August 16, 2013

Purchasing My First Plane

As I mentioned in previous posts, I knew when I started all this that I was operating under a budget. Looking at balsa planes, and gas engines, the cost was just too prohibitive for me, so I knew I would be in the foam electrics (foamies). As I said earlier, I decided a simulator would be a wise start, and along with that came a radio, but after about 50 hours on the simulator (3 months later) it was time to make a purchase of a plane and start flying! I had been researching planes at my local hobby store, and searching the web. There are several sites, just Google Radio Control Planes and you will see, and many have reviews posted by consumers that give you great information on the experience level required by the pilot as well as candid reviews of the product and support.

Support was a big deal for me. My local hobby shop was great, and they recommended certain brands, and I later came to learn that the level of support from online locations, while their products were more affordable, was atrocious! Believe me, the hassle and cost of trying to resolve product issues can easily take away the satisfaction of any discount you may have obtained in the first place. Not to mention scarcity of parts. If you go with some online outfits, you are at their mercy when it comes to availability of parts, and if you are just starting, and have a limited number of planes to fly, there can nothing more frustrating than being grounded due to a lack of parts (not to mention shipping issues). My personal choice was Park Zone, a subsidiary of Horizon Hobby ( They had a wide array of foam planes, including the warbirds I cherished so much, and their reputation for customer support was renowned. Their parts were always stocked at my local hobby store. They are not the cheapest on the market, but they have certainly proven to me that their support and parts availability has more than been worth it. They have a call center for support, staffed by knowledgeable techs, I always get a quick response, and more than once I have had issues where they have sent replacement parts with almost no questions asked.

As I said, I chose the Phoenix simulator because it featured the Park Zone planes, and while I dabbled in many different planes for fun, I found myself falling in love with the F4U Corsair. I seemed to fly so beautifully and I just loved the history and back story on the plane itself.

As I talked with the Hobby shop guys, they were concerned that I was getting in over my head for a first plane. They cautioned me that it was not for beginners, but I was confident that my simulator experience would make up for that (lesson here: big mistake. Remember....simulators are not real!). The recommendations I heard most were the Super Cub (the plane I mentioned that has no ailerons, and turns by rudder only) and the Trojan T-28. I knew I would get bored with the Super Cub, and I didn't have the money to buy another plane in a couple of months, and the fact was I just wanted the Corsair. So that is what I got.

I won't say it was a total mistake, but pretty close! Corsairs are notoriously difficult to land...probably due to the unique wing design, and this model was no exception. I learned that for successful landings you have to "fly it all the way in" , meaning you have to come in fairly fast. More forgiving planes will allow you to cut the power and come in "dead stick", without power, more slowly, and give you more time to react. Also, the tricycle gear of the T-28 is easier to land than a tail dragger. And take off, for that matter.

So I bought my Corsair and off I went. On the maiden flight I had my friend, the one who told me about simulators, come with me to take it up for the first time, trim it out, and be there for moral support. On the first flight, we got it up, he tweaked it some and handed it over to me. What a rush! I was scared stiff, but my simulator training was kicking in and I was feeling okay. For a minute or two. Then I began to feel something wasn't right , and as I handed it back to my friend, the plane managed to find the one tree in the field we were flying over! I was devastated. My brand new plane had torn off a wing, and was scared up pretty bad. My friend was calm and said all would be fine. He scooped up the parts and off we went to his shop. My first flight, my new plane, and it was shattered! A feeling, by the way, that you will need to come to terms with. Crashing is inevitable, and if you are a perfectionist like me, that will come hard. But foamies are amazingly repairable! Really! That is one of their advantages!

Sure enough, to my surprise, with epoxy and CA glues (a topic for another time) it did look really good. But for weeks, even months after that there were literally constant repairs from crashes on almost every outing. My former modeling skills came into play as I learned to use the glues, sculpt the excess away with a Dremmel, and then air brush the damage. The plane always seemed to fly as well after, which amazed me. There were some serious crashes that required new wings, but here is where the Horizon support was so great because the parts were always available, and their online support techs helped with questions I had on how to get things back together.

At some point my wife finally intervened and pointed out that I had gotten into RC so that I could fly, and not spend so much time building. She graciously encouraged me to get the T-28 so that I could master the flying (landing) and spend less time repairing. (Note: an understanding wife is a critical aspect of this hobby, believe me!).

So I ran to the hobby store and got a T-28. What a difference! I was feeling suddenly like a seasoned pilot. I could land almost every time without incident (although I went through quite a few props) and now I was spending time learning to fly. I was always wary of the was something that I had not yet become friendly with, and it was frustrating to wait for days that were calm. But I was getting better, and more quickly. My Corsair waited patiently. Occasionally I would break it out and give it a try, but always with a new respect for the difficulty of landing it.

So all of this to say, when choosing your first plane, yes, if you have simulator experience, that will help you jump up a notch in terms of difficulty. But do not underestimate the realities of what it will be like to fly, land, and take off under real conditions. I'm all for jumping right to a plane with ailerons, but something like the T-28 is probably the better way to start.

Now there are also Micro versions of these planes on the market. Yes, they are cheaper, and yes I did try one....a T-28. However, I found that outdoors, any wind at all (and I mean ANY wind) made them very difficult to control. And my hobby store had a semi-monthly indoor fly-in at an armory, and I quickly learned that a gaggle of planes and helicopters flying in tight circles made it almost impossible to escape without collision damage that was due to no fault of my own. By definition, they are more fragile, less sophisticated in their electronics and design, and besides, I just liked to have room to fly. Some guys love them. That's just my opinion.

Next time I'll talk about another important component to your first flights...finding a suitable location!