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The Flying Penguin Beginner's Guide to Flying FAQ File

So, you wanna fly, huh?Diving Penguin

This Page Last Updated 9/12/96
New entries are at the bottom of the list.


Q: So what is all this toy plane stuff about?

A: They're not toy planes, they're model planes. Calling them toys is a great way to get into a fight. The hobby is called Model Aeronautics, and we fly remote control model aircraft. In every way they're just like full-scale aircraft (don't call them real aircraft, these are real aircraft too). Any maneuver a full-scale plane can perform, so can a scaled down model version of that plane. Model aircraft are subject to all the laws of physics and aeronautics that full-scale aircraft are subject to. When you scale down an aircraft, you can't also scale down the air molecules it has to fly in, which makes flying model planes a challenge. Generally, the larger a plane is, the easier it is to fly. It's a lot easier to fly a full-scale Piper Cub than a 1/4 scale one, and that's easier to fly than a 1/6 scale one. Many model aircraft pilots are also full-scale pilots and they find the sport a challenge. They'll tell you that's it's a whole lot more difficult to fly a model of an aircraft than the full-scale version. For one thing, flying a model gives you no seat-of-the pants feel for what the aircraft is doing. You must rely on your eyes, ears and instincts to tell you what your gut or instrumentation would in a full-scale plane. (Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go play with my toy planes....)

Q: Okay then what is Aeromodeling about?

A: It's about a bunch of guys who get together on weekends, drink beer and fry in the sun all day while starting at the sky in rapt fascination. Kinda like Golf.

Q: But seriously, what is Aeromodeling?

A: Different people get into Model Aeronautics for different reasons. Some like to build model aircraft, some like to fly them, some like to do both, some are into competition, some are into the engineering challenge, some want to build detailed scale replicas of full-scale aircraft and some are just looking for any excuse to get away from their wives on the weekends.

Q: Should I first learn to fly a model plane or a helicopter?

A: Planes are easier to fly and less expensive to start with. They're also less complicated. Besides, if God had meant for Heli's to fly, he would've given them wings.

Q: How do you control these things?

A: A standard aircraft has four basic controls: the ailerons which banks the plane (rolls left and right), the elevator which controls the plane's attitude (nose up or down), the rudder which turns the planes left and right and also steers it on the ground, and the throttle. A basic radio control system has four channels (one channel for each control). They make multi-channel radios up to nine. These extra channels can be used for extra scale controls such as retractable landing gear and flaps.

A basic radio system's components consist of a transmitter which you use to control the plane, a receiver which is installed in the plane and picks up your transmitter signal and decodes it into control signals for the servos. The servos are small motor driven units that move the plane's control surfaces in response to the control stick movements. There is one servo for each channel. Two planes on the same frequency cannot fly at the same time, or they'll interfere with each other and get "shot down". Radios come on a variety of frequencies also called channels (not to be confused with the control channels on the radio). Every flying field uses some system of frequency management, usually a frequency board with channel pins, to prevent two planes on the same frequency from flying at the same time. Most fields limit you to a fifteen minute use of the channel, after which you must allow someone else on that frequency to fly. While you are not using the frequency, your radio must be placed in a Radio Impound to prevent accidental transmission. This is for your protection. You don't want someone else inadvertently shooting you down, and you don't want to shoot someone else down. Accepted courtesy means that you are obligated to pay for someone's plane if you damage it by turning on your transmitter when not authorized to. Believe me, you do not want to shoot down someone's $4,000 scale F-15 jet!

A standard four channel radio transmitter has two control "sticks" the right stick controls the ailerons (left & right) and the elevator (up & down) and works just like a full-scale plane's control stick or yoke. Pulling back on the stick brings the nose up in flight, push forward points it down. The left stick controls the Rudder (left & right) and the throttle (up & down). Full-scale pilots are taught to fly using coordinated aileron and rudder. With most models smaller than 1/4 scale (or 70" wingspan) you can ignore the Rudder except for take-offs and landings. An instructor will not even allow you to use the Rudder or Throttle for the first few flights, to allow you to concentrate on using the primary stick.

Q: What kind of engines d these planes use?

A: Model engines come in sizes from .025 cubic inch (the little Cox control line planes you may have flown in your childhood used these) all the way up to four cubic inches. Most sport plane engines are in the .25 to .90 cubic inch range. Most are Two-Stroke engines which provide power on every revolution of the crankshaft. These engines are simple, inexpensive and reliable. Some engines are Four-Stroke and use push rods and valves just like an automobile engine. These engines are more complicated, heavier and expensive than Two-Strokes, but are often used in scale models because of their realistic sound and power range. Four-Strokes deliver more torque than Two-Strokes, so they can spin a larger propeller. Most model engines have a single cylinder, although some varieties come with two or more cylinders (again, these are generally used on scale competition aircraft). There are even planes designed to run on Electric Motors. Electrics are becoming very popular because of the noise problem associated with engines, particularly in Europe. Electric power is clean, but because of their power to weight ratio, electric planes don't make very good trainers. I learned on an electric, and it definitely makes for a steeper learning curve.

Q: What kind of fuel do these engines run on?

A: Model aircraft run on a variety of fuels, but most run on Methanol a form of Alcohol, with a small amount of Nitro-Methane (or Nitro) as an additive to allow easy starting and a good idle. This fuel is known as Glow fuel as it requires a Glow-Plug. Glow plugs screw into the cylinder head of the engine just like a spark plug, but instead of a spark, the Platinum wire in the plug glows (initially because you connect a battery to it to start the engine, but once started engine heat alone maintains the glow) and causes a catalytic reaction along with the compressed fuel resulting in combustion. Since model engines don't have oil pans, 15 - 25% of the fuel is Castor oil, synthetic oil, or some combination of the two to provide lubrication and cooling. This fuel is available in hobby shops with Nitro percentages of 0% (also known as FAI fuel) to 55%. For sport flying, 5 to 10% Nitro is all that's needed - anymore would damage a sport engine. Some exotic high compression competition engines require more Nitro. Jet (Ducted Fan) and Helicopter engines use special blends of fuel with higher percentages of oil. If you live in the United States, 10% fuel generally costs $10 to $14.

Some larger engines use regular Gasoline mixed with motor oil, and have a familiar spark plug on them. Some engines run on Diesel fuel. There are even true model Jet-Turbine engines that run on Propane or Kerosene ($2,500 delivered to your door - step right up....). For the most part, though, the engines you'll be using run on Glow fuel. Glow has a lot of advantages: it has a high flash point temperature, is a lot friendlier to the environment than most fuels, and doesn't stink up the trunk of your wife's car.

Q: Do these things crash?

A: And then some. Get used to it. If you fly for any length of time, you'll crash a plane sooner or later. It's part of the hobby so don't get discouraged. There are some very strict rules about where you can fly at a field just for this reason. Generally clubs restrict your flight to within a box encompassing one side and the ends of the runway. Flying over the pilots, the pits area, or spectators is strictly prohibited. When these rules are followed, planes generally crash in the safe area designated to fly in, and no one gets hurt.

Some crashes are worse than others, and you can almost always salvage at least the radio and the engine. If the plane goes in at a steep angle and at high speed, it's likely a goner, but it can usually be rebuilt if it comes in fairly flat. Never judge the rebuildability of a plane right after a crash - it's too hard to judge it dispassionately at that point. Pick up everything, all the little bits and pieces, put it in a garbage bag (I always keep a couple in the car) and take it home. Wait until you can look at it the next day, or have someone more experienced than you look at it and decide if it's salvageable.

Planes crash for a variety of reasons. Often it's pilot error, or poor maintenance. I've seen experienced pilots forget to let out the receiver antenna wire on a new plane (it should be straight and hanging out of the plane somewhere. Rarely interference will be the cause, but I've found a lot of people quick to blame interference for their carelessness. I've been flying for some nine years now, and I've only had interference cause a crash once that I know of. Sometimes the radio battery goes dead, so it's important to test your batteries with an ESV (Expanded Scale Voltmeter) before every flight to make sure they're up to it.

Q: I'm too old to learn to fly.

A: Not true. A lot of people get into modeling late in life. I'll grant you it's harder to teach a sixty year old than a twenty year old, but old dogs can learn new tricks. The most important thing to remember is that it helps to take as many lessons as possible in one day - it improves the learning curve. I've seen Seventy and Eighty year olds out at the field, so no age is too old. Sure I may not be flying jets or W.W.II fighters at that age, but I sure intend to keep flying till the bitter end even if it's a Piper Cub.

Q: These things look to hard to fly. They go too fast and I see them crash landing in the grass all the time.

A: Flying Model Planes isn't easy, but it's not hard either. Trainers are specifically designed to fly very slow and stable. A good instructor will trim your plane to fly at a slow manageable speed. Well designed trainers practically fly themselves - they're more like guided kites. It takes a while to teach your brain and hands the new reflexes you need to fly, and at first even the slow sedate speed of a Trainer will seem more than you can handle, but trust me, soon you'll be craving more speed. We all go through the speed thing. Some never get over it.

Landings are the hardest thing to learn, and even harder to learn to do right. To start with, a lot of beginners wind up in the grass, sometimes cartwheeling the plane. It's okay, and won't hurt anything, just expect to straighten some bent landing gear on occasion. More than likely you'll break a lot of propellers to start with. Don't worry about it. I bought them by the handful when I started, now I buy a couple every year. To start with, you'll probably be landing in the grass a lot. It takes practice to land on the runway, and I've seen too many new pilots crash because they're so fixated on making it. I tell all my students to land in the grass - grass is soft, asphalt is hard. When you're ready to shoot a runway landing, you'll know it.

Q: Where should I fly?

A: You need to find a model flying field or club nearby. This shouldn't be a problem, they're everywhere. Many flying fields are private clubs and will charge you for membership. This membership fee pays for maintenance of the site, mowing of the grass, construction and maintenance of a weather enclosure, and beer for the board of trustees. Some fields are in public parks, and these generally don't require a membership.

Q: Can't I just fly in any large empty field?

A: You can, but you shouldn't, especially to start with. First off, you should learn to fly from an instructor, and they're at the flying fields. Second, most flying insurance won't cover you unless you fly with the permission of the owner of the property, and most property owners don't want the liability problem. Also, it is illegal to fly in certain areas, such as within three miles of an airport or heliport without permission from the control tower. Thirdly, you can never know what potential radio interference might be nearby, while at an existing flying field it will be well documented. Finally, you should never fly alone. This is a somewhat hazardous sport. You can easily do yourself serious injury. Almost every flyer I know has been injured by a model airplane propeller at least once, and those babies can take your whole finger off if you get careless. Should you be injured, it would be best if someone else was around to apply first aid, collect your equipment, and drive you to the hospital if necessary.

Q: What kind of plane should I buy?

A: They make Trainer aircraft which are easy to fly and best for beginners. Some are in kit form, which can take 80 to 100 hours for a beginner to build. They also make ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) models which are 70 to 80% complete and already covered. These generally take 10 to 20 hours to build (the box might say a couple of evenings, but don't believe it). Generally, the bigger the model, the easier it is to fly, but a .40 size trainer (one designed for a .40 cubic inch engine) generally makes a good first plane. Don't be tempted to buy a P-51 Mustang or an F-16 Jet for starters. It'll take a while before you're ready for that.

Q: What do I need to get started?

A: Patience, and lots of it.

Q: No really.

A: First off, you need to carry flying insurance. This protects you in case of an accident (your plane hits somebody, a car, a moose, etc.), and gives you secondary personal injury coverage over and above what your personal health insurance covers you for. There are two easy ways to get this. Join either the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) or the SFA (Sport Flyer's Association). Membership including insurance is anywhere from $30 to $40 a year. You can find an application at any hobby store or in the back of a Modeling magazine. You must carry your AMA or SFA card with you whenever you fly (some clubs make you wear it). Make a photocopy of your AMA of SFA membership form and the check you're paying with as most clubs will accept this as proof of insurance until your card comes in the mail.

Q: Okay, but what kind of equipment do I need to get started?

A: A plane (duh!), an engine, a radio system, a gallon of fuel, some kind of fuel pump, a box of #64 rubber bands to hold the wing on, a glow driver (a battery that heats the engine's glow plug for starting), a chicken stick or electric starter (never start a plane by hand unless you know exactly what you're doing) and someone who's willing to teach you how to fly. Don't try to teach yourself! I did, and I have a hole in my wallet to prove it. Go to the flying field and ask around. There's always some people willing to teach you, and you should not have to pay for it. A good instructor will check your plane out to make sure it's built right and safe to fly. he'll teach you how to start and adjust the engine, range check the radio, and maintain your equipment. On the average, you should be flying solo after about fifteen or twenty flights, some people take longer. The more flying you can cram into one day, the quicker you'll learn.

Q: Okay, so where can I get all this crap?

A: Check out your nearby hobby store. They can sell you everything. You might also see some used planes for sale there, or in the bargain trader. Most flying fields have a bulletin board with used planes for sale. People get out of the hobby all the time. You might be able to buy a plane complete with a flight box and all the accessories for a good price.

Q: So how much is all this going to cost me?

A: It's a falacy that Aeromodeling is an expensive hobby. Like all hobbies, you can spend a lot of money if you want to, but you don't have to. You should be able to get setup with a Trainer and all the accessories for $300 to $400 (U.S), depending on what you buy. Cheaper, if you buy second hand. ARF kits are more expensive than regular kits, but they're easier to build and get you in the air quicker. Your first engine and radio need not be anything super-expensive or fancy. Just a basic non-ball bearing engine and an inexpensive 4-channel radio. I would recommend either an O.S. or Super Tiger engine. They're not the cheapest, but they're easy to setup and start. Ask the other pilots at the flying field you're planning to use about good frequencies for your radio, some channels are less used than others. Some channels are banned at certain flying fields because of nearby interference.

Q: What should I wear to the flying field?

A: Platform shoes, bell-bottom slacks, and a polo shirt (just kidding). You'll get messy out there, planes get covered in oil after flying, so wear something grungy you're wife won't have a fit over when it gets oily. Depending on the time of year, you should dress comfortable. Jeans or shorts and a T-shirt will do. Wear an old pair of sneakers and socks, as they're going to get oil on them from the engine exhaust (the most common way to hold a plane on the taxi-way is to hold the tail between your legs, and the oily exhaust is gonna get all over your shoes, socks and pant legs). Take some sun-block along, you're going to spend some time out in the sun. A hat helps shade your eyes from the sun, and sunglasses are a must. Don't forget to wear your prescription glasses if you're nearsighted.

Q: So I've got my stuff, and I'm ready to go, but none of these elitist bastards want to teach me how to fly...

A: You haven't asked the right people. Sure, some people don't want to deal with newbies, but there's always somebody out there willing to teach you. Be wary of people too eager to volunteer. We all go through a phase right after we learn to fly and think it'd be cool to teach others. Noble sentiments, but an instructor should be a well experienced pilot who's been doing this for a few years. There's usually some older guys out there who know everybody at the field. Ask them who the good instructors are. When you find one, remember he's out there to have a good time too, so let him fly his plane and take you up between flights. Sometimes he's got more than one student, so be patient. You can make things easier by fueling up your plane and getting everything ready to go before he's ready for you.

Q: Do I need any large tools?

A: Yes. Bring a shovel.... to get your engine out of the ground after a nose-down, full-throttle crash.

Contributed by Per Bergqvist -

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