Radio-controlled (RC) flight

As enchanting as flying is, the expense associated with it means that being a private pilot, including getting and maintaining your own pilot's license and owning your own full-size airplane are things that may well stay beyond the reach of most people for a lifetime. The next best thing, then, is to fly planes that you're not in. Small, radio-controlled planes are affordable (all but the most expensive ones are well under $1,000), and you don't need to get any kind of license to fly them. You can go down to your local hobby store, buy one, and be flying it tonight.

However, it's fair to say that flying a radio-controlled plane is not simple. It takes a bit of practice to be able to fly them well, and because the market for radio-controlled planes is an oddly small niche market, there isn't a huge amount of information or instruction available out there for those who want to begin, unless you want to pay to join your local model flying club (if one exists... And if one does, they tend to be expensive). So, this page attempts to be a basic introduction to buying and using your first RC airplane.

Components of an RC airplane


The most basic airplane fuselage is simply an amorphous piece of material upon which everything else sits. Some fuselages include things like wings, engines, landing gear, and tails already attached; Others do not. However, all of these are fairly basic physical structures which, together, constitute the "body" of the plane. So if your plane's fuselage does not already include them, make sure that your plane has a wing (or wings, if there are more than one), and landing gear to land on. The landing gear should be quite sturdy, as it obviously needs to bear the entire weight of the plane, and when you're first starting out, you'll probably make your fair share of hard landings.


Radio-control airplane engines come in two basic types: Electric and gas-powered. Electric engines run on a rechargeable battery, while gas-powered engines use actual flammable fuel, similar to a conventional gasoline car engine.

Each type has advantages and disadvantages, but if you're just getting started in the field of radio-controlled flying, my suggestion is to go with an electric engine. Gas engines tend to be more powerful and also usually run longer without requiring refueling, but they have several disadvantages: They use up consumable fuel which must be bought (unlike batteries, which can be recharged an indefinite number of times from any electricity supply), they are usually more expensive (even discounting the cost of buying fuel), they pollute more, they are louder, and they are more prone to failure if you don't take meticulous care of them.

Energy source

This will be either a battery and charger (for an electric engine), or gas (for a gas engine). Either way, you should make sure that you have plenty on hand; If you have a battery-powered plane, I recommend having two batteries for it, so you can charge one battery while you're flying on the other.


Every RC plane that I've ever seen uses a rotating propeller for propulsion. Jet engines are just too powerful and expensive to realistically put on a hobby plane, although there probably are some planes that do in fact use small jet-style engines.

Remote control

Obviously, you need some way of controlling your plane. Since you're not sitting in it, the controls take the form of a remote control with an antenna. The remote will have, at a bare minimum, a throttle which controls the speed of the engine. It should also have control-stick-style controls to adjust the elevators, ailerons, and rudder (depending on which of these surfaces the plane actually has). It may also have trim controls, to adjust the position of the control surfaces when the stick is at rest (i.e. when you're not touching it.) The remote control will also need batteries of its own.


Need I say more?

A place to fly the plane

If you're like most hobbyists, this is probably going to be the hardest thing to find for your plane. The characteristics that define a good flying area include:


First and foremost, the place where you fly your RC plane needs lots and lots of room. If you've never actually witnessed an RC plane flying, you may be shocked at just how quickly they cover ground. The average city park is not good enough; A typical block-sized park or vacant lot will be flown over by the plane in a matter of seconds. Furthermore, most parks have trees in them, which are beautiful for people, but death to RC aircraft. You need to have a space with several hundred feet of open space in each direction, and even then, you'll find yourself pressed for room.

Do NOT take your plane's space requirements lightly; It really and truly does need a lot of room. If you don't give it a lot of room, anticipate it hitting something quickly. I don't care how good your judgement normally is, if you've never flown a radio-control plane, chances are the needed amount of space is much more than you're picturing in your mind's eye. Overestimate what you think the plane needs by a huge margin; The first time you fly the plane, you may well be shocked by how much ground it covers in two or three seconds.

Smooth ground surface

Before a plane can get airborne at all, it needs to move forward for quite a long distance so it can build up the speed it needs to get airborne. This requires it to roll on the ground for a long distance, and your plane needs very flat ground to roll properly.

A typical grassy field is NOT good enough. Grass (even grass that's just been cut) is usually too tall for an RC plane to roll effectively, unless the plane is quite large. Remember, the grass may look short to you, but to a tiny plane, it may as well be a jungle wilderness. A plane can roll on grass only if the grass is very short, and we're talking almost golf-green short here.

This leads many people to use concrete or asphalt for their takeoff runs. There's nothing wrong with that, and these surfaces make excellent runways. (Notice that in real-world airports, full-size airplanes use asphalt for their runways.) The problem is actually finding an expanse of asphalt that's unoccupied which you can use for the plane. The first thing that comes to mind is usually a parking lot. The problem with parking lots is, they tend to be full of cars, and if your plane runs into a car, it can result in serious damage to both machines. Flying your plane in a parking lot is very strongly NOT recommended, unless the parking lot is genuinely abandoned. It also must be quite large, as a basic corner-mall parking lot is not nearly big enough. You need a shopping-supercentre size parking lot, and the problem with those is, they're usually very busy.

Do NOT attempt to take off on gravel, unless the gravel is abnormally fine. Gravel looks like small pebbles to you, but again, those little pebbles are like huge boulders to an RC airplane. If the plane goes rolling over gravel, it will almost certainly stir up gravel and kick gravel into the propeller, which will very easily scratch, chip, or otherwise damage the propeller. The gravel must be almost sand-like for it to be fine enough to be appropriate as a runway.

Low wind/no wind

Wind makes planes hard to control, and the harder the wind blows, the more difficult it will be to keep your plane under control. Radio-control pilots should have a small windsock made out of a strip of tissue paper, a ribbon, or some other similar object to indicate the strength and direction of wind; If your windsock is pointing almost horizontally, it's probably much too windy to even think of flying.

Compounding this problem is that the flattest places tend to be the windiest. Buildings, hills, and other irregularities in terrain beak up wind; Flat, open spaces are usually the windiest because there's nothing to block the air movement. So the very places where you need to be flying your plane are likely to be those afflicted by the strongest wind. Keep in mind, also, that the wind is usually stronger a few feet off the ground than it is at ground level.

Lack of people around

Radio-control planes are dangerous. If they run into a person, they can cause serious injury. Not only that, they are usually quite noisy, and they tend to disturb other people who are trying to have a picnic, barbecue, or other quiet outing. Radio-control planes scare away the birds and make an insistent buzzing sound that's incredibly annoying to anyone who's not directly involved in the actual flight of the aircraft. To avoid hurting or severely disturbing other people, you need to fly your plane in a place where there aren't too many people around.

By now, you may be thinking that you don't know of a huge, open space with a very flat ground, little wind, and no people walking around. If so, congratulations, you're beginning to realize why finding a place to fly your plane is so difficult. Think of real-world planes at airports: They need to roll on huge, man-made strips of asphalt where no other human or vehicle traffic is allowed to go. There's a reason for that. A jetliner simply couldn't realistically take off or land on grass, earth, or sand, nor could it operate in a place where people are routinely milling around. Airports exist for a reason. Therefore, a place that's really appropriate for flying your plane in is truly something valuable which you should make a note of. It's likely to end up being an airfield for a flying club, anyway, which is reserved explicitly for the purpose of flying RC planes in. Now you understand why.

Pre-flight checkout

Before real-world pilots fly full-size planes, they always examine the plane thoroughly to make sure that it is ready and fit for flying. You should do the same with your radio-controlled plane. Unfortunately, flying (even RC flying) is not like driving, where you just get inside a car, start the engine, and start driving. There are procedures which should be followed if you don't want to get yourself (or your plane) hurt.

Charge batteries/Fill fuel tank

Before you do anything else with the plane, you need to make sure that it has a decent energy store. That means loading it with a fully-charged battery for an electric, or a full tank of gas for a gas-powered plane.

General structural integrity

The first check you should make of your plane is a basic physical examination to make sure that all structures are sturdy. There should be no chips, cracks, or dents in the wing(s), propeller(s), or fuselage. The wing must be on perfectly straight, not twisted or crooked. The landing gear should be sturdy, capable of fully supporting the weight of the plane even under the stress of the plane coming down on it from the air. The wheels should roll smoothly.


The next check to make is that of your flight controls. Check your elevators, ailerons, and rudder as appropriate to make sure they react as they should to your remote control. Move your control stick in every direction and make sure that the plane's control surfaces move with it.

Make sure the plane rolls in a straight line

If everything checks out so far, the next step is to run the plane along the ground under its own power like a car, to make sure it rolls straight. This is crucial for takeoff; Often the plane will want to veer this way or that during the takeoff run, which can easily result in an accident. The plane must roll straight and smooth.

Begin by placing the plane on the ground with a sizeable amount of flat space in front of it, and turn on the engine to low throttle. Make sure that the propeller(s) start turning smoothly, and that the engine sounds healthy. If so, increase the throttle slowly, letting the engine gradually rev up to higher speed, until the plane begins to roll forward gently. Keep it rolling forward for several dozen feet, and watch its path to make sure that it rolls in a straight line, not turning to the right or the left. If so, you're in good shape for a takeoff run.

Taking off

When taking off, it's basically a hard-and-fast rule that you should always take off with the plane facing the wind. This prevents the plane from being thrown off to the side by a crosswind, and it helps prevent the plane from getting away from you too quickly (which might happen if you take off with the wind at the plane's tail).

There are basically two ways to launch the plane: You can throw it by hand like a dart, or you can just let it roll on the ground like a normal plane taking off. Personally, I'm of the belief that it's better to let it roll, because then you can be sure that the plane won't get off the ground until it's built up enough speed to actually get airborne. Many times I've tried to throw a plane by hand, only to have it simply nose-dive directly into the ground, which certainly isn't good for the plane. Of course, if your plane is a larger model, it may be difficult or impossible to actually pick it up and throw it properly anyway; Hand-launching is used only for smaller models.

Whichever way you're taking off, get the engine running and push the throttle all the way to maximum. Always use full throttle for taking off. (Real-world planes do the same, without exception.)

If you're throwing the plane, don't use two hands; Hold the remote control in one hand and the plane in the other. Make sure you're holding it in a place where your fingers aren't in danger of getting chopped by the propeller blades as you throw. Throw the plane straight forward, not up, down, left or right. You need to throw it pretty hard, because the plane needs to build up enough speed to stay in the air between the point where it leaves your hand and the point where it would hit the ground.

If you're doing a rolling takeoff, set the plane on the ground in front of a broad, flat expanse, and let it roll forward. (This is where making sure that the plane rolls straight becomes important!) Assuming that the plane stays its course, it should build up speed and lift off the ground gently. Don't try to coax it into the air with the elevators too soon; Doing so is liable to result in a stall. Just let the natural lift of the plane's wing carry it gently up into the air.

Flying around

If you're new to flying, one of the most important things you should know (if your plane has a pitch control) is that you should almost never actually use the pitch control.

It may seem obvious to you that the throttle controls the speed of the engine (and thus, the plane's speed), while the elevators on the plane make it go up and down. In actuality, however, you typically should use the throttle to control the plane's altitude! Many beginner RC planes, in fact, do not even have a pitch control, but simply a throttle and an aileron control, because it's so easy to make the plane stall with a pitch control. Basically, when you increase the throttle, the engine will go faster, and because it's pushing the plane through the air harder, more lift is created, and the plane will want to float upwards. Similarly, decreasing the throttle will make the plane gently sink to the ground, which is exactly how you want to descend. Using the pitch control is usually done only when you're performing aerobatics.

Why not just use the pitch control to point the plane up or down? The explanation is too long to justifiably place here, because this is a page about radio-control flying, and in fact, this same truism holds for full-size aircraft as well, so explaining the entire concept here seems just a little out-of-place. Suffice it to say, however, that if your plane is starting to go down and you want it to stay up, trying to keep it up by pulling back on the stick is liable to stall it, because you may not have the engine power needed to sustain such a move. A plane needs lots of energy to go up, and its only energy source is its engine. You cannot make a plane go up without sufficient energy from its power plant. That means that making the plane climb by increasing throttle is a lot safer, because it means the plane is being carried up by buoyancy, rather than an artificial nose-high attitude maintained by keeping the stick back. Similarly, pointing the nose down at the ground to descend can easily build up too much speed; A better idea is to simply let the plane glide down by easing back on the throttle until it starts to lose altitude. This will make your flying much more controlled and safe. Remember: Try to avoid using the elevators as much as possible! (Unless you are doing aerobatics.)

No matter how large a flying field you have chosen, you can't fly your RC plane too far in a straight line, since eventually it will get so far that you can't see it very well. Also, your remote control has a limited range, and it's possible for the plane to fly out of range of the remote transmitter, although usually by the time that happens, the plane is so far away that it's not much more than a dot in the sky. To deal with this, RC pilots usually fly in a spiral-shaped flight path: Rather than simply ascending upward in a straight line, they keep the plane turning around in circles, climbing higher but orbiting around the pilot on the ground. This is pretty much a necessity no matter what kind of plane you have or where you're flying it. Once you get to an altitude you want to maintain, level flight is the same: You've got to keep the plane close to you, which means you need to keep turning it around. If you just let it fly away, you could lose it.


Landing is usually the hardest part of flying any aircraft, and RC planes tend to be no exception. Forget about trying to land on a runway in a straight line; Just landing on a flat field without crashing the plane spectacularly is difficult enough.

When you land, you want to let the plane glide down. You do NOT point the plane at the ground to land; You let it sink into the ground. Gravity is constantly acting on any airplane, even one flying in the air, and if you let the plane shrug off enough of its lift, then gravity will take care of the rest. The plane needs to be quite flat, almost level with the ground when it lands, so just let it cruise low over the ground, moving in a straight line, and then bring down the throttle so the plane can come down a little bit. Just as the plane is about to touch down, turn the throttle off and let the plane take care of the rest.

If you really want to perfect your landings, you should learn how to flare properly. Flaring is when you pull back on the stick just before the plane touches the ground, so that it actually lands in a nose-high attitude. This is how real planes land (if you've never noticed, pay attention next time you see one landing). This further helps the plane stay on the ground by putting it into a deliberate, controlled stall, throwing off most of its lift.

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