Introduction to RC Helicopters

Flying Up the Learning Curve

In any new endeavor we start at the bottom of the learning curve, then climb it with a combination of tuition and trial and error. It's been my experience that the more tuition one gets the more errors can be avoided making the climb quicker and less painful financially. In everything I've ever done well I have been mentored by others further along the learning curve and its in that spirit I'm writing these tutorials to help those a bit further down at the moment.

Personal Background

As a kid growing up in the 60s my brother and I build and flew wood and paper "U-Line" gas models which were flow in a circle with two cables controlling up/down elevator. We also built and flew model rockets. I'd see RC model planes at the flying field but they were out of reach financially. What really fascinated me were helicopters and learning to fly one became one the things my "things to do someday" list as a kid -- now on the "bucket list" with check mark and asterisk for model. But there's a helicopter school nearby offering a $60,000 student-to-flight instructor training package which is tempting...

My brother pursued his interest in flying and became a instrument rated pilot and plane owner but my interests drew me in the other direction, underwater. I started SCUBA diving at 17 while in high school and bought an underwater camera to document my adventures. That led to a career in photography apprenticing with a top pro named Monte Zucker, photo reproduction work in the National Geographic photo labs and jobs in printing and printing management in the private sector and government for USIA and the US State Dept. where as a member of the Foreign Service I managed overseas printing operations.

The closest I came to learning to fly a real helicopter was in the 1980s while serving in Manila. The lessons were reasonably priced but I didn't see any practical use for learning to fly one. But it did interest me enough study flight manuals and other texts which explained how they flew and the history of their development. So when I stumbled across the Blade models in 2010 while visiting a relative on vacation I understood in theory how helicopters fly, including the often counter-intuitive physics and aerodynamics, but had never flown one.

Why Pick Blade Models?

I'd seen toy helicopters in shopping malls and had been tempted to buy on more than one occasion so I wasn't really impressed on first sight when seeing a Blade coaxial buzz around the room. What piqued my interest more was the DX6i transmitter he was using to fly it and his explanation of the "bind-n-fly" technology that allowed flying that "toy" and the larger T-Rex 450 clone he was in the process of building.

The genius in the Blade design and Horizon Hobbies marketing is the 45 self-correcting flybar design and being fully assembled and test flown, ready to fly out of the box, including transmitter, or linked to separately purchased Spektrum transmitter. That simplicity, plus the low cost compared to other options and a reputation for mechanical simplicity, ability to take a licking and keep on ticking, and excellent support from Horizon Hobbies in replacing defective parts is what convinced me to enter the hobby with the purchase of a Blade MCX2 and mSR and DX6i transmitter. I bought a Blade 120SR a month later.

Before buying the 120SR I researched building a T-Rex 450 or T-Rex clone as an over-the-winter project. Price wasn't the main concern. I opted for the 120SR because it was a more practical choice. I don't need to go to a flying field, just walk to the front of the house and fly it up and down the street. I'm also not really attracted to inverted flight so a more sophisticated and scale FP model in the size range of the 120SR would be ideal for me.

What I'd love to see in the Blade line would be the existing self-correcting 120SR as an entry point to outdoor flying and a 3-axis gyro version without the quirks of the self-correcting flybar as the next logical step-up the learning curve. I'm not really attracted to inverted flight or manic stunt flying so a more sophisticated and scale FP model in the size range of the 120SR would be ideal for my needs.

What does the learning curve look like?

The first part of the learning curve for a rank beginner is a combination of learning to fly while at the same time trying to learn the mechanical aspects of trimming for hover. You need to get the heli off the ground and into a hands-off-controls hover (done mostly with just the throttle), see how it drifts, then make the necessary trim corrections on the transmitter and servo links.

Step two of the learning curve begins when you try to fly forward in a straight and level path. Helicopters don't do that like airplanes because the "wing" rotates with more "transitional" lift on the leading side than trailing and other factors like gyroscopic precession. The helicopter drifts off line and you need to learn to anticipate and correct for it. FWIW - It helps somewhat if you understand the basics of helicopter aerodynamics which are different and more complicated and counter-intuitive than those of an airplane, which is why real pilots go to ground school.

Where do the Blade models fit on the learning curve?

The coaxial MCX2 is a no-brainer to hover and fly. The dual coaxial design allows it to fly straight and level better than a single rotor design. Because you don't need to make constantly make corrections to fly it straight it will allow you to quickly master the controls and stick / heli orientation and maneuvers like slow speed rudder turns and even try faster coordinated aileron turns with less crashing than if you start with an mSR. Think of an MCX2 as an investment in training wheels and a "loaner car". You'll learn the basics on it faster with fewer crashes and outgrow it quickly, but it will be nice to have around for visitors to play with and for practicing new maneuvers. The lights on the MCX2 also make it fun to fly in the dark..

The fixed pitch mSR isn't as easy to take off, hover and fly as the MCX2 because its more responsive and less stable in both hover and forward flight. The two mistakes beginners make are overcorrecting with the sticks flying in too small space full of things to crash into. If starting with the mSR you will crash it a lot more than a MSX2 before coming to an understanding how to trim and fly it.

The mSR is surprisingly crash resistant, but crashes which don't cause any broken parts can knock it out of trim in ways a beginner usually won't fully understand. Trying to fly an out of trim model which leads to more crashes. It's a vicious cycle in which an mSR can become so banged-up and out of trim it can't fly well before basic flying skills are mastered. So if you opt to buy a mSR as your first heli, stock up on spare parts: landing skid, blade grips, tail rotors, main rotors. Speaking from personal experience, when I finally got my mSR well trimmed the flying experience went from fighting it and constantly trying to avoid hitting things to one of it going where I wanted it to go.

The 120SR is very similar to the mSR in how it flies but because its larger and faster it requires much more room than most homes have. Where the mSR will bounce off things like walls and lamp shades with no damage to either a blade strike of the 120SR will break the rotor blade or leave your lamp shades full of nicks.

As they said on Star Trek, space is the final frontier...

How Much Space Is Needed?

In the beginning a lot of space is needed just to get up into a hover and keep it off the walls and ceiling. After learning how the helicopters fly in general and how your models react to control inputs less space will be needed for taking off, hovering and puttering around the room. But executing maneuvers like steeped banked aileron turns require starting with enough forward momentum to whip the helicopter around under the banked, momentarily stalled rotor like running and grabbing a pole and spinning around.

Moving the cyclic sideways when the heli is moving slowly it just rolls and slips sideways. So if flying slowly and cautiously around indoors with either an mSR or 120SR you will find yourself mostly keeping the rotor level in forward flight then doing flat rudder turns and 180 tail flips at the end of the room because a banked aileron turn requires more forward momentum than you can confidently generate in that small space at your current skill level.

The space you have available will dictate the best choice for starting model. A coaxial like the mCX2 is stable and slow and easy to fly without crashing in tight quarters. Although its performance is lame it is nevertheless useful for practicing orientation, take offs, landings and other things which involve hand-eye coordination and developing instinctive reactions.

It is possible to skip the coaxial model and start with an mSR or 120SR if you have enough space when starting to avoid constantly crashing, bending/breaking parts and repairing.

The choice where and how often you can fly it and practice will, more than anything, determine how fast you climb the learning curve. You won't learn as fast if you are constantly hitting stuff and repairing your model. The difference between the mSR and 120SR is that the larger one handles better outdoors when conditions are other than dead calm. If you have access to a large indoor space like a gym or tennis dome in you can fly either one indoors. But if your indoor flying is limited to a circuit between the family room and kitchen I suggest an mSR for indoor practice and an 120SR for more aggressive outdoor flying. Even after becoming a proficient pilot with outdoor flying (i.e. you stop crashing into things) you'll find the 120SR is just too big to have much fun with indoors.

It's also possible to fly the mSR outdoors, but I tried it a few times and wound up in a constant fight with the slightest breeze. That's why I bought the 120SR. Flying the 120SR outdoors allowed me the space to learn and master the more challenging maneuvers, like fast low altitude aileron turns. That experience then helped me to fly the mSR indoors more aggressively without losing control of it.

What would I do differently?

Not much...

Nowadays my mCX2 sits on the mantle waiting for guests to take it for a spin. Do I regret spending $90 for it? Yes, until a guest comes over and I see how much fun they and their kids have flying it.

The mSR is my daily indoor flyer. In retrospect I wish I should have purchased two and kept one hermetically sealed until I learned to fly without crashing. It only takes a few crashed to bend up a mSR and throw it out of trim. I keep an inventory of spares on hand and when in doubt about the cause if TBE I'll pop on a new flybar and tail rotor as a baseline comparison to see if the problem goes away. In retrospect I should have stocked up on spares sooner and in greater amounts for thing like flybars that affect flight so much when bent.

The 120SR gets flown outdoors, weather permitting. I like flying it the most of the three models in large part because I can fly it outdoors, faster and maneuver it better. I wish I lived where I could fly outdoors year-round and Blade made a 3-axis gyro fly-barless version.

What should YOU do?

I can't presume to know your goals, budget or long term ambitions in the hobby so you are on your own for that one. I can only suggest you try the things I suggest, everything everyone else suggests, try to understand the cause and effect and use what parts work for you and your goals.

RC Helicopters
Flying Up The Learning Curve

This tutorial is copyrighted by © Charles E. Gardner.
It may be reproduced for personal use, and referenced by link, but please to not copy and post it to your site.

You can contact me at: Chuck Gardner

For other tutorials see the Tutorial Table of Contents