Originally appeared in R/C Report magazine in April 1997
By Robert Osorio, The Flying Penguin
Okay, I admit it, I taught myself how to fly. It is possible to teach yourself to fly, you know, if you're stupid enough. After all, there had to be somebody who was the first to ever do it, right? (The first R/C helicopter flight must've been a sight only to be out-done by the first full scale Heli flight) I admit, though, that it was a major mistake because I certainly could've saved myself a whole lot of grief, time, money, embarrassment and heckling from my wife - but it was also a unique learning experience.
The first time you buy a model plane is almost like the first time you buy a car - or would be if all cars came as kits. I walked through my neighborhood hobby shop in a sort of daze, gawking at all the planes hanging from the ceiling. I'd been in that hobby shop a dozen times before to purchase model rockets and engines, I'd just never noticed the area of the store with all the planes before.
Flash back fifteen years. Model rocketry. That was a fine hobby for me, one I look back on fondly with the same perverse pride that Professor Werner Van Braum must feel when he thinks back to the grand old days of dropping missiles on the British. There wasn't a weekend when my friends and I didn't tote our model rockets and launch equipment out to the vacant lot down the street, braving snakes, mosquitoes and rusty nails (as well as a case of Tetanus) to light off a few homemade Minuteman Missiles. I was into electronics at an early age, much to the horror of my parents who were convinced I'd burn the house down eventually (they were wrong - my brother's the one who burned it down with a gasoline experiment in the kitchen), and the all-plastic D-cell powered crappy launching system you could buy in the store just wasn't good enough for me. Oh no, I had to build a control console that the Gemini astronauts would've been proud to use - something straight out of a "Star Trek" episode (well, okay, more like one of the professor's bamboo contraptions on "Gilligan's Island"...). We weren't much into reading safety codes back then (Safety Codes? We don't need no stinking safety codes!) and the goal was simple: try to bring the rocket back in one piece. Failing that, at least have it crash onto the roof of the nastiest kid in the neighborhood so he'd get blamed by his parents for the ensuing smoldering roof fire. Ah youth...
Flash forward ten years. I was still into model rocketry in my twenties. By this time my friends and I had all grown up (well, sort of...), but we still prided ourselves on our continued juvenile pranks. Plain old Estes rockets just wouldn't do anymore... oh no. We'd have contests to see who could come up with the most outrageous launch vehicles. We'd have weekend theme parties that were BYOR (Bring Your Own Rocket): "Eggs in Space", "Lizards in Space", "Penguins in Space" (okay, just small plastic Penguins... sheesh, you really think I'm that sick?). There was the time a few of us built a six-foot tall monstrosity built out of empty coffee cans that looked like a German V-2 rocket. Flew like one too... like the early ones anyway. Then there was the memorable day that someone (I believe he was working on his eleventh beer of the morning at the time) asked if it was possible to launch a rocket from under water. "Hmmm...." we all thought. A challenge was put forth, the gauntlet was on the ground, we set upon the project with a vengeance.
For those of your who have ever even given a stray thought as to whether a model rocket can be ignited under water (on a planet with five billion people on it, there's got to be at least a few other deranged red-necks like us who pondered the imponderable as well...), let me inform you that yes, it can be done. You have to work quickly before the water begins to soak into the propellant, but it is possible. Apparently there's enough oxygen mixed in with the propellant to enable it to ignite. This was all verified during a backyard beer and Cheese-Wiz party spent dunking rocket engines held with pliers in a bucket of water and lighting them off (lest you get the impression that our neighbors thought we were a little touched in the head, one of our neighbor's hobbies was to buy junked cars, cut them in half with a blow torch, and leave 'em that way on his front lawn - Jeff Foxworthy, eat your heart out). Thus was born our last great rocketry weekend: "Pool Rockets". Our crack team of aerospace engineers spend hours at the nearby K-Mart picking out the ideal kiddie pool for our project. A special submersible launch pad was constructed from a concrete block, and recovery ships were placed in the pool (okay, toy boats). It was grand. For those of you who think I'm making this up, I actually have a video tape of all this, which I'd be happy to send you for the cost of postage. Some of us just cruise control through life, and others dare to do the unthinkable.
I got pretty bored with model rocketry after that - after all, we'd done everything it was humanly possible to do with model rockets except carry nuclear warheads (hmm.....).
Flash forward another ten years. Got a life, got a job, got a mortgage and a wife. If there was ever a time to start a new hobby... So there I was in the hobby shop, face all a glow, feeling like a little kid in a toy factory. My first plane was recommended to me by the hobby shop salesman who proceeded to look me over carefully, while apparently considering how big a sucker he had on his hands. Once he'd figured out just how much he could milk me for, he proceeded to sell me an "indestructible plane kit". Oh yeah, it was indestructible all right (it outlasted the engine, and I still use the fuselage as a doorstop), but I never did truly achieved sustained flight with that plane.
Well, quicker than you can say P. T. Barnum, I was soon lighter in wallet, but equipped with a newly purchased R/C trainer kit, a box of rubber bands, a squeeze-bulb fueler (whose use, as a lesson in patience, has few equals), a starter battery, a chicken stick and a whole lot of self confidence. Putting the thing together was a cinch, once I discovered that the fine and noble American tradition of ignoring the instructions works just as well for model aircraft as for VCR's. Duct tape and white glue were my major construction materials and any left over parts were used for tail weight. When I was done, I had something that, for the most part, looked like the photo on the box. But would it fly?
The first problem was getting the darned engine started. For anyone reading this who has yet to immerse themselves in this hobby, this is the number one reason to get help when you're learning to fly. Adjusting an engine becomes second nature after awhile, but it takes experience. There seems to be nothing more frustrating for a beginner than mastering the art of starting and adjusting a model engine (except for landings, of course, we won't even discuss landings at this stage of the game). I took the contraption out to an abandoned stretch of road that was under construction (and far from civilization) and proceeded to spend an exhilarating four hours trying to start the accursed thing. Just as soon as it started (I now realize, but I hadn't a clue back then) the engine would lean out and die. By trial and error I managed to get the thing started before the sun set, or before I was old enough for Medicare. I was ready for my first flight.
I had a good deal of aeronautical book knowledge under my belt when I set out on this road of discovery: I already understood the physics behind aerodynamics and what all the controls were for and what they were doing. I assumed (never assume!) that this would make the learning curve substantially easier.... NOT! As full scale pilots who've entered our hobby have found out, none of this helps at all with the reality of guiding what amounts to a pilotless missile through the air. Over the years I've come to the conclusion that the one thing that does help make the learning curve flatter is experience with other remote-control vehicles. R/C car drivers and boaters seem to have an easier time mastering the concept of visualizing oneself inside a remotely controlled aircraft. At this point, though, the most complex piece of automation I had ever mastered was an electric can opener - and I never really got good at that either...
By this time I had attracted a substantial crowd of onlookers: well-wishers, thrill seekers and ghouls. I felt my heart swell with pride as I proceeded to taxi down the pavement. By some bit of luck I actually managed to get the plane off the ground on the first try without ground looping it (a freak of nature, as I never again was so lucky as to recreate this feat on the first flight of the day with this plane) and up it went.... and over, and under.... onlookers now threatened to become innocent bystanders as the plane, seemingly with a mind of it's own, proceeded to rampage among the crowd causing panic and mayhem. A group of people scattered for cover as the plane dove towards the them, then pulled up just in time, flipped over inverted, and slam-dunked itself into the pavement at full throttle. A thunder of applause broke out from the spectators that had managed to get back onto their feet. Ah well, back to the lab-or-a-tory Egor...
I poked through the remains with all the attention to detail of an NTSB crash investigation team and decided, in the end, that it was a good first attempt. Next time, I thought to myself, I'd try to actually establish some modicum of control over the craft before it crashed. This little drama played itself out every weekend, with minor variations, for a month or so until the crankcase on the engine finally succumbed to stress failure (my wife's theory was that it just decided to put itself out of it's misery before the pain became too intense).
Having never attained true flight, I regrouped and considered my options. The plane, I surmised, was just too fast for me. I needed something that was slower, more graceful, and that would allow me plenty of time to foresee necessary control inputs. I had done some reading in R/C magazines about electric flight. Being an electronic technician, this concept seemed elegant and attractive to me, so I went out and plunked down some money on a Goldberg Electric Mirage and a Futaba Attack 4 electric radio.
The Mirage served me well. Actually, that one particular Mirage didn't last all that long at all - let's just say that the several Mirages I built in the succeeding months served me well, okay? It's actually a very good flier, with most of the best characteristics of it's glow-powered cousin, the Eaglet. I can't honestly tell you if electrics are easier for beginners to start off with or not, though. Both glow and electric powered craft have their plusses and minuses. I quickly learned the art of "peak" charging my battery packs, and my electronic background served me well in this endeavor. I never found the plane underpowered, even with the landing gear attached, and had quite a bit of fun with this kit. The major problem proved to be the mass of the battery pack: any kind of bad landing in an electric plane can be quite devastating. A battery pack tends to leave a plane at a great rate of speed during impact, generally destroying anything in it's path: bulkheads, formers, radios, etc. One thing an electric modeler learns very rapidly, is the fine art of mounting a battery pack so it does the least bit of damage on it's way out of a plane during a crash - at this, I became an artist - well, I had lots of practice.
My first flight with the Mirage was truly a great moment for me. I maintained controlled flight for less time than the Wright Brothers did on their maiden flight, but it was controlled. I hand launched the plane in a soccer field with my wife video-taping the memorable occasion. I got it into the air, made my first banked turn, leveled it out.... it was beautiful! I actually made it about three-quarters of the way around the field before I lost it. It started drifting over - ever so slowly - towards the bleachers and finally smacked up against a concrete wall and came showering down in a rain of debris. I didn't care - I HAD FLOWN! Nothing could ruin that moment for me, not even the nasty gashes I got climbing the barbed wire fence to get into the locked-off area where the plane had crashed. I had finally achieved flight! I tell ya, I would've glued the thing together right there in the back of my van and flown again if I'd had the right tools on me. Dang, what a rush!
Well, I learned more about building electric planes than flying them for the next few months. I think I was somewhere up around my tenth Mirage by the time I got the hang of it, and there was no stopping me. I bid farewell to the Mirage (and seriously upset Goldberg's projected sales figures for the next month when I stopped buying them by the gross) and moved on to a wide assortment of electric planes: the Great Planes Electric Cub and Electro-Streak, electric gliders....
I was flying these things in a large field behind a college campus that was used as soccer field and had a golf putting green off in the corner. The Golfers appreciated my quiet electric aircraft - what they didn't appreciate was my lack of control. Most days there'd be golfers diving for cover left and right as my electric buzz bombs threatened life and limb. It got even more interesting when there was a soccer game going on. Ah, what fun...
It was all going too well. My next big project was converting a 40-size Ugly Stick to electric power. Yes, I actually have occasionally owned an Ugly Stick, despite my well known disgust for those infernal contraptions. There's nothing actually wrong with owning an Ugly Stick, in my opinion. My problem is with those people who, due to some mental dysfunction, own a garage full of them. Anyway, I purchased an Astro Cobalt .40 motor (I expected to be able to run electric wheelchairs with this thing, considering how much it cost!) and the 18 cell battery pack necessary to power it. When I had the thing all built, I took it out into the street in front of my home, minus the wing, to do some motor tests. I was going to taxi around a little bit and get used to it. Unfortunately, the speed control I was using wasn't up to the current load and shorted out - instant full throttle with no way to kill it! Folks, if I had any doubts before this incident that an electric motor could put out as much horsepower as a glow engine, this sure cured me of that. That Ugly Stick tore out like a bat out of hell and zoomed down the street bent on destruction. Looking back on it with 20-20 hindsight, I should've made a hard turn and let it roll over to stall the prop and let the motor fuse blow, but quite frankly, I was totally caught off guard here. It was all I could do to keep the thing speeding straight down the road at an estimated speed of forty miles an hour, when it suddenly disappeared around a corner and smashed into a concrete wall. Oh, the humanity....
I finally (belatedly) joined a flying club, and as I was the only one flying electrics at that time, I rapidly became known as "Electric Bob", a name many of the old-timers still call me to this day (when they're not using worse epithets like "that idiot who prints the flyer...").
The only onboard fire I ever had was on an electric plane. Any of you who have any doubt about it, there's a substantial amount of electrical energy pent up in those batteries, and unleashing it in an uncontrolled manner can have dire consequences. It was a beautiful cold winter day (okay I grant you, in South Florida, cold is about forty-five degrees), and I was flying at a high altitude when I noticed the smoke. Heck, I thought it was a contrail, what did I know? So I just kept flying. Eventually one of the other fellows came over and asked me how I'd managed to come up with a smoke system for an electric plane. It was at that point that I realized something was seriously wrong and that I outta land the thing before the fire ate the radio wiring. I wish I had a video of this: I'm on final approach, smoke's pouring out the back of the plane like there's an oil fire onboard, and as the wheels touch down flames are actually licking out the sides of the cockpit under the wing. We all started pouring sand on it like mad until the fire went out. I tell ya, I've never flown without a fire extinguisher in my flight box since then.
I haven't flown electrics in a while, now. I've become too much of a lover of high performance and larger planes (not that you can't get this with an electric, it just costs a lot), and I've come to love smoke systems far too much for me to ever become a full-time electric flyer anytime in the near future. Still, I do miss those challenging days, and the feeling of great accomplishment (if also great frustration) that went with it. Who knows? One of these days I might chisel that Astro 40 out of the concrete wall and build me another electric plane...
BOB'S TOP TEN USES FOR AN UGLY STICK...
#10 - Coffee Table
#9 - Paper Weight
#8 - Doorstop
#7 - Weed-wacker
#6 - Personal Defense Device
#5 - Fireplace Fuel
#4 - Chew-toy for Large Dog
#3 - Step Stool
#2 - Hammer
#1 - Wheel-chock for 1/2-scale Piper Cub