Electric helicopters: your guide to getting started

Aug 17, 2011 No Comments by

Today’s state-of-the-art power and control systems for electric helicopters allows for a wide range of size and performance, from models weighing about an ounce to 90-size nitro equivalents. There are models for all skill levels, from beginner to hardcore 3D pilot and everyone in between. It’s never been easier to get started in RC helicopters. However, with so many choices, choosing the heli that’s right for you can be bewildering. This article will help ensure your success. But be warned, RC helis are addictive and you’ll be hooked!

TYPES OF HELICOPTERS
RC helicopters can be broken down into two types based on their rotor head design: fixed pitch and collective pitch.

 FIXED PITCH
As the name implies, the rotor blades are fixed at a given pitch angle. Similar to an airplane propeller, the faster the rotor blades are spinning the more lift is generated. To climb, the rotor speed is increased and to descend it is decreased. A subclass of the fixed-pitch family is the coaxial or counter-rotating heli, which has two sets of rotor blades spinning in opposite directions. This cancels the yaw resulting from the spinning rotor and eliminates the need for a tail rotor.

Pros
• Simpler design with fewer parts

• Simple setup

• Less expensive

• Coaxial designs are extremely stable

 Cons
• Maneuvering and aerobatics are very limited

• Single rotor designs more difficult to fly due to lag in control response. (Note: Modern designs such as the E-flite Blade MSR and Heli-Max Novus FP have all but eliminated this.)

COLLECTIVE PITCH
By varying the rotor blade’s pitch angle, a collective pitch heli can vary the amount of lift generated. When both rotor blades (collectively) increase pitch, lift is increased and when both blades decrease pitch, lift is decreased. Ideally, the rotor rpm will remain constant. Many aerobatic maneuvers are possible because negative pitch angles as well as positive angles can be achieved.

 Pros
• Control response is superior

• Fully aerobatic including 3D

• Can vary control response through setup.

• Wider selection of sizes and performance

 Cons
• More complex with more parts

• Requires proper setup

• More expensive

GETTING STARTED
We have a joke at the field that we should have T-shirts made up to answer the most common questions about RC helicopters:  How much does it cost?” and “Are they hard to fly?” The answers to these questions depend primarily on your motivations and goals. If your goal is to be a hotshot 3D pilot, the answer will be quite different than if you are interested in only hovering or doing simple circuits. Assuming you are brand new to the hobby with no prior experience, a coaxial helicopter is a great choice for a first heli. Among others, E-flite, Heli-Max and EF Helicopters make excellent high-quality, hobby-grade models. There are numerous toy models on the market that will do little to help you get started, although they can be fun. These small models are inexpensive, durable and can be fl own in your house. Their inherent stability gives you plenty of time to learn the basic controls for hovering and maneuvering. Once you have mastered the coaxial heli, a micro-sized fixed pitch heli would be the next logical step. Models such as the Blade MSR and Novus FP are a little more challenging to fl y, but are more maneuverable. The relatively low cost and durability of these models will help improve your flying skills rapidly. Both the coaxial and fixed pitch require very little setup and are ready to fly, which is also a great help for novices. Learning how to fly a conventional, collective-pitch heli is challenging, but rewarding. Starting with a collective pitch heli is a good choice if have prior RC experience, have a simulator and are committed to learning to fly. Here you will have many choices depending on your budget, available time and willingness to learn. The quickest and easiest route is the ready-to-fl y models such as the Blade CP series, Heli-Max Axe or EF Mystery. Since a collective-pitch model depends heavily on its proper setup, these models fly well out of the box. Another choice is the 450-size electric heli made popular by such companies as Align. These usually require assembly and setup. Larger electric helis are also a good choice if you have the budget for them. They are more costly, but their larger size makes them easier to fly and see in the air. When learning, stay with the basic plastic/composite heli, rather than the carbon-fi ber designs as they are less costly to purchase and fi x after the inevitable crash.

 

FLYING TIPS FOR SUCCESS
At first, it will seem impossible to have any control over your collective-pitch helicopter. But by following these tips, your experience will be pleasant and rewarding and hovering will become second nature.

• Use a flight simulator to learn how to hover or do a new maneuver in conjunction with real-life flying.

• Seek out expert advice. An experienced pilot can help ensure your heli is built and set up properly.

• Use training gear when first learning to hover. This will keep the heli from tipping over and causing damage.

• Position the helicopter into the wind and stand about 15 feet behind it.

• Take baby steps. Set small goals such as being able to hover for five seconds and increasing the time with each success.

• Once you have mastered tail-in hovering, learn and practice side-in and finally, nose-in hovering.

• Proceed cautiously but steadily. A crash can shake your confidence and your heli will be down while you repair it.

• Try to get out as often as you can to keep a steady rate of progress.

SETUP TIPS
It is crucial that the helicopter be set up properly. The best model will not fly well if not set up correctly and your progress will be greatly slowed. Even ready-to-fl y models can benefit from these setup tips. A note about safety—make sure that the rotor does not engage while setting up your model as even small helis can pack a punch and cause damage to your body and workshop. I like to use a separate receiver battery pack and disconnect the speed control and motor, but you can also remove the motor pinion.

• Double check all the fasteners and parts for tightness. Whether it is RTF or built from a kit, loose parts can create havoc while flying.

• Check the controls for proper movement and direction. The swashplate should tilt right when the right stick is moved right and forward when the stick is moved forward. Check that the tail rotor responds in the correct direction and the gyro responds when swinging the heli’s tail. • Balance the blades. Even small helis will benefi t from balanced blades. There are several commercially available blade balancers that make it easy.

• Check the ball links for excessive tightness. Tight links will keep the servos from centering properly and make it more difficult to fly. To loosen, use a pair of needle-nose pliers and carefully squeeze the link while it is attached to the ball and recheck it.

• Make sure the flybar paddles are equidistant from the main shaft to reduce vibration. Also, make sure they are parallel to each other.

• Do a range check per the radio systems manufacturer’s instructions. If it is unsuccessful, find and fix the problem before you fly.

• Track the main rotor blades. When viewed from the side, the blades should appear to be in the same plane. Do this in a hover if you are able, or do it on the ground with the rotor spinning just below lift off speed. Adjust the pitch of the blades until the blades are in track.

• Eliminate vibration. The main rotor blades are usually the culprit, but it can come from the tail rotor, flybar or other locations. Take the time to track the vibrations down.

 

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Executive editor About me: I’m a publishing professional who has a passion for aviation and RC, and I love creating issues, books and a website that help RC pilots to enjoy this sport even more. I admire scale aircraft and enjoy the convenience of flying smaller electrics.
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