(Nearly) Everything you need to know to get started

Insurance cover for initial trial flights

Before you commit to purchasing equipment and/or club and BMFA membership you may be able to take some trial flights first.  In the case of BMFA affiliated clubs, club liability insurance can be extended to cover first time visitors who have no previous experience of model flying but are seeking to try out model flying prior to joining.  However, in this case cover will only be in place when the flights are being personally supervised by a nominated club member approved by the club Committee.  No charge will be made for this additional cover; however, cover will only be in place for a maximum of 3 days for any one first time flyer.  After this initial 3 day period the first time flyer must arrange his/her own third party public liability insurance cover, by joining the BMFA, prior to undertaking any further flying activity at the club site.

 

Getting started

Whilst many model aircraft clubs can provide training equipment for you to make use of during early tuition, if you get serious about the hobby, there will always come a point when you will want your own plane and ancillary equipment.  At this point you are faced with the decision whether or not to purchase new or used equipment.  Whatever you decide, your best course of action is to talk to an experienced aeromodeller first.  If you don’t already know one personally, visit your nearest model flying site (find it using the internet and/or your local model shop) and introduce yourself.  There’s bound to be somebody there who will be willing and able to help you out.

 

Fixed-wing basic trainer

If you are a novice, the only fixed-wing model aircraft you should really consider is a basic trainer.  Typically this kind of aircraft will be relatively small, have a high wing (high-winged models are often more stable in flight, because the weight of the fuselage is below the wing), have a moderate amount of wing dihedral (dihedral helps to confer stability in the longitudinal [roll] axis), allow easy access to the engine (essential for a beginner), and will often have a nose-wheel rather than be a tail-dragger (tail-draggers can have a nasty habit of 'ground-looping').  Ground-looping is the rapid rotation of the aircraft in the horizontal plane whilst on the ground.  The ground loop is predominantly associated with aircraft that have conventional (tail-dragging) landing gear, due to the centre of gravity being positioned behind the main wheels.  It may also less commonly occur with tricycle landing gear if excessive load is applied to the nose wheel, a condition known as wheel-barrowing

Basic trainer

 

Helicopters

Flying model helicopters is rather different from fixed wing aircraft, and there is not much advantage in you having flown one before the other.  It is therefore perfectly possible to start from scratch on helicopters.  Indeed some model pilots only fly helicopters, and there are many clubs where they are flown exclusively.  It is possible to teach yourself to fly a model helicopter, but it will be easier (and cheaper) to receive help from fellow club members.  As with fixed wing aircraft, it is far better to start with a basic sports model rather than a scale aircraft or extreme aerobatic design.  As a general rule, larger sports helicopters are rather easier to fly and less twitchy than smaller examples, so you might find it best to start on say a 60 sized model rather than a 30 sized one (the 60 refers to the recommended engine size, with 60 equivalent to 0.60 cubic inches, which equals approximately 10cc).

Sports helicopter

 

One accessory that will certainly help you when you begin to fly a model helicopter is training undercarriage set.  This is fitted to the existing helicopter undercarriage, making it much more difficult for the model to tip over.

Training undercarriage


Electric powered models

With the development of high powered batteries, speed controllers and motors, the range of model types that can be powered by electric motors is as great as it is for any other energy carrier.  There are plenty of model aircraft specifically designed to be electric powered, and a great many more that can be converted from internal combustion engines.  Electric flight can be just as enjoyable and demanding as any other powered model flying.

 

Silent flight

Gliders are broadly divided into thermal and slope soarers.  Apart from the absence of an engine (although there are plenty of examples of powered gliders), model gliders are otherwise pretty much the same as fixed-wing powered aircraft.  As with powered models, there is a wide range of model types, including relatively docile trainers, high-performance sports models and full-scale examples.

 

A few words about frequencies

The 27 MHz band may be used for model aircraft but great care should be taken by model aircraft flyers, especially near urban areas. This is because this band is legally shared by other users; in particular, model cars, model boats, citizens band operators and an increasing number of radio controlled toys.  This frequency is not recommended, and is banned at many club sites.

The 35 MHz band is solely for model aircraft and under no circumstances must it be used for any other purpose, such as the control of surface vehicles such as cars and boats.  This is a recommended frequency for model flying, but is now largely superseded by 2.4 GHz (see below).

The 40 MHz band is solely for surface vehicle use (such as cars and boats) and under no circumstances must it be used for the control of model aircraft.

The 72 MHz band is not a legal frequency for model control in the UK.  A manufacturers development license is available (under very strict conditions) to bona-fide designers/manufacturers from the DTI.  This licence is for genuine development work only and does not give the operator the right to use the frequency for normal R/C flying.  Anyone using 72 MHz without such a current special licence is operating illegally and may face a fine and confiscation of equipment.

The 459 MHz band is shared with various telemetry operations which are used for specialised telemetry and users of these channels should be aware of the possibility of interference being present.

The 2.4 GHz band is world-wide, and has many applications and users. With regard to UK model control activity, sets currently available are of the 'spread spectrum' variety and hence need no frequency control. The 2.4 GHz band can be used to control any type of model either ground based, water or airborne (within the constraints of the law of course).  This is a recommended frequency for model flying, and is likely to be the predominant if not sole one in use at your local model flying club.

 

Used equipment

Purchasing used equipment can save you a lot of money, but there are pitfalls.  You can give the airframe a good looking-over, but it is possible to disguise quite serious structural damage that may have resulted from a crash.  Crash repairs can be successfully carried out, but if a poor job is made in a critical area, the results can be catastrophic.  Poor building is another consideration, but misalignments and untidy covering may give you a clue.  Make sure that you obtain the building instructions that were supplied with the model when it was new.  This will contain important information about the aircraft that you will need to refer to, such as centre of gravity and control surface throws.  With engines the overall appearance can be a guide to condition, but even a well used/worn out and possibly faulty engine can be made to look quite smart with a bit of effort.  Radio equipment should show signs if it has been misused, but again it may not be obvious that the transmitter has, for example, been dropped and has, as a consequence, an intermittent fault that could prove disastrous.  And then you have to ask yourself why the seller is getting rid of the model?  If it is a basic trainer and relatively simple radio set there is a good chance that the user has either given up after a few attempts, or has 'graduated' on to something more challenging and no longer needs such equipment.   The best advice if you are contemplating buying used equipment from a stranger is to take along an experienced aeromodeller to check everything out.  This will not be an absolute guarantee, but should help you avoid a complete turkey.

 

New equipment

With new equipment the process is slightly easier provided that you go to a reputable dealer, who won't try to sell you the latest (and most expensive) fully aerobatic or super scale aircraft.  If you are a complete novice, you will need to purchase a basic trainer, which won't require the latest computer radio gear to get it airborne.  At present there are a great many Almost Ready To Fly (ARTF) trainers on the market, and they will all be reasonably competent fliers and suitable for learning to fly with.

 

Radio gear

You can go for basic radio gear, but if you think that you are serious about the hobby, it may be worthwhile considering the next step up in equipment.  Better specified transmitters offer far more flexibility in operation, and also simplify setting up the model for flight.  They can also, to a certain extent, make it easier to fly.

 

Basic four-channel transmitter

Mid-range six-channel transmitter


High-end eighteen-channel
 transmitter

 

When purchasing a transmitter you need to decide what ‘Mode’ you are going to use.

Mode 1 (also known as Mode A, Mode 1(A) or throttle right) - left stick operates elevator and rudder; right stick operates throttle and ailerons.  The perceived advantage of this layout is the separation of pitch and roll control onto different sticks, which is considered to give more precise control over both as operation of one cannot inadvertently change the other.

Mode 2 (also known as Mode B, Mode 2(B) or throttle left) - left stick operates throttle and rudder; right stick operates elevator and ailerons.  Having the pitch and roll controls on the same stick mimics the joystick (or yoke) of a full size aircraft.  The perceived advantage is that as pitch and roll are the primary means of controlling the model’s flight path, having them on the same stick makes it easier to co-ordinate the two.

Mode 3 - left stick operates elevator and ailerons; right stick operates throttle and rudder.

Mode 4 - left stick operates throttle and ailerons; right stick operates elevator and rudder.

Helpfully, higher specification transmitters can often be changed from one Mode to another. 

Glider pilots can ignore the reference to throttle and perhaps think of it as spoiler operation instead.

The choice of which Mode may come down to personal preference, but it is common for clubs to have a high prevalence of one, and may not be able to provide training in a less-favoured Mode.  Across the UK, Mode 2 tends to be more prevalent.

The best option for a beginner is to purchase a complete radio ‘kit’, which will provide you with a transmitter, receiver, batteries for both (plus a charger), switch harness and servos.  Generally speaking, the servos that are included in such kits will be pretty basic, but perfectly adequate for a trainer model.  It is easy to purchase better servos as and when you need them in the future.  The range of servos that is available can seem daunting to the newcomer, but there is plenty of information available, especially on the internet.  One recent development is the ‘digital servo’.  There is nothing mystical about these servos, and they don’t need special kinds of receivers in order to operate.  The main difference compared to ordinary servos is the presence within them of a microprocessor.  This, plus other differences, makes them very accurate, sensitive, fast and powerful.  Otherwise they act just like standard servos (but with a greater current drain).

 Basic servo Mid-range servo High-end digital servo

 

You might also consider a second inexpensive transmitter to be used as a buddy box, plus the appropriate lead that joins them together.  With an experienced pilot operating the main transmitter and the beginner on the secondary unit, the risks (of crashing) to the model aircraft are dramatically reduced.

Engines

With regard to the engine, generally you pay for what you get.  The cheaper end of the market has improved in recent years, and you will be protected by a guarantee for some time.  However the more expensive brands can often offer better reliability and power advantages.  Setting aside model gas turbines (which will run on paraffin, kerosene or real jet fuel), model engines are broadly split into those that run on alcohol (glow engines, often referred to as nitro engines), those that run on diesel, and those that run on petrol.  There is a further sub-division of two- and four-stroke as well.  Generally speaking the two-stroke glow engine is by far the best choice for the beginner, in terms of ease of starting, reliability and price range.  By the way, the term 'nitro' refers to nitromethane, which is added to glow fuel to increase power output and idle reliability.  No beginner should ever contemplate a gas turbine!


Diesel engine
 


Petrol engine
 


Two-stroke glow engine


Four-stroke glow engine

Electric motor

Gas turbine engine

 

Running-in your new engine

If your engine is brand new it will require a certain amount of running-in, as specified by the manufacturer.  Careful running-in will maximise power output and engine lifespan.  You can run an engine in on the airframe in which it is going to spend its life.  An alternative is to run the engine 'on the bench'.  The advantage of doing this is that bench conditions are much more controlled, plus you won't have to watch your brand new airframe getting covered in oil during the process (engines that are run-in can run much leaner (less fuel per unit volume of air) than brand new ones, so the will be less oil per unit time being thrown out of the motor).  In addition, air-flow in flight will help to disperse the oily exhaust, so it is often the case that less oil finds its way onto the airframe when the plane is being flown.

Bench running is most usually carried out at home, which can disturb the neighbours (so choose sensible hours), but by the same token, will prevent other pilots at the model flying field from becoming irritated with you.  In any case, some clubs do not permit persistent running of engines in the pits.  If you run the engine in a confined space, be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide build up (so ventilate the space you are using), and also make sure your ears are protected from excessive noise.

Running a model engine that is not installed in an airframe often consists of fixing it to a substantial piece of timber, and then securely attaching that to a heavy or immovable object, such as a work bench, or a heavy portable work station.  There are lots of options when it comes to mounting the engine on the piece of timber, ranging from cutting a slot into which the motor can be bolted, through fitting a plastic engine mount to the wood, to purchasing a purpose made engine running-in mount.  Whichever method you choose, the engine must be securely fixed, so as to minimise vibration, and ensure safe operation.  Under no circumstances should you mount an engine directly in a vice.  Model engine crank cases are not very strong, and will very probably distort in a vice.  Running an engine with a distorted crank case can cause untold damage, so don't do it.  In addition to the mount, you will need to have a fuel tank secured close to the engine on the same level as the carburettor, fuel lines installed, and some means of controlling the throttle setting via a push rod (a simple friction lever can be used where the throttle servo would otherwise be).

Running-in should be carried out according to the manufacturers' recommendations, which should be included in the operating instructions supplied with the engine.  In general the engine will be initially run for short periods of time with a very rich fuel/air mixture, with a high oil-content fuel, and with little or no nitro content.  It is common practice to use the largest recommended diameter propeller (with a correspondingly shallow pitch) so as to maximise the flywheel effect it imparts. Make sure that the propeller is balanced (see below).  The large propeller helps to keep the engine going at very rich mixture settings.  Revs are kept down at first, and gradually increased for longer and longer periods of time during the process.  The revs are controlled by the richness of the fuel/air mixture, rather than the throttle, which is set wide open.  Once the engine is fully run-in, the upper and lower mixture settings can be found, again by following the manufacturers' advice.  This should be carried out with the propeller that the model will be flown with.


Extras

Apart from the plane, engine and radio equipment, you will need a range of ancillary equipment and extras to finish off the model and fly it.  These include fuel (consult the engine's instructions), and a pump and tubing to get it into the model, propeller, glow-plug, glow-plug battery and lead (plus a charger for this battery), plus assorted other bits and pieces that won't become obvious until you need them!


Putting it all together

In the case of a new model, build the model in accordance with the instructions.  In addition, look for tips on how to install and set up the engine and radio equipment on the internet, and ask Club members for advice as well.  If you have purchased a second-hand model it is strongly recommended that you carefully strip out and refit all of the radio equipment, engine and other fittings.  This should ensure that any problems are discovered and put right before flight is attempted.  Before you take the model to the flying site for the first time make sure that the centre of gravity (C of G) is properly set (if it is wrong, add lead (fitted securely) in the appropriate position), and that the control surfaces move in the appropriate directions and by no more than the recommended amounts.

It is strongly recommended that you balance the propeller prior to fitting it to the engine.  Use a prop-balancing tool to do this, and remove material from the trailing edge of the heavy blade by sanding with fine emery paper until balance is achieved.  If the propeller has very sharp edges it is advisable to smooth them all before balancing.  Razor-sharp propellers are not necessary and are extremely hazardous.

Unbalanced propeller on balancing tool

Balanced propeller on balancing tool

 

First flight and beyond

For a basic glow engine-powered trainer, this is a fairly comprehensive list of what you will need to take with you on a flying day:

Aircraft (usually separated into fuselage and wing).
Wing bolts or rubber bands (to attach the wing to the fuselage).
Transmitter (preferably in its own protective case).
Aircraft restraint (to prevent the model from lunging forward when the engine starts).
Battery for glow plug plus glow plug lead and connector.
Fuel (container fitted with fittings to allow fuel to be drawn off).
Pump (hand-powered or electric) plus tubing and fittings to enable fuel to be transferred from fuel container to plane (an in-line filter is a good idea on the fuelling rig).
Battery for fuel pump if necessary.
Electric starter and battery (if required).
'Chicken-finger' or some other tool that can be used to safely hand-start the engine if necessary.
Spare pre-balanced propeller (bored-out if necessary).
Spare glow plug.
Selection of tools, including screwdrivers, glow plug tool, small adjustable spanner, allen keys, sharp knife, quick-setting glue such as epoxy or
cyanoacrylate.
Spare fuel tubing and brass fuel tubing.
Selection of appropriate nuts, bolts and washers.
Flight box to contain all of the equipment.
Frequency board and peg if necessary.
Cleaning products such as kitchen towels and cleaning spray to clean the model after use.
First aid kit.
Rubber car mats or similar to kneel on and/or place equipment on.
Warm clothing and waterproof footwear if necessary.
Sunglasses, sunscreen and sun hat if necessary.
Sufficient food and drink for the flying period.

Once you are ready to fly your new model, make sure all batteries are charged up, gather everything that you will need to fly the plane, and turn up at the flying site for a prearranged training session.  Please don't try to fly your model alone; you will almost certainly crash your plane.  Not only that, but model flying (beyond toy planes) is heavily controlled in the UK, and you will probably be acting illegally.  In addition, if you try to go it alone near to a recognised club site, you might interfere with a legitimate user and cause them to crash, or vice-versa.

The first thing that the instructor will do is give the model a thorough checking over.  This will be to make sure that everything is as it should be (and if there are serious problems that can't be rectified on the airfield, no flying will take place).  The radio gear will also be checked out to make sure that control throws are correctly oriented and that they are not too great.  If your transmitter allows it, some 'exponential' may be added to the relevant control throws.  Exponential can be used to make the model relatively insensitive to small movements of the control sticks at their centres.  This helps to ‘damp down’ the way in which the model flies.  A range check will be carried out before the model is fuelled and the engine started.  You will be given the opportunity of starting the engine, and instruction on how to do this safely will be given.

Once the instructor is satisfied, the first flight will take place.  There may not be time for you to take control during this flight since it will be necessary to trim the model for straight and level flight, check out its stall characteristics, and see how it responds to more aerobatic commands.  Upon landing, it may be necessary to adjust control linkages so the trim controls can be returned to neutral leaving the surfaces set at their new positions.  The instructor will help you do this.

During subsequent flights you will be given the chance to practice more and more, starting out with straight and level flight away from you, and ending ultimately with complete flights from take-off to landing.  In addition, there will be the opportunity to carry out some of the more straightforward aerobatic manoeuvres such as inside loops (so-called loop-the-loops), rolls and stall-turns.  How long it takes you to achieve this really depends on you.  Ultimately you should prepare for and pass your BMFA ‘A’ certificate; indeed some clubs insist that you do this before you are allowed to fly solo.

Footnote: Never be afraid to ask! If there is anything you want clarifying or help choosing initial model or equipment, once you are a member you can message or turn up at the field and ask for advice - we are a friendly bunch!

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