There are several things that new people do wrong almost universally, and a few things which people just don't know about ahead of time when they first try this hobby. It can be extremely frustrating to get this stuff wrong, because it often means you destroyed your plane. Please read this and get these things right before you fly. If it means you have to wait a couple weeks, trust me, it's worth it. I made these mistakes and nearly gave up on this stuff because of it. I also hurt myself very badly getting a plane out of a tree I shouldn't have been near in the first place. So please be sure to get this stuff right before you fly, and periodically refresh your memory until it becomes instinct. If you can't remember them all at first, make a checklist or print out this blog and take it to the field with you.
1. Buying the wrong plane - you should start with a high-wing trainer, like the Slow Stick or Super Cub. See the blog about Getting Started for more info about this issue. It is essential to start with the right plane. You won't be able to fly jet fighters or anything "cool" until you learn on something that might be a little less exciting, but it will be worth it if you start out with the right plane. Baby steps first, then walk, then run!
2. Too much wind - Flying in wind is difficult for experts and impossible for beginners. It may be frustrating to wait, but it's more frustrating to break your plane because you chose to fly in the wind. Wait until there is NO WIND AT ALL for your first flight. The best times for this are early in the morning before 10AM, and when I say no wind, I mean NONE. I still won't fly in winds over 5mph, and that is not very much wind. A 5mph wind barely tickles the leaves on the trees. Learn to watch the trees and flagpoles and check the weather on web sites before you go flying. This has nothing to do with your plane - it has to do with you. A very experienced pilot can fly in more wind, but a very experienced pilot usually knows better. It is common to go out to a field and see the experienced guys sitting around talking, while the newbies throw their planes into the wind and crash.
3. Ignoring wind direction - Wind direction is very important during takeoff and landing. At other times it is less important, but you should be aware of the wind direction at all times. ALWAYS take off and land going INTO THE WIND. Test this by throwing up grass blades before each flight, and be mindful of changes during your flight. I sometimes use a cigarette to test this in very light winds, but it's a bad idea to smoke or do anything else while you are flying. The wind can change direction while you are flying, and the wind is usually stronger at higher altitudes, and may be in a different direction as well. Since you can't go up there and test it yourself, you will have to observe your plane very carefully. If there is too much wind aloft, don't fight it. Land and fly another day. Land into the wind... always! There are hundreds of ways to explain this, but it's best to just trust me on this one. ALWAYS keep your plane upwind of yourself, and don't fly over your head. This is important if you lose power... your plane won't blow away from you, it will blow toward you.
4. Understanding orientation - This is something you just have to learn and get an instinct for. There are many ways to visualize it, but the basic point is that many beginners have a habit of turning the wrong direction when the plane is facing them. There are two things that helped me with this: simulators and visualization. I think everyone should practice on a simulator before going out to fly for real. The reasons for this should be obvious, but the one that applies here is learning your left from your right. There are simulator links on the right side of the page, but you want to get one that works with your actual transmitter, so it feels right when you go out to fly. The other way to understand orientation is to visualize yourself sitting in the plane, or imagine that you are actually facing the same direction as the plane. I will sometimes turn my controller to one side to reinforce this visualization. I also tend to ignore 'left' and 'right' and think in terms of 'clockwise' and 'counterclockwise', which are the same regardless of the direction your plane is facing (unless you're inverted). This comes in handy when flying helicopters too. Practice with a radio control car or a cheap plane like the Aero Ace.
5. Plane is not flight-ready - This can happen with RTF planes, so be careful even with these! Most RTF planes are not actually "Ready to fly" and they will need some adjustment before flight, and trimming as well. No plane can be trimmed properly before flight, so if you don't understand how to do this, get an expert to trim your plane for you. Be sure to check the Center of Gravity of your plane, and make sure it is in the manufacturers recommended location. This is probably the single biggest plane-related problem that beginners face. Get it right, or you're going down. Also check that everything works on your radio, all the control surfaces go the right directions and that everything is solidly put together. If you built the plane yourself you should be intimately familiar with it and check these things easily, but if you bought an RTF, be careful since many of them are not properly balanced and there are occasionally simple defects in the product itself. DO NOT FLY if any of these things are wrong.
6. Pilot is not flight-ready - Most of the beginner mistakes that are blamed on planes are, in my opinion, pilot error and not the fault of the plane. Make sure you are ready to fly. Practice in the simulator until you can fly very well without crashing. Practice landing, a lot. Keep the simulated plane out in front of you and at high altitude. The only reason I am a halfway decent pilot is because of hundreds of hours of simulator time, and I'm serious about that. I also have an understanding of how planes work mechanically and aerodynamically, and this helps a lot, but not as much as practice. Also, if you are easily frustrated, have high expectations, or other mental blocks, you are not flight-ready. Flying without confidence is a big mistake.
7. Flying in the wrong area - Make sure you have enough room to fly! For most slow trainer planes this means two football fields worth of space. That may seem like a lot, but trust me it's not. Also make sure there are no people or cars or trees or anything else in the area you intend to fly. It is also a good idea to check the legality issues. Stay away from airports, and if you're not at a designated club field, be sure it is legal to fly at the park, school, or whatever. Some places have outlawed flying because some dopehead probably crashed his plane into a house or a person(!), and you will make the problem worse for all of us if you ignore these laws!
8. Not enough altitude - Keep your plane away from the ground! Terra Firma is the enemy of your plane, and this becomes clear the first time you crash into it. Altitude gives you time to respond to mistakes before you hit the ground. Ideally, right after takeoff, you want to fly to at least 100 feet above ground, then trim your plane so it flies right, then have fun. Always fly high enough to recover from two or three mistakes. If you make a mistake, your plane almost always loses altitude. Once you get back into level flight, climb back up to a safe altitude before you 'try anything' again. Flying loops and such is fun, but if you don't have altitude, you're dead. Altitude is also 'stored energy' which you can use to gain speed if you lose power, so keep that in mind. In dogfighting, pilots learn early on that an altitude advantage can nearly always be used to kill your opponent if you have equally matched planes.
9. Misunderstanding speed - AIR speed (not ground speed) is key here. Too much and your plane will climb incessantly, too little and your plane won't hold altitude. Ideally your plane should be able to fly level with the throttle 1/2 to 2/3 of full power. If you have to use elevator to keep your plane from diving, then you need more throttle, and if you have to use elevator to keep your plane from climbing, you need to reduce the throttle. Remember, your plane is completely unaware of the ground, until it runs into it. What I mean is that you should disregard how fast it looks to you, and realize that when flying with the wind, it will appear to be moving faster, and when flying against the wind it will appear to be moving slower. Your plane doesn't care about this... it only sees the speed of the AIR. So, once you find the proper setting for level flight, use that setting for level flight, regardless of ground speed that you see. If you want to climb, use more throttle, and if you want to descend, use less.
10. Pre-flight setup - This includes many things and it might seem like a lot, but these things are absolutely critical to check every time you fly. Pilots of full-scale planes go through a much longer checklist than this every time they fly, because their lives are at stake. In your case, your plane is at stake, and the safety of people and property as well, so it's very important. I check these things every time I fly any of my planes. If you can't remember this stuff, print out a checklist and take it with you to the field.
- Are the batteries charged up or do you enough fuel in the tanks.
- Are the control surfaces properly aligned and secured to the pushrods and servos
- Is there any damage to the plane - do not fly if there is!
- Is your channel clear? DO NOT TURN ON YOUR RADIO IF SOMEONE IS USING YOUR CHANNEL! You will "shoot down" their plane, and they will be very upset with you. If you're flying at a club, they should have a board to reserve your channel and tell you if someone is currently using it or waiting for you to get off it. If you're not at a club, be sure to ask everyone what channels they are using.
- Did you do a range check today? Check it for each plane.
- Be sure your radio battery is charged up, and also the receiver battery if you're flying glow. Best to do this the night before!
- If you have flown this plane before, check the trim knobs and be sure they are correct for this plane
- Do all the control surfaces move in the correct directions?
- Is your antenna pulled up all the way? (I've seen people take off without this, and you'll lose control eventually this way)
- Are you taking off in the right direction (see above) and is your flight path clear of people and obstacles?
- Do you have everything you need for yourself? Bug spray, sunscreen, sunglasses, a lawn chair if you're flying the Slow Stick! Don't forget to bring water and maybe some ice. A first aid kit and cell phone are handy as well, just in case!
Over and Out!