Flying something is a fascinating experience, but it takes some experience and skills to fly anything effortlessly without dropping it. This post covers an introduction to RC planes, things to consider when buying one, basic flying guide and some of the best RC planes that offer great value for the money. Whether you plan on buying a ready-to-fly RC plane or want to build it up yourself, learning to fly one is a rewarding experience and seriously fun.
It can take some time to master the basics, which is a must before you can start performing aerobatics and impressing your friends and family members. Almost anyone with some understanding of how different technologies work can get into this hobby, which can be a great source of having some break from our busy urban lives.
What is an RC Plane?
RC (Radio Control) planes are a type of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), a group that also includes drones, quadcopters and other remote controlled flying objects. As the name suggests, these planes are controlled by a radio transmitter. Although some RC planes can even accommodate people, here we’ll only focus on unmanned small RC planes, which are like mini airplanes, but with a remote controller. The common components of RC planes include the transmitter, receiver, power source and motor/engine.
RC planes range from basic to advanced and depend on how much money and time you are willing to spend. It also depends on the intended use because there is no point in spending tons of money on an advanced RC plane if all you want to do is have some family days out. More advanced and powerful RC planes are mostly used to earn respect and money, and to compete in RC flying competitions.
Key Components and Terminologies
Servos and Torque
There is usually one motor for each function such as controlling the throttle, flaps and rudder. These motors are called servos, which are connected to the receiver. Servos are rated based on the amount of torque they can produce. Electrics powered planes use small or nano-sized servo units, while gas powered planes use standard sized or larger servos.
The torque rating indicates how well a servo can fight resistance because the larger the plane, the more air resistance, which means more torque is required to overcome that resistance. The speed of RC planes is expressed differently i.e. it is the time an arm takes to move 60-degrees when it is operating at max torque. The speed of the servo used in landing should be slower. The size and weight of servos is directly proportional to the amount of torque required.
The body of RC planes can be constructed using different materials including:
- Balsa wood: strong and lightweight, easy to cut and model
- Polystyrene foam: strong and durable, easy to replace parts
- Carbon fiber: Stiffer and stronger than steel, but also costlier
- Plastics: affordable and durable
The body of an RC plane can further be divided into four main categories i.e.
The nose (the front part that also houses the propeller)
Fuselage (main body, houses other components)
Wings (can be round, curved, triangular, elliptical flat and are attached to the fuselage)
Tail (at the back of the fuselage)
Different RC planes come with different functions and capabilities, which are referred to as channels. 3-channel planes means it allows you to control three functions, while 4-channel planes mean you can control five different functions. Most common functions or channels include:
- Throttle: Controls the speed of an engine aka motor power
- Elevator: Controls the altitude
- Ailerons: Controls the rolling about its longitudinal-axis
- Rudder: Controls the direction
A 4-channel plane enables the user to control all these four functions, but that’s not always a good thing for beginners. 3-channel planes are considered to be the sweet spot for beginners as anything less than that is considered to be more like a toy plane.
SAFE and AS3X
Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope and Artificial Stabilization 3 Axis are technologies that make it easier for beginners to fly and control RC planes. These technologies are optional, but work great for people new to flying.
Types of RC Planes
RC planes are available in different varieties and choosing between them boils down to intended use and your budget. Trainers and micro planes are a good starting point for beginners and are also affordable.
Trainer RC Planes
Trainers are available as electric as well as gas powered variants @ 100-250 Watt power and 3-5 feet wingspan. Compared to sailplanes, they can fly comparatively faster, but still not fast enough to make it difficult for beginners to fly the plane. These high-wing planes have adequate dihedral and provide the high lift and stability people new to the hobby need at low speed.
These low-powered RC planes can fly from 10 to 20 minutes on a single charge with power ranging from 50-100 watt. Some of them compromise flight time for advanced aerobatics and higher speed, while others are designed to circulate and seek thermals (hot air pockets). The wingspan of the small sailplanes varies from 4 to 5 feet and they work on small radio equipment.
The most popular of these planes is the 2-meter, 6.3 feet class (100-200 Watt power), which is more resistant to gusty winds, easier to control and can fly at higher altitudes. Sailplanes with a wingspan of more than 9-feet are referred to as standard-class, while sailplanes larger than this are known as open class gliders. These planes can also be modified to take from 200 to 400 watt electric motors.
Aerobatic/Sport Planes and Pylon Racers
These planes are meant for hobbyists who have already mastered the basics of flying and want something faster (and not overtly stable). These planes have wingspans ranging from 3 to 9 feet and operate @ 100 to massive 1500 Watt motors. Aerobatic planes use symmetrical or semi symmetrical airfoils and although this causes some loss of the lifting capability, it improves handling during aerobatic maneuvers and gusty winds. However, these planes cannot self-recover as well as trainers and sailplanes.
Pylon Racers are low-drag and designed to fly as fast as possible. With a typical wingspan of 3-4 feet and 200-400 watt motor, these planes can reach speeds of up to 100 mph, while some gas kits can fly as fast as 200 mph. That’s a lot faster compared to most sport planes, which can fly at 40 to 60 mph and a lot faster than sailplanes that travel at 20 to 60 mph.
These are accurate scale models of different military and civilian planes and popular among model airplane enthusiasts. These planes tend to have a wingspan of around 5 or more feet and 300+ watt power requirement.
Micro Planes and Park Flyers
Micro planes have small batteries, receivers and servos and can fly in even large indoor spaces such as warehouses. These are also a good option for beginners who don’t want to spend a lot of money on an RC plane, but still want to experience the fun. Similarly, park flyers are also small electric-powered RC planes that can be flown almost anywhere such as parks and other open spaces.
Although RC helicopters might not be categorized as RC planes, they are still fun to fly and worth mentioning here. RC helicopters operate similarly to full-size helicopters. They can hover and move at a smaller scale and even perform stunning aerobatics and fly inverted. Compared to regular RC planes, the market for RC helicopters is still relatively new and not a lot of models are available. That’s mainly because of short flight times since you cannot glide a helicopter (needs power all the time to operate). RC helicopters are also more expensive, complex and hard to maintain.
Ducted Fan Models
These planes are for enthusiasts that like challenges such as modeling a jet aircraft that’s electrics powered. What differentiates these electric ducted fan planes from prop planes is high RPMs and high-speed motors.
RC Plane Buying Guide and Things to Consider
All RC planes are not created equal, but even the basic ones can help you learn and practice flying a remote controlled plane. That’s why we don’t recommend buying an expensive product for beginners. Not only advanced planes are not suitable for their skill level, beginners might also drop them and end up losing a lot of money. Let’s start with the most important things to consider when buying an RC plane.
Look for Safety Features
Beginners often find the amount of information they have to deal with overwhelming and there is a lot they have to keep track of and remember. That’s why they should consider advanced safety features that prevent RC planes from accidently crashing. For example, GPS functionality is common in RC planes, but beginners should look for a RC plane that also allows them to create a geo-fence. This ensures that the plane does not go outside of a specified range. Similarly, many planes can land automatically where they took off.
Flying effortlessly takes some time, even if you are flying a remote controlled plane. Smart features save beginners from the common nuisances related to flying, including nosediving and stalling accidently. These capabilities and options make flying easier and provide you with a chance to learn without breaking the plane.
RC Planes cannot fly like normal planes for hours at end. Most of them can only fly for a few minutes on a single charge. Their flight time depends on different factors, including the battery capacity, weight of the plane and motor power. Although you might be happy with a short flight time in the beginning, you’d probably want to buy spare batteries down the road and keep them charged.
People new to RC planes should invest in a stable and forgiving RC plane instead of focusing on fast or flashy planes. RC planes can be high, mid and low-wing. High-wing trainers (wing installed at the top of fuselage) provide stability, are forgiving and the most suitable for beginners. The fuselage stabilizes the flight and allows the plane to naturally right itself after turns, which is very helpful for people learning to fly.
Referred to as the V-angle (upward) of the wings (from the front), more dihedral means better stability in general. A lower center of gravity of the fuselage creates a pendulum effect. Good dihedral and a high-wing configuration makes a great trainer RC plane because of better stability.
Most RC planes are powered by internal combustion and electric motors and each type of motor has its own pros and cons. Electric motor powered RC planes are more suitable for beginners and are also cheaper than planes powered by internal combustion motors (aka glow powered). Electric-powered planes are also quieter and require less accessories, which is why they are more welcome than IC-powered planes in public places.
Internal combustion planes means ongoing fuel costs, more accessories and maintenance because of more moving parts, making these more expensive in the long run. Their noise level is also higher, so you might not be allowed to fly them anywhere you want. You also need a club membership to fly these and access to a designated flying site/private land. Electric RC planes are beginner-friendly, easier to fly and a cleaner introduction to RC plane flying.
Gravity powered RC planes refers to planes that only have electric motors and use propellers to climb slopes. These lightweight planes operate silently, but are slow and have no landing gears.
Pros of Electric RC planes
- Quiet and environment friendly operation
- More affordable
- Easier to fly
- Less maintenance
- More suitable for beginners
- Less regulations involved in flying
Pros of Gas/Nitro Powered Planes
- Can achieve higher speeds
- Are fun to fly
- Landing gears are more sophisticated
- Cannot be operated everywhere, not welcome in public places
We recommend at least a 3-channel plane for an enjoyable flying experience, which are also the most commonly used for self-teaching. 2-channel planes might be more affordable, but these are not recommended even for beginners because they provide limited handling capability. 3-channel planes allow you to have control over the motor, rudder and the elevator. Some planes are configured to provide a 3-channel control over the ailerons (more aerobatics, usually faster, more suitable when smooth rolling is desired), motor and elevator.
You might also want to consider 4-channel planes with ailerons being the 4th channel, but it makes flying a bit more difficult, which might not be something beginners want (extra coordination is required). This is what makes a 3-channel RC plane more suitable for beginners as it’s relatively more affordable and beginner-friendly.
Availability of Spare Parts
Crashing is part of this hobby, especially when you are new to it and still learning. It’s recommended to invest in an RC plane for which you can easily find spare parts. Buying a faster or more advanced plane might be tempting, but you should focus on the ones for which you can buy off-the-shelf parts.
Take some time to research online and see for which planes spare parts are readily available in your area. For example, it’s easier to find parts for ParkZone and HobbyZone planes in the US. Similarly, you might also want to consider foam RTF planes for peace of mind because their spare parts are much cheaper than conventional RC planes.
Ready-to-fly vs. Almost-ready-to-fly vs. Kit
Choosing between a RTF, ARF plane or a kit comes down to your personal preferences and knowledge/skill level. Some hobbyists find satisfaction in kits, which involves building an RC planes using different parts. Although the experience is satisfying for people who have good model building skills, you need to buy parts separately, including the motor, ESC, radio gear and battery pack.
It’s not worth spending a lot of time and putting so much effort into building a traditional ply/balsa trainer RC plane when you are totally new to flying. For beginners, it’s better to learn to fly first to avoid crashing the plane you built after spending so much time.
Almost-ready-to-fly RC planes are like 90% finished and you just need to install a few parts on your own, including the motor, battery pack, ESC and radio gear. Although you need some modeling knowledge to assemble an ARF plane, you don’t have to worry about building it completely on your own. ARF planes introduce you to airplane construction without involving too much technicalities.
Ready-to-fly RC planes are beginners’ best option and suitable for people who are new to the hobby and want to get started quickly. As the name suggests, RTF planes are fully finished and all you need is to do some pretty basic assembly work using the instruction manual such as attaching the plane wing to the fuselage and install/charge the battery pack.
That’s why electric-powered RC planes are so popular among beginners because they are affordable, allow hobbyists to get started in almost no time and are convenient. Mostly constructed using foam, these affordable planes are lightweight, tough and easily repairable.
Getting Started with Flying an RC Plane
Beginners are recommended to start with a small trainer RC plane before moving on to faster or larger planes. Learning the basics does not take much time, but mastering the trade needs some patience and experience. It’s recommended for beginners to ask experienced hobbyists to launch and land the plane for the first time. Avoid going too high and pushing the controls too far in just one direction or out of range. Let’s start with the basics of flying an RC plane.
It’s better to fly an RC plane for the first time in a gymnasium or an open space/field to get an idea about the handling. Choose the weather conditions carefully and avoid getting started in windy conditions. Air resistance impacts the handling and how a plane moves, so try flying when the wind is not blowing and the weather is clear/stable.
Double Check the Controls
Preliminary checks before flying ensures that everything is working as it should and can save you from unwanted surprises. Check if the throttle turns on the propeller, elevators are moving up and down, rudder is moving right and left and ailerons are coming up on both sides. Similarly, if an RC plane features different modes, try flying in the beginner-friendly mode in the beginning. Similarly, make sure to read the instruction manual and never let the plane get outside the recommended range.
Once you are done with preliminary checks, it’s time for the fun part. Try staying in a straight line on the ground as the plane starts picking up speed. Put the throttle back to zero position if the plane is wandering right or left and start all over again. You also need to throttle at full speed when the plane is taking off because it needs more power when lifting up. Keep the plain within sight at all times and don’t let it fly too far.
Landing an RC plane involves gradually reducing the altitude and speed and carefully steering it to your position. Many RC planes have a built-in functionality of landing where they took off, which can be very useful for people new to flying. However, you have to make sure that the landing zone is clear of any objects and obstacles. Avoid going too low when landing because it’s better to overshoot than to undershoot. Staying too low leaves you with very little room to make adjustments.
Advanced Maneuvers and Aerobatics
People usually don’t get into this hobby just to take off and land their RC planes. Once they get familiar with the basics, they want to move up the ladder and perform aerobatics. However, RC planes such as trainer planes are not designed for aerobatics. But there are still many maneuvers you can perform with a trainer such as the loop, which involves moving the plane in circles.
Performing a loop is not that complex. You need to make a level and straight take off then intermittently increase the throttle and elevation to start the loop. Push the throttle to maintain elevation when heading out. Roll is another maneuver, but you need a 4-channel RC plane to perform it.
To perform the roll, take-off straight and apply full ailerons (both sides). Slowly start applying the down elevator and remove it while maintaining the aileron, and release it after the maneuver. Spinning is another maneuver which involves rotating the plane around its vertical axis. Before rolling, stall the wing and hold the controls for some time before releasing.
Beginners need to keep the safety of their plane, people around them and their properties in mind when flying an RC plane. A falling plane can cause some serious trouble if it falls on someone or can damage the property below. Here are a few tips to consider to prevent damage to others and your plane.
- Avoid flying in windy conditions
- Buy an RC plane that matches your skill level and ability
- Know and obey local laws and regulations
- Maintain the recommended speed and consider getting insurance
- Don’t forget to carry out the pre-flight checks
- Write your contact information on the plane
- Avoid flying too close to crowded places, roads, around people or power lines
- Avoid flying at night without proper illumination and lighting on the plane
- Keep yourself properly oriented and don’t let the plane fly too far away
- It’s recommended to buy a plane with two contrasting colors so you can see it over your head, across the sun and in bad lighting conditions
- Keep a check on the possible signs of wear and tear and timely replace the failing components
- Charge the batteries when they are cool to the touch and avoid overcharging
- Make sure to read and understand local regulations concerning flying RC planes, especially when flying gas-powered planes
- Carefully read the instruction manual and follow the guidelines to prevent any damage to the plane
Learning to fly an RC plane effortlessly is a rewarding experience. But it’s not that difficult to get cheated when buying your first RC plane. There is also a chance that you might end up picking a plane that does not meet your requirements. Beginners should consider RC planes that are easy to operate and portable. A small trainer is a good starting point and anything between 3-9 wingspans should work well for beginners.
Choose an RC plane for which spare parts are readily available and that comes with a warranty you can claim locally. This can save you from a lot of trouble down the road because some crashes can be terrible and spare parts might not be enough to revive your plane in such situations.