What Is Free Flight?

Written by Robert Sifleet A brief overview of the original form of model aviation Feature As seen in the September 2019 issue of Model Aviation.

gas model
01. This is a good representation of a Class A Gas model.

If you are looking for new model aviation challenges, it is time to try flying Free Flight (FF). Model aviation originated with FF and it continues to be popular for both sport and competition fliers. FF is a challenging and rewarding hobby and sport. Instead of being a handicap, the absence of control over the model during its flight is what gives FF its appeal.

Simple indoor and outdoor models can provide rewarding performance at a low cost and are easy to build. Building and flying high-performance models requires skill and experience, but the challenges can be large and equally rewarding. Launching a FF airplane into a perfect climbing power pattern and watching it circle and soar toward the clouds in a thermal is a thrill that keeps FF modelers involved for a lifetime.

an unlimited rubber-powered model
02. An Unlimited rubber-powered model at the start of a 1-minute motor run. Models in this class are capable of 5-minute flight times without thermal help.
jim oriley assists a
03. Jim O’Riley assists a young pilot with his P-30 rubberpowered model.
F1D-class indoor model
04. An F1D-class indoor model climbing out for a 20-minute flight inside the Tustin Blimp Hangar at the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin CA.
hand-launch glider
05. Two outdoor Hand-Launch Glider pilots with their discus-launched models.

FF model airplanes follow the wind and rising thermal currents of warm air. They set their own course and are free from any control from the ground. If you have ever tossed a folded paper airplane or a dime-store balsa glider, you have flown FF in its basic form.

FF aircraft can be grouped into two types: indoor and outdoor. Indoor models are lightweight, slow-flying models powered by twisted rubber band strips driving a large propeller. They are flown in school gymnasiums, auditoriums, or larger venues. Suitable flying sites are available in most locations.

Indoor FF is one of the least expensive and simplest ways to get started. Imagine what it is like to watch a 2-gram model make a flight of more than 20 minutes! Hand-Launch and Catapult Gliders are popular, as are many other types of small, lightweight aircraft. Many people fly small, scale models that replicate their favorite full-scale airplane.

electricpowered models
06. E-36 electricpowered models have become popular because they are easy to build and inexpensive.

Outdoor models are typically larger and heavier than indoor ones. Advanced aircraft can glide up to 5 minutes or more after 5 to 10 seconds of powered flight. Competition aircraft are equipped with mechanical or electronic timers that limit the motor run times and operate devices (dethermalizers) to bring the model safely back to earth after the desired flight time has been achieved.

There are multiple classes of FF gliders (some are launched with a 50-meter line and others are tossed by hand), stick-and-tissue rubber band-powered aircraft, and glow- or diesel-powered models. There are also events for larger gas airplanes and increasingly popular electric models, but those often require advanced building and flying skills.

For those who would like to compete with the most advanced and high-tech aircraft, there are four FAI world championship events—F1A Glider, F1B Rubber Powered, F1C Engine Powered, and F1D Rubber-Powered Indoor. These models utilize advanced aerodynamic technology and construction techniques. There are ready-to-fly airplanes that are available for these FAI classes. For those who desire to create their own models, custom-built parts are available.

Some competitors strive to make the USA FF World Championship team to compete against modelers from other countries for the chance to become a world champion. These events are held alternating years at various venues worldwide.

When flying FF, a modeler can make as many flights as desired in a day because several aircraft can be flown at the same time without conflict for airspace. It is not uncommon to see five to 10 models enjoying the same thermal, soaring majestically downwind.

The grace and beauty of model airplanes flying freely and without restraint is an important source of enjoyment provided by FF. There is an air of magic and mystery in watching your own creation soar and rise, powered by the sun and the wind. It is a source of satisfaction that never grows old.

To start flying FF, it helps to join the National Free Flight Society (NFFS). Its website is listed in "Sources." The website includes listings of FF clubs and contact persons, a contest calendar, technical library, FF model suppliers, and much more. NFFS members receive the bimonthly FF Digest that contains 40 pages of articles, model plans, contest listings, and results.

Bob Hatschek, a prominent modeler and designer extraordinaire, wrote about what FF meant to him. I feel it describes what FF is all about and I shared it above.

Come join us.




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The first Wakefield competition was in 1911. There was a pause for the Great War and it resumed in 1928. There have occasionally been major changes in the rules, making it essentially a different event. http://www.endlesslift.com/wakefield-challenge-cup-competition-centennial/ A major interest in Free Flight is the Flying Aces Club, which emphasizes rubber powered scale models. www.FlyingAcesClub.com

Awesome!!!! Love the article !!!!

Free Flight is awesome. That is one reason there should be no altitude limit on model aircraft. Together we can remove all altitude limits. Keep up the good work.

In 1949 I made my first flight with a Wasp powered Fubar. I vividly remember that flight out in the east pasture on the Nebraska ranch where I grew up. I've been wanting to recreate this peak experience ever since. This is a well written, moving description of free flight--especially at the end. Sifleet may have hooked me back into free flight.

Powered aeroplanes and drones are altitude limited to normal visual sight but no greater 400ft AGL unless in 'Controlled' airspace. How does the CAA/FAA rules affect Free Flight flying ?

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