Getting Into Flying RC Aircraft On A Budget

by FlyingMonkey | May 10, 2013 | (43) Posted in Tips

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.

 

Parkzone Vapor

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  

http://www.horizonhobby.com/products/night-vapor-rtf-PKZU1100

Hobbyzone Champ

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.

http://www.horizonhobby.com/products/champ-rtf-HBZ4900

 

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.

http://www.horizonhobby.com/products/super-cub-rtf-electric-HBZ7100

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.

http://www.horizonhobby.com/products/super-cub-dsm-rtf-HBZ7400

 

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.)

http://www.hobbypartz.com/60p-dy-1006.html

http://www.hobbypartz.com/60p-dy-1026.html

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.

http://www.hobbypartz.com/60p-dyc-1004.html 

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.


http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__39701__OrangeRx_T_SIX_2_4GHz_DSM2_6CH_Programmable_Transmitter_w_10_Model_Memory_Mode_2_USA_warehouse_.html

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.



http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__11972__OrangeRx_R410_Spektrum_DSM2_Compatible_4Ch_2_4Ghz_Receiver.html

or $5.89 for this one.


http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__28554__OrangeRx_R615_Spektrum_JR_DSM2_Compatible_6Ch_2_4Ghz_Receiver.html


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


***EDIT***


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
Soldering iron
and Solder
Hot glue Gun and Stick (medium temp) or low
Xacto blade #11 
a good medal ruler or straight edge
paint
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)
CA Glue
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.

COMMENTS

Aussie1 on May 11, 2013
Awesome article FM. The very first RC plane I bought was a RTF Hobbyzone Champ, it was a ball to learn on.
Since then I have bought the flitetest scratch builds( nutball, FT flyer, delta) which are great to fly and reasonably durable. I also just bought and have finished building the baby blender and built a Dr1 Fokker out of defron foam. I am loving the scratch build side now and I only started flying a year ago. Living in Australia the only downer is the cost of foam( a A1 sheet of foam core or depron cost $6 plus postage).

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FlyingMonkey on May 12, 2013
Thank you. I am often trying to draw new people into the hobby. Last week an acquaintance and I were talking, and we discussed this as being a great way to spend time with his grandson. The problem is I found myself repeatedly trying to write all of these details in emails to the different people I spoke with. I wanted one place where i could just send them a link to, and get them started.
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NoUsername on May 10, 2013
Wish I would have said that!
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sailorJohn on May 11, 2013
Best article I' have seen in a long time. When I was able to hang around the LHS and mom would come into buy the first serious rc plane for JR or SIS and ask me for advice I usually suggested the Super Champ then to bring him or her to the CLUB FIELD for help to learn how to fly, giving them the best and cheapest path to success.
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lunchbox24d on May 12, 2013
HAHA! My experiences were much like the author.
http://www.harborfreight.com/radio-controlled-p51-mustang-airplane-97393.html. = Less than 1 min flight time.
http://www.graysonhobby.com/catalog/dynammeteor70mmedfsportjetpnp-p-1131.html. = About five mins flight time.
http://www.graysonhobby.com/catalog/dynamtwinenginec47greenpnp-p-1202.html. = Actually landed once, second flight not so much.
http://www.graysonhobby.com/catalog/dyanmrcat6texanwithretractspnp-p-1555.html. = Maybe three flights.
Then I got this: http://www.graysonhobby.com/catalog/phoenixrcprosimulatorv40-p-1270.html.
Now I replace battery's more often than planes!
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NicolasOtala on May 13, 2013
When I started RC airplanes, I expected to spend ~200 dollars but I walked out of the store having spent ~500 dollars because of the persuasive store owner! My maiden flight, of the GWS Slow Stick, was a complete failure and the brushless motor that was suggested to me had loads of immense power that I abused because of my ignorance! A couple weeks later after replacing the 4mm steel shaft on my motor and breaking way too many props to count I finally caught on. Right now, 3-4 years have passed by and almost every component that the store owner suggested to me, is still running strong and brilliantly! I now have the confidence to pretty much fly any airplane or helicopter that is within my budget! :)

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Brian fred carr on May 10, 2013
Great advice
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awesomebilities on April 7, 2015
I wish I would have seen and read this a month ago. I'm so far in and over my head. Additive is right, I can't stop.
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FlyingMonkey on April 8, 2015
Thanks guys! At least it's money well spent.
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Kurt0326 on June 27, 2015
Lol, we all had to do that research ourselves. But, sometimes it gains in knowledge well spent. I figure as long as we're learning we're going forward. As my signature says, crash and learn.
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tallflyer on May 13, 2013
I almost forgot a good LIPO Charger is a Must.
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brad on May 12, 2013
Great artical, I totally agree .. Thanks for taking the trouble to write this. I love the scratch builds from flite test. Happy Flying... I'm a novice..
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tallflyer on May 13, 2013
I know as a person who designs and builds EPP planes also that there are many little things that I have in my Tool box that I just have to have to build stuff. I use all dubro hardware for my control rods and horns and ez-connectors and quick connectors, yes this is stuff that can be taken of one plane and put on another, 2mm carbon rods for building push rods and 3mm for wing spars. I use foam-Tac glue for most of my builds, GOTTA have that. ZIP ties. a dremel for drilling holes and stuff is a good tool, Great article guys anything you can do to help a new pilot keep it up. this again is how we grow or hobby.
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Zatoichi on May 17, 2013
Very well done Flying Monkey! Bravo!
I laughed! I cried! I bought more props and CA!=)

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AlexPewPew on May 11, 2013
I just got into the hobby and after destroying a bixler I went with the scratch build route. All my early problems came down to having a bad prop/motor combination which lead to very poor thrust and eventually a smoked ESC. The good news is I have totaled 2 airframes and 3 power pods for the combined cost of 3 dollars at my local dollar store. The cost of materials has helped me get over crashing. I went from the nutball to a funbat because I wanted to play with ailerons but didn't yet have channel mixing. I learned that the nutball doesn't not like wind, which if your new, avoid wind if possible.

The other thing that helped me get over crashing was ordering 40 propellers from HobbyKing. The local shop was costing me 2-3 bucks a prop which I would destroy at the end of each (very short) flight. Mine ended up costing around 25 cents a piece so the stress of blowing another couple bucks in props and not being able to fly until they restocked went away. I would recommend once you find a prop that works with your set up, order a bunch. Eventually you'll stop burning through them. (I only broke 1 over 5 flights yesterday!)

However there is more to scratch building than molding foam. Basic soldering skills and the equipment (flux, solder, soldering iron, heat shrink tubing) are needed and will add about another 20 bucks.

I found using a flight sim helpful with learning how to mash the sticks, I used RcDesk pilot which is free and has a lot of different models that can be added.


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3DMad5 on May 12, 2013
I fell into the trap of buying a non-trainer as my first plane (a Parkzone UM T-28) and smashed it to bits. I then bought a Hobbyzone Champ and learned to fly successfully.
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cubmaster on May 17, 2013
Excellent info. Flitetest saved me. When I didn't know what to do next I found your on the web! Love everything I am learning! Built seven planes so far and love them all! Thank you for what you do!
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tramsgar on May 13, 2013
I would push for the Stratos (reviewed here!), as all the added little costs and things to fix and do will for sure scare off any sane person that hasn't yet felt the thrill of a successful flight. Analog to your previous article, you need to get them hooked first, for almost free, then you can make them spend money.

Scratchbuilding is a nice social activity for beginners, and results in a very suitable plane, but they're actually a bit too expensive and hard to build unless you invest a lot of your own time and ambition. A better route IMHO is to let your beginner fly your scratchbuilds after assuring them that they're crashproof and almost free to fix.
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Benn Gunn on May 11, 2013
I have always built my own scratch aircraft... I love learning about aerodynamics, what works best and what not... and yes this hobby is a real drug... in which the highest high comes from the smallest step forward ... great article.
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liemavick on May 10, 2013
Very nice read FM, well done. I believe there should be a paragraph noting the addictive nature of the sport as well. A "How to" on breaking into kids piggy banks to supplemet the addiction would be a nice addition as well :)
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jrbemis on May 10, 2013
Very nicely said! Your mileage may vary.
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tallflyer on May 12, 2013
Great Article But!
A few things you are not talking about.
Tools that are required
Soldering iron
and Solder
Hot glue Gun and Stick (medium temp) or low
Xacto blade #11
a good medal ruler or straight edge
paint
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)
CA Glue
cutting mat to protect your table is a great Idea.

If I missed anything please add it to the list.
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NicolasOtala on May 13, 2013
In a nutshell, the three supplies that an RC airplane enthusiast cannot live without are a high quality soldering iron, mass quantities of CA and epoxy, and an infinite supply of props!
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FlyingMonkey on May 12, 2013
Shhhhhh... the extra costs will scare them off. ;)

Excellent point Robert, I'll edit it into the article.
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cubmaster on May 17, 2013
I started with the super cub LP and loved it. Thought myself to fly but the cub now looks like cottage cheese! Love these dollar tree foamys! Took the fear out of crashing! I might have quit if it wasn't for you guys. Got my son-in-law into your scratch-builds and getting the grand kids going now! You have no idea how important your work is... I'll be supporting you with orders soon! Thanks again!
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Aliflyer on June 18, 2013
You could also use the FS-T6 from hobby partz i think i got mine at $45
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JasonEricAnderson on May 31, 2013
Great info! Thanks for pulling this together and detailing the whole thing so well.
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jack111 on July 11, 2013
awesome

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Captain Crash on July 1, 2013
hey i need a few things im making my own sub plane can i request for a few donations ill list them below
1. cheap controller
2. compatible receiver
3. battery
thank you . if you cannot make this donation its ok

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Alice Taylor on August 27, 2016
I was always more of a quadcopter girl, and have a few in my fleet :) I have always admired RC Planes pilots because I believe that it is much complicated to take off and land a plane than a quad :) But after reading your article, which is great by the way, I might even try and start a new hobby :) Also, I found another article that encouraged me to change my opinion about giving this hobby a chance, you can check it out here http://mydronelab.com/best-pick/cheap-rc-planes.html
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Getting Into Flying RC Aircraft On A Budget