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Written by Chris Mulcahy
RC Helicopters
As seen in the May 2018 issue of
Model Aviation.

This month’s issue of Model Aviation is dedicated to beginners who are learning one aspect or another of our hobby. It seems as though it would be a good time to have a discussion for those who are just starting out with helicopters.

As I think back to when I was learning to fly (and we never really stop learning), there were a number of things that would have helped me progress easier and maybe a little faster.

Helicopters can be daunting to someone who has never really been around them. They look so mechanically complex, with pilots talking about how precisely they are set up and which multitude of settings they tweaked to get them perfectly dialed in.

There is a whole new vernacular that goes along with helis, and half the time it’s as though we are speaking a different language. Even pilots who are crossing over from flying airplanes can be intimidated because the complexity of a helicopter versus an airplane is increased to a level with which they are not familiar. With the addition of flybarless gyros, governors on ESCs, and nitro engines, a new level of digital programming is also introduced.

So where does a new pilot start?

The Local Flying Club

I’m a firm believer in immersing yourself into the subject in which you are interested, regardless of your skill level. You can usually find out where the local helicopter pilots are flying, either through a local hobby shop or a by doing a little searching on any of the online RC forums. After you find out where they are flying—they might already be flying at your local flying club if you are a member of one—go and say hello and tell them that you want to learn to fly helicopters.

I don’t think there is a single helicopter pilot out there who would turn you away. Take a look at the helicopters they are flying and ask questions. They should be more than happy to help you.

Stick Time

Now that you’ve met some helicopter pilots, you want to start putting your hands on the sticks. Where do you go from here? There are a couple of roads that you could take. Before you even purchase a helicopter, you can dive right in on a computer simulator and start learning orientation skills. This is a great way to get started, and the more time you put in at this stage, the more it will pay off down the line.

Another advantage of this method is that you are on your own schedule. Practice whenever you can—squeeze in a few minutes here or there. While you are browsing to decide which heli kit to buy, keep at it on the simulator.

The author’s coworker, Paul, had never flown anything RC, but he was able to immediately start flying by using the RealFlight 8 RC simulator and immersing himself in a virtual reality environment.

There is also the old-school method. Buy a helicopter and learn as you build. I highly recommend building a helicopter from a kit for two reasons. The first is that you will learn how the parts go together, how they move, and what they do. This is great “on-the-job” training. If you get stuck on something, ask the heli pilots whom you’ve already met at the flying club.

The second reason is that when you crash—and you will—you will have a better idea of how to replace parts and repair the helicopter. By the way, don’t worry about the crashing part; it’s a natural part of learning to fly helicopters. All pilots crash, regardless of skill level.

If you decide to build your helicopter first and use it as a trainer, you can ask a pilot if he or she can buddy box with you as you learn to hover. Most will be happy to help.

On the other hand, if you find yourself without anyone local to help you (as I did years ago), you can still fly. When I started learning, there were no helicopter pilots or instructors who could help me. I was on my own. There was also no such thing as a computer simulator. I strapped some training gear to my landing skids and spent many hours learning how to hover and keep it in one place.

The training gear was basically an X brace made up of wooden dowels with small plastic balls on the end of each stick. This made it less likely that the helicopter would tip when it was close to the ground. Using this method, I was able to learn to hover by myself without getting into too much trouble.

What Size Heli?

Ask a dozen pilots what size helicopter to get as your first model and you will receive a dozen different answers. One thing to bear in mind is weight vs. cost. A larger, heavier helicopter will be more stable in the air, but the price of parts might be higher. Although parts for a small heli are less expensive, the aircraft tend to be twitchier and bounce around more in the wind.

There are many prebuilt helicopters available in the smaller size (450 size and below), but my opinion (and take it for what it’s worth) is that any helicopter close to a 550 or 600 size would be perfect to learn with. It has enough weight to handle any wind that you might be flying in, but the parts are still relatively inexpensive. A larger helicopter would be easier to work on if you need to repair it.

The author’s first model helicopter was a Lite Machines LMH-110, complete with training gear strapped to the landing gear to help prevent tip-overs.

What about nitro or electric power? That’s entirely up to your comfort level. Both have their pros and cons. Electric helis are clean and easy to power up and fly, but generally have a shorter flight time than a nitro-powered helicopter (unless you’re Gary Wright—don’t get in line behind him!).

Although nitro helicopters have longer flight times, they are more complex in their setup and are self-lubricating (messy). They also don’t typically have the instant torque/power that an electric helicopter has, but as a new pilot that will not be an issue.

With that stated, nitro helicopters are awesome. They sound cool, they look cool, and when you fly them at night, they get even better!

To sum it up, find some local helicopter pilots or join an online helicopter forum, practice on a simulator or get yourself some training gear, and build your first helicopter from a kit. Ask lots of questions and don’t be intimidated.

There’s no denying that the learning curve for helicopters is steeper than other model aircraft, but the time and effort are well worth it for the rewards you get from flying helis. They challenge your mechanical skills, your technical skills, and your flying skills, and they will always be satisfying!

-Chris Mulcahy


International Radio Controlled Helicopter
Association (IRCHA)


My first attempt with helis. back in the mid 1970's I believe. Fixed pitch on the main blades, no collective, no gyro for the tail. Trimmed the tail for a stable hover and after that you were on your own. I used a K & B .40 with a clamp on heat sink on the head of the motor. Those were the days.

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