Getting Started - Why RC Helicopters?

Performer 2-Channel Infra-Red Heli

One day someone at work brought in a tiny helicopter that he purchased at the local Walmart for $20. It was a simple 2-channel infra-red R/C helicopter that would fit in the palm of my hand. Even with the most basic of controls, it was somewhat flyable after adjusting for trim. It was surprisingly fun for the price.

... Fun enough that I bought 3 of them to give away as stocking stuffers over the holidays. The guy who sold my colleague the heli cautioned, "the problem with these things is that you spend $20 now, but before you know it you're spending $400!". It was only later that I fully appreciated what he meant.

Heli #1: Performer

I was impressed that such a cheap toy could be so durable (survived dozens of terrible crashes) and controllable with only 2 channels: 1-axis left stick controlled throttle (basic altitude control), while the 1-axis right stick controlled yaw along with hover vs forward flight. Pushing the stick left caused the little thing to stop motion (hover) and spin left, while pushing the stick right caused it to spin to the right and slowly creep forward.

Heli #2: Fly Dragonfly

After a day or two of playing around, I quickly decided I'd look into something a little bigger and more controllable. I bought a $100 Fly Dragonfly helicopter, with the most preposterous slogan emlazoned on the box: "Could be the most popular radio control helicopter in the world!".

Fly Dragonfly 2-Channel RC Heli

This helicopter lasted all of 5 minutes. $100 / 5 minutes = $1200 / hour. Not a great value for my entertainment budget.

I charged it up, and took it for its maiden flight in my concrete-floored parking garage. As it spun up, I was immediately struck by how deadly this thing seemed to be. Lots of torque on the motor and virtually no control. The controls were virtually the same as for the $20 heli. As I powered it into flight, it would spin in circles until I gave it full rudder (right stick) to counter-act it. What's more, the controls were not proportional -- everything, including altitude control, was either on or off! The yaw control (right stick) didn't seem to make any difference unless the left stick was at full throttle! This was definitely not a helicopter for small places!

Sure enough, after the third bounce on the floor from about 4 feet up, the tail boom snapped off at the base of the heli. Great. No chance finding replacement parts. On the second flight, I had already made my mind up that I was going to return this thing! A little crazy glue and it "looked" fine again. To add insult to injury, I quickly discovered that these were selling for $25 new on EBay.

Heli #3: E-Flite Blade CX2

E-Flite Blade CX2 5-Channel Coaxial Heli

I wanted to find a helicopter in the $100-250 range that would help me grow into this as a hobby, as well as something that perhaps my wife might enjoy at the same time. In looking for a suitable RC heli, I made up the following list of requirements:

  • Electric
  • Suitable for indoor flight
  • Parts available locally
  • Parts relatively cheap
  • Coaxial main rotors to aide stability

In trying to find reasonable options, I was torn between the E-Sky Lama V4 and the E-Flite Blade CX2. The Blade was $220, while the Lama was ~ $100 via mail-order on the internet. I finally settled on the Blade as all of the local hobby shops carried parts and it has received some great reviews.

My wife quickly became interested in learning to fly the helicopter -- and it didn't take long before she started to get the hang of tail-in hovering.

Heli #4: E-Flite Blade CP Pro

E-Flite Blade CP Pro 6-Channel 3D Heli

As much fun as I knew the Blade CX2 would be, I knew that very quickly I'd be looking for a step up in difficulty (ie. a challenge). In fact, I only flew the Blade CX2 twice (after first practicing on the RealFlight G4 simulator for a couple weeks) before purchasing another heli: the Blade CP Pro.

While the Blade CX2 was a lot of fun to fly, I figured that it would be soon looking for more of a challenge once I'd mastered nose-in hovering. If I could learn the basics on a more advanced collective-pitch heli, then I wouldn't have to re-learn everything as I transitioned from a coaxial. So, the Blade CX2 permanently became my wife's helicopter :)

Very Cheap? RTF Heli?

The Blade CP Pro is a collective-pitch heli that is more than capable of inverted / aerobatic flight, and some 3D tricks. As a Ready-to-Fly (RTF) model, it comes with everything included in the box to get flying right away, all for less than $300. It is really important to keep in mind that this is VERY cheap for a heli, but I knew that from the start. I figured that I'd try to start with a cheaper RC heli and see if this hobby was for me before investing a lot of money in it.

Many people in the forums recommend spending about $600 on a model instead, as you are more likely to get a much more stable, controllable heli. Apparently, it is much easier to learn to fly a larger heli than a small micro-sized heli. From my limited experience so far in learning to fly the CP Pro, I can comfortably call this bird a handful to learn on!

Bad choice for Learning?

After a couple flights in the CX2 and many hours on the simulator (RealFlight G4), I started to practice on my CP Pro for the first time. I already knew that the CP Pro would be a poor choice for a beginner to RC Helis. With any experience in RC cars or RC planes, I am probably going to have a very tough time getting started (particularly with orientation skills), but I tend to like making things more difficult than they have to be -- so the CP Pro will be what I'll learn on (for now!)

Most people seem to recommend making a learning progression from coaxial heli (CX) to fixed-pitch helis (FP) and finally to collective pitch helis (CP).

This heli is a real handful, but I am loving it. I made a few small modifications to make it more suitable for a beginner (flat-bottom wooden main blades instead of symmetric, moved flybar weights out, attached training gear, etc.), but it is still extremely sensitive and definitely not hands-off stable.

I am very glad that I spend all of the hours on the simulator before even trying to power up the CP Pro. It has probably saved me a large number of spectacular crashes. By the end of the first hour, I had started to get comfortable with tail-in hovering. From all that I have read from others, I can expect to spend a few months in the hover practice stage if I work on it regularly.

 

 


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