Yeah, like I need another hobby…

It seems that, as a boy growing up in the 80s, I was not alone in having an interest in R/C airplanes.  R/C anything, really (where R/C meant ‘radio control’, not the laughable ‘remote control’, which was toy company code for ‘has a 10 foot wire between the controller and vehicle, and anybody who buys […]


It seems that, as a boy growing up in the 80s, I was not alone in having an interest in R/C airplanes.  R/C anything, really (where R/C meant ‘radio control’, not the laughable ‘remote control’, which was toy company code for ‘has a 10 foot wire between the controller and vehicle, and anybody who buys it is a sucker’) – cars, boats, tanks, airplanes, helicopters, whatever, but particularly R/C airplanes.  I did get a control line P-51 as a present one year, but it never took to the sky, perhaps as part of my disdain for any sort of tether between plane and operator.  Looked good hanging from the ceiling, though, where it perennially engaged in a static dogfight of sheer will against a plastic model UH-1 Huey – first to fall due to weight of accumulated dust lost air superiority.

I had several issues of R/C Modeler, which was like crack cocaine for young imaginations.  Within the tattered and well thumbed pages were some articles (filled with technical jargon of unknown meaning) interspersed between glorious advertisements for incredible flying machines (and cars and boats, too – the ‘glass filled nylon’ bit in the Tamiya Hornet ad confused me for a while until I learned about fiberglass composites).  I recall ducted fan scale models of the fighter jets that graced posters plastered around my room, brightly colored aerobatic planes (which I didn’t pay much attention to – anything displaying a propeller rather than an afterburner didn’t merit much thought), and quite possibly the coolest thing ever, a scale R/C version of Airwolf, the baddest-ass helicopter EVER (although Blue Thunder runs a close second).

All of this airborne fantasy had one big drawback, however – price. I understood the hobby well enough to know that you had to have a lot of gear – an engine, radio, receiver, servos…   …oh, and the airplane itself.  I also understood the hobby well enough to know that crashes were a royal pain when repairs were needed.  Building a fuselage for a free-flight plane taught me that repairing cracked balsa gets old really fast, and the stuff will invariably warp on you.  Over the years, I’d thumb though other R/C magazines at the library, and I’d go to a few of the charity exhibitions held by the local R/C club to get a taste.  I even modified a ‘buddy box’ so I could play with an R/C Simulator on my computer. Eventually, it all sort of drifted out of consciousness.

Fast forward to this past Labor Day, where I went to a party hosted by my friends Chuck and Molly, with lots of kids in attendance. At one point, we all headed down to the local park to launch some model rockets, courtesy of Chuck’s sister. Chuck also brought along his son’s little 2-channel Air Hogs type of R/C airplane. Due to the slight wind, none of us could keep the plane in the air for more than a few seconds, but I was fascinated by its simplicity and manufacturability (i.e. low cost). I had a hunch that while I hadn’t been paying attention, R/C airplanes suddenly had become far more affordable than in my youth.

Sure enough, after a bit of web searching, it became apparent that advances in battery technology coupled with sturdy, lightweight foam and cheap outsourced manufacturing had yielded the ideal starter R/C aircraft, at a price that even a global economic meltdown couldn’t make unattractive. There were a number of such RTF trainers I found, but the least expensive (hey, ‘affordable’ is no reason to stop being a cheapskate) looked to be the Firebird Phantom. Several of us took the plunge, and we ordered 4 of them and a bunch of extra batteries. While waiting for them to arrive, I tried to consume as much information on them as I could, and I watched Dave Herbert’s Youtube videos on the plane (I figure if a guy who has been in the hobby for over 3 decades thinks it’s a good starter plane, I can feel confident about the purchase).

Upon receiving the package, I knew that the first thing to do was to strengthen the wing, so out came the strapping and packing tape. I even removed the stickers on the wing to reduce weight (a bit silly in retrospect, like being horribly out of shape, deciding you want to compete in the Ironman, and shaving your legs to give you a 0.6 second edge during the swimming phase of the event). I then charged up all 3 of my batteries, and eagerly awaited the next day.   After work, I excitedly rushed home, grabbed the plane and batteries, and headed over to the park we had been at on Labor Day.  I found an unused ball diamond in the park (crucial, as any witnesses to what was about to be attempted would undoubtedly result in exponential embarrassment) and quickly assembled my aircraft.  Despite the overwhelming possibility of failure, I hurled my charge into the air, then furiously worked the controls to adjust throttle, pitch and yaw.  Though my attempts were valiant, ‘soaring”, ‘majestic’, and ‘skyward’ were not adjectives applicable to the flight that followed.  After an ‘air time’ that generally requires the precision of an atomic clock to accurately relay the brevity of, the craft was reunited with terra quite firma.  Foam is nothing if not resilient, so second and third attempts were quickly mounted.  This third flight (I am of the opinion that any object, be it a tossed coin or a hummingbird, not touching a static, grounded item, may be considered ‘in flight’; issues of control, intent, and the ever-pesky ‘lift’ nothwithstanding) met with ‘arboreal interference’.  After throwing increasingly large sticks at the restraining limbs, I rooted around in the brush to find a 15 foot branch suitable for extracting the plane.  I was back in the air in no time (and nose-down in the ground in even less).  My final flight was perhaps the most dramatic, culminating in two full loops interrupted once more by tree branches.  This proved a disastrous end – though the plane miraculously managed to escape from the branches, the propeller was nowhere to be found.  Thus ended flying for the day, as well as the week.

After the disappointment wore off, I went back to the web to watch more videos and research what others had done with the plane.  I found that there were 3 things that had contributed to a less-than successful outing: Wind, space, and wing.  Though the wind was pretty low that day, it appeared that ‘dead still’ air was really what I wanted as a raw beginner without an experienced pilot to help me.  Additionally, more space (free of aircraft eating trees) was needed to allow for more altitude, larger turns, and simply much wider error margins.  Finally, a number of people commented that the stock wing was rather ‘fast’, and that a larger wing would slow down the plane and make it much more docile.

At the local hobby store, I looked at the selection of foam wings, and found a ‘Sky Fly’ wing for about $12 that had a generous surface area, more dihedral than the stock wing, and simply seemed a bit sturdier than the stock unit.  I then cut out the rear center of the wing to fit it to the Phantom.  Still without a prop, I did a number of hand tossed glides with the new wing to see how it ‘felt’ and whether it was too nose heavy.  I did some more launches with the stock wing and thought I could see a bit of difference – the stock wing felt ‘twitchier’ than the big one, and was more prone to rolling.  I also took the opportunity to tear out the ACT sensors, as the prevailing opinion seemed to be that ACT caused more problems than it solved.

At home, I started looking into better flying sites.  There are at least two local R/C clubs, but in order to use their fields you have to be an AMA member ($50/year) in addition to being a club member (another $50/year), and abide by 2 pages worth of rules and regulations.  I wasn’t interested in shelling out almost twice the cost of the airplane itself just for the privilege of flying it, so I spent time with Google maps to look for nearby wide open areas.  Local parks were the first place I looked, and I first checked the ball field where I had made my first attempts to see roughly how big the place was to serve as a baseline comparison.  Unfortunately, though parks are generally quite spacious, they tend to have a great many trees.  A local factory had a sizable vacant weedy lot nearby, and I wondered about the local soccer park as well.  I started a placemark map which I then shared with Chuck and Jared and we noted our discovery of possible sites with each other.  One mysterious location was what looked to be an enormous (32 acres, I’d later find) wide open field, just a few minutes from home.  Switching to Google street view, I ‘drove’ to a point where this field actually ran all the way up to the road, and I noticed what appeared to be an informational sign about the area.  Street view unfortunately doesn’t have a high enough resolution to read the signage, so I drove over for a look.  As I had guessed, the sign was indeed about the site, which turned out to be a floodwater retention basin operated by the city sewerage district.  I placed a call to the district office to find out if it was okay to fly an R/C plane there, and eagerly awaited a response.  A helpful gentleman gave me a call back a few hours later after checking with their legal department and said it was fine by them as long as I wasn’t a nuisance, and “hope you have fun!”

Not able to stand the wait for a replacement prop for much longer, I ‘borrowed’ the prop from Jared’s plane, as I had yet to deliver it to him.  I also opted to move the control rods down to the position closest to the control surfaces for maximum movement (this luckily turned out to work very well with the large wing).  Around 7pm, I drove to a side street bordering the field with the plane, Sky Fly wing, and freshly charged batteries.  I was amazed at the field seeing it from this vantage point – if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that it had been designed for R/C flying.  A berm surrounded the basin itself, with a mowed path running around the perimeter.  The basin was covered in thigh-high grasses, making for soft landings all around.  And I had the entire place to myself.

With the wind at a standstill, I revved the motor, threw the plane into the air…   …and it was a completely different airplane from the one a few days before.  I could actually control it this time, making slow circles around the field.  Most importantly, it was enjoyable rather than aggravating.  By the time I was on the third battery, I was feeling very confident, making flyby passes and enjoying the realization of a long-desired experience.

I had a few more flights (and certainly more crashes) with the big wing, and then finally broke the boom, which seems to be an expected occurrence with this particular model.  But the other half of flying is ‘fixing’, and I have a feeling that the only R/C planes without battle damage are the ones that have hardly been flown.  The problem with the boom is that there is a slot cut into the top of it just forward of the tail where the control rods exit.  This is a very clean design, but the cut significantly weakens the (extremely thinwalled) carbon fiber tube.  Although there’s a plastic stiffener glued to the boom around the slot area, it is of little help.  I found that 5/32″ thinwall brass tubing slipped inside the boom perfectly, so I epoxied in a piece of about 3 inches to join the pieces back together.  I then glued another piece of carbon fiber tubing along the top (covering the slot).  I went a little crazy and also wrapped some kevlar line through epoxy around the front and rear of the added tube.  I don’t expect any further breakage.

The strapping tape is there just to hold the antenna wire - it has nothing to do with the boom repair.
Control rods now exit the fuselage just above the boom.

With the slot now covered, I had to route the control rods through a hole drilled through the back of the fuselage just above the boom and through the top carbon fiber tube.  This kept them as low as possible, which is needed now that I have added a larger prop (some forum posts had said that the Phantom has a 2.3mm motor shaft, but this was not the case on mine and I needed a 2mm adapter instead).

Antenna now runs out the front of the nose.

I tried to snake the antenna back through the boom, but just couldn’t get it (how the manufacturer managed to get it and the two control rods through the boom is beyond me).  However, since I had a handy hole in the bottom of the nose as a result of removing the ACT sensors, I just ran the antenna wire through it and used tape to keep the antenna running along the outside of the boom.

As a result of the added weight, I had to rebalance the plane a bit.  I started by adding some noseweight (a screwdriver tip taped inside the canopy), which worked well, but with the noseweight, repair weight, and weight of the large wing, it struggled for altitude.  I had better results by simply shifting around where the battery sits, moving it forward into the nose.  After a bit of flying in this manner, I was ready to move back to the stock wing.  The big wing had given me some much needed confidence and I was able to fly fairly happily with the stock wing, noting that the added maneuverability came at the cost of dropping out of the sky during very tight turns.

It’s not always a special feeling to fulfil a childhood desire. But in this case, it was.