 9:58 PM on January 5, 2010

I think this isn't the kind of hobby you can enjoy alone. You pretty much have to be in a club to get the most out of it.

So the thing to do is to find a club and start spending time there. After a while, it will become clear whether you're interested in it enough to spend money on a plane. And if you are, you'll have already learned a lot about the hobby from watching other people, and you'll have a better idea what you want, and you'll have people who are more experienced than you to give you advice.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:05 PM on January 5, 2010

Best answer: I've been trying to find out more about RC planes ever since watching this video (an RC plane flying through fireworks). The guy uses a Multiplex Easy Star with a FPV (first person view) system; when he turns his head, the camera turns.

I've seen the Easy Star recommended more than a few places, and you can get a 'ready to fly' version for around $200. The FPV system seems to go for around $500. Expensive, but way too awesome for me to dismiss outright.
posted by Real.Wolf at 10:49 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not one of my hobbies, but I watched some extremely cool and creative electric R/C planes in Vancouver a while ago. They were all homemade from styrofoam, balsa, cardboard, etc. and were various crazy shapes, but they all flew (silently) with little electric motors, haywired flaps and rudders, and lithium batteries. They probably cost next to nothing except for motor, batteries and R/C servos. If they crashed, they were cheap and quick to fix. Check out the clubs in your area.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:38 PM on January 5, 2010

Am I allowed to fly planes in a large park, and is that even a good idea?

I would suggest you look for a field or park which is at least 200m x 200m, to start out with. The further you can fly in a straight line without the plane being unrecoverable, the better!

I want something that has similar control surfaces to a real plane; I understand the basic aerodynamics of flight and would probably be frustrated if I couldn't control the elevator, for example.

I have a 4 channel RC plane, which gives me thrust, airleons, elevator, and rudder. It's a Wing Dragon 4.

If I crash it (ok, ok, WHEN I crash it) am I pretty much going to have to buy a new plane or are these things pretty resilient?

Almost every beginner plane advertises resiliance, but they still get damaged when crashed. In fact I and some friends brought 4 identical planes, and I can tell you that the easiest things to damage in a crash are the propeller (hit the ground right and it shatters) and the rudder (it's thin polystyrene and can snap). One guy broke his wings, but only after getting stuck in a tree. Everyone ended up needing some replacement parts.

We all had identical planes, so it's possible with a different model of plane you'd need fewer spares, but we've all spent at least $20 on spares.

As Chocolate Pickle mentions, there are clubs for people flying these RC planes, and if you don't know anyone else who's into it, they could be worth looking into. The reason I say this is because your early flights will be a lot easier if someone else can perform the landing.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:55 AM on January 6, 2010

Find a club.

My dad has been doing this for years, building his planes from scratch, going out and crashing said planes....and since his are made of balsa, heck no they aren't durable. Even with his awesome pilot skills.

Your first step is to find a hobby shop that caters to these folks. Not easy to find, will probably be a small independent. But they can get you pointed in the right direction.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:04 AM on January 6, 2010

Here's a club in Lubbock. My experience is that hobbyists are happy to talk about their hobby and give advice to newbies.
posted by Daddy-O at 5:51 AM on January 6, 2010

Best answer: Yeah you should totally get into it, you don't need to join a club and the ones I encountered seemed to be so chockablock full of rules and old codgers that it honestly wasn't worth the bother.

There is a whole class of planes called ParkFlyers - Parkzone makes some great ones - which are lighter and electric so they aren't going to mame someone if you hit them.

Get yourself a mini super cub or a super cub to learn on, real easy to fly and made of very durable foam that can be super glued back together if you crash.

I really didn't have any trouble learning to fly the super cub but a bunch of people suggest getting an rc flight sim that one is more for gliders which are pretty fun too.

So to recap yes get into it, don't worry about repairs/crashes, you can fly anywhere and don't need to join a club.
posted by zeoslap at 6:21 AM on January 6, 2010

Best answer: With regards where to learn more is a great forum to learn more and I recommend hitting youtube and just watching folks fly any plane you are interested in flying.
posted by zeoslap at 6:24 AM on January 6, 2010

I don't really know anything about R/C Airplaines, but there's a store near me, HobbyTown USA, that has always had a cool kiosk set up that runs this R/C Airplane simulator. You control it with a real controller and it seems like it'd be really handy to practice on without investing any cash. Unfortunately, it looks like the closest HobbyTown to Lubbock is in the DFW Metroplex. :(

In any case, I think this is what's running on the kiosk:

Maybe there's a shop near you that has a kiosk you can mess with?
posted by Jinkeez at 6:32 AM on January 6, 2010

My husband does this (all the time!!). You CAN just go to empty fields but be very careful. Those things are hard to control and you don't want to hurt anyone or anything. My husband suggests that you join the AMA (association of model airplanes) in order to get the collision insurance that they offer. It's $35 for a year (I think) and might offer you some protection while you learn and some good connections/resources for your area. He absolutely LOVES the hobby and has recently moved over to helicopters. He also orders most of his parts off of ebay or online. We have stores in our area but they don't have the selection he wants. Happy Flying!
posted by pearlybob at 7:10 AM on January 6, 2010

Best answer: I have a Cox Electra J3 Cub sitting on a shelf at home--I flew it exactly twice, just enough to figure out that I have neither the space nor the aptitude for the hobby. Send me your address, and I'll mail it to you. No kiddin'.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:36 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the help so far, I appreciate all of the responses.

I might look into one of those Air Hogs planes as a basic training method to get me familiar with the idea of flying a plane in 3rd-person before I actually try an expensive one.

Real.Wolf: Yeah, I saw that video too and it's what reminded me that I had previously been interested in this stuff. That's where I'd like to be eventually, it looks like a lot of fun.

Is a simulator really worth it, or would I be better off just getting a really cheap plane that won't explode if it crashes and just trying it? My one problem with the simulator is that it looks like it could get decently expensive to get the controller + cord + software combo.

MoonPie, that's so generous of you, I'll definitely take you up on that offer. MeMailed.
posted by DMan at 9:56 AM on January 6, 2010

The sim is good for getting you used to controlling the plane when it's coming right at you and the controls are reversed so just playing with it using the keyboard is actually quite helpful. If you want the controller as well you can just plug a standard RC controller (something like a Spektrum DX5e) into your PC with a standard 3.5mm stereo cord so it's not like you need a specialized piece of kit. Also the one I linked to is free and you can get a demo of realflight too.

I wouldn't go with something like an AirHog because they are quite a bit harder to control than something like the Super Cub (which I can't recommend strongly enough as a trainer)
posted by zeoslap at 10:04 AM on January 6, 2010

With regards the AMA you'll need to join if you join a club but their insurance is only above and beyond your homeowners liability insurance - so if you have that check the limits to determine if you need anything additional.
posted by zeoslap at 10:06 AM on January 6, 2010

Seconding "check out a club" and "join the AMA."

Back in the day, I was part of an RC flying club that would have days for the public to come by and check things out. Part of this would be to let interested people fly the planes using a "buddy box", which is where 2 transmitters are linked together allowing a newbie to fly under the guidance of someone with more experience. If anything goes wrong, the experience pilot can flip a switch and have control again. Even if the club doesn't have demo days, I'm sure there would be someone there who would fly with you.

Also I would suggest starting with electric. There is way too much extraneous gear needed for a gas setup.

The most fun I ever had with RC planes was with an Electric Zagi. That thing flew great and was pretty indestructable.
posted by o0dano0o at 10:12 AM on January 6, 2010

Best answer: Seconding as a source of getting-started information.
posted by dws at 11:31 AM on January 6, 2010

Aight--the plane's packaged up and ready to go. May be a couple of days until I get to the post office.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:08 PM on January 6, 2010

lots of good suggestions so far, but you might conceivably be interested in these, two more hi-tech, one less:

Indoor Rubber Freeflight

Collegiate Aerial Robotics Competition

Plantraco Carbon Butterfly LivingRoom Flyer
posted by at at 11:46 PM on January 6, 2010

If you've never used a digital proportional radio system before, perhaps try getting used to it with a car first? Crashing in two dimensions is cheaper than three.

Seconding the club - you're going to absolutely need an experienced pilot to trim your plane for you the first time you fly, regardless. But once you get the hang of it, the hobby can be enjoyed just fine by yourself.

A high wing with a shallow angle will be easiest to fly and learn on - swept or low wings will be harder. Many firms will have ARFs (Almost Ready to Fly) that are not made of balsa and can take more of a beating. Balsa models can be difficult for first timers because building the wings is not for the impatient (and errors are not always visible). Doping is also a tricky process.

If you are in the US, Tower Hobbies has a decent range. For general discussion, try the RC Groups forum. You'll find that you'll want more particular help once you get into it.

Good luck and enjoy!
posted by Sutekh at 11:59 PM on January 6, 2010

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