Getting Started with Gas Airplanes
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Home > Getting Started > Getting Started with Gas Airplanes

[Courtesy of Larry Copeland, November 1998]

Internal combustion-powered model planes are one of the oldest propulsion forms for model aircraft dating back to the 1930's. So you are joining a long tradition! This means that the technology is very refined with a lot of performance and reliability for very reasonable costs. Gas planes are by far the most popular form of R/C flying and there are many good reasons. It is the best place to start (see below) even if you know you will eventually get into electrics or gliders. Gas planes offer lots of flying hours per dollar, are not difficult to fly and they are the best to learn on. They look great, are easy to fix and parts are plentiful.

What to Do First

Before we start, PLEASE DON'T FLY ALONE UNTIL THE CLUB HAS "SOLO'ed" YOU!!! Besides being common sense and a club rule, if you try to fly an R/C plane without instruction, you will absolutely C-R-A-S-H sooner or later and could hurt someone or damage property. You could get sued and severely fined!

If you haven't done it yet, join the club and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). You can't get field keys or the AMA's liability insurance if you don't.

You Can't Learn It All at the Field!!

It helps a lot if you fooled around with control-line gas planes as a kid since there's much to learn. But if not, I will assume that you are pretty enthusiastic about all this. So you've probably asked lots of questions, come to our club meetings and maybe have done a little reading. Like any technical interest, the best thing to do is to get some books on R/C flying. Why? Because the guys at the field can't give you an organized way to understand everything. And you cannot learn it all just by asking enough questions. I particularly like the Harry Higley "Getting Airborne" series (volumes I and II). Memorize these two books backwards!! Several other Harry Higley books are excellent. Your hobby shop can order them or they are available from Tower Hobbies. The R/C magazines (RCM, Model Airplane News, Flying Models, etc.) also offer numerous books (mostly by mail order). RCM's Flight Training Course is great.

Computer Flight Simulators

These are terrific learning aids and will considerably reduce your time before you solo. They are highly recommended but they can never replace actual flying. I like the Dave Brown simulator. It was designed by an R/C pilot and it's not too expensive. Flying R/C is like playing piano. If you don't do it often, you get rusty and then you are more likely to crash. Simulators are great to keep you flying on cold winter nights.

How Do Airplanes Fly?

For general background on how airplanes work, here's a surprise. Go to your library and check out the FAA's "Private Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge". Yes this is for full scale planes but the section on aerodynamics is very good and easy to read. The all-time classic book on why airplanes fly is Wolfgang Langweische's "Stick and Rudder". If your library can't get these for you, The Pilot Shop at Norwood Airport has them or you can order from Zenith Books (800-826-6600, Great reading for snowy winter nights!

Today, the Internet World Wide Web also has tons of essentially free R/C information. But it can be confusing and not well organized. So read those Higley books first.

In addition, our web site has LOTS of of information, as well as links to other places with information on all aspects of the hobby.  Please check out the LINKS / Learn About RC and LINKS / Info and How-To pages for more information.

Do I really have to know this stuff? Yes, if you don't want to crash and want to understand how everything works. Books are cheap, crashed planes are expensive and lost flying time is priceless.

What Plane Should I Get?

The best, easiest choice for your first plane is a high-wing, tricycle-gear "trainer" ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) for a 0.40 cubic inch 2-cycle engine which uses glow fuel. It will weigh about 4-5 pounds ready to fly and have about a 60 inch wingspan. They are low cost, rugged and take about 10-20 hours to assemble (20-30 hours if you've never had any model plane experience) and are not difficult. Bring it to the club meetings and we'll give you lots of advice. You'll need some simple tools. Don't forget to thoroughly fuel-proof all exposed wood inside and out after you've done all the gluing.

Here are some popular ARF trainers: The Thunder Tiger Trainer 40, the Hangar 9 Easy 2 ARF, the Hobbico Super Star 40, Hobbico Airvista, Great Planes PT-40 and the Tower Trainer 40 ARF. Your hobby shop may have some brand not listed here since the suppliers often repackage the same basic plane under several brands. That's okay as long as your dealer has had good experience with it.

You can also build your trainer as a kit. The Goldberg Eagle 2 and Sig Kadet LT-40 are particularly recommended. And in the CRRC, the Sig Kadet Seniorita is very popular but shouldn't be your first kit. (The Seniorita can actually hover in one place in a moderate wind!) Although they save you some money, the real reason to build a kit is that you will learn more thoroughly how to build model airplanes well. This is importnat for inevitable repairs. A kit takes longer to assemble than an ARF but there's a unique thrill watching something you put together from a pile of parts turn into that first flight. Most experienced modelers build kits because there's a wider range of aircraft types available and you can build it exactly the way you wish. But please don't start out with that dream 4-engine bomber!

Almost all the ARF's are preassembled in the Far East and go by various brands. They include quite a bit of hardware but you may have to buy some items if the included hardware is not exactly right. The club can help you here. In the old days, modelers only built from plans and some pilots still do. But that's another story!

For the engine, get a "plain bushing" 0.40 to 0.46 2-cycle motor. Good brands include OS Max, Thunder Tiger, Super Tigre, K&B, etc. Some of the lesser-known imported engines have occasional problems so stay with these top brands for now. You don't need a more expensive "ball bearing" engine or a 4-stroke motor for now. The 4-strokes will become more important in coming years for reducing noise and better fuel economy.

Any name brand 4-channel FM radio set works fine (Airtronics, Futaba, Hitec/RCD, JR, etc.). Make sure to get FM rather than AM since FM offers better interference rejection. The Futaba series is popular and this is important as you add more servo's and receivers in the future. Several other brands use interchangeable receivers and servo's with the Futaba series.

You will also need various "flight equipment". This includes a starter, starter battery, glow plug battery, various chargers (the one for your radio won't do all your batteries), flight box, fuel pump, etc. Plan on some spare items (propellers, glow plugs, fuel line, glue, covering materials (for repairs), fuel, etc.). The Higley books describe all this. This shouldn't exceed $125 total.

Many of the name brands listed above have Internet Websites (see our "Link Farm" for an extensive listing) where you can get more information.

Where Do I Get It and How Much Will It Cost?

Cultivate your local hobby shop. Besides having most everything you'll need, he or she is a wealth of free advice and knowledge. He wants you to succeed and be a steady customer and he is in contact with the local clubs. Mail order is sometimes (not always) a little cheaper but can be frustrating.  Our LINKS / Hobby Shops page has a list of local hobby shops.

You will probably buy everything new. About $400-500 will cover most everything including the spares and accessories. (This is a cheap hobby compared to skiing or just going out to dinner each week). The plane is about $125 and the radio is about $140. The engine is about $70. The rest is the odds and ends described above. If you are buying a plane from someone else, have an experienced club member check it out. You can also get excellent bargains at R/C auctions but have someone trustworthy help until you have more experience.

Where Can I Fly?

First, if you have not soloed, you MUST fly with an instructor. The club supplies instructors free but you should make an appointment. You need a large area to fly gas planes. Don't try it at your local school yard. We fly at our designated fields because our AMA liability insurance is only effective there. And the fields are somewhat away from noise-sensitive neighbors.

What's Next - About Flight Training

The whole objective of flight training is to get you soloed as a safe, skillful pilot. How long will it take? Some pilots get it done in a dozen flights. Most take 20-50 flights. Most flights take 10-15 minutes. R/C flying is very much a hand-eye skill thing and needs a fair amount of manual dexterity. Once you start, try to get all your flight training done in a few months. Try to get in 4-6 flights with each trip to the field. If you haven't already done it, make sure your eyesight is excellent. Things happen fast when the plane is far away and looks very small.

When you've brought your completed plane to our club meeting and we've pronounced it "ready", make an appointment with an instructor, bring it to the field and start flying! When first starting out, don't fly with any appreciable wind. Ask your instructor if it's too windy to fly before that long drive to the field. Look at the tops of the trees to see if it's going to be too windy. Remember that the wind picks up as the day progresses. Eventually, you'll be more comfortable flying in wind but we need as few complications as possible when starting training. Try to stick with one instructor so you won't get confused.

What's all this accidents stuff?

Some R/C aircraft eventually have accidents. Sorry, it's part of the hobby. Aren't you glad you weren't in the plane at the time? The goal is to get enough skill so that the accidents are minor, infrequent and don't stop you from flying. The big problem with crashing is NOT that you damage the equipment. It's the time lost building planes and also that you can no longer fly (unless you have a spare airplane). So your fragile piloting skills start to erode away after awhile. If your skills evaporate, you risk more crashes. This develops into the fly-crash-repair vicious circle. The solution is to become a very skillful pilot. We fly all year 'round in decent weather!

Almost all crashes are the result of bad pilot judgement. Did you fly in too much wind? Are you sure you charged the batteries? Is your engine very reliable? When did you last check how tight the clevises are on your elevator? Equipment failure is not as common but is also related to your judgement.

Flight Training Goals

I have several huge goals when doing flight instruction. Your mileage may vary with other instructors, but here are my hot buttons:

> The top of my list is Safety. Prevent damage to you, to others, to their property and your plane. I want to keep you flying so that you will not lose precious practice time and lose the fragile skills you are starting to build. Read the Club Handbook for our safety rules.

> Next, learn flying ettiquette. Don't hog the frequency, learn to announce your intentions when in the pilot stations, don't taxi in the pits, don't race your engine for 5 minutes, don't show up at the field without fuel, expecting your instructor to bring everything you forgot, etc. etc.

> My last huge instructing goal is to get you to land reliably, consistently and safely. If you can land well every time, I can solo you and then you can go off and spend the hours of stick time and gallons of fuel to really learn to fly.

But what about the other stuff? You know. Turns, glides, climbs, etc.? What about takeoff? Well, while learning to land, you have to learn this other stuff. But the goal is always consistent landings because that's the hardest.

We work hard on getting the approaches accurate. A stable, well controlled approach gives us a much higher chance of a good landing. We practice dozen's of landings until we get sick of them. Then we practice more landings.

I use an organized syllabus which gradually leads the new pilot to more difficult flying until we are practicing those low, precision controlled approaches over the runway. The next stop is the flair and landing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A common mistake for newly soloed pilots is to assume they now know how to fly. Wrong. They go off doing loops and barrel rolls. Meanwhile, since they only "practice" landings once each flight, their landings gradually deteriorate then they mysteriously start crashing.

Lots of landing practice equals fewer crashes.

Other Advice

Get started building another plane right away. Don't wait for your first one to have an accident. You don't need a whole second radio but another engine and set of servo's will help since they take awhile to install and adjust.

Keep lots of spare R/C parts in your home inventory. When you go to the hobby shop, buy spares of things you think you'll need. There's nothing more frustrating than being unable to fly on a Sunday because you didn't have some small part in stock.


I hope you enjoy R/C as much as I do. It's a life-long hobby with rich friendships and fascinating new things to learn.

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