Globally, there are lots of good helicopters to choose from. It all depends on mainly how much you want to spend, but also what type of flying you want to do now and in the future.
Types & Configurations
Selecting an RC helicopter can be a daunting task, especially for the beginner. The first step is to know your options. To begin, we will examine the different types and configurations of RC helicopters available.
RC helicopter rotor blades can be fixed pitch or collective pitch. An RC helicopter relies on the lift generated by its rotors. These rotors are comparable to the airfoil on the wing of an airplane. When the blades are locked at one angle, we refer to the RC Heli as a fixed pitch. This means that the blades always cut into the air at the same angle. This design has several advantages. The design is simpler, more durable, and easier, and therefore cheaper to manufacture. The overall cost of a fixed pitch RC helicopter will be less than the cost of a comparable collective pitch model. The major disadvantage of the fixed pitch design is that the vertical component of flight becomes less controllable. Because the angle at which the blades cut through the air is constant, the only way to vary the amount of lift produced is to increase the rate at which the blades spin. This is accomplished by increasing the engine speed. The problem with this system is that because of inertia, the speed of the engine cannot be changed or controlled as rapidly as the servo you would use to control vertical thrust in a collective pitch RC helicopter.
In a collective pitch RC helicopter, the angle of the blades is changed to control the amount of upward thrust. Unlike a fixed pitch helicopter, when the command is given for the helicopter to climb or descend, the pitch of the rotor blades changes, and the engine speed remains constant. The servo controlling the pitch of the blades (and the climb rate of the RC helicopter) only has to alter the position of the rotors, which can be done rapidly with relatively little resistance. This is capable of a more rapid response than the engine having to accelerate the entire drive train and rotors up to a new speed. Clearly, the collective pitch design provides better control but at a higher price.
Cyclic pitch is the term applied to an RC helicopter which maneuvers by changing the pitch of each individual blade at different points along the path of rotation, causing them to generate more thrust on one side of the RC helicopter than the other. This will tilt the RC helicopter and result in a horizontal motion.
An important option is known as autorotation. In a fixed-wing aircraft, if the engine were to stop, the plane becomes a glider with the wings still producing lift. The same can happen in an RC helicopter that is equipped with auto rotation. In an RC helicopter without auto-rotation, the engine is connected to the rotors without the ability to disengage – meaning that if the engine were to stop, the blades would do the same. This would result in the pilot losing control and the helicopter crash. With auto-rotation, the blades will spin freely during an engine failure. They will still generate some lift, allowing the pilot to maintain control and land. This is normally accomplished by a one-way clutch or bearing. Autorotation is a good feature to have because it may save your RC helicopter if the engine were to fail.
When manufacturers refer to the size of a helicopter they are most likely talking about the displacement of the engine, rather than the size of the helicopter itself. Engine displacement commonly ranges from .30 to .90 cubic inches. Each size has its advantages and disadvantages, and these will be examined in-depth in part two of this guide. For now, though, the rule of thumb is that a larger engine is more powerful and will burn more fuel.
Pod and boom is a term applied to the type of helicopter where the body is composed of a ‘pod’ where the radio, engine, gears, and other components are kept. The ‘boom’ is the part of the helicopter that holds the tail rotor. This is a common type of RC helicopter, accounting for the majority of the models available. This is different from the scale model style, where the entire model is designed to look just like the real thing. These generally have large fuselages which make them easier to see. They are also more aerodynamic. But for the beginner, pod and boom design is recommended, because of availability and durability.
Nitro vs Electric RC Helicopters
One of the first decisions you are going to have to make is if you want to purchase an electric or nitro-powered RC helicopter. They both have great features and in the end, it all comes down to a matter of preference, exactly how much time you have to devote to the hobby, and how much you want to spend on your new hobby.
Electric Radio Controlled helicopters present a great option for novice RC helicopter pilots. In general, you will usually find that they are a little less expensive and require less maintenance than their counterparts. There is much less of an aspect of maintenance required with them also, therefore electric RC helicopters will take up less of your time. Another feature of electric RC helicopters is that they run much quieter than nitro helicopters, but this may be a negative to some people. All in all, electric RC helicopters are a great way to start out in the hobby.
Pros of Electric RC Helicopters
- Cheaper start-up costs
- Not a lot of maintenance
- Quicker power up
- You do not have to buy expensive gasoline for the engine
- Quieter operation
- Easier to operate
- Will generally be more powerful than a nitro RC helicopter
Cons of Electric RC Helicopters
- Shorter flying times
- Crashes can result in battery breakage which can be very expensive to replace
- Must charge the battery between flights
Nitro Radio Controlled helicopters tend to be a popular choice for the more experienced RC Helicopter pilots. Once you get into the hobby, you will find out why the nitro models can be absolutely addicting. Nitro models are more like flying the real thing. They operate on a petroleum mixture known as Nitro which creates an authentic sound that is actually quite exciting to a lot of enthusiasts. It is almost as though you are flying a real helicopter!
Nitro helicopters will also require a bit of maintenance after their flights, you will have to clean and maintain the parts and engine of the helicopter so that it won’t break down on future flights. While this may be considered a negative for the casual hobbyist, this is part of the lure of the people who like nitro RC Helicopters.
Now they obviously run on nitro and there is no way to get around the cost of this. If you fly them on a steady basis, you could realistically spend well over $1500 a year on gasoline. Compare that to the cost of about $800 for of a few good batteries for an electric RC helicopter and you can see how some people may find this reason enough to stay away from nitro RC helicopters. For the purist though, this is just a cost to be justified in order to have a more realistic flying experience.
Pros of a Nitro PC Helicopter
- More realistic flying experience
- Shorter time between flights
- Less damage usually incurred during a crash
- Longer flight times
Cons of a Nitro PC Helicopter
- Nitro can be very expensive
- Helicopters require more maintenance (enthusiasts find this is a lure to nitro helicopters)
- Power-up time can be longer
- Most not as powerful as electric
- Require a little more knowledge to fly (i.e. combustion engine tune-ups, etc)
When you initially look at all of the pros and cons of each type of RC helicopter, on the surface it may seem that an electric one would be much more attractive, but the more involved you become in the hobby, you will find that a lot of the features that may be considered as cons for the novice are actually pros for the veteran pilot.
An honest recommendation would be to start out with a lower-cost electric radio-controlled helicopter until you get the hang of the hobby. As you get more involved, you will find that you will naturally purchase a variety of helicopters to fly and during that expansion, you can start to experiment with the nitro helicopters and get a feel for what is required in owning one of them.
You may find that you, like many enthusiasts, get hooked on the upkeep of the nitro helicopter just as much as the actual flying of it. As we stated earlier though, in the end, it is simply a matter of preference. Once you get involved in the hobby, you are more than likely going to make plenty of friends that are also involved in the hobby and you will have ample opportunity to try out more expensive electric helicopters and plenty of nitro helicopters to give you a better idea of what you will enjoy more.
RTF, ARF, or a Kit?
Most R/C helicopters come mainly in three different packages, RTF, ARF, and Kit.
RTF (Ready To Fly)
The RTF means that you will find everything you need inside the box when you buy it. Most electric R/C helicopters come in this form. On the other hand, nitro R/C helicopter RTF packages are rare but available, at least online. RTF RC helicopters are ideal for people with little or no time for the assembling process.
ARF (Almost Ready-To-Fly)
ARF means you are going to do some of the dirty work. You might have to buy separately and install the blades, engine, or some other parts to have a complete R/C helicopter. The ARF is also a good choice for people who have minimal time for the assembly process.
KIT (Fully Disassembled)
The Kit comes in hundreds of unassembled parts, and you have to assemble it piece by piece. People with time, who are mechanically inclined or are willing to be, can have the most fun with them.
Kits allowed me to truly grasp the inner working of an RC helicopter. This helped me to know precisely how to replace the broken parts, every time I crashed my helicopters. However, these are only some of the positive aspects, and building a kit might not be the experience you are looking for.
Now that you are familiar with the different types of RC helicopters available, you are ready to make an informed choice on the type of model to buy. We will show you different points to consider when buying your first RC helicopter in the rows below.
Globally, there are lots of good helicopters to choose from. It all depends mainly on how much you want to spend, but also on what type of flying you want to do now and in the future.
When you’re looking to buy a helicopter, you’ve got to take into account a number of things. Some of these are:
- How much it costs. Obviously important in any purchasing decision.
- What support exists for it. Who is the dealer for this particular model? What’s their reputation like?
- How much do the parts cost? Eventually you’re gonna crash. How much is it gonna cost to put the machine together again? How quickly are the parts available?
- Local knowledge. It’s always a good idea to get a helicopter that others at your field are familiar with. That way when you have problems, they’ll be able to assist you.
- Build quality. What’s this helicopter’s reputation? Does it fit with the kind of flying style you see yourself doing in the future?
Key things to consider before buying RC helicopters:
What Size RC Helicopter Should You Buy – Small vs. Large RC Helis
This is the first choice you will need to make when you buy an RC helicopter. There are different sizes of helicopters, and these sizes relate to the size of the engine in the helicopter.
Many people that are looking to take up the hobby often ask, “What size RC Helicopter should I buy?” While the smaller helicopters tend to be less expensive, they are also harder to control. Larger helicopters need more flying room, but they are more versatile, and easier to fly, especially with precision parts. So, many hobbyists often say that big helis are the best. There are some pros and cons and you have some other important factors to consider.
Today, the number of choices has increased significantly and you can now come across a full-sized nitro or electric model, co-axial electric helis, fully functional palm-size 4-channel helis, and more. How do you select which one is best for you?
The selection procedure needs to follow certain rules. Before getting into the details, let us concentrate on a few important factors. The cost can be a huge factor, the learning curve is also an important aspect, and you don’t want a too complicated system if you’re just starting out. Here are some of the reasons why experts prefer to suggest large RC Helicopters:
- Stability: Big RC Helis are far more stable than the smaller ones in terms of balance. This makes them easier to control.
- Wind: Because of their mass, the big RC Helis do not easily get disoriented. They are therefore easier to control because of enhanced stability.
- Visibility: The big ones are easily visible when they fly high. This allows for a more controlled experience as you can easily see the motion and movement.
- Repairing: It is easy to work on the larger RC Helis. In case of any damage caused while flying them, the damaged parts can be easily replaced or repaired because of their bigger size as compared to the smaller ones.
There are a few downsides of buying large RC Helis:
- they are far costlier than the smaller ones.
- the repair work can be costly as well if damaged.
- operating the bigger helis is also costly because of the fact that the accessories required to operate them are not cheap.
So, large RC helicopters are more expensive, on average, to repair after crashes.
Once you have done some research and are ready to make your purchase there are a few other important factors to consider.
- Place: Where do you intend to fly your RC Heli? This is an important aspect that should not be overlooked. If outdoor flying is your primary target, going for a larger one is good but, if you intend to fly indoors, it makes more sense to purchase a smaller model.
- Commitment: Determine the level of commitment that you have. If you are a recreational pilot who plans to fly the RC Heli 2-3 times a week or only for a few hours during the weekends, going for larger heli is likely not you’re the best bet. Buying a bigger one makes sense only when you are serious about your hobby and you can devote as much time as you can for the same.
- Expertise: As mentioned the larger helis come with many more accessories, and controls. They are much harder to learn than the basic models. When you are researching websites or shopping for your purchase the bigger shiny ones will be appealing right away. Salespeople also will push the larger helis on you as they want to make a good dollar on the transaction.
While learning the basic controls can be easier on a larger advanced model, there are going to be mishaps and they can be costly. It is always best to consult with a veteran flyer before you set out to purchase your heli. Budget definitely plays a big decisive role and likely will be your end decision. It is extremely important that you learn before you buy, otherwise, you may very well be buying another one, if you get into trouble and wreck your new purchase.
Servicing: What about finding replacement parts in case your RC Heli is damaged during learning? Is there an outlet that can repair and service your heli. This is an important factor as when you start out you will need to make repairs. Hopefully not often, but you should have a resource nearby.
Many models are pretty straightforward and you can make DYI repairs. Props, or landing arms, etc. are pretty straightforward. Typically most places that sell helis will also service them. It is always best to do your research and gather as much information as you can about the various models available.
Sizing: As with some things in life, size does matter. When we are talking RC Copters there are a number of sizes available. It is important to understand that with the bigger sizing come more controls and potentially a more difficult learning requirement.
- Some sizes include Micro Helis, these little dandies are quite small typically 500grams with a 40-60cm rotor. The pitch on these are generally fixed which makes them a great learner copter.
- The Mini Heli’s are just a bit bigger with regard to the rotor as well the options. When you get into the Mini’s your pitch control options come into play.
- The next step up would be the small to normal sizing; these vary in weight usually between 2-4kg. The rotors get considerably bigger here also about double that of the micro and minis.
- The top of the line are large and ultra-large. These are ultimate RC’s and generally only used by trained professionals. The larger type (60-90 nitro) has rotors over 200cm in length.
- Going a step up above large and your talking professional piloting here, most of these copters are run by way of gas turbines, and petroleum motors. And they have a very large rotor span.
Consider all the factors seriously before you make a purchase. It is always better to speak to some expert RC Heli pilot to get help. Flying RC Helis is great fun, and you must consider all size options before going for any one of them.
How much it costs
Obviously important in any purchasing decision. However, there is more to consider than just initial cost when purchasing the model – the fuel that the helicopter will use, the availability of parts for the helicopter, the average repair costs for the helicopter, and the learning curve involved in flying the helicopter.
What support exists for it
Who is the dealer for this particular model? What’s their reputation like?
How much do the parts cost?
Eventually, you’re gonna crash. How much is it gonna cost to put the machine together again? How quickly are the parts available?
Depending on the kit you purchase, you may need to buy additional parts, such as servos, receivers, an engine, probably a gyro – and don’t forget the radio!
You should also purchase any additional tools you will need at this time. You will need ball, nut and screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers to assemble it. You may also want to purchase specialty tools like ball link pliers and a pitch gauge to make the assembly that much easier when you buy your RC helicopter.
It’s always a good idea to get a helicopter that others in your field are familiar with. That way when you have problems, they’ll be able to assist you.
What’s this helicopter’s reputation? Does it fit with the kind of flying style you see yourself doing in the future?
Should You Buy a New or Used RC helicopter:
- Most new RC helicopters are sold in kit form, with the consumer assembling the product. This can be a problem for the novice, as kits can have several hundred parts.
- If buying used, ask to see the RC helicopter flown. It normally does not matter if the RC helicopter was ever crashed, as long as the broken parts have been replaced.
- If you are unsure about the condition of the RC helicopter, you can always ask another pilot to look at it with you.
Operating Costs of RC helicopters:
- Visit your local hobby store and look at the various parts you will need. The cost of replacement parts is important.
- Find out what kind of fuel or batteries your RC helicopter uses. Costs vary depending upon the amount of nitro in the fuel or the number and capacity of lipo cells.
- If you plan to become a member of your local rc club, consider the membership costs.
Where to Buy RC helicopters:
Consider these points when choosing where to buy your RC helicopter.
- There are many online hobby stores. These stores usually have lower prices than conventional hobby stores due to the increased number of sales.
Obtaining your RC helicopter at an online establishment usually means you can get your heli sooner, even if it is out of stock. A conventional hobby store can take weeks to restock a part you might need.
- When purchasing your helicopter on the web, it can be harder to find exactly what you need. Instead of being able to ask a store representative to help you find what you need in person, look for the availability of ‘live help’ or ‘live chat’ features.
- If you do purchase your helicopter online, make sure that the organization is respectable, and that they will stand behind their product.
- At a hobby store, you can actually see and touch the items you are buying. This helps when comparing brands and to get a feel for the scale/size of the RC helicopters.
- Also, the dealer will most likely have several used models available. When the time comes to get a new RC helicopter, these can be a good deal.
Which model is best for me?
If you’re just learning, choose a 50-sized model; again, the nitro is larger and easier to work with, so makes a good “beginning” helicopter, and it’s also more stable than electric. In addition, once you become more adept as a pilot, you can truly do 3-D aerobatics with this type of helicopter. If you want to keep within a budget, choose a 30-sized model to start, although you’ll want at least a 50-sized model for the aerobatics. If you’re going to stay entirely away from aerobatics, then a 30 is both economical and enjoyable.
How to choose the equipment: transmitters, servos, gyros, main blades, tail blades, paddles, and field equipment
You need a transmitter that handles at least six channels; the new “Spread Spectrum” systems from companies like Futaba operate on 24 GHz and don’t affect other radio systems. This means you won’t have to worry about interference from someone else in a nearby field. You’ll probably spend between $300 and $500, but you literally never outgrow it can use it forever. Seven channels may be best because this has features not found on six channel models.
Servos and gyros
Servos are electronic devices that turn electrical signals to mechanical action (your car has them, too). Different models will have different requirements for servos, which are made by speed and torque. For radio-controlled helicopters, these control the tail rotor pitch, the throttle, and the swashplate. Most electric helicopters will need four servos: three to control the swashplate and one to control the tail rotor pitch. In general, you’ll use three identical servos for the swashplate and one high-speed digital rudder servo in addition. They start at about $25 for small electric helicopters or about 40 for nitro models.
You also need a gyro to control the tail rotor. The most popular of these is probably the Futaba GY401, with matching servo S9254. You can get the servo and gyro together for less than $200.
Main Blades, tail blades, and paddles
Every radio-controlled helicopter needs blades; some kits have them, and for some, you’ll need to buy them separately. Use wood rotor blades if you just starting, because they’re a lot less expensive to replace. These are among the first things that break when you crash, which is common when you’re just starting. Fiberglass blades are common, but carbon fiber blades are more popular now than they have become more affordable, too. These can also usually handle all 3-D maneuvers. Then there are a few new products to the market manufactured by KBDD. They currently make a number of high-performance tail blades and dampeners with soon-to-be-released blades and paddles. They make the composite plastic blades that everyone thinks is carbon, as they are so durable.
If you choose a nitro helicopter, you’ll need field equipment that consists of a glow igniter, fuel pump, starter wand, and starter motor. There are all-inclusive kits sold that can start a 30 to 50 sized helicopter easily.
by Gilberto Dobiesz