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Learning To Fly Radio Control Helicopters
by Adrian Hawley

Where Do I Start?

Maybe in the past you may have built Radio Controlled (RC) cars or planes. If so this will give you a slight edge on someone who hasn’t. However, nothing can prepare you for the roller coaster ride that is RC Helicopters! The best advice is ask questions. Lots of questions! Even before you buy your new dream, ask questions. Would you go out and buy the first car in the first showroom or the first shirt you see? Probably not, read up if you can, and do visit a local model shop and ideally a club. Check out the BMFA and track down your local club, we don’t bite, and you will be amazed at the welcome you will receive and information and knowledge gained.

Today there a many different manufacturers all offering very good helicopters. You don’t usually see a bad helicopter only a bad builder/pilot. As part of your question asking, find out what others are flying in the local area. It doesn’t mean you have to copy them but it will certainly help you if there is someone who has experience with that particular brand or model.
Don’t necessarily be swayed by what the local shop has to offer, shop around, some (not all) could try to sell you what they want to sell you or what’s in stock not necessarily what you want or need. The Internet is a powerful medium for buying everything you require for this hobby and normally at a discount to the local shop. But what it can’t sell you is one to one advice, support, training and outright experience.?

So what are the most popular questions?

How High?  How fast?,  How much?   How do I persuade the wife?
Best answers we can find are:
Out of sight (the world record is 6022 feet), Fast! (90mph is achievable!), Around £500- £600 & you are on your own with that one!

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Lets look at what’s on offer.

In its basic format there are two main sizes of model helicopter, known as 30 and 60 size. Now the size actually relates to the engine capacity rather than any real dimensions of a model, but its fairly safe to say that a smaller engine will need a smaller frame and a larger engine a larger frame. However, there are nowadays helicopters in between these. E.g. 46 and 50 size, and those bigger than 60!  90 size and turbines (jets) are now more commonplace but are normally beyond the wallet and flying capability of the humble learner. There is also a large market now for mini battery powered helicopters suited for indoor flying. (more of those later!) You should be aware that for years model helicopters were titled based on their engine size, recently the Taiwanese company Align launched its range of helicopters and based its titles on the rotor span. So it can get confusing.

Models are powered by either an internal combustion 2 stroke engine (known as i.c), fuelled by model fuel or petrol, gas turbine (running on A1 jet, if you have the money or paraffin if you don’t! “Electric”, running on batteries (becoming very popular), or even an umbilical cord from the mains. So quite a choice.

So by now you have probably decided on the first purchase, based on all that research you did! But before you finally part with all that hard earned cash, why not just check with that local club member you met, and discuss your pending choice. He will probably have a better know how of parts and costs, and more often or not offer advice to make you feel confident in that purchase.
In the UK the most popular choice for a first helicopter used to be the 30 size, i.c powered. However, since 2009, electric powered, 450 sized helicopters have really taken off (no pun intended!)

You can purchase a collective pitch, or a non-collective pitch machine. The collective pitch version is very much the way you should be heading, they are by far the more versatile and will help you enjoy more advanced stages of the hobby after you have learned to hover and control the thing!
 To be fair there are not that many fixed pitch helicopters out there these days, except in the “budget end” kits which often include the radio equipment and are ready to fly, or ARTF as it is termed.  These are often cheaper to purchase and WILL serve as a good start, if you are not 100% sure RC helicopters are for you. Keep in mind, when learning to fly a helicopter you are more than likely to have a crash or two, (or more in my case!) and parts are going to have to be replaced, so check you can obtain parts easily and cheaply.

So we have decided, a good place to start would be a heli designed for a .30ish size engine or similar, a stable flyer with collective pitch, and one with a good availability of parts.
One thing to add here is to if possible, purchase the kit version as opposed to the ARTF (Almost Ready To Fly). The logic here is that A) you built it and when you crash at least you will know how the thing went together in the first place, and of course you now have the technology/experience to rebuild your new “toy”(as your wife will term it!), and B when you get to the stage of the first flights, it is amazing the feeling you will have seeing your creation lift off.!

So we have established what sort of helicopter we want, we have asked lots of questions, and we have our new pride and joy purchased and sat at home ready for all to admire!

Helicopters are probably one of the hardest R/C models to build and operate. The very nature of a helicopter is that they are unstable, practically un-flyable, but when mastered one of the biggest buzzes you can get!   They're mechanically more complex than cars, boats or planes. And in theory at least, if the engine stops you are in trouble, we will challenge that theory later, by the way!

Heli history

Model helicopters have like everything in life evolved and changed over the years, and those vintage models of the 1970’s still bear many similarities to today’s models. 30 years ago a model heli would have cost a month’s wages and taken even longer to learn to fly. Today, pilots can be in the air in hours, with minimal cost. But, enough of the history lesson. Back to your new heli.

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Engines & stuff

With your new helicopter you will have purchased an engine to match the size of your frame and flight characteristics. Heli engines differ to car or airplanes as they have larger heads (to help dissipate heat) and a carburettor that can stand the mid range needed. (most heli engines seem to be run about the mid-point). They offer a surprising amount of power from such a small package. 10cc is not uncommon! More often than not you will not have muffler, (occasionally wrongly called an exhaust!), so you will have got one of those too!

Amongst all the other boxes you came home with would be one containing the radio gear. In the RC world is referred to as the TX. Obviously without this there would be no radio control, in fact no control at all! The opposite end to this is the receiver, (titled the RX).
The whole heli package has so far cost you several hundred of pounds, but a good choice of radio equipment here at the beginning will pay dividends later… me!

As with everything so far, from kit to radio gear to engine choice, primarily choose the best you can afford, and indeed one you like, or are happy with, again advice from others will help.  The logic here is that as your flying skills improve you will want to do more with your helicopter. A budget radio will help you no doubt, but you are then limited by what the radio can do. It can be frustrating. The second part of the logic is that should you wish to give up the hobby (god forbid!), you stand a better chance of selling a better specification radio.
The two main providers of radios in the UK are Futaba and JR, both are equally fine manufacturers, and you may need to decide you own way to go. Without copying someone else, you may find it easier if others on your new model club have the same make. Most clubs i have come across do have both types of radio gear in use by members
Also in your radio kit, you will undoubtedly have found the servos (normally 5 of them), batteries and fixings, and other “bits and bobs”. Although not in that same box, you will have purchased a gyro, which is a second box of electronics.  Everything you need is now available to you. To build your kit, and get it to a near flying state.
The servos you have in your box are more than adequate for you, and as with everything you in this hobby, there are upgraded versions of practically every part or component. You won’t need any of these extra “bling “ parts just yet. Save your money until you are ready.

Gyroscopes (shortened to Gyro).

As we already know a helicopter is unstable, (both models and full size for that matter). Because of the rotation of the main rotor blades, the body of a helicopter wants to rotate about the main rotor shaft axis. The tail rotor was devised to counteract this.
On a model helicopter however, this action is somewhat sensitive and exaggerated, and still makes the model to some degree unflyable. A gyro is fitted to in its basic format dampen(slow down) that reaction from the tail and give you the humble pilot chance to react to what is happening at the tail end. 
Mechanical gyros were in the beginning, and as we already know time and technology takes over and we have now peizo gyros, These new generation of gyros are state of the art, all clever stuff!  The installation of this will be covered in your builder’s manual, and indeed most modern kits have a pre determined space made for that part, so check your instructions.

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Tools& building

To build your helicopter kit there are no really unusual tools, and you may well have most if not all of them anyway.  Screwdrivers, spanners and Allen/hex keys are more or less all you need for the job, and that nice big glossy manual you got with the heli kit will tell you anyway. Other tools will come up in the fullness of time. So on to building......
  Take your time. Simple as that! Quality of build should be your aim at all times. Don't rush construction and always use thread lock where advised.  The people that made the kit ask you to put thread lock on for a reason.  Don’t try to be clever, and if you follow the manual you will have a helicopter that is well build, will fly easier and safer and,  probably needs minimal setting up by your club mentor, so in the end you both win!  As you progress into the hobby buy tools as you need them and they will soon build up, most specialist tools cost a few pounds from your local hobby shop.

After you have bought your helicopter, (and associated equipment), you will be itching to get started. If you have ever built a plastic model kit, you may be versed in reading instructions and have a good idea . Please resist the temptation to build your RC helicopter immediately. There are many examples of helis that have been started by modellers, never finished, and all because they didn’t read the manual and take their time. These normally end up on a well know internet auction site! READ the instructions a couple of times, and get familiar with all the parts in the box, take each bag out and line them up, feel the parts, and get a feel for where they go  and what they eventually do, and check nothing is missing. Once you have started you may be looking for hours for something that was never supplied (experience taught me that one!).
All kits will have a sequence of jobs to complete, normally in small sub assemblies this is done this way for a reason so do the steps exactly as instructed, and you should not be disappointed with the results. You can if you wish show your loved one the new sub assembly you have engineered and built, explaining what it is and what it does, it’s an exciting time, but after the first two or three they normally get the hump! ALWAYS work in a clean environment. Wait until you can get a nice clean table or similar with no real distractions. You would be surprised how much quicker this makes it go together. Work on the dining room table with care, they seem to scratch easily, we don’t want to upset anyone just yet! And if you drop a screw/nut, you will discover that your carpet will eat it! You then spend the next 15 minutes on all fours looking for that one tiny nut! (Again ask me how I know!) Think about space, as most pod and boom helicopters build the main mechanics and they don’t look that big until you add the tube that is the boom, all of a sudden your helicopter can be 3 feet long!

Once you have built your nice new helicopter you will need to install the radio equipment. Any defects or omissions here will certainly cause a crash. Ensure that you protect all installed equipment from vibration using proper servo mounting bushes (normally included), Gyro mounting pads, and I would suggest fitting your receiver in a well-designed crash protection box. (They are available from you local model shop and are fairly inexpensive. Fit the largest size battery pack you can get for your helicopter. (Largest in capacity not physical size of the pack!) This means that you get more time to fly and less time spent charging up. But even if you are a “normal” club flyer, you will at least have some power left in reserve.
Make sure all wiring is neatly routed throughout your helicopter and again your manual may well give you tie wraps or similar to aid this part. Any extension servo leads used tie the plug and socket together to avoid separation during flight. The plug from the gyro is a common one.

Starter equipment

Keep the box and all the packaging until the end, you will be surprised at how often you will miss something, and of course by now you have thrown the bag away it was supposed to be in!
Before you can fly your helicopter you will need some of the other “stuff” you would have purchased. These ordinarily comprises fuel, and some form of starter kit, normally a 12v starter, something to add power to the glow plug, a 12v battery ,fuel pump, either hand or battery powered.
So let’s check where we are. You have bought this nice new easy to build, radio controlled helicopter, persuaded your loved one it isn’t a “fad”. Sought lots of advice along the way, got it home, lovingly built it, installed the radio gear, added the engine and muffler. So all seems well in the world! But of course you now, like Dr Frankenstein, you want to see you creation come alive!
So charge up your batteries, don’t forget there are three, one in the helicopter, one in the TX and one in your new flight box. Get everything together and make that appointment with your club help!

Moving onwards and upwards (hopefully!)

Moving on from the building stage, you now have your new pride and joy finished and looked over by your club mentor. He/she should take you through the safety aspects of your helicopter, and those of your new club. They should coach you through start up and close down procedures, so again you are safe.  If possible ask them to test fly your creation. You will be itching to get to those sticks, but a well trimmed and set up helicopter will pay dividends later because, you won’t learn bad habits (in theory at least!), your club buddy/mentor will know a helicopter flies, so the bit that doesn’t quite work yet is YOU!  Now, with everything in life those that can fly already it make it look simple to those of us who can’t!  When you try it on your own RC helicopter, that it is not that simple after all and you will find a level of frustration creeping in.  Patience....
Take your time!
In time gone by many pilots, particularly those helicopter pilots and manufacturers were the innovators to the sport and each year new experiences occurred and they had to learn the hard way, by just doing it. Today’s pilot has the luxury of years of experience, research and development,  and thanks to the Far East a plethora of helicopter kits and equipment to make life easy (autopilot is a reality now too!)  But one thing that has changed the face of RC helicopter training is the simulator. The early simulators like “Aero chopper” were at the time ground breaking, today’s simulators use state of the art graphics and flight dynamics. The purpose of a simulator obviously allows you to try things in a virtual world without risk to your real world helicopter. They should save you money in the long run. I am not suggesting you run out and buy the latest RC simulator, as many of today’s top pilots have not learned on one, but if the technology is there to aid you, why not utilize it?
Bare in mind a simulator is not a toy or a game, it is designed to replicate today’s helicopter designs and flight characteristics and should be seen as a training tool, of course have some fun with it. Experiment with differing angles, heights, distance. Try to hover consistently over one spot, try auto rotated landings, and it is great for out right hands on sticks experience.
So to the real thing….
If possible choose a day your buddy can be there to assist, motivate and share your experience. But here is a few things for you to try over the coming months.....

Ultimately fly safely, fly and enjoy it, never be afraid to try new stuff, but be honest with your capabilities, never be afraid to ask for help, direction or support.   This insight is not intended to be the answer to everything in RC helicopters, but more of a starting point and light hearted explanation. Other pilots/builders may have different opinions, and this article does not attempt to cover everything!

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