I’d love to be able to tell you a great story about how I picked up a helicopter for the first time and hovered it perfectly, transitioned to forward flight and then went back into a hover for a safe landing. Unfortunately, my first heli flight experience started poorly and went downhill from there. Heck! I was an airline pilot, full-scale competition pilot and experienced RC pilot. How hard could this little heli be?
Turned out it was much more challenging than I expected, as I didn’t make it through a minute of flight before I trashed the heli and my misplaced confidence. Although I was an experienced RC airplane pilot, I just didn’t have the skill set to immediately jump into complex helicopters, and my ego precluded my asking for the help I dearly needed. Learning to fly RC helicopters can be challenging, but if you take it methodically and avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes that I and legions of other modelers have made, I think you’ll find it to be extremely rewarding.
Although it may seem logical to avoid having to buy twice by purchasing a more complex helicopter instead of a simple starter machine, don’t be tempted by bling. With the advent of inexpensive, stable and durable indoor coaxial helicopters, we’ve been given a long needed tool to rapidly improve our skill level and abilities.When you start, one of the hardest things to learn is how to handle moving the helicopter through the various hovering positions, including tail-in, nose-in and side-in. In the right hands, more complex helis are more maneuverable, but they aren’t particularly forgiving of the fumble-fingered newbies that we all start out as. The modern coaxial blade helicopter is so stable, in fact, that if you get into trouble and lose orientation, simply release the controls and it will assume a stable hover all on its own. By learning basic helicopter orientation and control with a stable machine that requires minimal correction, in due time, you’ll be able to apply those lessons learned and “muscle memory” to more complex helicopters.
In addition to their stability, indoor coaxial helicopters such as the Blade mCx are also highly durable, and that trait isn’t generally associated with helicopters. Mine has withstood inhumane abuse from my family of five. Abby, our 7-year-old, has repeatedly flown it into every wall and light fixture and even into a spinning ceiling fan with little if any damage. This is as much the result of its low weight and inertia as its excellent design and engineering.
Starting with a high-quality indoor coaxial heli that you can sell or pass on to less experienced pilots when your skills have developed makes sense. At least, thats what I advise. But even though Ive long since outgrown my indoor coaxial helis, they are just too much fun to part with. I suspect that you, too, will find the same satisfaction by hovering around the house and harassing the cat; my kids certainly do!
To practice and to try new maneuvers, I use a flight simulator. I think that most experienced pilots will agree that they’re invaluable. There are many to choose from, and the quality seems to improve continuously. Although I generally fly from my laptop, using large-screen televisions and displays really enhances the experience.
I know several top-level pilots who use simulators extensively to master new maneuvers and sequences, so it makes sense that this will work for us lesser mortals as well. I certainly appreciate being able to crash, hit the reset button and have a fresh helicopter to work with!
With your new helicopter, you’ll probably first learn to hover in a stationary position. As a new pilot, you’ll tend to start with the model pointing away from you while you stand immediately behind it. This is known as tail-in hovering and is a great place to start. In this attitude, all of the control directions make sense: pushing the right stick forwards (away from your body) makes the heli move farther away from you, while pulling the stick backwards brings the heli towards you. Both yaw and cyclic roll (ailerons, for the airplane pilot) also respond logically: the model moves left or right in the direction of your stick application. This should be the baseline from which you work to expand your skills. Before moving onto other hover positions or forward flight, you should be comfortable hovering your heli tail-in and moving it in each direction.
A good exercise is to fly a box pattern (fig. 1) over the ground while maintaining the tail-in position. You can set a couple of markers on the ground to guide you, but I rather prefer the corners of the coffee table while hovering in the living room.
Next, experiment with different hovering positions. Not unlike flying towards yourself with an RC model airplane, your first attempts at hovering side-in or nose-in can make you feel a little uncomfortable. Although the controls are identical if viewed from inside the cockpit, your position relative to the helicopter is different, so you have to adjust your point of view. For instance, in a nose-in hover, all three of the basic controlscyclic pitch, cyclic roll and yawseem reversed. If you tell the heli to yaw left, its nose will move to your right. If you tell it to bank right, it will bank to your left, and so forth. Its important here that you think in terms of where and in which direction you want the helicopter to move in relation to itself — not in relation to you. This takes time to grasp fully, and is where using an inherently stable coaxial helicopter comes into play. With a more complex helicopter, things happen more quickly, and it is very easy to put the heli into the ground with an incorrect roll or pitch input that you hold just a little too long. With a coaxial heli, simply release the right stick and neutralize the rudder, and the helicopter will accept a stable hovering attitude all on its own.
I use that box pattern to improve basic attitude hovering skills. Practice an entire path around the box tail-in first; followed with side-in and finish with nose-in. When youve mastered that, your next step will be to transfer those skills to a more complex helicopter with a tail rotor. Be sure to use a set of training skids, as any helicopter will feel unstable when compared with the stability of a coaxial helicopter.
With all of the tools discussed here, including a good coax heli and a simulator, learning to fly RC helicopters has never been easier. Again, take your time, start with a simple heli and flight sim, and ask for help when you need it (and you will!). As you progress through the various skills and stages, be sure to get help from those who are more skilled than you are, and also offer to help to those who are following behind. If this overconfident fixed-wing pilot can learn to fly RC helicopters, so can you.