Today we will look into the basics of how to fly an RC plane on a simulator and prevent crashing your model out in the field.
A while ago, I’ve explained how I have my FlySky FS-i6X controller connected with an RC simulator so now we will extend on that on what each of the sticks does and how that affects the plane.
For the purpose of this tutorial, I’m focusing on just the basics of the trainer airplanes. Depending on what model you will learn on, they all have slight differences in behavior based on their construction so be sure to try them out for yourself before flying an actual RC plane.
Radio control system modes
When buying your controller, you generally have two options: buying a mode 1 or mode 2 controller. I personally prefer Mode 2 which means that the throttle and the rudder are controlled with the left stick on the controller while the right stick controls the ailerons and elevator.
In Mode 1 these two are reversed so now the right stick controls the throttle and the rudder.
This is entirely your personal preference but for the rest of this tutorial, I’ll be using and demonstrating using a Mode 2 controller.
3 CH vs 4 CH
Before we jump into the individual controls, there are two major differences in the types of planes we can fly based on the number of channels we control with the controller.
The most basic one is a 3 channel airplane where the are the throttle, rudder, and elevator. In this case, the model is wired in such a way that now the left stick of the controller controls only the throttle and rudder and the elevator are controlled by the right stick.
This is generally considered to be easier for beginners as the ailerons tend to be more aggressive and roll the plane much faster. By controlling the rudder only, new pilots have fewer things to learn and can be more delicate and careful before moving to 4 channel controls.
With the addition of a 4th channel, any RC plane can now fly almost identical as a real plane but you need to be very careful as the ailerons can and will roll the plane immediately if you are not careful. Doing that on a simulator is not a big deal but out in the field with your real model, you don’t really want to crash it on its first flight.
With the basics out of the way, we can now start to focus on the individual controls and their effects on the model behavior.
First such control is the throttle and with it, we control the speed at which the motor spins the propeller of the plane. By controlling this, we can control the speed at which the plane is flying and the power it has during flight.
Opposed to all the other sticks on the controller, the throttle does not self-centers when you let go of it but remains in the same position. This allows us to set a specific throttle amount depending on the type of flight.
The more throttle you apply to the plane, the faster it will go but also it will cost a lot more fuel or current reducing the total flight time on the actual model airplane. Finding the right balance is always important.
The ailerons on the airplane, control its roll. They are two control surfaces on the wing, one at each side of it, that move opposite of each other. When the left aileron goes up, the right one goes down in order to proportionally direct the roll of the plane from both sides.
When the right stick of the controller is moved to the left, the left aileron moves up while the right one moves down. In this configuration, the left aileron produces downforce while the right one produces up force, initiating a roll to the left.
When the stick is released, it is designed to return itself to the center so the ailerons can go back to their initial state and be level with the wing. However, this does not mean that the plane will be leveled.
Depending on how long the roll was applied, the airplane might be rolled sideways or even upside down so we need to apply roll in the opposite direction to level it off.
With the right stick moved to the right, the left aileron is pointed downwards and creates up force while the right one is pointed up creating a force that rolls the plane to the right.
To move the plane up or down we use the elevator which is a single control surface that is most often placed in the back of the plane.
By moving the right stick down, the elevator is pulled up so the moving wind creates a downforce at the back of the plane. Since the center of gravity on most of the planes is below the wing in the front, this downforce creates a rotational moment that pulls the nose of the plane up and the airplane gains altitude.
When the stick is released, it moves to the center so the elevator is leveled again but this does not mean that the plane will fly horizontally. Depending on the engine power the plane might still continue to gain altitude or even start to lose altitude.
The last control surface that we will look at today is the rudder. It is a vertical surface usually at the back of the plane that allows us to rotate the nose of the plane relative to the ground.
If we move the left stick to the left, the rudder also moves to the left so the passing air creates a force to the right. This force then rotates the back of the plane to the right, causing it to turn to the left.
The opposite happens when the stick is moved to the right and the force now pushes the back of the plane to the left, making it turn right.
I know that all of these rotations and directions might confuse you right now but it is relatively quite easy to get the hang out of it once you start trying it out.
To start flying, you need to connect to your simulator of choice and I have a separate tutorial for that that I invite you to check out. Once you are ready, we need to look into the different steps that make the airplane fly.
The very first step in flying an airplane is actually taking off. To take off, I usually apply about 70% of the throttle and allow the model some time to get some speed down the runway. Depending on the model and its available power, you might need to apply full throttle on takeoff so be sure to experiment with the values.
With the airplane having enough speed, we apply some downward force to the elevator and that brings our nose up and the plane starts climbing. Once it starts to climb, we let go of the elevator and allow it to go in a straight line up.
If you apply too much of elevator the plane will continue to rotate upward to the point that it will want to go in a loop or stall which might result in a crash so it is better that you go slow on the controls and only adjust them slightly until you are confident enough.
To adjust the plane altitude during flight, we use the elevator together with the throttle. If the throttle is high, the plane will naturally want to climb since the wing will produce more lift. To angle it down, we can move the elevator stick up so the nose of the plane will be moved downward. Additionally, just by lowering the throttle, the plane will slow down and start losing height on its own.
It is important that at least during the first few flights you do not pitch the plane too much up or down at once as that might cause it to lose control and crash it. Instead, go slow with gradual changes and smooth flight.
To turn the airplane we have one of two options. The first and only option on a 3 channel plane is to use the rudder. While the plane is still on the ground, we point the rudder stick toward the direction of the intended path and the plane will start turning.
During the flight, the same can be applied and we can then control the direction of the nose of the plane.
It is crucial to note that while using the rudder, the more it is applied the more the plane will want to lose height from the reduced lift of the wing. Almost always when turning, we need to apply some upward movement with the elevator as well so we can counteract the lost altitude while maintaining the same speed.
Depending on the design, some planes will want to naturally return to level flight after turning but on some, we might need to apply some rotation in the other direction in order to level it off.
The second option for turning is to use the ailerons which provide a lot more sensitive control making of much sharper turns. When they are applied, the plane starts rolling to its side so if we then apply som elevator to go up, the plane will make a sharp turn in the direction where the top of the wing points to.
Again as with everything else we need to be gentle with this, as too much elevator can force the plane in a spiral toward the ground and result in a crash. Also, too much of the ailerons will force the plane in an uncontrolled roll so you might end up with the plane upside down.
Direction of flying
Before making any turn during flight, the plane will be usually getting away from you so you will be looking at it from the back. This makes the controls behave in the same way as we talked until now. Turning the rudder to the left will make the plane turn left.
However, when you turn the plane 180 degrees and now it flies towards you, both of the rudder and aileron controls will be flipped from the point of your view.
Pulling the rudder to the left will still make the plane go left, but from your point of view, the plane will move to the right.
This is one of the hardest things to learn for a beginner as the perceived flipping of controls can be confusing and it is only mastered with practice.
When you start to fly with models that can also fly inverted, the same inversion applies in the vertical direction. If you point the plane to go down, since it is upside down it will go up.
Make sure to practice and get comfortable with this on the simulator before attempting any flight with your real RC plane.
The final step in flying an RC plane is landing where you now need to get the plane back to earth in one piece. The process on how to do it is highly dependant on the type of aircraft you have but for training airplanes, this usually can be done just by gliding back to earth.
To start, you will want to align the plane in the direction of your runway or a clear patch of grass and then lower the throttle all the way down. In an electric airplane, this will stop the motor entirely so the plane will start gliding back. If it then starts to lose altitude quickly, you can apply some elevator to go up in order to balance it for a smooth touchdown.
If the plane is not gliding that well, then you would want to keep some throttle applied so the plane can fly fast enough and not stall.
Once you touch the ground, cut the throttle all the way down and allow the plane to make a full stop before turning it and taxi it close to you.
With this, you are now ready to start practicing and learning how to fly a model airplane. As with real planes, a lot of hours are required on the simulator before you can start flying real models. The same movements that we talked about also apply when flying faster and more advanced models so be sure to clock your hours in on the simple ones before moving up.
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Until then, thanks for reading!