Flying model airplanes is something I have enjoyed for most of my life. Like a lot of folks my age, I got started in the hobby as a kid flying control-line airplanes. My first aircraft was a Cox PT-19 .049 flight trainer. It was heavy and didn’t fly very well, but I loved it. After the Cox was damaged beyond repair, my dad took me to a real hobby shop where we picked out my first kit. My father was a model airplane enthusiast from way back. In those days, they built all of their models from kits. Prefabricated ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) models were not even available at that time. So, from the beginning, I had to learn to build airplanes before I got a chance to fly them.
Years later, I began flying radio control. I started with a 2 meter glider, then moved on to powered flight. The first ARF type of plane I purchased was a Duraplane Aerobat 40. It was supposed to be nearly indestructible. I did eventually manage to destroy it, however. It was heavy and had to be flown at a high rate of speed. What I learned early on is that these prefabricated ARF planes were convenient, but they were a bit heavy and didn’t fly as well as my kit built planes.
The same is true today. The best flying aircraft is one that is built strong, light and true. The old saying goes “build light-flies right” and “build straight-flies great”. When you purchase an ARF or a RTF (Ready To Fly) R/C airplane today, you are most likely purchasing a product that was slapped together in some factory in China as quickly as possible, using the cheapest parts and supplies to get the job done. Admittedly, some ARFs are better than others, but even the good ones do not compare with the quality of a materials you will find in a reputable RC kit.radio strap
Unfortunately, the finished cost of a kit built plane versus a pre-built aircraft is about the same. Because you can purchase a good .40 size RC trainer kit for around $75, it may lead you to believe that it is more economical than purchasing a similar type of ARF plane for somewhere in the market of $110. What you should consider is that you may still have to purchase a fuel tank, wheels, wheel collars, fuel tubing, adhesives, covering material and other items that are not included in your RC kit. Most of the good RC kits will list the required items to finish the job. This alone is enough to steer some folks who are eager to get in the air toward purchasing an AFR or RTF type of plane. Why would you want to purchase something that will take days or weeks to build if it cost about the same as a pre-built aircraft?
The answer for me is simply the enjoyment of the building process. If you like tinkering or using your hands to make things, then you will probably love building an aircraft from an RC kit. But if you are hesitant to attempt to build anything after the disaster with the particle board entertainment center your wife brought home from Wal-mart for you to assemble, give yourself a break. The plans that come in the good kits are usually full-size and very well written. Most folks are at the average skill-level and will do fine building from a kit.
I also realize some people just don’t have any desire to build a plane from a box of parts and pieces. That’s ok. Building an aircraft from a set of plans and a box of assorted balsa and plywood can seem a bit daunting. And, if this is your first time building an RC kit, you may also have to purchase some building materials and tools which will again bring the cost of the plane up. These are all good things to consider. The nice thing about tools however, is that you get to keep them for the next project! .
Also, if you enjoy learning all of the intricacies of your chosen hobby, you should consider building from a kit. I have learned a great deal about aircraft design, building techniques and aerodynamics by assembling my own aircraft. If you are just getting into flying RC airplanes, then the knowledge, skills and ability you gain from building your own aircraft will be invaluable. I would also like to suggest that folks who bought an ARF for their first and/or second aircraft, consider building an RC kit for their next project. It really does take you to a higher level of the hobby. Once you have built a few kits, you will find yourself making slight modifications to personalize or improve your aircraft. You will borrow design ideas from one set of plans and apply them to another. Or you may try something completely different altogether..
I used the (TLAR) design model to make my early aircraft design modifications. Which is a very precise and intricate method that stands for (That Looks About Right)! The first time I tried my hand at modifying a plane was when I found the wing of a crashed glider in the woods near my house. I guess I was about 15 years old at the time. I took a couple of feet of the wing of the crashed glider and attached a solid balsa fuselage to it. Next I added a motor mount, tail feathers and then installed an extra bell crank I had from a previous crashed model. I strapped a .049 motor on it, cranked it up and I was in business! Granted, building a control-line model from scratch is much easier than a RC airplane, but I was still proud of my creation.
The first time I made a modification to a RC airplane was also memorable experience. It was on my .40 size trainer. I had already learned to fly and had moved on to a more aerobatic aircraft. So the trainer had been sitting in the hanger for a while. Then one day, my friend asked me to teach him how to fly. I hadn’t really considered myself an instructor, but I was eager to have a buddy to fly with. These were also the days before I had joined a flying club.
So I dusted off the trainer and took my buddy to a large, empty soccer complex to give him his first flight lesson. He learned very quickly and after flying for a while, we received some attention from the neighborhood kids. This was a fairly normal occurrence. I have always enjoyed the way model airplanes attract children. I guess it reminds me of when I was a kid. In fact, if I have a buddy-box hooked up, I usually allow one or two of the kids to fly for a bit at a decent altitude! On this particular day, one of the more creative kids asked, “Hey Mister, can your plane drop bombs?” Of course I answered no, but the kid inside me thought, “Now that would be cool!”
When I got back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that kid’s question. My creative juices started flowing, and soon I found myself out in the garage dismantling my airplane. I used the knowledge about aircraft design I had gained from kit building to decide on the best place to carry an additional payload. Of course it only made sense to place it over the center of gravity. That way it wouldn’t be nose-heavy or tail-heavy. If I kept it balanced, I felt that the added weight wouldn’t affect the flight characteristics as much. However to my dismay, the receiver, servos, landing gear and battery where already crowded over the center of gravity. So, to make a space for my intended bomb-bay, I had to move the receiver and servo locations toward the rear of the craft. I also had to move the battery forward and then add a small amount of nose weight to keep the plane balanced. The landing gear had to stay put. It really wasn’t that hard.
The next step was to design a hinged door that would open and close via a servo using the extra channel on my 6 channel radio. Voila! The result was a remote control bomb bay that was large enough to fit a grade-AA extra large chicken egg. It worked beautifully! However, we soon had to abandon the “egg-bomb” idea. It ended up being a bit too destructive. It’s amazing what a silly, little egg can do to the hood of a 1972 Dodge Dart from an altitude of a couple hundred feet! Yikes! So, I switched to paratroopers and the kids liked that even better!
I have really enjoyed building and flying model airplanes through the years. The majority of the aircraft I have built and flown have been from RC kits. But I believe the pinnacle of every kit builders career, is when you design and build your first aircraft from scratch, without a set of purchased plans. Scratch-building has turned out to be the most fun and challenging part of the hobby for me. I have learned how to cut my own foam wing cores, boost the power of my engines and make airplane parts from the most unlikely and ordinary items. Talk about being frugal. The last airplane I created cost me all of $20 to build and flew like a bat-out-of-hell!
Although I could probably write a whole book on scratch building, the scope of this article is to discuss the pros and cons of building an airplane from an RC kit as opposed to buying an ARF or a RTF. So, here goes!
The pros are: you will learn a great deal more about the aircraft you are flying, you will learn more about aerodynamics and aviation, you will learn how to modify and improve existing designs, and you may possibly discover a whole new facet of the hobby of RC aircraft to enjoy. The cons are: you may end up spending more money on tools and supplies initially, you will take more time in the workshop before you have an air-worthy ship to fly, and building an aircraft from an RC kit does require a basic level of skill.
The fact is, building airplanes from scratch or from an RC kit is not for everyone. If you are just starting out and are eager to get in the air, then perhaps an ARF trainer would be a better choice for your first plane. If you just don’t have the extra time to dedicate to the hobby right now, then an RTF or ARF might suit you better. But please keep in mind, at some point in the hobby you may want to reconsider building a model airplane from an RC kit. For me, there is a wonderful sense of accomplishment and a feeling of pride when I stand back and admire a newly completed aircraft that has been built from scratch or from a kit. In fact, it is fair to say that I enjoy building just as much as flying. And that’s the truth.