That's the ambition, but how easy is it?

The last few years have seen a steady increase in the number of people entering the hobby without the support of their local model flying club, a trend that’s been accelerated by the development of affordable, ready-to-fly, electric-powered helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft aimed specifically at the beginner. You can now purchase a model complete with transmitter, battery and charger, assemble it within just a few minutes, pop across to the local park or field, and fly. It’s quick and, assuming all goes well, a lot of fun.
That said, there are plenty of potential pitfalls along the way and so, bizarre as it may seem, I’m going to begin by suggesting the alternative, fast-track approach. Yes, before we discuss going it alone you should be aware that learning to fly will be faster, easier and potentially less expensive with the benefit of expert guidance in the form of a club instructor and sage advice from club colleagues. You’ll also be inspired by what you see others doing and, as your experience develops, you’ll gain the confidence and practical know-how to build and fly bigger and more complex models.
There are some 700 clubs dotted around the UK, the vast majority of which are affiliated to the British Model Flying Association (BMFA). Have a look at www.bmfa.org or give them a call on 0116 244 0028 and ask to be put in touch with your local club. Alternatively, most clubs have their own websites with flying field information and contact details, so a quick Google search is often all that’s needed. Pop along to the club on a flying day, watch, ask and listen. You’ll quickly make new - often lifelong - friends and learn more in a short time than you’d ever imagine.

The simple reality is that flying R/C isn't easy but all the more satisfying when accomplished

INFORMED
That’s all very well of course but time and transportation constraints mean that a club environment doesn’t suit every newcomer, so flying alone may be the only alternative. Whatever you do it’s well worth joining the BMFA, not least to enjoy the peace of mind that insurance cover will bring.
So, is going it alone a practical possibility? Yes it is, although whether joining a club or teaching yourself, like many hobbies, R/C model flying is one for which some research will pay dividends. Download a copy of the BMFA’s handbook and the Up and Away manual from its website. Both contain essential information, with the handbook outlining the structure and guidelines through which UK-based model flying is conducted. This is a hugely enjoyable hobby and whilst not particularly rule driven, some common sense procedures do pertain and it’s important to be aware of them. RCM&E will help in your research and the internet is your friend, too; check out our website www.modelflying.co.uk, where you’ll find beginners’ articles and a welcome on our friendly forum.

GET A SIM’
A good PC-based simulator is essential. While it’ll never fully recreate the feel of flying a model for real, a sim’ comes pretty close and will help you experience the feel, response and orientation of a typical trainer through a flight. Simulators offer variables such as wind speed and direction, so crosswind flying can be practiced, and practice you must! Fly the sim’ every day until you can take-off and land a trainer at your feet every time.
Some simulators also provide a suite of models, many of which you can purchase for real. These are excellent in that they give a very good idea of how a particular model will handle in the real world.   

RTF packages often come with basic transmitters - spending more usually saves in the long run.

WHERE TO FLY
But where to fly? This will very much depend on what you want to fly, but if we assume you’ll be starting with a small, fixed-wing, electric-powered trainer along the lines of HobbyZone’s Super Cub then you’re going to need a large space away from buildings, people, power lines and other obstructions. The local public park is a natural choice; indeed you may have seen model flyers using this space in the past. While public parks are fine, there are some sensible tips worth bearing in mind:

  • Most large parks are suitable, but check for any local restrictions that may apply.
  • Have a helper / caller with you if possible, just to keep an eye on dog walkers and other users. These folk will be unaware of the space you need and may walk across your imaginary flightline.
  • If possible, get your helper to launch your model. It means you’ll have less to do at this critical juncture, which will improve your chance of success.
  • Some parks are quieter (often empty) at certain times of day, i.e. early mornings, late evenings or early afternoons. Do the sensible thing, then, and fly when the park isn’t busy.
  • Give way to sporting activities, and never fly from a corner of the field when these or any other organised events are in progress.
  • Leave no footprint – remove litter, broken props etc.
  • Smile, say hello and chat to passers by. They’ll be interested in what you do, so cultivate that curiosity. You never know who it is you’re talking to!
  • If you’re flying from a site in the country then do make sure that you’re well away from local model flying clubs. Check with the BMFA if in doubt.

GET LESSONS
Give serious thought to buying a few introductory lessons at an R/C flying school. A number are dotted around the UK (and advertise in this magazine) and despite the fact that you may prefer to go it alone, they’ll provide a firm grounding for your onward progression. It’ll be time and money very well spent.
 
WHAT TO FLY
You’ll be setting yourself a real challenge if you’re going to teach yourself to fly, so you’ll need an aeroplane designed to make the task a lot easier, i.e. a trainer that’s easy to operate, easy to fly, quiet (therefore electric powered), easily repaired and for which spares are readily available. This sounds like a lot, but there are a number of models that meet these requirements; those listed here are typically suitable but by no means exhaust the possibilities. There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you buy, though:

  • Do you want an all-in ‘ready to fly’ package, or would you prefer to build the model and then buy and fit your own power system and radio gear?
  • Foam models predominate at this level, and with good reason – they’re light and very resilient. If you’re considering a balsa model then the chances are that it won’t be suitable.
  • If flying from longer grass you’ll almost certainly need a model that can be solo hand-launched and landed on its belly. Pusher-prop designs are popular for this reason  
  • Bear in mind that whilst the word ‘park’ may appear on the box, the model within may not be suitable for the space from which you intend to fly. Some of these models are extremely powerful and aren’t suited for those teaching themselves. Avoid warbirds and scale models since these won’t be easy to fly, despite the fact that the word ‘beginner’ may also appear on the box.   
  • Don’t forget to buy some spare props, along with an extra battery or two. Oh, and some cyano glue!   
Ultra micro models are fine but too small in anything other than calm conditions.

FIRST FLIGHTS
The BMFA’s Up and Away guide provides good advice for those first few heart-racing flights. The main danger, of course, is a crash, although there are a few simple precautions you can take that’ll reduce the risk.
Don’t forget to conduct a range check, and make sure the control surfaces are moving the right way before every flying session. Never fly on windy days unless you’ve gained sufficient experience – your model will be relatively light and at the mercy of the elements, so a wind speed not exceeding 10mph (preferably less) should be reserved for the first flights. Never fly with the sun in front of you, it should always be behind. Apply full throttle and launch into wind but be ready to bring the throttle back a little if the model is climbing too steeply.
The simulator time you’ve built up will have taught you that keeping the wings level after launch and gaining sufficient height before your first turn is absolutely critical. Never start rushing into manoeuvres before you’ve gained a safe height.
Full throttle means the model will do things faster, so you’ve less time to react. Adjust the throttle to ensure a relaxed, cruising pace once you’re up. Consider 1/2 or even 1/4 throttle. Cut the power if the model starts to dive or you lose orientation.
Never dive to lose height before landing as the model will increase speed and arrive too fast, so running the risk of a crash. Lose height by throttling back and flying one, two or even three steady circuits, then take your time to set up for a gentle landing. Getting the model down in one piece will be the main task for the first few flights, so don’t worry too much about what bit of the field the model lands in, just concentrate on keeping the wings level. Remember to cut the throttle instantly if it looks as if the model is about to nose over or meet an object. Urging the propeller to turn when it can’t is likely to burn out the motor or damage other critical internal components.     

Foam or balsa, you still can't beat a high-wing trainer

YES, YOU CAN
It’s perfectly possible to learn to fly alone, but in so doing you’re setting yourself a challenging task. Only practice, practice and more practice allied to lots of determination will see you through to success. It’s a very satisfying challenge, though, and one that rewards the effort.
Remember that there are things you can do that’ll make life easier along the way, with bags and bags of simulator practice providing a good grounding. Be patient, choose a nice, large space and pick a calm, windless day for your first few flights. Even if you’re not able to attend very often, it may be worth joining your nearest club. Many hold indoor evening flying sessions at local sports halls during the winter months, and these can be an ideal way of making new friends and flying your little Micro Stik in a windless environment, whilst getting help and advice. No matter how or where you do it, consider other users, fly safely and have fun.

UNDERSTANDING ACRONYMS
RTF - Ready to Fly. A model that’s factory-built and fitted with a power system, servos etc. Often a transmitter (Tx), receiver (Rx) and battery are included, so everything that’s required is in the box.

ARTF - Almost Ready to Fly. Here, the model will be largely pre-built but may require a power system, servos and radio. Don’t dismiss this option, it’ll allow you to fit items that can be reused in subsequent models.  
 
PNP – Plug ’n’ Play. Models in this category are supplied with servos and power system components, but without the transmitter, receiver, Li-Po battery and charger.

BNF – Bind ’n’ Fly. This describes a model that’s complete with power system, servos, receiver, battery and charger, and simply requires binding to your own transmitter. Make sure your Tx is compatible though.

The V-Trainer, it may not look much...

FIRST STAGE MODELS

  • HobbyZone Super Cub. A superb model that’s supplied as a package, complete with everything you need. It flies very well indeed, looks great, spares availability is very good and the model is reasonably robust.
  • Flying Wings V-Trainer. The V-Trainer’s overriding advantages come from the pusher prop and EPP foam construction so it’s extremely crash-proof. Of the models listed in this section, it’s by far the most robust. It’s a kit, so note that you’ll need to fit your own power system and servos.
  • Micro Stik, Ember and Vapor. The eRC Micro Stik and ParkZone’s Ember and Vapor (above) are ultra micro models perfect for large sports halls or outside on a very calm day. They represent an easy and inexpensive start, although they’re far more delicate than the other models mentioned here.
  • Pusher types. These ready-to-fly electric, pusher-prop trainers are another popular choice for the absolute beginner. They’re sold with a transmitter, battery and charger. Avoid the two-channel versions that use throttle for elevator, it’s a configuration that won’t help with the transition to three- or four-channel machines.

SECOND STAGE MODELS
Whilst many of those detailed below are listed as trainers, they’ll only survive their first flight with a DIY pilot if he’s cut his teeth on a simulator and starter model. Needless to say, the models here generally represent a far larger investment, in some cases requiring the separate purchase of R/C equipment.
Like our starter suggestions, EPO foam predominates for good reason, i.e. it’s tough and resilient. However, be aware that manufacturers give it different names: Solidpor, Z-foam and Elapor to name but a few.
Three-channel control predominates in the following selection, but this shouldn’t be viewed as a handicap. All the models are docile, slow and will give you time to correct mistakes. They’re larger, too, so it’s important to reconsider your flying environment. The local park may have been fine when you flew your little V-Trainer, but will you feel comfortable there flying a 70” span Radian Pro?
You’ll be getting serious about the hobby by the time you buy a second stage model, so although purchasing radio gear (say a nice 6-channel system) separately may be more expensive, it’s important to bear in mind that you’ll be using it in other models for many years to come, so don’t be afraid of making a good, solid investment at this stage.
This isn’t an exhaustive selection; amongst others, the ST Discovery, Multiplex Mentor, Multiplex TwinStar and Jamara’s Cessna 185 are all worth considering.  

The Easystar from Multiplex remains a firm self-starter favourite
  • Multiplex EasyStar 2. Recently updated, this classic (often imitated) 3 - 4 channel trainer is available in kit or ready-to-run form (PNP). A battery, charger and transmitter must be purchased separately.
  • ParkZone Radian / Radian Pro. A popular motor-glider series. The three-channel Radian has taught many whilst the five-channel Radian Pro offers a progression. Both are available in BNF and PNP formats.
  • Multiplex Easy Cub. A large, docile, proven three-channel trainer kit. Radio gear and a power system must be purchased separately.
  • E-flite Apprentice. A well-developed traditional style four-channel RTF trainer that’s available in PNP and BNF forms.