Beginner's Corner

by Scott Christensen
© Copyright 1999 Scott Christensen
Reprinted with permission of Scott Christensen

Part 1
OK, you've taken the plunge and bought yourself a trainer, an engine, a radio and the various required support equipment and have already received your AMA card. Hopefully, you made your purchases at the local hobby shop and have already received some of their expert advice on getting your model together. Following the manufacturer's directions, you assembled your model as carefully as possible and your new trainer is now ready to go. All you need now is to learn how to fly it! If you were smart and joined the Blue Max club (you really should) you're in luck. Our club has more than its share of very good R/C pilots, many of which have volunteered their services as flight instructors.

A good question at this point is to ask, "how do I choose an instructor"? Actually, you do not necessarily "choose" an instructor. Your best bet is to simply ask any of the flyers at the field to point out those individuals who are present and have instructor status. You should then introduce yourself to one of these people, explain that you are totally new to the hobby and ask them if they could take a moment to inspect your airplane. This initial inspection by a qualified individual is potentially very important to you. You certainly did your best in putting your model together but in all honesty, that does not guarantee that you paid close attention to all of the many small details.

A good instructor and R/C pilot will typically look at all kinds of things on your model that you may have overlooked or done in haste. Do not take this inspection as criticism of your work - this is not the case! The instructor is simply looking for potential problems and will then either correct them himself if possible or tell you how to correct the problem on your own. This kind of information is invaluable and can often mean the difference between success or failure. Assuming your model needed only a bit of simple "tweaking" and has been pronounced flyable, you might then ask the instructor if he or she would be willing to fly your airplane and trim it out for you. This all-important first flight should only be done by a qualified, high time R/C pilot.

If you really did your homework with your model, you would have by now broken-in the engine. However, previous experience shows that few first time modelers have done this. If your engine has not been run and set-up for proper high speed and idle adjustments, this will have to be done before you fly. This sometimes means that you will not be flying your model this time out. Sorry, but the facts of life in R/C dictate that your engine runs reasonably well and is reliable. But for now, let's assume you did run a few tanks of fuel through your engine and that it at least starts and keeps running for awhile. Depending upon his time, the instructor may agree to fiddle a bit with your engine and ultimately test fly your airplane. Remember that not everyone is great when it comes to working with engines. If your instructor tells you that he'd rather not mess with it, ask him to point out someone who's good with engines and might be able to assist you. Do not expect people to drop what they're doing to work on your model. Try to be courteous and polite and you will usually always be treated the same way, or better.

Assuming your engine was brought into good running and idling condition and your airplane was test flown and landed, listen carefully to what the test pilot has to say about your model. Oftentimes, he will advise trim changes and even show you how to do these. Listen to what he says and ask for clarification if you don't understand. Make sure that you address each of his suggestions to the best of your ability. Getting this first test and trim flight out of the way is a "biggie" for you and if all went well, you should now have yourself a good solid trainer. Now is the time to ask the instructor if he would take it up one more time for you and let you have some "stick time". This is usually not a problem, depending upon your instructor's time.

With a little luck you have accomplished a great deal during your first day out with your new trainer! At the most, you may have:

  • Had your airplane inspected and corrected by a qualified "pro".
  • Had your engine set-up well enough
  • Had your airplane test-flown and flight trimmed by an experienced R/C pilot.
  • Received good corrective information/help in getting your model safely trimmed for future flights.
  • Perhaps met a new friend or two.

By any measure, I'd call that a great day! The Blue Max club has a well-deserved reputation for having some of the nicest people around as members. Get your airplane finished and come out and join us!

Part 2
You may sometimes wonder why your instructor is constantly stressing your ability to make smooth right and left hand turns, while maintaining a consistent altitude. Simply put, learning this basic skill with your model ultimately allows you to fly at lower altitudes with confidence, in preparation to learning how to land. Your instructor knows that doing nothing but right and left hand turns can be boring but he also knows that without maintaining a constant altitude while doing this has the potential of crashing your trainer at lower altitudes. But there is something else that this turning exercise should be teaching you as well; to avoid the dreaded "over roll".

Over rolling your airplane (wings past 90 degrees of vertical while in the turn) and then applying up elevator can and will generally result in aggravating an already uncomfortable situation. It's really simple to understand and avoid, once you realize what's going on.

Beginners are initially instructed to fly their models using the right stick; ailerons and elevator. Instructors know that the use of the left stick - rudder and throttle - will be taught a little later in the flight instructions. So a beginner typically, and correctly, only has his or her focus on a single control input, the right stick. It is also perfectly normal for beginners to sometimes over control their models and this natural tendency can often lead to over rolling the model. What you need to understand is that once the wings of your model rotate past 90 degrees of vertical and the nose begins to drop, any up elevator input is going to produce a flight direction which is essentially the same as applying down elevator. In other words, your natural tendency to pull up elevator during an over rolled turn will worsen the situation. Understandably, this problem is one thing at 200 feet of altitude but an entirely different and much more serious matter at 20 feet of altitude! What is the correct thing to do when you have over rolled your model?

You first have to realize that you have indeed over rolled the airplane. This can be easily seen and dealt with only if you are paying close attention to your model. So that's number one; always keep your eyes on your model and its attitude in the air. When you see that you have somehow managed to over roll the airplane in a turn, do not apply up or down elevator. Instead, promptly apply a small amount of opposite aileron to smoothly bring the airplanes' wings back to level and then apply a small amount of up elevator to bring the models' flight path back to level (or even a slight climb). The next time you go out to the field for a lesson, you might want to ask your instructor for a quick demonstration and lesson in correcting the over roll. It may save your airplane and will add to your R/C knowledge.

Soon after beginning your flight training, your instructor will begin to introduce you to the use of the left transmitter stick and how to control the way your model flies by simply using the throttle. You will quickly find out that almost every bad flying situation that you get your airplane into can be corrected by the timely application of more or less power.

Remember the three basic rules to avoiding over rolling: Practice, Practice, Practice

Part 3
Let's assume that you now have seven or eight R/C flying instructions, with a Blue Max instructor at your side. By this time you have likely become much more comfortable with your model and have learned the importance of making smooth coordinated turns while maintaining a consistent altitude. If not, you probably need to crank up your flying lesson frequency a notch or two. I say this because about now is the time that your instructor may be thinking that you are ready to take your model off by yourself.

There are two fundamental requirements in every flight of your model - a safe take off and an equally safe landing. What goes on in between is called flying. Since you're likely a bit away from the landing phase, let's discuss the take off and how to do it correctly.

Before attempting your first take off, have your instructor go through his particular instructions for this maneuver. These may vary a little but in the main, they will go something like this:

  • Check the wind direction first. Wind direction dictates the direction in which you will point your model for take off. You should always take off (and land) into the prevailing wind.
  • After starting the engine, take your model to a vacant flight station and check the action of your flight controls and the throttle.
  • If anyone else is flying at the time, loudly announce your intention to take off and be sure that you receive their acknowledgment. Always remember that any pilot that wants to land their aircraft always has the right of way. If a flyer asks you to delay your take off for his landing, you must do so.
  • Make sure no one is on the field and taxi your model out to the downwind end of the runway and turn it directly into the wind, aimed directly down the runway and bring it to a full stop.
  • Here we go! Smoothly begin advancing the throttle. As engine rpm's increase, torque will begin forcing the model to the left. This is counteracted by the smooth application of a little right rudder to keep the model traveling straight ahead down the runway while accelerating. Note that once the model is up to flying speed, the need for right rudder for torque correction lessens and right rudder pressure can be relaxed.
  • Many airplane designs, especially trainer types, will literally take themselves off without the need for any up elevator. But you need to realize the take off speed of your model and when you feel this speed has been reached, you will begin to smoothly apply up elevator until you see the model rotate back on the main wheels and lift off the ground.
  • Use a little aileron input to keep the wings level and maintain a shallow rate of climb until the airplane reaches a reasonable flying speed and altitude - 20' to 25' is usually sufficient (this will all happen fairly quickly).
  • Once flying speed and sufficient altitude have been reached you need to execute a smooth 90 degree right or left hand turn (depending on which direction you took off) away from the pits - always away from the pits!
  • Climb to altitude and congratulate yourself on your first take off!

Doesn't sound too hard, does it? It really isn't but the first few times you try your own take offs, you'll be a little nervous and prone to over controlling. Be aware of this and concentrate on learning how to get your model down the runway in the straightest possible line, using subtle right rudder input. Remember the three basic rules for good take offs: Practice, Practice, Practice.

Part 4
There is one aspect of flying R/C models that remains terrifying to a great many pilots, even those who have been flying for some time - the landing. I think this one particular subject is so full of "voodoo" and misinformation that even discussing it with certain people has to be done in a hushed, respectful manner. Bull!

The bottom line is that what goes up must come down and how you come down is the name of the game. If it's a given that you have to land your model after each flight, why not take the time to learn how to do right every time? You will rarely get a compliment from your peers on the quality of your take offs but when you start making nice landings, you'll get more than your share of "attaboys" from the picnic table crew! Why is this? I think it's because most R/C pilots realize that making nice landings, on the runway, with the shiny side up every time, is an acquired skill that they may not yet have totally mastered. My observation is that what most pilots lack in their landing procedures is just that, a procedure. When I'm instructing beginners in the art of landing an R/C model, I make it a strong point to provide them with an exact, well-defined procedure to not only set their airplane up for a good landing but also to set the student up mentally for accomplishing this maneuver - both are of equal importance. To avoid excess verbiage, we'll assume that your trainer has a good reliable idle and that it has been correctly trimmed to fly smoothly at all throttle settings - your instructor should have tended to this by now anyway.

Start your landing procedure while at altitude by announcing loudly "landing". As always, be sure to get your fellow pilot's acknowledgment before entering the landing pattern. Once you know that everyone is aware of your intention to land, lower your engine speed to 1/2 throttle or even a little less. The idea is to slow your model down significantly but still retain flying/maneuvering speed.

Fly your model smoothly to the downwind end of the runway and turn it into the wind, aimed directly down the centerline of the runway, at an altitude of about 75'. Fly the airplane smoothly upwind, maintaining the 75' of altitude until it crosses directly in front of you. At this point make a 90 degree right or left hand turn away from you and reduce your throttle setting by two "clicks". Continue flying away from you for approximately 50 yards. At this distance make a smooth right or left hand turn to place the model in the position of being parallel with the runway and now flying downwind - reduce your throttle setting by another two "clicks". You can now easily see if your model is sinking at an acceptable rate - we want a definite but shallow sink rate because the goal is to arrive at the far downwind end of the runway at an altitude of approximately 30 feet. Use throttle to adjust sink rate and altitude - not the elevators.

Just before the plane arrives at the arrow signs, make a smooth 90 degree right or left hand turn to intersect the runway threshold (if you have flown parallel with the runway on your downwind leg, you should now have to fly about 50 yards to intersect the runway). At this point your engine should be at about a very high idle throttle setting and the airplane should still be descending. Just before intersecting the runway, make a last 90 degree turn to line the model up directly with the runway. Ideally, this last turn would be made at approximately 15' of altitude.

With the model now flying upwind, lined up with the center of the runway, keep the wings level with small aileron inputs and wait for the model to fly over the far downwind end of the runway, or "threshold". Once you see the airplane pass over the far end of the runway, bring the engine back to full idle and observe the airplane's sink rate. If it's too fast, add a click or two of throttle to slow the descent. As the airplane nears the ground (1 to 2 feet), gently add a little up elevator to raise the fuselage nose (this is called a "flare"). Allow the model to gently contact the runway and begin to slow down. Completely close the throttle (if you had any left) and steer the model in a straight line up the runway with the rudder stick until it slows down completely. Make a quick 90 degree turn and steer the model off the active runway to the pit side of the field.

With the engine still running you can now carefully steer the model back to you and shut down the engine. Congratulations, you've just made your first landing!

If you read this information carefully you'll note that what I've described is nothing more than a simple rectangular landing approach, using primarily throttle for altitude, airspeed and descent control. The key to this procedure is to discipline yourself to use it every time you land and to understand that the throttle can and should be used throughout your approach and landing. There is more to say about landings, especially with regard to the use of rudder control and windy conditions. But we'll save that for another installment.

Remember that there are only three ways to become good at landing your airplane: Practice, Practice, Practice.

Part 5
Both full-scale and R/C sailplane pilots have long known something about their airplanes that powered R/C pilots would do well to learn - how to successfully fly an airplane without engine power! As beginning pilots, you may not yet have had the experience of having your engine quit and then having to carefully glide your model back to the field for a landing. But I can guarantee that this experience will eventually happen to you. So this month's installment of Beginner's Corner is written to hopefully give you some guidelines to follow in such situations.

OK, you're still new to the R/C game, but you've soloed and you're not too bad at landing and taking off your model. Let's put your model a couple of hundred feet in the air and well away from the field (the weekend "warriors" still make you a little nervous). After making the last turn, you notice your model flying much slower and maybe even descending slightly. Guess what - you're engine quit and you're flying a glider! What now?

First, once you're sure that your engine has quit, loudly announce "dead stick" to the other pilots on the flight line. The term "dead stick" automatically alerts other pilots that 1) your engine has quit and 2) that you have the immediate right of way into the landing pattern. The trick now is to get your model back to the field in order to safely land it.

As we said earlier, your model is couple of hundred feet in the air but it is a long way away from the field. To complicate this scenario, to get back to the field you have to fly your model into the wind. This means that your airspeed will not be as high. To compensate and adjust for the head wind, you can either hold a small amount of down elevator, to keep the nose of the model slightly down and therefore your airspeed and momentum up. Even better, you can do the same thing with a few "clicks" of down elevator trim. You do not want your model diving, but you do want an aggressive glide which maintains your airspeed. Assuming you've done this, the immediate goal is to get your model back to the field, in the straightest possible line. If you see that the model will barely make it back to the field, your next goal is to make the glide back to the field your landing approach. Again, maintain airspeed and momentum and you'll almost always get back. In a situation such as this, trying to "float" your model back to the field by using up elevator inputs will always result in loss of airspeed and momentum and ultimately an off field landing.

But let's say you managed the energy of your model well and glided it back to the field with a reasonable amount of remaining altitude. In this case, you now only have to set up a landing approach which will be similar to what you're used to with the engine running - the difference being that you're only going to get one shot at it. So carefully judge the airspeed, altitude and rate of descent of your model to easily make that last upwind turn to line up with the runway. At our Deer Grove field, you've got about 100 yards of runway - use all you need to get your model down.

The two real secrets to managing almost all dead stick situations is to understand how your model flies without power and to not panic. You can actually practice dead stick situations, by flying to altitude, throttling back the engine and practice gliding back to the field under different wind conditions and directions. This kind of exercise will give you a lot of valuable information about your model and a lot more confidence when the inevitable happens.

Part 6
Now lets discuss the low altitude "dead stick landing". "Whatinthehell is a dead stick landing", you ask. Simply put, it means that for any countless number reasons, that little stick-like thing on the front of your model has ceased to turn and you're flying a heavy glider! "Do all R/C airplanes glide?", you ask. For the most part, the answer is yes, but some glide better than others. Since you're likely flying a trainer at this point, it's safe to say that all trainers glide fairly well as long as they have airspeed. And airspeed (and momentum) is what can save your model - every time!

Here's the scenario. You have 8 or 9 flights on your new "Goodluk MK II .40" engine and you know darn good and well that it's broken in. You turn your airplane into the wind, hit the throttle and watch the airplane head down the runway, rotate and lift off. "Ah, another textbook take off", you say, just before the Goodluk coughs once and quits! Your airplane is 20 feet in the air, upwind with it's nose pointed up about 10 degrees - what now!?!?

Remember what we just said about airspeed and momentum? This is precisely the very instant where you need to immediately conserve and maybe even add to the little bit of airspeed you have left! This is done with only one control input - smoothly applied down elevator. Yes, I said down elevator. A little down elevator will rotate the fuselage nose downward, maintaining both airspeed and momentum. Now you at least have a controllable airplane but very little altitude - what next?!?

Assume that your pride and joy is now 15 feet in the air and still flying upwind. You have only four (4) options; 1) try to land straight ahead, using your momentum to flare at the end, 2) turn left ninety degrees and try to hit the tall grass, 3) turn right ninety degrees and try to hit what little grass there is left or 4) pull the model around in a 180 degree turn and land triumphantly back on the field. You have one half a second to choose - what would you do?

If you decided on #4, too bad because you very likely ran out of airspeed in trying to make a downwind turn, stalled and planted 5 or 6 pounds of airplane, engine and radio into the ground. Try to remember that momentum is a fundamental requirement to land your model. Using up what little momentum you had in trying to turn your model around ate up your airspeed and you paid the price.

>If you chose #2 or #3, you may have made it but in the real world, the odds are not with you. Again, conservation of your momentum was violated when you made the turn and you may have stalled or at the least bounced your model fairly hard off the ground. Control inputs, especially at low altitudes, quickly chew up airspeed and should be avoided altogether or very subtly introduced to the model.

If you chose option #1, congratulations. This was the best possible choice in this particular situation and would most always result in the least amount of damage to the model. Why? Because the model is going away from you, into the wind. You therefore have a very good visual reference to attitude and the sink rate is better due to wind direction. It was easier to keep the wings level and flare close to the ground. After such a landing, nine times out of ten, all you'll need to fly again is a new prop and someone to do a little work on your %)!%$@ Goodluk MK II .40 to keep it running a bit more consistently.

Remember to keep your airspeed and momentum up to save your airplane!