HobbyZone Sportsman S+ RTF

Written by Chad Budreau A technology-evolved electric trainer Complete product review and video Featured in the September 2015 issue of Model Aviation.


Model type: RTF trainer Skill level: Beginner Wingspan: 54.6 inches Length: 35.75 inches Flying weight: 33.5 ounces Battery: 3S 1,300 mAh LiPo (included) Battery charger: DC-powered 3S balancing with AC adapter (included) Power system: 480 brushless motor and 18-amp brushless ESC (included) Radio: Spektrum DX4e four-channel 2.4 GHz DSMX transmitter (included) Flight duration: 10 minutes Optional accessories: E-flite EFC-721 HD camera Price: $399.99


• GPS-enabled features such as AutoLand and Virtual Fence. • Nice semiscale look. • Great trainer airframe, even without GPS and SAFE+. • A good size for new pilots. • Assembles in roughly an hour.


• Preflight setup and calibration is cumbersome. • Wheels are small for grass runways.

Product Review

The HobbyZone Sportsman S+ is based on its popular predecessor, a time-tested, reliable trainer. The S+ in the name represents SAFE technology coupled with GPS. SAFE+, AS3X, and GPS are seamlessly integrated into a proven trainer airframe. Not surprising, it created a lot of buzz months before it even hit the market. First, let me offer some background on SAFE technology. SAFE gives pilots the ability to set the aircraft into beginner, intermediate, or expert mode, depending on the pilot’s skill level. The beginner mode fully activates SAFE. As a pilot becomes more comfortable flying, he or she can set the aircraft to intermediate mode via the transmitter. The intermediate mode keeps SAFE technology active, but at a subdued level. A pilot can eventually graduate to expert level. In expert mode, SAFE technology is completely turned off. Throughout all modes, AS3X remains active. The technology is designed to help prevent the aircraft from entering into extreme or potentially dangerous flight conditions. What really sets this trainer apart is the GPS integration. The GPS feature adds a new level to SAFE technology—now branded as SAFE+. Novice pilots can easily misjudge perspective and distance when flying. The Sportsman S+ can identify no-fly zones and prevent the aircraft from flying more than 650 feet from the runway. GPS integration also helps the aircraft autonomously perform a holding pattern and even autonomously land. I’ll discuss these features later in the review.


The package includes a 3S 1,300 mAh LiPo battery with charger, a nearly assembled aircraft, and a DX4e transmitter with batteries. I was surprised that the battery was so small. Other similar-sized SAFE aircraft such as the Apprentice S included a 3,200 mAh LiPo battery. As with most technology, GPS functionality tends to drain the battery life. As I will discuss later in this review, the 1,300 mAh LiPo surprisingly packs enough power to maintain decent flight times. There is an optional camera mount that adheres on top of the wing, designed for the E-flite 720 HD video camera (EFLA801) that can be purchased separately.
The aircraft comes out of the box almost fully assembled, with everything you need to complete and fly the model.


Assembling the Sportsman S+ from Horizon Hobby was quick and easy. Much of the aircraft was preassembled with decals out of the box. In a few steps, I installed the main landing gear, added the horizontal stabilizer, and attached the preassembled main wing. The manual includes plenty of clearly labeled photos. I was pleased to see that the LiPo battery charger included adapters to charge it either in the car or by using an AC outlet. Charge time ranges from 30 to 60 minutes, so I recommend purchasing an extra battery or two, which can easily be found for less than $30. There is enough room to fit a larger battery in the fuselage, but ideally you should stick with a 3S 1,300 mAh LiPo because the added weight could adversely affect SAFE+ or the center of gravity.

Setting Up GPS Functionality

Before flying the Sportsman S+, I spent quite a bit of time reading the manual. Don’t assume that you can simply take off and everything will magically work. There are important steps required to activate the GPS-enabled SAFE+ technology. Each time the Sportsman S+ is powered on, the flier needs to wait roughly 10 to 60 seconds until the aircraft locks down its GPS coordinates. During this process, the receiver and radio remain bound, but the aircraft is programmed to remain idle. The first few times I powered on the Sportsman S+, it seemed as though either the transmitter or receiver was not communicating. I even tried to bind different transmitters to the aircraft, hoping to resolve what I thought was a communication problem. Eventually I learned that I simply needed to patiently wait until the GPS was locked before I could conduct a preflight check. Ten to 60 seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but for eager pilots, it may seem like an eternity. The wait is worth the gained functionality. After the GPS is locked, the Sportsman S+ will wake up. At this point, the pilot should calibrate the GPS. This isn’t required for every flight, but should be done before the maiden flight and when flying at a new location. This multistep process involves triggering the calibration mode using the transmitter and rotating the aircraft through a series of 10 positions. The process can seem overwhelming, but after the first few calibrations it becomes second nature below is a video from Horizon Hobby outlining the calibration process.

The GPS is separate from the receiver and sits near the midpoint of the fuselage.

After calibration is complete and the GPS is located, you can take advantage of its features. By default, the Sportsman S+ is set to Virtual Fence Park mode. This mode uses GPS to establish a 650-foot flying radius from the center of the runway—envision a large, invisible circle as the fly zone. The Sportsman S+ can fly freely within this area, but as it approaches the virtual fence, the aircraft will autonomously turn back toward the center of the runway. This prevents the model from flying out of sight or into a no-fly zone. I recommend setting the Sportsman S+ to the Virtual Fence Airfield mode. This mode establishes a 1,300 x 650-foot flying box. By positioning the boundary of the Virtual Fence Airfield along the edge of the runway, the aircraft is prevented from flying out of line-of-site or from accidentally flying over the pilot and pit area. The boundary could also be set to avoid flying over spectator areas, roads, buildings, or other no-fly zones.
Read about how to set up the Virtual Fence Airfield in the manual. The photo above is from page 16 in the manual.

To program Virtual Fence Airfield mode, first power up the aircraft while holding the throttle stick down and the left stick down and to the right. The Sportsman S+ will remain in airfield mode until it is deactivated by a similar procedure outlined in the manual. Now that Virtual Fence Airfield mode is activated, turn off the Sportsman S+ and place it on the edge of the runway facing away from the pilot area. You’ll want to make sure the aircraft is positioned along the edge near the middle point of the runway. Power on the aircraft and wait for it to lock down GPS. Once completed, the Sportsman S+ will make several ascending tones. In order to program the runway’s location and wind direction, place the aircraft in the center of the runway while facing into the wind. Secure the Sportsman S+ and give it full throttle for a few seconds. The first time the aircraft reaches full throttle, it locks the GPS coordinates as the center of the runway. If you are not at the center of the runway and initially run full throttle after powering on, you will inadvertently assign the wrong runway GPS coordinates. Keep this in mind during a preflight check or while taxiing. After the initial full-throttle run to assign the runway coordinates, the pilot can run full throttle again and not accidentally reassign the runway coordinates.


Takeoffs from the runway were smooth. As with other SAFE-enabled aircraft, in beginner mode the Sportsman S+ practically takes off by itself. Although the model is capable of grass takeoffs or hand launches, I opted to fly from geotextile and concrete runways. The wheel pants look great, but I feared the smaller wheels and pants could be a problem in thick grass. The aircraft flew extremely well, as expected with SAFE+ and AS3X integration. In later flights, I flew in 20 mph winds. Although affected by the wind, the Sportsman S+ still handled well, especially in beginner mode. In expert mode and in calmer conditions, I conducted some mild aerobatics such as loops. As with most high-wing trainers, the Sportsman S+ loses a lot of altitude when performing rolls, but generally it performed basic aerobatics without any problems.
The Sportsman S+ is an ideal size and is well marked to help beginner pilots maintain orientation.

When the Sportsman S+ hits the Virtual Fence, it banks to turn away from the no-fly zone.

The Sportsman S+ can be configured to AutoLand.

The aircraft’s size is nearly perfect for beginners. It’s small enough to transport in a car, but large enough to easily see 650 feet away. There is enough definition in the paint scheme and markings under the wing for new pilots to maintain visual orientation. Eager to test GPS functionality, I found that when I raced the Sportsman S+ to the border of the no-fly zone, it autonomously took control and turned the aircraft back toward the center of the runway. It continued to slowly fly back for a few seconds until the system returned control to me. My first experience during this autonomous flight was slightly surreal. No matter how many times I moved the sticks on the radio, the airplane uninterruptedly flew calmly and safely away from the no-fly zone for a few seconds. Instead of waiting for the system to grant the flier control while in autonomous mode, the pilot can instantly regain control by tapping the HP/AL button on the top left of the transmitter. In later tests, I tried to override the model’s no-fly zone safety feature by tapping the HP/AL button as it banked away from the no-fly zone border. The Sportsman S+ only allowed me to override the autonomous system after it was pointed safely away from the no-fly zone. The only way to fly into no-fly zones is to reassign the boundaries or to shut off the GPS. Unlike the previous generation of SAFE technology, the Sportsman S+ does not have a panic button. My initial reaction was that this was a bad decision, but I soon changed my mind. The panic button in previous SAFE-enabled aircraft saved the model from doom by helping the pilot regain level flight. Although there is no dedicated panic button on the DX4e, the feature is still available on the Sportsman S+ by simply letting go of the sticks. Surprisingly, the recovery is almost as snappy as activating the panic button on other SAFE-enabled aircraft and transmitters. An additional feature to help a pilot in trouble or one who has lost orientation is activated by tapping the HP/AL button. The Sportsman S+ will autonomously fly at a 120-foot altitude, approach the center of the runway, and fly a circular pattern until the pilot takes back control by again tapping the HP/AL button or changing flight modes. When in Virtual Fence Airfield mode, the Sportsman S+ cannot fly in a holding pattern directly over the runway because this would cause it to fly into a GPS-identified no-fly zone over the pilot pit area. The aircraft instead flies in a circular holding pattern near the midpoint along the opposite side of the runway. I like that the HP/AL button on the DX4e is a push button and not a toggle switch as on previous RTF radios bound to SAFE-enabled aircraft. With previous radios such as the DX5e, I have seen a new pilot accidentally toggle on expert mode instead of the panic switch because the two buttons were close in proximity and feel. The DX4e’s layout helps prevent that mishap. Manually landing this high-wing trainer is easy as it glides down the runway. Learning how to line up with the runway takes practice and can be challenging, even for intermediate pilots. The Sportsman S+ helps new pilots safely land with its autonomous AutoLand feature. By holding the HP/AL button for three seconds, the model autonomously navigates to the end of the runway and gradually descends downwind. No stick inputs are necessary during the AutoLand, but a pilot can assist by helping the Sportsman S+ avoid obstacles or compensate for sudden wind changes. During my AutoLand tests, the Sportsman S+ would line up with the runway almost perfectly. I even tried to trick the aircraft by lining up going with the wind instead of into it. As soon as I held the HP/AL button to activate AutoLand, the aircraft wisely gained altitude, flew to the other end of the runway, and made a descent into the wind. In my early AutoLand tests, the Sportsman S+ landed left of the runway on the grass. During one landing, the front wheel was slightly bent, requiring me to straighten it. After recalibrating the GPS, it performed much better in AutoLand mode. Roughly a third of the time, the aircraft hit the mark perfectly. The remaining landings were smooth, and were only off center by 3 to 10 feet. Still impressive! Considering the small battery, flight times are surprisingly good. Even with GPS running, the Sportsman S+ had approximately 10 minutes of flight time.


The Sportsman S+ definitely takes SAFE to a new level. It even caught the attention of Michael Smith, the National Model Aviation Museum director, who is placing this aircraft in an exhibit as an example of model aviation technology advancements. This is a great beginner aircraft. Clubs can confidently use it to train new members or invite the community to try flying. Although it has many autonomous features, it is not a replacement for a pilot instructor. There are still too many variables and knowledge that can only by obtained from a skilled pilot.


Horizon Hobby (800) 338-4639 www.hobbyzonerc.com


Spektrum (800) 338-4639 www.spektrumrc.com

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