Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Radio-controlled flight

After a heart attack and ensuing triple bypass in 2009, I sold my little Cessna 150 two-seater and hung up the goggles and scarf. The impulse to fly, however, never quite left me, and last year I gave in to it by taking up radio controlled model aircraft, and now I go out and fly them at every opportunity.

The aurhor and his Apprentice S 15e training airplane.
(Photo by Deborah Abbott)
There was no need, of course, to relearn the principles of flight. On a much smaller scale, R/C airplanes obey the laws of aerodynamics in the same way as the real thing.

Piloting a model plane from the ground, however, is completely different from flying a grownup aircraft, and the learning process is tricky, strenuous and full of crashes. 

It’s easy enough, for instance, to guide an airplane from the ground while it’s flying away from you. 

When it’s flying toward you, though, things are backwards. When the plane starts to drift to your left (or right, from the plane’s point of view), your pilot’s muscle memory wants to counter the turn by telling your thumb to push the joystick to the right, in the opposite direction. But that just makes the plane sharpen the existing left turn. Quickly you’ve got to push the stick to your left. The resulting maneuver—first sashaying to the right and then pulling sharply to the left—looks like drunken overcorrection.

There’s also the size of control inputs. In a real airplane, using hands and wrists to push and pull the stick or turn the yoke is measured in inches. In a model airplane, thumb inputs on the joysticks of the transmitter are measured in millimeters. Micromillimeters, even.

A sharp turn in a real airplane requires back tension on the stick, using the elevator to keep the banking airplane from sliding downward in obedience to gravity. Soon your arms learn the right amount of pull so that the airplane neither gains nor loses altitude in a turn.

With a model plane, on the other hand, accustoming your thumb to a turn takes a lot—a lot!—of practice before you learn to avoid an upward or downward spiral.

I suppose it’s my advanced age, but it took me many, many flights finally to master the radio-controlled turn. It took many crashes, too, but fortunately the training airplane I use is built of foam and is easily fixed with a little epoxy glue. Eventually the airplane looked as if it had been run through a wood chipper and I recently replaced some important and much-repaired parts, such as the fuselage, wings and tailfeathers.

Those weren’t expensive at all, less than half the price of a new airplane. Radio-controlled model flying is a lot cheaper than the real thing. (And you get to walk away from a crash.)

I won’t claim that radio-controlled flying from the ground gives a pilot the same airborne exultation of soaring aloft through three dimensions. But learning those new ropes has given me the same satisfaction in accomplishing a fresh new venture that acquiring a private pilot’s license did.

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