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Learning to Fly RC Helicopters — Part 1 08Dec07

Posted by tanker in Beginner.

Getting Started — Ask ten people how to learn to fly RC helis and you will probably get ten different answers, but I think most people would agree on the first few steps. Certainly the very first thing to do is to ask yourself if spending $500-$1,000 on RC helis seems like a lot of money. If the answer is ‘yes’ then move along — this is not the hobby you were looking for. This is not to say that the RC heli hobby is crazy expensive but you are flying electronic things through the air and crashes, repairs, and general maintenance are inevitable. There is nothing more frustrating than to struggle your way into the hobby only to be constantly grounded for lack of funds.

Now having said all that you certainly do not need to spend nearly that much to get started. To test the waters you can either go with a simple coaxial RC helicopter or get a computer simulation. There are pros and cons to each approach. Of course if you have the money you can get both and reap the benefits of both. The hardest thing about learning to fly an RC heli is control and orientation. When you first start you do not have either and thus will probably crash and that will further retard your learning progress (and cost you a bit more money). The coaxial heli helps in this regard by being inherently stable. This means it will, almost, fly by itself. The computer simulator can have a model with this same stable characteristic but even with a non-beginner model crash recovery is simply a keystroke away. On the other hand, the coaxial heli gets you started flying a ‘real’ heli quickly as well as handling batteries, performing repairs, and doing other things you will need later. Of course the computer sim gives you access to more options as well as unlimited room and flying space. Thus which one you choose first is really a matter of personal preference and circumstance. If you can afford both then get both and avoid the choice (and as we’ll see there is even a third option)!

The main idea behind either approach is to teach you the basics of RC heli flight. This means learning the transmitter controls and how they move your heli in the air as well as orientation. Unlike flying a real helicopter you are not sitting in your RC helicopter. Thus when the heli is flying towards you moving the heli to your left actually requires a right command to the heli. This is simply not a natural thing to do and takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can do it without thinking about it. Fortunately when you first start you will fly ‘tail-in’ or in other words with the tail of the heli towards you. This way left is always left and right is always right. Once you get the basics down you can begin to turn the heli towards you and work-up to full nose-in flight.

The other thing to pay attention to at this stage is proper habits. Almost all RC heli pilots favor turning in one direction or another. It is best to combat this as soon as possible. Thus when practicing always do all things in both directions. If you get to the point you can takeoff, move left, and land make sure you also takeoff, move right, and land. If you do not fight this favoritism early on it will cause you more grief later as you advance to more complex maneuvers. You also want to practice heli safety early on. While a coaxial heli, and of course the sim, pose little danger to persons or property the more advanced helis can be deadly. You want to treat them with respect now so you do not do foolish things later. So do not fly close to other people, including yourself, and, even on the sim, do not fly the heli behind you. Always keep the heli in front of an imaginary line that would be formed if you spread your arms straight out.

E-flite Blade CX2The Coaxial Heli — There are a number of models on the market from which to choose. The number one consideration is parts availability. You will break parts while learning and if you have to wait weeks to get things from mail order then that model is not a good choice. The second consideration is quality. The better models simply fly better and are more reliable. When you are first learning you will have enough trouble fighting your own mistakes without needing to also compensate for a helicopter that does not fly straight. Thus my overwhelming recommendation is to start with the E-flite Blade CX2 coaxial helicopter (also check the E-flite site for some great videos of the heli in flight). Almost any store that carries RC helis will carry the Blade CX2. If you are not lucky enough to have a store in your area any of the online stores will stock the CX2 and all the parts you will need (see our Merchants links off the home page). The Blade CX2 comes with everything you will need to get started for about $185 and is ready to fly out of the box. The CX2 package includes the heli, radio, battery, charger, and even a getting started DVD. You will also want to pick up a couple extra packs of blades (upper and lower) and you might want to consider getting one or two extra batteries. The CX2 battery takes about an hour and a half to charge and you will get 10-15 minutes of flying time off of a battery. Multiple batteries will allow you to fly a bit more. Stick time more than anything is what you need when first learning.

The Blade CX2 can be safely flown indoors. In fact it is best flown indoors and cannot handle any wind if flown outside. The ideal location would be a gymnasium or similar space but any area about ten feet square (seven foot ceilings are ok but higher is better) will work fine (again bigger is always better). If you are flying in a room you may want to clear away fine wood furniture and things such as lamps but the blades of the heli will not harm fabric or even leather furniture. Short of sticking a blade into your eye it is also safe for yourself but it is best to start learning basic heli safety measures. Pretend the heli is dangerous and treat it accordingly.

To get started watch the video and follow the included instructions. When you are ready to go place the heli in the center of your space facing away from you (so you are looking at the tail) and stand back 5-10 feet. Do not attempt to hit the power and start flying! Instead ease up on the collective (the left stick) until the heli just begins to get light on the skids. The heli will probably yaw in one direction or another as well as move forward/back and/or sideways. Make a note of these movements and land the helicopter. You will want to adjust the transmitter trims, the 4-in-1 pot, and/or move the battery forward or back to compensate for these uncontrolled movements. Work on one issue at a time. Keep doing this until the heli remains basically stable when you bring it up off the skids with just power. Now, using the right stick (the cyclic), start to get a feel for moving, just inches, left, right, forward, and back. Also use the rudder (the collective stick again) and try turning the nose just slightly left and right (if you really turn the heli around you will get disoriented almost instantly). After a battery or two of doing this you will be able to get it into the air but do not go too high. Keep the heli just a few inches from the ground at first. This way if you get into trouble you can just cut the power and land. If you jump the heli up into the air too quickly and get disoriented it will crash and you will probably have to fix something. The CX2 is amazingly durable but the blades are especially fragile. After just a few hours you will be able to comfortably hover the CX2 and move it around. In fact, you want to concentrate on hovering before getting into forward flight. Once you can keep the heli hovering within a one to two foot circle at a given height then move on to moving the heli forward (and back and sideways).

RealFlight G4The Flight Simulator — There are a number of flight simulators from which to choose. The two best are Great Plains’ RealFlight G3.5 (and the new G4) and the Reflex XTR sim. Again, most hobby shops that carry RC heli gear will have one or the other if not both. Any of the online stores will have them as well. Both sims cost around $200. There are cheaper alternatives out there (including some free ones) and those are also fine to start with but you will quickly outgrow them because their flight models are just not that good. If you are really uncertain if you will enjoy the hobby you may wish to start with one of those but otherwise the two main sims will grow with you and last you for years. Of course you will need a computer that has enough horsepower to run whichever simulator you choose. If you do not have a computer that is up to the task then you probably want to go the coaxial route.

Both the RealFlight and Reflex sims come with a controller (or can be used with a real transmitter) but RealFlight is a bit easier and cheaper in this respect. If you chose RealFlight it comes with a number of specific heli training routines including a hover trainer. This is a great way to begin as it lets you focus on just one, or a few, axis of control and add in the others as you get more proficient. [Note: Knife Edge Software has some nice T-Rex 450 models for RealFlight, an OK T-Rex 600 model, and an OK CX2 model for download.]

The Third Approach — Lastly if you can afford both the coaxial and the sim then start with the sim and after just an hour or two you can more comfortably fly the coaxial. If you cannot afford both you may want to consider getting the coaxial and then also getting one of the free or cheap simulators. The lower-end sims are fine for learning basic flight controls and orientation, and generally require much less computer horsepower, but you will quickly realize that flying the real thing will be a bit different.

Conclusion — So that is all there is to beginning to learn to fly RC helicopters. Either approach will keep you busy for weeks and both will grow with you as you advance in the hobby. The simulator becomes crucial as you move on to more advanced flying and the CX2 will always be a fun heli you can fly inside on a rainy day or with which to introduce someone else to the hobby. Go fly and have fun!

See Part 2!

Also see our RC Helicopter DVD reviews.


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