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Preparing to fly

By Andrew Gibbs


Tips for learning to fly
Having carefully assembled and checked your model, at last it’s almost time to fly it! This part offers some guidance for the practical business of learning to fly.

Flying Insurance
It’s absolutely essential to have public liability insurance when operating a radio control aircraft of any size or weight. RC models have resulted in serious injury and even death to innocent bystanders and you must be covered for this eventuality or else you risk losing everything you have ever worked for. Public liability insurance is for your benefit, not other people’s. My strong advice is not to even consider flying RC model aircraft without the appropriate insurance.

The British Model Flying Association (BMFA) is the main provider in the UK of such insurance and they offer an excellent policy which is very reasonably priced. Joining a BMFA affiliated club is an easy way to get this insurance, alternatively it can be purchased direct from the BMFA without the need to be a club member.

Range check
As a minimum, you should do a range check before the model’s first flight and after any change to its installation. The idea of the range check is to try and ensure that the RC equipment will continue to function correctly when the model is far away from the transmitter. To do this, have a friend hold the model at about waist height. Turn on the transmitter, with its aerial fully collapsed and have the friend move the away while you check the control responses. The model should answer the controls without jittering for at least 25 yards (25m). Check first with the motor off and this will give you a baseline figure. After this, check the model at half and full power. Provided the model answers the controls properly up to at least 25m away with the aerial collapsed, it should receive a satisfactory signal at the much higher distances typical of an average flight with the transmitter aerial fully extended.

Ground handling
An excellent idea, especially for those teaching themselves, is to gain familiarity with the ground handling characteristics of your model by taxiing it around for a few sessions, but perhaps not at a crowded club site.

Good ground handling skills are an important component of becoming a competent RC pilot. Unfortunately, it’s an area that’s often neglected by model pilots. It’s actually quite an interesting challenge to learn to do it well and the one area of model aircraft operation that can be done at any speed you like!

Left and right
One challenge inherent in controlling any radio controlled model is that when a model is coming towards you, left and right can appear to be reversed. It’s well worth considering investing in a model car, boat, hovercraft etc with proportional controls to help you learn to master this aspect of RC models. Note that ground based-vehicles will need a different RC system as they are not permitted (at least here in the UK) to be operated on the frequency bands reserved for flying models.

Another way to help master RC flying is to practice using a computer based simulator. While these don’t replicate exactly the whole experience of flying a model, they can still make a wonderful contribution to the business of learning to fly. Simulators provide an opportunity to gain experience without risk and they help to ensure some sort of continuity when the weather is unsuitable for real flying.

In my experience, one area where simulators don't help much is in learning the business of take off and landing, for which an appreciation of the model's distance away is important. This is partly because a computer's 2D screen cannot give us the 3D depth perception which we enjoy through having a pair of eyes, and partly because it can be hard to accurately know the position and orientation of the runway relative to the model when using a simulator.

Get (virtually) inside the model
Another technique that may be very useful is to imagine yourself inside the model, and then deciding what control input you would need to make the model respond as you want it to. The great John Farley, the famous test pilot who was heavily involved in the VTOL Harrier programme, told me this was a technique he used to good effect when he taught himself to fly RC models, unaided, while in his seventies.

A related technique, suggested to me by reader Alex Ferguson, is to imagine that the transmitter you are holding is the model and you are steering it, the aerial being the model's nose. This allows you to more easily imagine how the model will respond to stick commands, as it should respond in the same way as "model" in your hands.

Whatever type of model you choose, I would strongly recommend flying only on relatively calm days when there is very little wind, certainly at least to start with. Learning to fly can be challenging enough without adding the problems of coping with wind and the associated gusts and turbulence! Also a beginner is apt to become discouraged when flying in windy conditions because of the added difficulty. Becoming discouraged is the last thing we want, especially in the early stages. Keeping to relatively calm days will limit the number of suitable flying days which can of course be frustrating if you are keen to get on with learning.

Being cold is no fun, and if you’re not comfortable it’s going to be hard to apply yourself properly to a challenging task like learning to fly. Wrap up warmly!

The sun can be a bit of a problem with some combinations of time and location. Ideally, you want the sun behind you so there’s no chance of being distracted by it, and the associated risk of losing visual contact with the model. If you find that you are being distracted by the sun, it may help to have your lesson at a different time of day when the sun will be in a different position. Sunglasses and/or a peaked cap may also be helpful.

Over controlling
A very common problem for beginners is the tendency to over control their model. It is worth remembering that a properly trimmed model will fly itself without any help from its pilot, so modest control inputs should be quite sufficient.

How are you today?
Many of us get ‘off’ days, when things just don’t seem to go so well. Maybe you’re slightly unwell, maybe something’s upsetting you. Whatever the reason, if you’re having such a day, it’s possible, indeed probable that your flying lesson won’t go so well either. Flying lessons taken under significantly sub-optimal conditions can be a waste of time, and perhaps even counter productive.

So, if you’re not feeling like flying, then don’t! Chances are, you won’t enjoy it and you may come home feeling frustrated, perhaps with a broken model too. Of course, good manners dictates that you should remember to let your instructor know first in plenty of time if expected at the flying field for a lesson you intend to skip.

Learn a bit of theory!
To successfully learn to control an aircraft, whether it’s a model or full size, requires not only practical training in the business of controlling your model, but also at least a basic understanding of how aircraft fly. Without this knowledge, you could find yourself needing rather a lot of glue!

Of particular interest to the model flyer are answers to questions such as these:

What are the forces acting on an aircraft?
In terms of these forces, what’s the difference between powered and gliding flight?
What is meant by a stall?
What causes a wing to stall?
How does a wing’s angle of attack change when an aircraft is in a level turn?
How is the wing’s angle of attack controlled?
What are the consequences of a stall?
How is airspeed controlled?
How is an aircraft trimmed for a particular airspeed?
What are the primary and secondary effects of the controls?

The list of possible questions is almost endless, and aerodynamics is a fascinating subject in its own right. Unfortunately there isn’t the space in this article to answer the questions posed above here. However, a discussion of the theoretical aspects of model flying could become the subject of a Gibbs Guide at a later date. In the meantime, your public library will probably have at least one book about the theory of flying, plus of course there are other resources available. Happy reading!

How long will it take to learn to fly?
This question is difficult to answer, for everyone’s circumstances will of course be unique. There’s no getting away from the fact that generally speaking, the younger you are the easier it is to learn a new skill. Thus, a teenager will probably learn more quickly than a mature modeler. That said, I’ve seen a number of cases where mature modelers have become very competent pilots, so don’t use your age as an excuse!!

Factors other than age also come into play of course. You can’t do much about your age, but you do have control over a number of some of the other things that could affect your rate of progress. The most important of these include:

Continuity, or repeated and regular exposure, is very important when learning a complex new skill. If you take only one flying lesson a month, it could take many, many more lessons than if your exposure to model flying was on a weekly basis. From my full size training experience, both as pupil and as instructor, I’ve learned that new knowledge will gradually seep away unless it’s constantly refreshed, whatever your age. It’s important to keep topping up the learning! A simulator can be very helpful here.

This also is important. Make a check list so you know you’ll be arriving at the flying field with all the necessary equipment and fully charge batteries. The model should be properly maintained and correctly set up so it’s as easy to fly as possible. This is vital because a badly set up model can make learning much more difficult than it needs to be. It’s also helpful to recap what you learned during the previous lesson, and to mentally rehearse what’s coming up in the next one.

Make notes
It can be helpful to make notes at the end of a lesson about what you learned, what went well and what went not so well. By reviewing these notes occasionally, you can be better prepared for the next lesson.

Don’t be in too much of a rush
It takes time to acquire the experience necessary to learn to fly RC models, and this can only be gained by many trips to the flying field. As a very rough guide, expect to take months not weeks to become competent. If you’re a mature modeler, it might take a year of so of dedicated effort.

Enjoy the journey
By all means remember that your overall goal is to learn to fly. However, try also to enjoy each lesson, rather than feeling dissatisfied that you have not yet reached your goal. In other words, enjoy the journey rather than being frustrated that you are not yet at your destination. Do all you can to ensure that each trip to the flying field is enjoyable.

Sub goals
The overall goal of learning to fly can seem like a huge, insurmountable obstacle to begin with. You can gain more of a sense of progress by setting yourself sub goals, such as learning ground handling, improving wind awareness, or height keeping or some other aspect of flying. These will help you realize that you are making progress towards your overall goal.

Try and ‘stack the odds in your favour’
Sometimes a lesson can go well, and at other times it can go rather badly. This isn’t necessarily the random business it might seem, and so you might as well try and organize things so the chance of success is as high as possible.

In my experience, flying lessons tend to go best for students when the following conditions come together:

1. You have a competent instructor with a calm and measured approach.
2. You feel compatible with your instructor.
3. You’re feeling well, relaxed and mentally prepared for the lesson.
4. There’s not too much stress going on elsewhere in your life.
5. Your model is well set up.
6. The weather is suitable - there’s not too much wind.
7. You’re comfortable - you've arrived on time, you’re warm enough, and the sun’s not shining in your eyes.

Did you find this article useful?
I hope you’ve found this short guide useful. You may also enjoy the forthcoming Gibbs Guide ‘Beginners Guide to Electric Flight’. This is scheduled for release in 2014. I wish you much luck in enjoying the fine hobby of building and flying RC models!

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