For years the initial costs of getting into flying RC aircraft was $500.00 or more usually much more. It still can be very expensive without a little bit of guidance. Examples of this range from buying the wrong things, to learning to fly through attricion of aircraft, the prices can add up. In this article I hope to give a little guidance as how to do get flying for $200.00 or less.
Some of the high costs that have plauged people who previously attempted to get into the hobby have been buying ready to fly kits that look great, but are doomed to a premature death in the hands of a novice pilot.
An example of this is the classic all inclusive warbird kits. A long standing complaint of mine is that no Mustang should be sold with a radio transmitter. It only encourages people without the proper skills to buy them. My thoughts on this are that by the time you've acquired enough skills to fly a plane like a Mustang, you've already invested in a more expensive radio you'll use for all of your planes.
Sure that plane looked easy to fly in that youtube video, but the beauty of the Mustang is that it's fast, agile and manuverable. Probably the three worst things a plane should be for a person just starting out. There is very little recovery time when flying a plane, and one mistake for the beginner pilot often results in the need for a trash bag in which to bring your plane home.
Another direction people getting into the hobby take is purchasing top shelf items when good, budget items would better serve the needs of someone just trying the hobby for the first time.
Here's a fact you need to know. You're going to crash. You're going to run your battery too low, you'll end up in a tree and it will get rained on before you get it back, or you'll land that airplane in a lake killing all of the elctronics. You might be like me and do all of the above, possibly in the same flight.
As a new pilot, you're going to be hard on your equpment. So spending top dollar on stuff with the idea that it's better to pay more now for items that will last, is great in theory. The fact is, as a new pilot it's best to think of these first items as disposable.
The key here is to buy good, functional equipement, with maybe not quite as long of a operational life, but long enough to get you through your learning curve. Once you can fly a plane until you're bored with it, instead of until your repairs make it too heavy to get into the air anymore, then you can start investing in components and airframes that cost more than a dinner or two out with the wife.
Another expensive route is the purchase of used equipment. I've made this mistake more than once. In my rush to get a plane that was ready to fly, without the need to install the servos, motors, speed controls and all the other tedious things it takes to get a new plane ready for flight, I bought used. Buying an already flown airframe seemed cheaper than buying something new, but this often turned out to not be the case. Sometimes it worked well enough. More often I was buying someone else's broken dreams. Either I was buying radio gear that was obsolete, but I didn't know it because I was new. Or I bought a mostly assembled plane that was just missing a critical part here or there, but I didn't know it because I didn't build it myself. Once or twice I may or may not have bought something that had been crashed, and the damage wasn't apparent, or I refused to see it, or maybe I didn't bother repairing it. Used items can be a great way to get a new to you plane, but wait until you have learned what is good or not, before going this route.
So what SHOULD you buy? The best plane to learn on is exactly opposite of the one at the hobby shop that caught your eye. It will usually be slow, ugly, and somewhat cumbersome in the air. This might sound bad, but you want a plane that doesn't respond too quickly to unintentional control inputs and just putts through the air, giving you time to make corrections, and learn what each control input actually does.
Have you ever driven a car with a manual transmission, then drive an automatic? Did you notice yourself reaching for the shifter, or your foot moving to push down the clutch? That's muscle memory. Your body is trying to make a mechancical correction, without your conscious effort. Practice with RC flying will do the same thing.
You'll see the plane dipping a wing, and you'll automatically move the controls to fix it. Until you've had enough practice, you'll have to concentrate on whether the plane is coming to you, or away from you, is it the left wing, or the right wing, is that this stick down and to the left, or the other stick up and to the right? By the time you've figured that out, the Mustang has crashed. The slow ugly plane trudges patiently through the air waiting for you to decide.
Ok, fine, what plane to buy... If you're still with me after all of that, you really want to get into the hobby, and maybe you'll take some advice. There's two routes that I would recommend.
First, buy something ready to fly. I know, I know, I was critical of this earlier. There's lots of sexy planes packaged up as ready to fly, but really should be sold as ready to crash. Then there's ugly planes, that look like they should be good trainer planes, but because of the low price point, they're poorly designed, and are filled with the cheapest components possible to keep it within the price range someone who isn't sure if they want to get into the hobby, would be willing to pay. Fortunately there's a few out there that are at a good price, and you can actually fly without destroying, while trying to learn.
This is a small, very light plane. It's so light that crashing it into things usually will result in no damage at all. It's available through most local hobby shops, and it's everywhere online. One drawback is that it's so light, that any breeze at all will make it buck and bounce through the air. The best time to fly this is early morning, or evening, when the winds have calmed down. Fortunately it comes with lights built in, to make this even more fun. Also, it flies so slow, that it could be flown in a moderately sized room. The packaging it comes in, can double as a permenant storage box to help protect it against damage between flights.
With radio, batteries and a charger, it's listed at $129.00
Another great plane for beginners is the Hobbyzone Champ. It's also a small light plane, but it actually looks like a real plane. It has just a fraction more weight, so it can handle a light breeze, but I wouldn't suggest more than that. This is not something to fly in the livingroom, but a school gym would handle it nicely.
At $89.00 for this, ready to fly, you can't go wrong.
Hobbyzone really went out of it's way to be the go to company for ready to fly packages that are beginner friendly.
Another plane, while I'm not a big supporter of it as a trainer, is the one many an RC pilot got into the air with, and that's the Hobbyzone Supercub.
The original is no longer in production, but they've updated it with a new battery system (and a different color scheme) but it's still the same airframe.
The other direction is to do something called scratch building. This is where you go out, buy all the components yourself, and assemble them, hopefully into something that looks mostly like an airplane, and with a little luck, will actually achieve and maintain flight.
This can be both a very rewarding, and very frustrating direction to take. The disadvantages are that not everyone wants, or can follow directions, cut glue and assemble pits of foam and electronics into a working aircraft, even with directions, videos and precut foam kits. The advantages include the knowledge of how the plane works from the most basic components on up. The confidence to know that if, er when, you crash the plane, you'll be able to either rebuild the one you have, or build an entirely new one.
There's several types of foam available to the do it yourselfer rc modeler. (You could be a purist and decide to go the balsa and plastic covering route. I salute you, but you're on your own here, that way be dragons, and they scare me.) One type, the one I'm most familiar with, is something called fan fold foam. This is often available through your local hardware store, almost always in stock at Lowes. There's different colors, mostly blue, pink, and even green. Blue is my favorite, so that's the type I'll show you here...
You can build just about anything out of this stuff. A friend of mine made a giant 747. No, really he did...
At 1:06 you can see the interior, and the printing that is on the blue foam is clearly visible.
Another foam that can be used is foam core board which can be found in craft stores, walmart, and various other places. The best, and cheapest place to buy it is at your local Everything for a Dollar type stores.
This is the foam that the Flite Test scratch builds are designed to use. It's the foam they use for thier laser cut kits as well.
As it works out, you're paying anywhere from one to two dollars a sheet. There's thousands of free plans available out there. Including the ones designed and provided by Flite Test.
(Look for the link to the Flite Test Scratch Build Plans on the Homepage)
Now comes the fun part of trying to put all the components together for your plane. This can be difficult. Even if you have a plan that specifies a series of suggested motors, speed controls, etc, the ones that were suggested might be out of stock, or even out of production. There's a learning curve for figuring out on your own which electronics will best suit your airframe's needs. If you find yourself stuck for how to complete your components needs, check the forums, find someone else that's built the plane, and they should be able to help.
Here's a couple of combos that would get you in the air with most of the kits. (The $32.00 kit has a motor with about 15 oz of thrust. The recommended motor for "3D" flying suggests planes 12 oz or under. So 15 oz should give more than 1 to 1 thrust.)
That gets you motor, speed control and servos for under $35.00 Now you need a battery, charger, transmitter and receiver.
Sticking with HobbyPartz...
I have a charger just like this, and it works great.
So that just about doubles the price, at $30.00
I've used the heck out of GenAce batteries and they do pretty well. Get at least two, which at $15.00 each, that's another $30.00
So that gets us up to $95.00 You still need a radio, which is where most of the money usually is. My current radio (one of many.) was around $500.00 But it gives me foot massages and makes a nice cup of coffee, so it was well worth it to me.
This one is something I would recommend to anyone starting out. It's inexpensive, Dave Hurbert gave it his stamp of approval, and it's DSM2 compatible (Spektrum). This means if you want to upgrade to a Spektrum radio, the receivers you've already bought should work with it. If you plan to go Futaba or some other brand... well you won't have too much invested in receivers maybe.
At $67.00 it's MUCH cheaper than any comparable radio. It's got six channels, model memory so you can use it with more than one plane, and it's cheap.
Receivers can vary in price...
9.99 for this one.
The nice thing is in this combo, while you'll need to buy a separate motor and ESC for each plane, you're still using the same charger, batteries, and transmitter for each one, so much of this is a one time expense.
I didn't add in shipping... It depends on how you did it. Did you order a piece here and there, with $3.99 shipping each time? Was it a one time order at $10.00 - $15.00 worth of shipping fees? Go crazy, add another $30.00 for shipping, you're still at only $200.00 or so.
Thus getting you into the hobby at a budget price. From as low as less than $90.00 (ok, more with either shipping, or tax.) to just under $200.00 To continue with your savings, find someone local to help you get past the worst of the learning curve of flying. Check the forums for someone in your area, or find a club that's friendly to beginners. This is something you'll be able to enjoy alone, with family (most of the people I help want to learn to fly to teach their grand kids.) or make friends and fly at events big or small. Now go ut and fly something. Then come back and tell us about it at the Flite Test forums. http://forum.flitetest.com/forum.php
As tallflyer pointed out in the comments area (and he would know, he's been scratch building with foam longer than anyone I know of.) there's some additional costs that will be involved for the new scratch builder. You're going to need some tools and supplies in addition to the foam. His list was as follows...
Tools that are required
Hot glue Gun and Stick (medium temp) or low
Xacto blade #11
a good medal ruler or straight edge
heat shrink tubing
paint for your plane (or sharpie markers)
a good pair of wire cutters
a few small flat tip screw drivers
a few philips screw drivers
a hex wrench set
(might need some 5 minute epoxy)
cutting mat to protect your table is a great Idea.
Some of these items you might already have. Others can be substituted. I almost never use an Xacto knife. I have found my razor knife to do the trick. Because I tend to be a cheap person, I do a lot of my own fix it stuff, so many of the other tools were items I already had on hand. Such as rulers, soldering irons, wire cutters, screwdrivers, and hex wrench sets. All of these "hidden costs" are so devious, they could get their own aritcle...
Thank you Robert for the heads up.