Learning to fly an RC plane is a bit like learning to drive a car. It can be daunting at first, requires a lot of practice and there are consequences if you crash. However, once you've learnt the basics it is very rewarding and the sky is literally the limit in terms of how far you can go within the hobby.
There is the satisfaction of learning new manoeuvres, the enjoyment of building a kit, the fun of adding to your plane collection (some might say addiction) and the camaraderie of your local club. If you are interested in competition there are many different types including: fun fly events, scale, aerobatic, pylon racing and more.
I have driven RC cars competitively for many years but my forays into RC planes always ended with a quick trip to the "scene of the accident" at my local park. After wasting a lot of money trying to teach myself to fly over the years, a friend suggested I visit my local flying field which is Doncaster Aeromodellers Club (DAC).
I was surprised to learn that if I bought my own equipment and joined the club that a licenced instructor would teach me to fly for free.
So this is the story of that journey.
I went to the club one Saturday afternoon in January 2016 and everyone was very friendly. I was introduced to the resident instructors Michael and Alex and was asked if I'd like to have a go. You bet I would! So after a brief introduction to the flying field and boundaries Michael and I set off for the flight line with Michael's Trojan T-28 trainer and two radio transmitters. One for me and one for Michael. This is called "buddy boxing" and means that the instructor has control of the aircraft normally but if he presses and holds down a button then the student has control. On my first flight Michael took off and demonstrated flying the plane in the circuit. After asking if I was ready he pressed and held a button on his radio and I then had the ability to turn the plane left and right using the ailerons. Michael retained all other controls so that I could concentrate on just turning and getting a feel for the plane. A couple of times I got into trouble and Michael simply released the button on his radio and regained complete control, put the plane back on course and, after asking if I was ready, gave me control again. After six minutes Michael took control and landed the plane.
I had a big smile on my face. What a brilliant system! I could learn at my own pace with very little risk of crashing the plane. I had a second flight that day and went away to consider whether I'd found a new hobby.
DAC encourage you to try flying on three different days before deciding whether the hobby is for you. It is completely free to this point with no obligation.
So one week later I was back to try it again. This time Michael gave me elevator control as well as ailerons. The elevator changes the pitch of the model pointing the nose towards the sky or towards the ground. By using some up elevator in the turns you can stop the plane from losing height when turning. You can also turn tighter by using more up elevator. This was all new to me and Michael had to take over a few times while I struggled with the combination of ailerons and elevator. Unfortunately I had to leave after only one flight but I was seriously thinking that this might be for me. The question is could I do actually do it as it seemed quite difficult so far. I decided to splash out $40 on eBay for a cheap controller and flight simulator to see whether with more practice I might stand a chance of being able to do this. It's worth noting that the club has a very good simulator but my couple of tries on that ended up with a crashed plane. I thought that if I could sit down at home I might have a better shot at keeping it in the air by myself.
The courier knocked on my door a few days later and I eagerly installed the software and plugged the controller in to the PC's USB port. It's worth noting that radio transmitters come in different configurations called "modes". DAC recommends Mode 1 for planes where the left joystick controls elevator and rudder while the right joystick controls throttle and ailerons. So I'd bought a Mode 1 controller with the simulator.
I found the simulator a challenge. The software wasn't very good and it was difficult to see the plane once it had taken off. After about an hour of take offs followed by crashing at some point I changed the viewpoint to above and behind the plane and from there I could actually fly the plane reasonably well. I even managed to land it. At that point I decided that while flying an RC plane is difficult I had proved I could do it when slightly above and behind the plane. Now I just had to translate that to standing on the ground. So I decided to invest the money in my new hobby.
Back to DAC at the end of January and I had three flights that day, taking my total to six. At the end of the day Michael asked me whether I'd like to join and I confirmed that I would. As previously mentioned DAC provides three free days of instruction. At that point if you wish to continue you must join the club. This sounded very reasonable at the time and still does. What other RC hobby can you try before you buy? Particularly one which has the potential to end up in a tree while using someone else's plane!
So I submitted my membership application which was accepted after being approved by the club's committee. Michael provided a list of club recommended equipment and between flights I'd been picking the brains of other members on which radio transmitter to buy.
My membership was accepted within a couple of days and so I was off to Metro Hobbies. I staggered home under the bulk of large shiny new boxes. The first order of business was to install the Phoenix Flight Simulator which was a massive step forward on my eBay simulator. I also now had a shiny new Spektrum radio which also felt a lot better to use. The simulator came with a cable that connected the PC to my radio. The club recommended the E-Flite Trojan T-28 aircraft which is exactly what I bought. The Phoenix simulator allows you to fly a number of different planes including the Trojan. This was important as all planes have their own flight characteristics so being able to practice on the simulator with the same plane I use in real life was a big help. You can also download the DAC airfield imagery from the DAC website which allows you to practice as close to the real thing as possible. I found it very handy to set the simulator to always keep the ground in view (so I didn't get disoriented) and to turn on Binoculars so I could see a close up representation of the model at the bottom of the screen (so that when the plane was far away I could glance at the binoculars view to see which way it is facing if I wasn't sure).
Now I didn't want my plane to look the same as the other Trojan's at the club so some new paint was in order. I liked the look of the stock red and white paint scheme but I thought I could improve on it somewhat. I wasn't going to rush the paintjob so my next club day I went without my own plane and Michael was happy for me to use his plane to continue my training. The E-Flite Trojan T-28 takes about an hour to fit the wheels, screw on the wing and install and setup a Spektrum receiver with ASX stability control. I was a little frustrated to learn that it wasn't possible to turn on the stability control in the ASX receiver without a $40 cable – sold separately. However, Michael was happy for me to use his cable for the initial setup.
In addition to painting the model I also used black packing tape to add stripes to the bottom of the fuselage to make it easier to tell when I was looking at the bottom of the plane from a distance. Adding larger diameter wheels improved the planes ground handling. Taxiing through grass with the stock wheels often led to the nose wheel digging in and flipping the plane onto the propeller. So on my 4th club day I was still using Michael's plane but he now gave me all the controls. Throttle, ailerons, elevator and rudder. I ignored rudder (except when taxiing where it provides steering on the ground) and concentrated on the other controls which I had been using in the simulator. At this stage I was presented with my membership card and an information packet and I was officially a member. That day I tried my first landing approach (messy – and without actually landing), my first taxi and even my first loop. I left that day with a large grin on my face!
On February 13 I took my Trojan to DAC and Michael gave it its maiden flight. Making sure everything was working as expected before passing control to me. A week later on my 12th flight I took off and landed myself for the first time. I also tried procedural turns and figure eights for the first time which I found quite challenging.
So how long does it take to get your Bronze Wings and why does it matter? Without Bronze Wings you can't fly by yourself at the club and you can't visit other clubs and fly at their airfield either. How long it takes depends on the individual and how much time and effort they invest. The good news is it's not a race and there's no time limit. Some people may take a year or more. Others might achieve it within a few months. I decided early on that Bronze Wings was a priority for me and so I went to the club every Saturday to fly and used my simulator for hours at the start and settled down to about 30 minutes per week as I progressed.
During March I continued to make about three 8 minute flights every Saturday afternoon. Two months on since joining the club and I'd clocked up 25 flights. At this point I felt fairly comfortable with taking off, flying the circuit and landing.
On April 2 on my 28th flight Michael took me off the buddy box. If I got into trouble Michael no longer had a radio with which to fix it. I took off, completed one circuit and landed – all with no safety net. It was an incredible feeling to fly "solo" for the first time and my smile was very wide indeed! The next Saturday I was back on the buddy box for the first flight (so I could get my eye back in after a week away) and then off the buddy box for the rest of the day.
On April 16 I took off for my 34th flight with Michael and the buddy box. Michael then arranged for a senior member to stand with me for my next few flights. The number of flights per afternoon was typically 3-4 because Michael was also busy training others and everyone had to wait their turn. Because I'd demonstrated that I could identify when I was doing something wrong, and correct it myself, I could now have a senior member stand with me and provide advice. I'd now fly with Michael about every 3rd flight. This meant I could get 6-7 flights in per afternoon instead of 3-4. I was now flying with the ASX stability mode turned off and practicing dead stick landings and by April 23 was up to my 46th flight.
At DAC we normally fly left hand circuits which means you take off to the South and keep turning left until you're back over the runway. On my 47th flight the wind was blowing from the other direction so for the first time I took off to the North and flew a right hand circuit. Because the flying field is very tight, lined with trees and not rectangular, landing to the North is quite a different experience but after a few flights I felt that I'd managed to get the hang of it.
Up until now everything had been going very well. I'd been improving fairly constantly and the worst that had happened was a slightly heavy landing. So when I turned up for my 50th flight in early May I was full of confidence. We were flying right hand circuits again because of the wind and Michael asked if I'd like to go on the buddy box for my first flight on the day. I didn't give it a moment's thought before deciding that I'd be fine without the buddy box. Even though I hadn't flown for a week and had only three flights experience in right hand circuits. You can probably see where this is going and you'd be right. I came in to land and a gust of wind caught me about 2m off the ground, I gave the wrong control inputs and the plane nosed into the ground. My beautiful plane was in three pieces and I felt rather silly.
Everyone rallied around and gave advice on putting the plane back together. I was sceptical that it could be repaired as the nose had been torn right off the fuselage and the wing had come off in addition to other minor damage. But I was surprised how easy a foam plane is to repair and after a lot of repairs and some touched up paint I was back at the field the following Saturday having spent just $10 on parts (a new front cowl).
After a crash the plane is treated as if it has never flown before and everything is checked for airworthiness. The plane passed with flying colours and Michael took the plane back up to test its flight characteristics which were also fine. It was another very windy day on right hand circuits and I grabbed that buddy box life line with both hands!
20 May and 11 flights following the crash and my confidence was restored. Unfortunately Michael would be overseas for the next five weeks and I'd be flying with others. This actually worked out well as everyone I flew with had some advice that I learned from.
2 July was the big day. Michael was back from overseas and would assess me for my Bronze Wings. Taking off, flying the circuit, landing, procedural turns, figure eights (all in both directions) and dead stick landings (simulating a battery or motor failure). Three flights later and a 40-minute verbal test on flight theory, aircraft setup and club safety rules and I was awarded the long-awaited Bronze Wings. Achieving Bronze Wings took five months of flying almost every Saturday afternoon. I can now fly by myself. At the same time I recognise that the journey is just beginning as there is so much fun to look forward to. Honing the skills I've learnt so far, learning new manoeuvres, perhaps a new plane once I've learned all I can with the faithful Trojan and there's a fun fly event coming up. More than enough for now. Later on Silver Wings and Gold Wings may beckon, who knows.
So from joining the club until achieving Bronze Wings took me five months – is that some sort of benchmark? Nope! This was my journey and I've recorded it in the hope of encouraging others. But everyone will have their own journey. How long it takes depends on how much time you commit to practice, previous experience, natural ability, age (younger people may pick it up more quickly), whether life gets in the way, and the rules at your club. But every journey starts with a first step so check out your local club and go from there.
I'd like to thank the DAC club and in particular the instructors Michael Best and Alex Zattelman as well as all the members who stood with me and provided encouragement and advice.