The RCMA flight training staff have been receiving a
lot of questions about what equipment is best for a
beginner. They asked me to write an article for the
FlightLine listing the best aircraft, radio, and engine
for the beginner.
Before I start listing the recommendations, it's
important to note here that the listed items are not
the only choices for the first time flyer, and that
RCMA does not require a new flying student to
have any particular hardware to receive flight
The items listed in this article have been
utilized by many new students with great success,
and the instructors have a lot of experience with the
setup and maintenance of these choices. As I list the
items, I will try to point out their important features
so that if you decide to select an alternate vendor,
that you can pick an alternative with most of the
same good properties.
The selection of model depends on
your experience and in how much time you want to
put into the assembly. The following are rough
categories into which most models will fall:
- Ready to fly (RTF) -- These models are fully
assembled and may even have the radio gear and
engine installed. Watch out for what they may
not include, such as "ready to fly except for engine
and radio", which is not quite ready to fly.
- Almost ready to fly (ARF) -- ARFs are very
common, and are a quick way to get started, or a
quick way to recover from a catastrophic crash mid-season.
The kits usually contain already assembled
and covered fuselage, tail, and wing sections.
Most also contain nearly all the needed hardware,
so that all you need to buy are a radio, engine, and
the glue to put it all together. There are a number of
good trainer version ARFs available at a reasonable
cost. Although all the parts are included, there is
still some assembly required such as putting the
wing halves together, attaching the tail surface, and
installing the control surfaces. But many of the
ARFs have very good instructions.
- Ready to Cover (RTC) -- RTCs are often just ARFs
without the covering added. They are a good choice
if you want the quick assembly of the ARF, but
want to add your own style of covering and decoration.
Usually you don't save much money
because the covering materials you need to add
often cost more than the cost differential between
ARF and RTC. One advantage in a RTC is that no
one at the field will have a plane that looks quite
like yours, and if you get a hole poked in your wing
covering you can get matching material to patch it.
- Kits -- There is a wide range in what can be called a
kit. Kits can range from not much more than a box
of balsa and a single sheet drawing, to a carefully
engineered assembly package with a detailed
instruction book with many illustrations and
photos, precut parts, and all the hardware you need
including fuel tank, servo linkages, and landing
gear and wheels. The best of the kits are a great
way for a first-time modeler to start. Even the
best of the ARFs just don't seem to fly as well
as a carefully constructed and well-designed kit
(although they are getting close).
- Scratch Built from Plans -- You can order plans
from magazines and other sources, and then build a
model from scratch. This should not be considered
for the first-time modeler (unless they get a lot of
help from an experienced modeler). Often the
plans are too vague to be clearly understood by a
novice, and it may be difficult to select proper
materials. And unless you get a really good deal
on balsa you can easily pay more for the
materials than the cost of a kit.
- Scratch Build from Your Own Design -- Obviously only the most
experienced modelers can
successfully design their own aircraft. With a conservative design, and
some pilfering of tricks from other model designs, an experienced
modeler can often be successful, but a novice doesn't have much of a
There are several
good ARFs currently on the market. Several of
the trainer ARFs have been built by RCMA members.
If you think you want to start off with an ARF,
ask around the club and you'll probably find someone
with some experience with it. As far as I've seen,
most of the popular ARFs are
at least adequate, and none are so distinctively better
that I want to recommend one above the others. I think
the club needs a little more experience with the
various ARFs to select the best one for training.
In the case of kits, the situation is different. Many
members have built the Sig Kadet LT-40 with good
results. The LT-40 is an easy to fly trainer with
predictable performance, but it is still agile enough
for training introductory acrobatics like loops rolls
and stalls. Overall the performance of the LT-40
makes it a good choice for the first time pilot.
However, where the kit really stands out, is in its
documentation and ease of assembly. The kit comes
with a fully illustrated assembly manual with many tips
that ease the assembly process. The construction is
simple and rugged making it go together quickly. The
kit also includes nearly everything you need to get
started, like fuel tank, landing gear, and control rods.
All you will need to complete the plane is radio gear
and an engine.
Several builders that started with the LT-40, have told
me they were glad that it was their first plane, and
that they used the instructions and examples in the LT-40
kit to help them understand the instructions and
drawings in the later models they built. Building the
LT-40 is about as close as you get to taking a course in
building model airplanes.
The combination of ease of assembly, excellent
instructions, and great flying characteristics make the
LT-40 the recommended plane for any first-time
The LT-40 calls for a 40 to 45 sized engine. On
the RCMA grass field, you want plenty of power to
get out of the tall grass. So a 45 or 46 sized engine is
what you need. Once you are airborne, you can always
throttle back for slower flight, but when you're
trying to take-off and you pull up too hard, you'll
be glad for all the power you can get to keep you
You will want an engine that is easy to start, easy to tune, and
that provides reliable power, and is rugged. Several
of the higher end engines will meet these requirements,
but watch out for the low-end 40's.
Some of the low-priced motors can really give you
trouble, and make flight training a real pain.
The engine that the RCMA recommends is the Super
Tiger 45. We have a lot of good experience this
engine, and its combination of rugged design, good
performance, reliability, and ease of tuning, make it a
good bet for any first time modeler. This engine had
been slightly more expensive than many of the other
engines, but recently prices have fallen, making this
engine a real value.
there are so many members with these engines
(the club trainers even use these engines), the
flight training crew knows how to set these up. So
after you get your Super Tiger 45 installed,
bring it out to the field and they can set it up for best
performance and proper break-in.
Trainers like the LT-40 only need four channels
to control the throttle, elevator, rudder, and ailerons.
But you may soon find that a low-cost four channel
radio is not adequate for your flight training. There
are several features that are very helpful in flight
training that just aren't available in the four
channel systems. To get the features you need, you
will probably need to buy a six or seven channel
Some features you will want are:
- Servo Reversing -- The transmitter has a switch
or is programmable to select which way the
servo moves when the stick is moved in a given
direction. In the old days you had to remount
your servos or rewire them if the direction of
throw was wrong.
- Dual Rates -- The travel of the servo can be
reduced by throwing a switch while you are
flying. This lets you (or the instructor) take-off
or land with high servo authority, but still fly
around with small servos throws to prevent over
controlling. This is a big help in training a new
- Trainer Cord Capability -- This means that the
transmitter has a connector (usually on the lower part of the
transmitter) that lets it be connected to another transmitter using a
trainer cable. Transmitters can only be connected to transmitters made
by the same manufacturers. With the training cord connecting two
transmitters, the instructor holds the master transmitter which sends
signals to the airplane. As long as the instructor presses the training
button (on the master transmitter) the student has control of the
airplane (using the slave transmitter). If the student gets into
trouble, or is done flying, the instructor releases the button and
regains control of the airplane.
Because the transmitters must be from the same
manufacturer to use the trainer cord, it is handy to have
the same type of transmitter as your instructor.
However, most flight training can be done without the
trainer cord by simply handing the transmitter back and
forth between the instructor and student. Because of
the complexity of setting up the trim and throw of the
second transmitter, training cords are often not used
even when the transmitters are compatible. So this
should not be the main criteria used in the radio
The computer radios generally have a few more
features and cost a little more. Some of these
computer radios have exponential rates. This is a
nice feature which provides low sensitivity to small
stick movements, but larger sensitivity to large
motions. This can really come in handy for latter
aerobatics training. It provides the high throws
required for aerobatics, but keeps the mid-stick
sensitivity down to reduce over controlling in normal
The following radios are good baseline
recommendations for your first system. All have the servo reversing and
dual rate features which are most desirable for flight training. They also
retain their usefulness as your skills increase:
Hitec Flash 5 "System
Often the choice of a manufacturer is driven by more
subjective criteria such as the feel of the sticks and the
shape of the transmitter. Any of the five or six channel
transmitters listed above should be a good starter
transmitter. There are higher priced radios with more
features, all the knobs and switches on some of these
can be confusing to a new pilot, so care should be
taken if these are selected. On most of the high-end
systems, all the unused switches and buttons can be
disabled for the beginning pilot.
With whichever radio you select, the above set of
equipment should be an excellent start for the first-time modeler.
James H. Doty, FlightLine Editor