Your First Flight

This section assumes you've never actually flown a plane before, except for what you've done in the simulator. The next section "flying tips" will focus more on the act of flying. In this section, we will mainly concern ourselves with proper procedure. Much of this material is not just exclusive to your first flight, but also every subsequent flight. A good deal of crashes are often due to things other than pilot error. Since there is so much that can go wrong, you really need to pay attention to all of the external factors that can create problems for you.

Choosing a Time and a Place


If you've actually gone through this course, performed your simulator training, and assembled your plane, you are probably very eager to fly. Don't let that eagerness push you into doing something impulsive like flying in windy conditions. Beginners should try to fly in under 10 mph winds, with under 5 mph being optimal. This actually holds true for the first flight with every subsequent plane you buy. When you take your plane up for its maiden voyage it will almost certainly need to be trimmed out. It will be much harder to observe and correct any faulty tendencies when there are high winds. Aside from that, flying in wind can be very difficult to a beginner, and we want to minimize the chance of a crash.

When choosing a place to fly, its important to pick somewhere large and secluded. Our website lists a few public places on Long Island where you are allowed to fly. With a proper permit you are allowed to fly on these fields whenever the parks they reside in are open. If you can't or don't wish to fly in these places, its recommended that you have at least a 600 ft x 400 ft open area with no obstructions on the ground. A bigger space will be required for non-beginner planes as they will often fly much faster. You will also want to avoid flying over any structures or people. Even an expert pilot can lose control due to equipment failure, so keep this in mind when choosing where to fly. Your plane could drift several hundred feet after you lose control, so it makes sense to fly away from homes, structures or major roads.

AMA insurance is a very useful things to have in case you do crash and damage someone or something. Keep in mind though, the AMA will not cover your claim if you fly somewhere that you are not allowed to. While empty school yards and rarely used/empty parks make good locations to for flight, keep in mind that there may be rules or restrictions that prohibit you from flying there. It is your responsibility to make sure no such rules or laws exist as set forth by your flying site or by your local government. Finally, FAA regulations prohibit people from flying within 3 miles of an active airport. In today's world, breaking this rule will probably have you sent to Guantanamo and locked up on terrorism charges.


Belly Landing vs Wheels


Depending on where you choose to fly, you may have to make the choice on whether to use your landing gear or take it off. When you will be landing on a paved runway or any hard surface, leaving the landing gear on is typically preferred. If you are flying on grass or an uneven surface, you may need to land without gear. The act of landing without landing gear is called "belly landing". A lot of people who are initially resistant to belly landing often change their tune after dealing with the problems associated with the landing gear. You see, the landing gear on most foam planes will often be cheaply made. Its not uncommon for the gear to bend, break snap, etc. - even on relatively light landings. Part of the reason is that the miniature landing gear is often not made to be used on grass or even roughly paved surfaces. A parking lot with cracks and an uneven surface is more than enough to strip the landing gear off your plane and potentially cause a damaging crash on landing or takeoff.

When you belly land your plane, its pretty important to protect the underside of your plane. I've found the best thing to use is clear packing tape. Almost all my planes have their bellies coated with one or two layers of the stuff. If you don't put this protective layer on the plane, you will find that the landings will start to eat away at the foam. The packing tape is light, and it can even protect the foam on hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete. Its usually a good idea to cover the wing edges, the tail edges and the nose with some tape. If you have a crash, you will find that the packing tape will offer some protection.


Pre-Flight Checks


Before you go up in the air, it is important to check the plane for any problems. This is true for pretty much every flight you take, even subsequent flights on the same day. After you transport your plane, you should do a cursory check of all your connections and joints. Make sure nothing was broken or damaged in the car ride. Make sure all electronic components are securely fastened and that all wires are firmly plugged into where they should be.

Before you put your battery in, its recommended that you verify its fully charged and that all cells are close to the same voltage. The last thing you want is to launch with a mostly dead or damaged battery. This will surely result in a crash. Once you verified the voltage of the battery and inserted it into the plane, but don't connect it yet. First, you will want to verify that the center of gravity is correct. When building the plane, you should have marked where the CoG was on the body of the plane. Balance the plane on two fingers where you've marked it, and make sure it does not easily tip one way or the other. Once you have verified this, its time to power up the equipment. It helps to make little marks in your battery bay, marking the correct position for your battery. This allows you to skip the CoG check before you fly.

After the CoG check is complete, power on the transmitter. Lower the throttle all the way down, and turn on the throttle cut switch. If you have a programmable Tx, you will want to make sure that it is currently configured for the correct plane. Once you have done all of this, you may now connect the plane's LiPo battery. It should power up and emit a few beeps to let you know the electronics are online. Once this is done, start trying to move the servos on all of the surfaces. Its important to not only check that they are all moving, but also that they are moving in the right direction. Its very easy for a channel to be "reversed", and if you launch with any of the controls reversed you will probably crash it very quickly.


The final check before flight will be the range check. On many transmitters there will be a button on the back that reduces power to the radio (example above). This will allow you to test the radio at much short distances. If there is a physical problem with your radio, with the button pressed you'd get only a few feet before the signal fades. Its good practice to got about 50 feet away and ensure that the radio still moves the servos with the range check button held down. If it works at 50 feet during the range check, it should work fine at 1000 feet.

If you do find any problems in any of these preflight checks, you'll probably want to fix what is needed on the field. Most people bring a kit with them, containing any necessary materials. I carry with me: a volt meter, needle nose plyers, packing tape, electrical tape, a battery meter, epoxy, velcro, binoculars, a hot glue gun and glue sticks. You can buy a 12v AC car adapter that plugs into your cigarette lighter and gives you a standard AC port to plug into. This will let you hot glue repairs on the spot and get right back up in the air.


Taking Off


Before you takeoff, you are going to want to check the direction of the wind. Taking off into the wind will make the launch much easier, so you will want to try and learn the exact direction it is blowing. If there are any wind socks or flags in the area, use them to ascertain the exact wind direction. If there are no such indicators present, then pick up some grass and let it go - it will carry in the direction of the wind. If you still can't tell, and there appears to be little or no wind, then it won't really matter what direction you launch in. If you are hand launching the plane, you will simply need to throw the plane in the direction the wind is coming from. If you have a runway to take off from, you will want to choose the direction that puts you most into the wind. If you make a mistake and take off with the wind, it may be very hard for your plane to get enough lift to take off. Instead, your expensive plane will become a very fast RC car.

For a hand launch, you will want to throw the plane in a very controlled manner. Before you throw the plane, you'll want your throttle to reach about 75%-80% of maximum. If the throttle is too slow, your hand launch might fail. If its too fast, and your hand launch does not go smoothly, you might have excessive speed that would further damage your plane. Its important that you introduce as little twisting or rotation as you can during the release. If you twist your hand or arm too much, your plane might not yet have enough airspeed for you to be able to correct it. The angle of the throw is equally important, as too high of angle will cause the plane to stall. Too low of an angle and you can very easily throw the plane right into the ground. For most planes, a 30 - 45 degree angle is usually best. Keep in mind that you shouldn't have to throw it that hard - the plane should provide most of the power needed. Its far more important that your toss puts the plane in a straight and level flight. If you feel uncomfortable hand launching, having someone there who has done it before will make your life much easier.

If you take off from a runway, things are a little less complicated and risky. If the launch fails, you are already on the ground. The worst thing that will happen on a ground launch is that your plane will veer off and hit something. Just be careful to start your takeoff away from anything you might collide with. Its also important to try and take a hands off approach when you first start your takeoff. Try to restrict yourself to only the steering and/or rudder initially. Trying to pull up hard right out of the bad will slow your plane down considerably. Wait for it to get some speed before you try to get it into the air. Pull up slowly after you gain some speed, and don't exceed a 20 degree angle until you have a bit of velocity.


Finally Flying


Way to go Maverick, you are finally in the air. Its at this point you've started to realize that your ego has been writing checks that your body can't cash. Things get difficult, especially on your first flight. The maiden voyage of your first plane will be one of the most difficult experiences for you. Aside from your complete lack of experience, you have to deal with the exceptionally difficult challenge of trimming the plane on its first flight. Without looking down at the controller (you need to keep watching the plane), you are going to have to correct any biased tendencies of the plane using the trim tabs. The plane might want to roll, pull up, yaw left ... or all of the above. To top it all off, in order to move the trim tabs, you will have to take one hand off the transmitter. If you've never done this before, this can feel a little overwhelming. While you cab try this yourself, its a good idea to have someone there with you to assist with the trimming, just in case you can't do it safely.

After you are all trimmed out, you can resume normal flying. For your first real flight, you will want to keep things simple. Fly in big ovals, and don't get too creative. Remember, this is the first flight for your plane too. You don't want to stress it that much until you've established that it can manage a normal flight. Most people want to fly low and slow for their first flight, but this is a very bad idea. Get some distance between you and the ground, this way if you make a mistake, you have plenty of time to correct it. Flying slow is also a foolish thing to do, as airspeed is what gives you lift and keeps you in the air. There is no need to keep it at full throttle, but try to aim for 65%-80% of max throttle. This will keep you from becoming stalled on most beginner planes. If you've done the simulator training, staying in the air should be relatively easy for you.

Its important that you time yourself during your first flight. Most people use some sort of timer to let them know when they land. You'll want to keep your first flight relatively short. Since you've never done this before, you have no idea how long the battery will last. You'll want to limit yourself to half of the rated flight time of your battery. When you land, measure the battery and check how much voltage you used. A good battery meter will estimate the percentages for you, and this will allow you to figure out how much total flight time is in the battery. Remember to try not to fly the battery to under 30% full, or under 3.7v.


Landing


As the saying goes: "Flying is easy. Its the landing that is hard". Unfortunately, some hobbyists really never master the art of landing. To even have a fighting chance, you are going to need to be smart about it. All aircraft will need slightly different tactics to land. Some planes will float in with almost no throttle, others require half throttle or they stall. Some slow down quicker than others, while some stall more easily. No two planes are alike. Keep this in mind while you are reading this, and understand that this is just a general set of guidelines. Your mileages may vary... with that being said, lets continue.

The first thing you need to consider is the direction of the wind. You will want to land into the wind. This does two things: provide you with extra lift and decreases the speed relative to the ground (it slows you down). If, instead, you were to land WITH the wind, your plane will be travelling very fast and will stall easier. The last thing you want to do is stall on a landing... and if you do stall, you don't want to hit the ground at a very fast speed.

Once you've figured out the direction of the wind, and the direction you will land in, its time to set up for your approach. A big mistake that most people make is that they try to land in too short of a distance. Most of the time, they don't even slow the plane down first. Before you land your plane, you will want to get the plane flying relatively slowly (but comfortably above stall speed). You have to be very careful not to stall your aircraft while slowing it down - especially while setting up the approach and flying down wind. If your plane starts becoming unresponsive to your controls, throttle up immediately. To avoid this, try throttling down very gradually and give the plane a chance to decelerate to its new speed. Also try to keep in mind that your plane needs a little more speed on the turns, and is more likely to stall the sharper the turn is. For this reason, only make very gradual turns when flying at such low speeds.

Once we've gotten the plane down to the correct speed, try to work the plane down to a nice and low height. Your plane may have done some of this on its own while you were slowing down. The key is to get low enough that you will be relatively close to the ground, but without being too close to any trees, lamp posts or any other tall obstructions. Once you are at the right speed and the right height, bring the plane a couple hundred feet out and then turn into the direction of the wind. It goes without saying that you should turn toward the landing strip so that you are lined up with the runway. If you are a little off, you can use the rudder to adjust your course. If you are not lined up properly, and its too far off to fix with the rudder, then go back and try again. The last thing you want to do while on approach is use the ailerons and elevator excessively - it should be a steady and relatively straight approach. The only controls you should be focused on are the rudder and throttle.


Ok so you are lined up and coming in low and slow from a couple hundred feet away. You should be maintaining height and the plane should stay level. What do you do now? Well, when you start getting closer, and you've cleared any obstructions (like trees), you will very gently start throttling down. The key is to not use the elevator to lower the plane for a landing, but to instead use the throttle to adjust height. When you lower your throttle, your plane will start to fall. You want to find a speed where it descends slowly, like 1-2 feet per second, and does so at a constant rate. If the plane starts falling very fast, or accelerates, then you can apply a little bit of up elevator. Be careful not to apply enough up elevator to stop the descent completely. It will be a very light touch, and you just want to slow down your descent. If you find yourself applying a lot of up elevator, then increase the throttle. The whole point is to mostly use the throttle to adjust your altitude, not the elevator. You should only use the elevator to help smooth it out, and you shouldn't exceed 10%-15% elevator at this point.

If your plane begins to level off, lower the throttle more so that you continue a slow and controlled descent. Once your plane gets very close to the ground (around 5-10 feet), you should very lightly start applying more up elevator to smooth out the approach. If you do it right, the plane should start leveling off just above the ground and eventually be moving parallel to it at only a few feet of altitude. Once you get within a couple feet of the ground, you can start lowering the throttle even more (all the way down to zero), and using the up elevator to smooth it into a nice soft landing. Just keep in mind that you will want to stay above your stall speed the entire time youy will be doing this. Too much up elevator dureing descent will make it easier to stall the plane, so you will want to pay careful attention to this.

Its important that your plane starts to set down relatively close to you. Your landing approach should take it ~40 - ~50 feet in front of you, with the plane touching down right as it passes you. Of course, these are approximate values. Landing further away only becomes a problem when the distance starts becoming excessive. If the approach takes the plane 150 feet in front of you, or 150 feet short of you, its going to be very difficult to judge the distance of the plane from the ground. On my very first landing, I actually tried landing my plane in a field about 200 feet away. To me it looked like my plane was just about to touch down when I killed the throttle and let go of the controls on the transmitter. Of course, it only looked like this due to an optical illusion and the slope of the ground. My plane was probably about 6 feet off the ground when I cut the throttle and released the controls. It came down pretty hard, but luckily nothing was broken.

Hopefully if you read through this tutorial, you are more prepared to make your first flight. Remember to practice on the simulator before you try any of this in the real world. Try to keep it safe, and good luck.



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