Beginner's Guide to RC Helicopters
Some popular suggestions for those getting started in RC Helis
When I was about to make my first real helicopter purchase, I did quite a bit of reading in the internet forums to get a feel for the various aspects of the hobby: what model to buy, how to get started, etc. I realized that there were some common themes amongst what was being suggested. As a beginner, I have been trying to keep many of these suggestions in mind...
Realize that this sport takes up considerable time, effort and money. A vast majority apparently give up before getting past the hover stage. Each crash may require time spent diagnosing and repairing damaged parts yourself, so if you're not very mechanically inclined, this could become an issue.
Set realistic expectations for this hobby. Many people have suggested that it can take a month or two to get comfortable with the basic tail-in hovering. Orientation (side-in and nose-in hovering) is much more difficult than most people anticipate. Having some prior experience in RC cars or planes would presumably help in this regard.
Buy a Simulator
Buy a simulator (cost ~$0 - $200). The amount of money that a simulator will save is often very considerable. It is very likely that you'll crash your heli many times during the course of your training, especially during your initial attempts at hovering. Apparently many people who didn't start on a simulator wished that they had, and recognize that much money could have been saved. Later on, when you progress to more advanced maneuvres, you will need a simulator anyway.
You will want to connect an RC controller (transmitter) to your simulator. If you are completely new to the hobby, then you probably don't already have a suitable controller to use. Therefore, you can either purchase one (usually several hundred dollars for a standalone unit) or use one provided with a simulator package. To the best of my knowledge, only RealFlight comes with such a controller. For $200, this is a great deal.
There is a free simulator (called FMS) which some people use, but you'll need to own a transmitter (controller) to get the most out of it. The physics in this simulator are not as accurate as the more advanced simulators.
I have been using RealFlight G4 and was very surprised by it's accuracy in portraying the real-world heli behavior.
What if the Simulator doesn't have my Heli?
Simulators often come built-in with a number of different RC models. Don't make the presence (or lack) of your particular heli model a significant factor in your buying decision. A large part of your muscle memory developed during training will be applicable to most heli models. Someone created a great analogy with learning to drive a car: if you know that you'll be buying a Honda Civic, is it vital that your first experiences learning to drive are on a Civic? Obviously not.
Start with Fixed Pitch / Coaxial Heli
Buy a small electric coaxial or fixed-pitch heli as a first heli (cost ~$100-200). Select a heli that your local hobby store (LHS) carries, so that you can get parts cheaply. Because breaking parts is common for beginners learning to fly, having a local supplier can save you a lot of down time and frustration waiting for parts. The fixed-pitch (FP) helis are easier to learn than the more advanced collective pitch (CP) helis.
There are a few decent coaxial (CX) helis that have counter-rotating main blades which offer much improved stability. These can be flown indoors relatively easily and can expedite the process of learning orientation. A very well reviewed model is the E-Flite Blade CX2 (not CX), and it is a great model to learn on as well as for keeping you "fresh" when weather conditions force you to stay indoors. One should keep in mind, however, that a determined beginner may find themselves outgrowing such a model fairly early on.
Learn to Adjust Setup Properly
Having a helicopter in a good state of trim and alignment (rotor head balancing, main blade tracking, gyro gain pot adjusted properly, etc.) can make a big difference for a beginner getting started. It definitely makes sense to either ask someone to set up your heli for you, or else take the time to learn to do the steps yourself before you start flying.
Progress to Collective Pitch
Once hovering has been mastered, then it is time to move on to a collective-pitch (CP) heli. At this point, there is a wide range of options and price. The cheapest Ready-to-fly (RTF) CP micro helis cost around $150, but more advanced (larger) models can cost over $1000 (without radio).
Are Bigger Helis Easier to Learn?
At this stage, there is some differing opinions about what is most prudent for a beginner to the sport. At first take, it may seem that the cheaper RTF CP kits might be the next logic step, but this may not be the best choice. The problem is that CP helicopters can be very difficult to learn (enough so that some people invariably give up completely). The larger helicopters are often much more stable than the smaller micro-helis (such as the Blade CP). The quality and durability of parts is often much better on the more expensive models, possibly leading to lower costs over time.
Where are you going to Fly?
You will also need to consider your flying environment. Micro helis are generally only suitable for indoor flight (as they do not tolerate any wind) or perfectly calm outdoor conditions. If you don't have easy, frequent access to an indoor area that is large enough to work in, then a micro heli may not be your best option.
What I did
I decided to go with the Blade CP Pro, which is a relatively cheap RTF CP "3D" heli (for ~ $270). I realized later that this is making the learning experience much more difficult for me, but I think I'm progressing reasonably well despite this. One definite issue I do face, however, is the limited opportunities to fly it outside. Inside a house is too small an environment (unlike for the Blade CX2), and outside is only realistic if the wind is very calm. I don't have a suitable gym nearby, so this restricts me to a small parking garage and the occasional outdoor flight.
A bigger model (such as the popular Align T-Rex 450) may be easier to learn and provide more opportunities for flight (as you can fly outside even in some small wind).
Taming your Helicopter for a Beginner
It may be worth considering making some modifications to reduce the performance of your helicopter, especially if you have a highly-responsive model. For example, swapping high-performance symmetric main blades with flat-bottomed wooden blades, reducing the throw of the servo arms, adding flybar collar weights, adding training gear etc.
Resist the Upgrades
Avoid the temptation to put money into upgrades early on in the learning process (metal head, direct drive / dual tail motors). Most of these upgrades don't offer much benefit to a beginner, and generally only increase the cost of the repair process.
I have heard mixed opinions on whether or not it would be beneficial to add a heading-lock gyro for a beginner. In some sense doing so would allow a beginner to focus on the other aspects of flying, but it may also cause the pilot to become lazy and not as capable in correcting for yaw.
Some people have reported great benefits in going to PlastiBlades for their main blades. These are heavier than the standard wooden ones. They are much more durable than the wooden blades and often survive impact without damage. While this seems like a great idea for beginners, it appears that some users are finding that other parts (e.g. main shaft, spindle, control links) are getting bent / broken more often as the impact is no longer absorbed by the blades. One has to consider whether or not this additional transferred damage is cheaper/easier to deal with than damaged blades.