Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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Building Your Custom Flight Arena (Part 3)

Story and Photos by Gordon Broadfoot


I build each mountain on a base of ½-inch (12.5mm) plywood, two feet wide and eight feet long, with a vertical framework of 2x4s and 1x2s. This framework should be angle-braced to give a rigid support for the mountain and provide solid landing zones for your helicopter.

I then mount cardboard sections to the frame and bracing, cut and bent to form basic mountain shapes. The cardboard is fastened to the frame using 1-inch (25mm) screws and wide fender washers. I don’t trust tape to hold, so to attach two pieces of cardboard together at the seams I screw through both pieces and into a small block of ¾-inch (18.5mm) plywood as a gusset, cut into 2×2-inch (50mm x 50mm) squares.


Building Your Custom Flight Arena (Part 3)
Base framing and bracing for a mountain feature with a completed mountain in the background.

When planning the layout of each terrain feature, particularly something high like a mountain, remember to keep heavy items in the lower section so the feature is not top heavy. Setting movable weights on the back of the base also helps a large feature to stand solidly and still be easily moved.

Cardboard seams and rough areas are covered and reinforced with papier mâché, (laminated layers of newspaper soaked with a solution made of one part white glue/one part water), and that is also how I add most of the texture to make the cardboard look like rock. To reinforce seams or build contours on flat areas I use two or three layers of paper to give it some strength. Texture is strong enough with just one layer, particularly if you will be adding plaster or sand on top later.

Fill in holes and add fine texture to the papier-mâché rock with drywall compound plaster. Try to show different rock-strata and layering and be consistent with patterns in the rock structure. A certain consistency will also be important when it comes to painting the mountain. You can use drywall knives, paint brushes, sticks, or a pot scrubber to spread and shape the plaster. As you build and gain some practice you will develop techniques that you are comfortable with and you will find what tools suit you best. Even a simple rag makes a mark that is very soft and natural looking.


Building Your Custom Flight Arena (Part 3)
Mountain feature taking shape with cardboard cladding.

Keep in mind that any feature that is over seven feet tall or two feet deep will be more difficult to work on. You will need ladders or scaffolding to reach the higher points, and working on the back surfaces while standing more than two feet away gets to be pretty difficult to reach. To go higher with your mountains it may be easier to build stacking sections that can be worked on and moved individually.


Very few people have unlimited time to commit to their hobbies and interests with work and other activities to eat up the day. I am in the same boat and when I am building mountains I prefer to use quick techniques whenever possible to get the job finished. I truly enjoy the building and the creativity needed at every step of the way, but I also want to finish projects so that I can start another. When painting or plastering a terrain feature like a mountain I tend to move as fast as I can, trying not to worry about slight mistakes or inconsistencies because these just tend to make the finished product look more realistic in the long run anyway. Some things will inevitably change along the way, and each project has a way of shaping itself, but if the change makes it easier and stronger then just go with it. Check out our tutorial on texturing with plaster.


Building Your Custom Flight Arena (Part 3)
A Hubsan EC 145 climbs into the Smoky Mountains on a rescue mission.


Have a plan before you start construction and know what features you want on each mountain along with the overall general shape. You also need to know approximately where to screw blocks of wood to the base plywood that will act as mounts for the vertical frame and braces, and also for any landing zones that you want. This is done first, by screwing from the bottom, through the plywood up into the block of wood with a few 1½-inch (40mm) screws. I usually begin with the plywood standing upright on the long edge, supported by a chair on each side, so I can layout the main uprights and screw them from the bottom while I am securing the mounting blocks for the angle bracing.


Building Your Custom Flight Arena (Part 3)
A log cabin and a Helimax EC 145 perch on an isolated mountain outcrop.

As you build you will have time to think and imagine and solve little problems that come along. In the end you will build beautiful mountains that inspire you to fly at your peak performance and enjoy every challenge you face. If you study real mountains or photos and try to copy what you see you can’t go too wrong, because mountains come in all shapes and sizes, and somewhere there are real mountains that will look a lot like yours.

Stay tuned for Part 4: Painting mountains and planting forests.

View Part 1 and Part 2.

LINKS: Texturing With Plaster Tutorial, HUBSAN, Helimax EC 145