How To Get Started In RC Helis
Looking for a new hobby? One that’s guaranteed to test your mettle and deliver satisfaction in spades? Stuart Messenger throws down the gauntlet…
As a fixed-wing model flyer of 25 years standing and a rotor blader for the last eight, I can honestly say that learning to fly model helicopters has been one the most rewarding experiences of my quarter century at the sticks. I’m a great believer in the old adage that ‘nothing worth doing is easy’, and after wrestling my Hirobo Shuttle through two long years of learning, the satisfaction of finally being able to steer the machine through a series of flowing circuits and hovering manoeuvres was immense. It was a goal that I’d dreamed of achieving for some considerable time prior to the event, yet when I finally bit the bullet and started learning, I really couldn’t understand why I hadn’t done it before.
In the early days I well remember using the relative cost of helicopters as an excuse for my inaction, although looking back on it I was probably more concerned about my ability than anything else. I, like many others, had heard countless stories of how difficult model helicopters were to fly, indeed, astoundingly, some of these came from experienced model helicopter pilots themselves! The very people who ought to have been encouraging folk like me.
With this in mind, it’s very important that we get one thing clear right from the start: Having the ability to fly a radio control model helicopter is a skill that anyone can learn. I’m a very average fixed-wing flyer, I don’t fly 3D and my pattern aerobatic ability won’t win me any competitions. If I can fly model helicopters, then you can, too! That said, flying helis is a skill that needs to be practiced in much the same way as you’d learn to play a musical instrument. To master the art, then, you’ll need to be in it for the long haul. Of course, there’ll be hiccups along the way, and whilst you may struggle with certain aspects, others will seem dead easy
Taking The Plunge
So, we’ve established that anyone can fly a model helicopter and, more to the point, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Heck, what are you waiting for? At this point I’m sure I’m right in saying that making a purchase is one of the first things you’ll be keen to do, however there are one or two things you ought to consider before setting foot in a model shop. Let’s start by discussing the cheapest yet most important weapon a beginner can have in his arsenal: Good advice! Without it you’ll have a fight on your hands and one that statistically you’re likely to lose! Having someone to ask when problems arise is often all it takes to keep you progressing at a steady pace through the building, set-up and flight training process.
Model shops, books, magazines and the Internet are all possible avenues of knowledge although, frankly, the very best place to go is your local model flying club. Most of us have one that’s within an hour’s drive of our home, indeed if you pop into your nearest model shop (without your wallet!), they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. Failing that, the British Model Flying Association has well over 600 registered clubs on its books and upwards of 35,000 members – give the BMFA a call on 0116 244 0028 and they’ll happily supply you with a list of local contacts. You can also see if there’s a club near you by visiting www.BMFA.org
It’s difficult to over-emphasise the importance of joining a flying club, although do check that it has a knowledgeable helicopter following in its ranks before you sign up. You’ll need to be amongst members who can competently trim, set-up and fly a .30-size machine. Better still, though not quite as common, are specialised model helicopter clubs where the advice will almost certainly be up-to-the-minute and of the highest calibre.
Having located a friendly group, make a point of attending a regular flying session to chat with members. Take a look at the models and equipment they’re using and ask for advice about suitable training machines. Take note of the answers, act on them, and you’ll be one step ahead of the game before you’ve even started.
What To Buy?
As you’ll doubtless be aware, model helicopters come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations. Examples of indoor, outdoor, electric and IC (internal combustion) machines fill the adverts, with prices for beginners’ packages ranging from as little as £100 up to our benchmark £500. Of course, you may be wondering why you have to spend £500 when, seemingly, you can get something equally suitable for learning by paying just £100. As always the answer to that one is in the cost, i.e. you get what you pay for. Spend £100 on, say, an indoor electric contra-rotating machine and, good as it will undoubtedly be, you’ll be buying a compromise. Outdoor flight is not a practical proposition with one of these machines and if you’re serious about learning to fly model helicopters you’ll need to purchase a suitable outdoor model. By all means have a contra-rotating job as well, they make superb practice machines in the early stages, however, don’t be under the impression that it’ll teach you all you need to know, it won’t. We’ll look at these models in greater detail as the series progresses but in the meantime we’re going to focus on getting you trained up for your ‘B’ Certificate in the very shortest possible time. For that, then, we’re going to need a helicopter that can handle the extremes of our unpredictable English weather.
Walk into your local model shop and the range of helicopters that confronts you is likely to be huge. In short you’ll see products that vary in size and complexity from small indoor electric machines right up to large .60 and .90 size two-stroke models. Lovely as they all are, there’s really only one group of helicopters worthy of consideration for the committed beginner, characterised as 30-size machines, i.e. those typically powered by a .30cu in (5cc) engine. Interestingly, in the beginners’ series I penned for Rotorworld back in 2003, I gave the same advice as I’m about to give you now, but with one significant omission. Back then I made scant mention of electric helicopters. Overall cost, allied to limited duration, were significant disadvantages at the time and although electric helis were clearly going places, back then they hadn’t quite arrived. Not so now. When, in the following paragraphs, I refer to 30-size models, you must assume that I speak of models with a rotor diameter of between 1000 and 1200mm, whether powered by an electric motor or a regular two-stroke glow engine.
What is it that these models have going for them? Well, having made their mark back in the late eighties and early nineties, 30-size models have just about the best support from manufacturers of spares and accessories. This makes replacement parts fairly easy to find and generally pretty cheap. Buy a model in this class and you’ll find that it will also take standard servos and components, it’ll build quickly, be more stable in the air than a smaller machine and, as such, easier to fly. Moreover, it’ll be robust, cheap to operate (low fuel costs) and, should you wish to practice aerobatics later on, will be capable of seeing you through the basics. As if that’s not enough, 30-size models are big enough to see at a distance (important when practicing early circuit work), yet small enough to fit in the boot space of a very modest car. Finally, when you’ve finished your training and the heli’s looking a little tired, it’s likely that you’ll be able to wrap a scale body shell around the mechanics (as I did) and let the old girl retire gracefully flying circuits and bumps.
That’s my opinion but, of course, there are others who will confidently advise that learn with the biggest helicopter you can afford, i.e. a .50 or even a .60-size machine. In truth this isn’t necessarily bad advice for it’s a recognised fact that the larger the model the easier it is to fly. However, in order to consider helicopters of this size, you’ll need to prepare yourself for a cost differential of about double
As important as the size, cost and appearance of your helicopter clearly is, there’s another aspect of the purchase that you do well to consider: the availability of spare parts. If your local model shop doesn’t stock a good range of back-up bits, or is pretty unreliable in fulfilling orders, you could easily find yourself in the frustrating position of being unable to fly while you await a parts delivery. In extreme cases even distributors have been known to run out of spares and, although rare, this can involve a delay of weeks or even months for a container ship to dock. As you can see then, choosing a helicopter brand that’s popular and well serviced by the trade is very important, even if it means spending a few extra pounds.
This, of course, calls to question the merit of buying second-hand where, often, the models you see for sale are tired, tatty and discontinued. I think I’m right in saying that Japanese manufacturers such as JR, Hirobo and Thunder Tiger are required by Japanese law to provide parts for a period of five years after the discontinuation of a product line. Even so, spare parts are likely to dwindle as the months pass and it stands to reason that you’ll inevitably end up waiting for that container ship at some stage in the future. That’s not to say second-hand models can’t be good value, they most certainly can. However, my advice to anyone contemplating a purchase of this nature is to inspect the goods before you buy and if necessary have your prospective machine checked by someone with a bit of experience. Like anything that’s mechanically and electronically complex the condition of the model will speak volumes about its general state of repair and airworthiness. A clean and tidy airframe is likely to have been well maintained and serviced. On the other hand, something covered in dirt and congealed oil almost certainly won’t and should be treated with the utmost caution. Finally, on the second-hand thing, don’t buy anything unless it comes with an instruction and assembly manual. At the very least make sure you know where you can get a copy, for when you eventually have to replace those worn or damaged parts, you’ll be lost without it.