If your dreams of flying your very own helicopter feel just that – a distant dream, you might not have been introduced to the world of RC helicopters.
While they may lack the weight, speed and size of a real helicopter, RC helicopters can still provide that well-needed adrenaline boost and are loved all around the world.
Searching for the perfect present or simply looking to get stuck into a new hobby? Look no further. We’ve put together the ultimate beginners’ guide to RC helicopters.
Why You Should Get Into RC Helicopters
An RC Helicopter is more than just a plastic toy and an instruction booklet. RC helicopters are expensive and technical pieces of kit, and flying one properly involves patience, skill and technical know-how.
For kids, RC helicopters is a fantastic hobby. It gets them outside, encourages them to be calm and patient, and teaches them to be responsible for a piece of machinery – perfect before they get put behind the wheel of a car!
Adults on the other hand, will love the nostalgia that comes from RCs. Whether it’s flying a helicopter around the local park or smashing your living room furniture to smithereens as you experience your very first crash landing, playing with RCs can help get adults out of their heads and embracing their inner child.
Take a couple of hours to play, be a kid again and forget the stresses of mortgages and bills. If you can get the whole family involved, you’ve got yourself a fun and smartphone-free day out!
How to Fly an RC Helicopter
RC helicopters can take a little longer to get used to than other RC vehicles. They can be dangerous, and it’s essential that you learn to fly them properly.
- To take off, place your RC helicopter on a flat surface in an open area without too much wind. Push the throttle up slowly and allow it to hover just a few inches from the ground – avoid flying too high on your first attempt.
- As the helicopter gets higher, you’ll need to make larger adjustments for the same affect.
- Move the joystick left or right and the helicopter will change direction. Keep it low to the ground at this point so that if something goes wrong, you won’t damage it.
- To land your RC, find a flat spot and slowly push down the throttle until it lands – keep it slow and calm to have a stress-free landing.
- Use small, subtle movements even if you’re panicking! You’ll be more likely to lose control if you make quick or harsh movements.
- If your helicopter does go out of control while landing, let go of the throttle so the blades stop spinning (only do this if a crash is imminent!). You’ll do less damage to the helicopter this way.
- Let the battery cool off between flying to help it fly at its best.
Building Your Own vs Ready-Made
Deciding whether to build your own or purchase an RC that’s ready-made is the first decision you’ll make.
Ready-made helicopters are a relatively new phenomenon, and are great for people who want to get started immediately without much interest in the mechanics. They’re also generally less powerful than build-your-own models so are great for beginners.
Building your own on the other hand, will allow you to get stuck into the nitty gritty of how your helicopter works; great for those who are fascinated with not just flying their RC, but the mechanics behind it. It also allows you to customize your helicopter to give it more power, speed or a custom look.
In general, build-your-own helicopter kits are of a better quality than ready-made. If you want to feel like an expert, a build-your-own is a must, but it’s no walk (or fly) in the park. Building your own helicopter takes patience and attention to detail.
Gas vs Electric
Gas powered RC helicopters are usually more expensive and need to be purchased from specialist shops. They are noisier (which many people love) and more complicated to maintain and fly. However, they are seriously fun and well worth the extra cost.
Electric powered helicopters are cheaper, can usually be flown in public spaces and are easier to fly. While the battery packs are expensive, they have less ongoing costs and are much quieter.
These also require little maintenance, but your flight time is shorter. While they are great fun, serious pilots find they lack the adrenaline rush of gas-powered helis, but these are a great option for beginners.
Indoor vs Outdoor
Indoor RC helicopters are ideal for beginners as they have less power than outdoor helis. They don’t go as high, and flying is easier as there’s no wind.
However, you will need to be close to the helicopter to control it. The most damage they can do is to your furniture (or your unsuspecting pets!), and even then they are unlikely to get enough height to cause too much destruction.
Outdoor helicopters cost more and are more powerful. They can reach greater heights and can be controlled from further away.
However, they aren’t suitable for beginners as, if dropped from a large height, they can do serious damage to people, cars and themselves.
Follow the instructions, flight regulations (as we will see later), and ensure you are in a quiet, open space to fly. Make sure you are comfortable and competent at lower heights before sending it up.
Sizes – Micro Helicopters vs Bigger Models
Micro helicopters are inexpensive and lightweight. They do little damage if they are crashed, and can fly indoors in large rooms or in small outdoor areas with low wind. They’re great for beginners and usually arrive ready to fly straight out the box.
However, micro helicopters have a shorter battery life, are less durable and often quite fragile. For a beginner looking to take their first step, a micro helicopter is the best option.
Larger helicopters are fun for more experienced RC pilots. They are easy to see, make a noise similar to real helicopters and have a range of power options available to give them some extra zoom.
Big helicopters boast long flight times and can be flown outdoors in windy areas. They usually arrive in a build-your-own kit which gives you a chance to get stuck into the mechanics, and they are both speedy and smooth to control.
Bigger models are expensive, and can be exceptionally dangerous in the wrong hands. They are not suitable for beginners, and repairs are expensive if you crash. They also fall under RC and drone regulations, meaning if you live in a city or town, your options for flying will be limited.
RC Helicopter Safety
A powerful helicopter in the wrong hands are dangerous; serious injuries are not uncommon and in some instances a crash has been fatal. Helicopters can weigh over 6 pounds which, combined with spinning blades, is exceptionally dangerous when dropped.
It’s essential that the safety of the public is your primary concern, and new RC regulations mean you can no longer fly ‘just anywhere’. Ensure you find a safe place to fly your helicopter and follow the regulations for your state or area.
This means staying away from public areas, crowds of people, vehicles, built up areas, stadiums, power lines or government buildings. High quality RC helicopters are designed to be flown and customized by people with experience, so don’t purchase more than you are able to control.
It’s far safer to buy something smaller and cheaper when you are just learning. These helis are designed to be flown indoors and around people. They won’t do too much damage when dropped.
RC Helicopters vs Drones
While RC helicopters have been around for a while, drones have only recently caught the eye of the public. They are regularly used in the military, and have now become an affordable and impressive gadget used all over the world.
RC helicopters have a loyal following despite the growing popularity of drones. They are less complicated and easier to maintain, while offering the pilot total control as they fly.
Many people prefer flying helis they respond quicker to commands. Helicopters have longer flight times and are loved by people who want to get involved in the mechanics while having lots of fun at the same time.
Drones on the other hand require far less effort to fly, and are used primarily for taking photos and videos from above.
They don’t need to be manually flown and many have gesture control. Drones are straight forward to repair and are loved by those who want quality footage from an impressive gadget that requires very little hands-on effort.
Flying at Night
Night flying is fun and allows you to try something different with your heli. Night blades need to be used as these have LED lights built into them. Various helicopter pilots have created their own night blades using LED strips.
Getting creative with LED lights will look seriously cool, and provide enough visual cues for a fun night flight with little risk of you losing your heli! Use glowsticks on the ground to assist with take off and landing.
Remember to still respect the RC helicopter regulations. Don’t fly in crowded areas and bring a flashlight to help set things up.
3D Printing and RC
If you’re feeling extra creative, you might want to opt for 3D printing parts of your heli. This involves printing parts using a 3D printer and putting them together yourself.
While this is time consuming, it’s a lot of fun once you get into it. Bear in mind that you will still need to purchase the parts to print, alongside a 3D printer if you don’t already have one, meaning this way of creating your helicopter could end up more expensive.
Those of you with a competitive streak may want to dabble in contest flying. This is a great way to show off your helicopter and get involved in the RC community. Events are hosted regularly all over the country and can be easily found online on dedicated RC sites.
Contest events are usually two days long, with 3-5 judges for each round. Competitors must complete a series of movements, and nearly all RC helicopters are allowed in these competitions.
You need to have a caller to help you remember the movements and any level pilot will be able to compete – all it takes is a little practice!
It’s not all plain sailing (or flying) when it comes to RC helis! Here’s some common problems you might encounter and what to do about them:
Your Helicopter Won’t Take Off
The most common reason for this is the battery. Check that they are charged and use a multimeter to check the voltages. If the voltages are above or below 4.2v you will need to recharge the battery with a balance charger, and if the problem persists then you will need new batteries.
If your shaft linkage is loose, your RC won’t take off. Ensure all screws are tight, and if your model is glued instead of screwed, you will need to re-glue it. The shafts of both blades should be sturdy.
Some of your parts may be worn. This could be the blades or motor brushes, both of which will need to be replaced if they wear out.
Finally, the receiver in your remote can become weakened. If you’ve checked everything else and still have no lift-off, then your receiver or the batteries in your transmitter will be the problem. Both of these can be replaced.
It’s Spinning in Circles
Spinning in circles or the ‘toilet bowl effect’ is a common problem. Ensure the gyro (the stabilizer) is working properly – it should make the tail rotor spin faster when the helicopter twists. Some people claim reversing the gyro can work (instructions of how to do so can be found online), but if it doesn’t you will need to replace it.
How Do you Know if the Blades are Balanced?
If your blades aren’t balanced, they will cause vibration in your helicopter which will make it harder to control. Balanced blades give you more power and longer flight times.
To check the balance of your blades, weigh them both on the most accurate digital scale you have. Your blades should be the exact same weight and they should balance at the same point.
For beginners purchasing a ready-made RC, your blades will already be balanced.
Top Repairing Tips:
Beginners to the hobby should enlist some help before attempting to repair their helicopter. Basic maintenance includes replacing the motor, and handling overheating.
To replace the motor, unplug it from the receiver, PCB or ESC and unscrew it. This will allow you to remove the motor and put in another – ensure you follow the guidelines on which motors you can use.
Overheating is another common problem which can be fixed by increasing the size of the heat sinks (which can be a little tricky). If the problem persists, enlist help from your manufacturer or online forums.
Remember to always put your RC helicopter together the same way you took it apart. It’s best to have someone with you, or film what you are doing. Check out manufacturers’ websites for videos and tips on how to repair your heli.
How to Improve Battery Life
A slowing battery is frustrating and can stop you getting as much fun from your RC. To stop the battery life decreasing in the first place, ensure you wait at least 15-20 minutes after the battery has drained before you charge it. It should be cool to touch before putting it on charge and be careful not to overcharge it.
A few ways to improve the battery life include removing any extra weight or removing the LED. Making the helicopter as light as possible will help it last longer. If your battery life decreases too much, it can be easily replaced.
Where to Find New Parts
New parts can be found online easily, but it’s best to stick to established RC sites to ensure you are protected. The RC community is huge, and most websites have auctions where members can sell their new or used products.
Ebay and Amazon are other great places to find parts. Ensure you know exactly what you want, and if you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask on one of the many online forums or get in touch with your manufacturer.
Joining the RC Helicopter Community
While it might seem an isolated activity, there’s an entire community online to offer friendly advice and help you with any issues you’re having. The RC Helicopter Addicts is one such community, with an active forum to help you with any problems. They also have a blog, how-to’s and regular updates – as well as private sales for new and second hand products.
RC Helicopter Pilot is another great online resource that has flight reports, product reviews, how to’s, training and news about contests. You are not alone and whatever problem you’re having with your RC heli, you can be sure that someone else has had it before!
For total beginners, we recommend checking out online forums first. Remember not to purchase more than you can handle, and we have no doubt you will find RC helicopters an extremely fun and rewarding hobby.