Introduction: Beginners Guide to Radio Control Airplanes

About: Electronics engineer with allot of mechanical design expertise email I dont check here often for messages so email me if you have one

This instructable is intended to familiarize you with the basic workings of Radio controlled aircraft. It is not a complete guide to everything about the subject, its intended to inform the reader on what is involved and help you choose the right aircraft for you.

I grew up around this hobby, my Dad built and sold them back then. Me and him fly them when we get the chance. His airplanes will be pictured here as well as mine. Together we have more than 35 years of tinker time with this hobby.

Its both a relaxing and exciting hobby.
I must also warn you its addictive and don't worry we all crash our aircraft, but if you start out with the right trainer and simulator you will repair and fly again.

First a crash course in what the types of aircraft have in common.

Step 1: Common to All Types of RC Airplanes-Radio

First before you choose the type of airplane you want to build and fly, lets go over what is common to most RC airplanes.

The radio transmitter and receiver: This is your link to the aircraft never scrimp when it comes to the radio, if it glitches you can crash or worse hurt someone. Radios come with two or more channels, the channels are also not what you think, they are not separate frequencies, instead they are each control. Most airplanes have 4 channels, rudder, ailerons, throttle and elevator. Sailplanes have just two or three. Radio transmitters are also on several radio frequencies and are set by the user by changing the matching crystals in the transmitter and receiver. 99.9% of the new radio's do not require you to change crystals, they "bind" to the receivers and use a much higher 2.4ghz radio frequency.

The radio receiver on gas powered aircraft is powered by a rechargeable battery, on an electric it can be powered by the same battery that powers the propeller threw a battery eliminator circuit.
The power is usually 4.6 to 6volts.

I have used several brands, most were good, as long as its a name brand one like Futaba, Airtronics, HiTec,Tower hobbies (made by Futaba) and Tactic

Its also a good idea if you plan on having more than one airplane you can get an extra receiver on the same frequency and use one radio with several airplanes. This is what I do, I have a programmable radio with six memories so I can switch between them. I simply bought a receiver for each airplane, much cheaper than another radio.

Step 2: Common to All Types of RC Airplanes-Servo's

Servo's: The strong geared electric motor used to make the flaps, rudder and throttle work. These come in several sizes and are rated by how much torque they can produce. They plug into the receiver via a three conductor wire.

They are proportional, meaning that if you move the control stick just a fraction of an inch the control surface moves just a fraction of an inch, like wise move the control allot and the surfaces move allot.

The top part of the servo has a "horn" that you can attach the push rods to.

This set up provides the motion for moving everything on your airplane from the throttle to the rudder. Pictured below is a straightforward setup were the throttle servo is up top is pushing a plastic flexible type push rod. The center servo is controlling the rudder and the bottom servo is connected to the elevator.

Like the radio I would stick with a good brand and I test them before installing them into the aircraft by actuating them for several minutes wile shaking them in my hand. if they glitch during this test return it for a new one.

For most gas powered aircraft you will use the standard size to high torque, the electrics use micro or nano sized servo's that weigh a few ounces.

Step 3: Control's

The direction you move the control sticks needs to be the same for everything you try to fly so you don't have to teach yourself a new aircraft every time.

Below is a diagram showing what stick controls what.

If you stay with this set up you will be able to keep graduating up to larger more maneuverable aircraft.

Step 4: Choosing What Will Power Your Airplane, Electric?

Electrics are usually smaller aircraft cleaner and quieter, and they come in a variety of sizes and materials. Here are some pro's and con's of electrics.
Pro's: Quiet, cheap airframe, clean, many ready to flies on the market, small size easy to transport, smaller flying area.
Cons: Large ones are pricey, batteries are very finicky (Li-Po's), fragile foam, small airframes less stable in wind.

Weight is very critical in an electric, batteries will be the heaviest part of this type of aircraft.
Everything you can do to save weight will improve flight time and performance.

The newest type of batteries are lithium polymer or Li-Po batteries. They are very light compared to the Ni-cad and Nimh batteries. Li-Po's do have a down side, you have to charge them with a balanced charger that will charge each cell to a matched voltage, you also cannot drain the battery fully without damaging it. Crash hard enough and you will get a nice Hollywood fire.
Despite this they are the best choice for a stunt plane because of their high current capability and low weight.

If you should crash your plane with a Li-Po battery in it, remove the battery as quick as you can and lay it on the ground for at least half an hour.
DO NOT put it in your car after a crash. I have read several articles about a person who done this and lost the plane and their CAR to a nice fire.

I also recommend charging Li-Po batteries in a Li-Po sack, a flame proof bag that will keep you from burning down your house in the event the battery shorts during charging.

The video below is my Great Plane Pluma, a small foam electric, a good second or third plane as its very maneuverable and very fragile.

Step 5: Choosing What Will Power Your Airplane, Fuel?

Nitro or Gas powered are the "Kings" of the RC airplane world, real airplanes burn fuel and so do these. Most common are two cycle high RPM engines will enough power to get the job done twice. Other are gasoline burning and 4 stroke.

Pro's: large scale airframes, longer flight times, engines as cheap as some batteries(Li-Po), the sound is cool, kits are very cheap, extra power means more detail on airframe like retractable landing gears, Larger frames not as bad to fly in light winds.
Cons: Noisy, oily, engine maintenance, high speed of some means hard to control, larger take off area, takes up allot more room in your car, complicated build, need more support equipment.

Most of the gas planes are 2 cycle glow fuel powered, they use a spacial fuel available at most real hobby stores in quart to gallon size bottles. Its a nitro-methane alcohol, oil mixture that lubricates these engines as they run. The fuel also comes in different nitro-methane content such as 10% to 35% nitro. As you guessed more Nitro is more power. Just don't get carried away with it, you can burn up a motor with to much nitro.

These engines are called glow engines because they use a small glow plug to maintain the spark for ignition. you simply use a battery to heat it up and start the engine.

Their are also 4 stroke engines that use the same fuel, they have valves just like a car engine, the big advantage is more torque for bigger propellers, and better fuel economy. The down side is price and a few more engine parts to worry about adjustment and breaking.

Most engines also require you break them in when they are new, if you just start running them out of the box the parts will heat up to fast and wear out way to fast. Most of the break in procedure will be in the instructions that come with the engine and is a simple process of running the engine very rich for a few tanks of idle running to full throttle running for a whole tank, just make sure you follow the instructions and the engine will last for a long time.

These engine do not require a fuel pump as the exhaust gas pressure is piped into the fuel tank to push the fuel into the carburetor

Starting involves attaching the glow starter, and turning the engine over using the starter motor.
These engines are strong and dangerous, you can lose a finger or two, if you make a mistake. The propellers turn so fast they disappear, so use caution.

Step 6: Choosing What Will Power Your Airplane, Gravity?

Gravity powered sail planes are a good slow way of flight.

Pro's: Cheaper than all types of powered airframes the same size, easy flight, most are two channel(elevator and rudder), large sizes means long flight times, rubber band launching, silent flight, clean.

Cons: limited flight times unless you can find thermals to ride, must land on soft surfaces most don't have landing gears, you have to run after it if you run out of thermals to ride.

Some sailplane's can be equipped with an electric motor with folding propeller to climb up for your glide down and provide some control on were you will land. All types of these airplanes are very light weight and and have large wingspans.

Setups can be simple two channel with elevator and rudder only to "full house" 8 channel mixed with Throttle, elevator, rudder, ailerons, flaps, speed brakes, crow, flapperons ....

These advance setups will allow greater flight times with less power.

Step 7: You Have Chosen Your Power Plant Now What?

How good are you with your hands and building things?
This is a hobby and such as it is you will have to build assembly's and fly them.
The market is flooded with "ARF's" or Almost ready to fly's. Most of the major work is done for you.
You may want to note that an ARF is almost ready to fly, that still means a few hours of assembly is still needed.

That's OK, if your not good at building wooden aircraft, but the very definition of a Hobby is to build something.
You learn everything their is to know about your aircraft in the process.
After building it you will have the great satisfaction of knowing you accomplished a very complicated task and you will take greater care not to crash it.

Also you may not have the time or space for a large build, you may have to go with an ARF in that case.

lets talk cash now, set yourself a budget. For a gas powered trainer with radio and support equipment you can get it all for under $300.00. That's a .46 powered high wing trainer, 4 channel radio, starter and fuel.

For an electric you can go somewhat cheaper from $200.00 to $350.00 depending on if you want one or two good batteries. Electrics have gotten much cheaper in the last few years, the batteries have come down in price and size.

In my opinion if you have the place to fly with gas powered aircraft do so, you don't have to wait for a battery to charge and on a .46 sized engine you may use a gallon of fuel in 40 flights for $15.00

On the same sized airplane as a .46 glow engine will drive (a 5Lb 64" wingspan) the electric will need a $120.00 Li-Po battery for about 15min of flight, then cooling period for the battery, then charge and cool again before flight. So if you want to fly several times a day several batteries will be needed.

On the other hand your aircraft on electric power wont be oily from exhaust and it wont be noisy, its a choice you will have to make.

Next up the "TRAINER"

Step 8: The Trainer

A good trainer needs to have stable flight characteristics, it must be predictable, and have the ability to fly slowly for quick takeoffs and slow landings. My first real RC airplane was the corrugated plastic airplane Aircore 40

It was a high wing so it naturally tried to level itself in flight, it also has a tricycle style landing gear, they steer so much better on the ground than a tail dragger.

The best and most important part is that its made from coroplast a flexible plastic that looks like corrugated cardboard. My first flight attempt with it I crashed on takeoff. Had it been a Balsa or foam airplane it would of cracked up and required many hours of repair. I only needed to put on a new $2.00 propeller. After I got it in the air I landed so hard that I broke another $2.00 propeller, not the whole aircraft.

you will also notice that the wing and the main landing gear are held on by rubber bands, this lets those parts pop off in a crash instead of breaking the fuselage. Other aircraft use plastic bolts as well, They are a good alternative to rubber bands.

Remember its a trainer, not a stunt plane or a work of art, its suppose to fly not look that good.
The other trainer below is representative of most balsa trainers, sturdy, light and cheap, under $75.00 for the airframe itself, but its a long build lots of gluing and wing covering.

Electrics offer nice slow flight, you just need to get one that will have the same controls as a larger one. That is the throttle elevator rudder and flaps need to be on the standard places. Many small ready to fly toy planes will help you get your bearings and practice before you take the plunge with a large one.

Step 9: Training Programs

Their are only a few RC aircraft trainers out there and only one free one that I know of.
That one is calledFMS

Its a good one to practice on and comes with a few trainers. you can also download several from the net just do a bit of searching.
For those who want to get a better looking one try Real Flight, I have used it and it will help you get into the air very well, its just expensive, but it does come with a controller.

Many radio's from Futaba and other also offer a port on the back of them for a USB cable so you can use your own radio with these programs to train with. I strongly recommend it.
Another program is ClearView.

you can also check Ebay for combo's of controllers and FMS for under $30.00

Step 10: HELP!

Building and flying your airplane can be a challenge, I recommend looking on the net for local RC clubs and finding an AMA approved flying location.

This way you can get the AMA membershipand be insured. Most fields also have many fliers willing to teach you how to fly and to check out your work. It always pays to let a second or third pair of eyes look over your work. They may spot a potential problem before you get off the ground.

You can also learn a great deal about the hobby from watching others,

Step 11: Construction Part 1

So you have made the choice, and decided to build an airplane, If your planning on building one from plastic like the Aircore Your gonna be flying in a couple of weekends because the kit builds fast using contact cement or super glue.

If your going to make a Balsa airplane (in my opinion they fly better because they are stiffer and lighter), it will be a few weeks of building but you will have fun working with the wood. Its super light and most kits from Great planes or Topflight have good instructions. You will need a large flat surface to build on, and a scrap piece of 1/2" drywall board to "pin" your parts to and glue.

Pictured below is one of my aircraft a Great planes SlowPoke kit not a good trainer but it shows you what a larger 62" wingspan aircraft has under the skin.

The Skin is called MonoKoat a very touch plastic you iron to the aircraft using a small iron. The plastic has a special glue on one side that's heat activated and the plastic shrinks when you heat it. That way you can drape the plastic over your parts and with time and practice shrink it down to a nice strong fit. To me its the funnest part of the build.

Step 12: Construction Part 2

Electrics build the same as gas with a few exceptions, no provision for fuel tanks, no throttle servo(replaced with motor speed controller or ESC), and a different kind of engine mount.

You may of chosen a foam airplane, they build very fast, but usually are not very big. like the smaller one in the pic below with a 32" wingspan.

You however will not be able to fly a small one like this in any kind of wind or from grass runways.

A good thing to remember as well about electrics they are small so if your eyesight isn't that good you can go too high and "lose" top from bottom. You can avoid this with as large a plane as you can afford and make sure your wing bottoms are not blue like the sky!

Real war birds like the Spitfire were blue on the bottom to make it hard for antiaircraft gunners to see, but a model like that needs something on the bottom to break up the blue.

Step 13: Radio Installation

installing the electronics should be done very carefully and to your radio manufactures instructions. Below is a typical diagram of how its all wired together.

Also your antenna is just a wire and is not very sturdy, I either run mine inside the aircraft away from any metal, or if the airplane is small, I run it outside securing it with tape to the top of the tale.

Most servo kits come with isolation pads to keep the engine vibration from damaging the servo, always use them, a stuck servo could really ruin your day.

Step 14: Pre Flight Checks and Radio Test

You should always go over your aircraft before each flight, the radio range test should be done at least once before a days flying.

if your using a FM radio one with a long antenna keep the antenna down on your transmitter and walk at least 100ft away from the airplane, you should have jitter free operation, if you don't, fix it before you fly. Do the test with it running and move around the airplane to make sure you don't have a blind spot.

If your using a new digital radio, follow the manufactures recommendations.

Most of the radio glitches I have seen were from very long servo leads, you can get a noise filter or choke for that at the hobby store. Make sure you check all your linkages and again it helps to have someone look over your shoulder.

I also make sure my fuel lines are good and tight, on an electric make sure the battery is secure.

Step 15: Flight!

We all got nervous the first time we flew a creation we spent allot of time on, I cant stress enough that if you build a tough airplane your crashes or scrapes wont be so bad. Below you will see the Aircore trainer flown by my dad taking off and his Cessna in flight and the Slowpoke.

Your take off should not be a jam the throttle wide open and scream into the air kind of flight. Slowly increase the throttle to full and let the aircraft climb out slowly and make gentile banking turns.

On your first flight you should not try anything remotely aerobatic, you should climb to a good altitude and fly in slow circles around the area maintaining your altitude.

You should also make a few practice approaches setting yourself up for the landing.
Be aware of how long your flight has been.

Gas aircraft just cruising around can do so for up to 20 minutes depending on how much fuel you carry. I recommend trying to land for the first time long before that happens in case you need to circle around for another try.

Step 16: You Can Fly and Land Now? Take It a Bit Further!

After making several good flights without incident, take off and climb to a good altitude and try a loop, most trainers will do at least a loop.

You can also do a roll, but on most trainers rolls are slow and you lose altitude rapidly.

You may after a wile start to look for faster more maneuverable airplanes, The great planes Reactor is a good one for insane flying, with the proper engine it will go were you point it, and the roll rates are incredible, the one pictures is my dads and has a .60 on it.
The reactor also glides very well and will also fly very slowly.

when I wanted to take the next step I built the Aircore Colt, a plastic low wing stunt plane with a .46 engine. decent climb and roll rates a good starter for learning aerobatics, like my other trainer, it has been crashed as well, but lived on to fly again and again. Its the red and wight one being fueled.

My first Balsa airplane was the Slowpoke, a odd little plane with a huge wing, takes off almost instantly and flies very slowly if you want to. landing are so easy with this airplane, its roll rates aren't the best but it will do very tight loops.

Step 17: Scale Aircraft

Scale aircraft require allot of time to build and can cost allot more than a simple trainer, but they are the most realistic aircraft next to the real thing.

You can spend months on one kit if you want to go the extra step in detail.
Pictured below is dads Spitfire, a .60 powered war bird with working retracts, landing flaps, and a full cockpit.

The Cessna 182 also below has full working flaps, landing lights and a cockpit installed.

Most scale planes are on the heavy side ,you need allot of speed to get them off the ground, so they are not for the first time flier. The Cessna was modeled after a easy to fly airplane so its easy to fly, but not very aerobatic.

Step 18: Conversions

A conversion aircraft is one that started as electric and is now gas powered, or a gas plane that is now electric. pictured below is a Wattage electric Crazy 8 converted to gas. I used a .10 engine and made my own brass fuel tank.
I done this because I wanted a gas airplane that I could fit in the car without taking it apart.
Its highly maneuverable the little .10 having plenty of power for an aircraft that weights on 28oz!

The other conversion is a friends little electric Cessna it also has a .10 engine on it, seen here in flight
He simply epoxied a 1/4" firewall in the nose mounted the engine and added a throttle servo and fuel tank. It has flown very well.

With advancements is batteries and motors, many gas planes can be flown very well with electric power, the batteries are still a fire hazard so be careful.

Step 19: Gasser's

A Gasser is an aircraft powered by a gasoline burning engine, these planes are large and sometimes use a Weedeater motor, like my Piper cub

And my dads biplane, his is powered by an 18cc Weedeater engine and mine a 25cc Homelite.

These were home built from the ground up, so they are for the advanced flier.

They are also large aircraft, hard to transport if you don't have a truck or van.
The major advantage is the really long flight times that a Gasser has, up to 45min with a 16oz tank!
Another advantage is that they are relatively cheap to build, under $350.00 for an eight foot wingspan cub.

Step 20: Last Thoughts

Building and flying model aircraft is a challenging hobby, I have enjoyed it more than my other ones by far, but its not for everyone. if you cant take your time building things right you wont have a good time.

I would also like to recommend that you size your aircraft to your home and car, if its a hassle to move you wont fly much and your money will be wasted on a hanger queen.

Below are some pics of what me and Dad go threw when we move our aircraft.

Also first flights of an aircraft that took months to build and test can take allot out of you, see the last picture of my dad after he first flew his Cessna and safely landed it.

I hope this instructable has given you some idea of whats involved with this hobby.
You really can spend a lifetime in it and never run out of idea's.

Thanks for reading and be safe,
Zachary M
Clinton, TN