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In for a Penny

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/03/2013

In for a pound… Or so the saying goes.

I’m completely, utterly, absolutely hooked on RC gliders now.

I remember back when I was in kindergarten, just before Christmas we had to do an art project in which we drew a boot rather than a stocking – this was Texas, after all – and drew a picture of the thing we most wanted as a present inside the boot. Some of the kids in my class drew pointy-toed boots so they’d have more room to draw stuff. But I knew exactly what I wanted. A stubby-toed boot worked just fine.

When I showed it to my teacher she had to ask, “What is that?” “It’s a remoconchrolplane!” I announced. I think she had to ask three or four times before she finally figured out what I meant. Then she helped me spell “remote control plane”. Never before that day had it occurred to me that it was actually three separate words. Seeing them that way, all sorts of things started to make sense.

I showed the drawing to my parents – this being the entire point of the exercise from the school’s standpoint – and wondered if it might actually come true. Keep in mind when this was happening: 1973. An RC plane of that era had a gas engine, a new-fangled transistorized radio from a company like Kraft, took months of work to build from balsa sheet, and cost more than my parents made in several months. There was just no way.

But my parents tried. There was a plane for me under the tree that year. It was a control-line trainer with a tiny Cox engine that terrified me when it was running. We took it out only once, and not ever having flown before I managed to crash it in the first ten seconds of flight. The plane was made entirely of injection molded plastic, so when the tailplane broke (the only real control surface on the entire airplane) it broke in a way that was practically impossible to repair. My father tried valiantly, but he wasn’t a modeler or a machinist, and the glues he had available to him at that time simply weren’t up to the task. Cox didn’t sell replacement parts, either. In a way it was doomed to fail from the start. But for those ten seconds, I’d flown a remoconchrolplane. My wish really did come true.

Over the years I visited flying fields where people were flying their models. I never had one of my own, but I made a heckuva good spectator. Of all the fields we visited, though, the one that really caught my interest was the glider club that flew in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The flying field had enough space to set up a winch, and lots of room for thermals. When the weather was good, people would launch and fly for what seemed like forever. No scary gas engines – though I was over that phobia by then – just silent giants soaring through the air. I continued to dream. But I was a kid in high school, saving up for college. Dream was all I did.

It wasn’t until this past Christmas, twenty six years after Valley Forge, that I finally got a chance to fly again. I asked Santa for a remoconchrolplane, and he obliged. Since then I’ve been flying my Bixler 2 every chance I can get, and in more conditions than I thought possible. Two kinds of flying really caught my interest: thermal soaring and aerobatic slope soaring.

The requirements for the two couldn’t be more different. Thermal planes tend toward the traditional image of a glider: long, high aspect wings, spindly bodies, low weight, and incredible glide ratios. Aerobatic slope soarers tend to be stockier with less traditional shapes, and are usually made out of some sort of foam to survive the inevitable impacts with the ground, or with each other. You can slope soar a thermal glider just as you can at least try to thermal with a slope soarer. But it helps to have a plane that’s really designed for the task.

The Bixler 2 is a seriously fun plane. It has enough aspect ratio to its wings to make it possible to catch a thermal, and it’s stocky enough to survive slope soaring. But it’s not ideal for either. Without massive thermals it’s a little frustrating to fly that way, and it’s delicate enough that risking a crash just to try a new maneuver on the slopes just isn’t worth it. So I decided to keep using the Bixler 2 for what it’s good at – park flying – and look at other options.

I’ve learned that in the world of RC airplanes, there’s no “next” plane. “Next” carries the connotations that you’re supplanting the original – that something is taking its place. Instead, there’s “another” plane. “Another” implies that you’re adding to your hangar, so to speak, and increasing your options for what you get to fly on any given day.

This is akin to how kite aerial photographers considers their kites. I’ve only had one “next” kite. When I started KAP, I was using a kite that was utterly unsuited to the purpose. So I really did replace it with my “next” kite – an Air Affairs Flow Form 16. From then on, I got “another” kites. The 6′ rokkaku my friend and I made was my first “another”, followed by my Fled. After that came the G-Kites Dopero, the Didakites rokkaku, and the PFK Nighthawk. My original KAP kite is long gone, sold to someone who would no doubt enjoy it more than I did. But the rest all live happily in my kite bag, each waiting for conditions to be right for them to be pulled out and flown.

So I bought some “another” planes to compliment my Bixler 2:

The first was a Zagi 5C wing. There’s a group of people who do slope soaring on the north side of Pololu Valley. The favorite among this group is the Zagi. It’s a 48″ flying wing that was designed for slope soaring, and for what’s called “combat soaring” in which the idea is to try to hit each other and knock each other to the ground. When a plane is “killed” in this fashion, its pilot runs out, picks it up, tosses it back off the cliff, and keeps flying. Hey! What better way to learn slope soaring than with a plane that can take that kind of abuse!

The second was a Le Fish from Leading Edge Gliders. This is a 66″ wide fully aerobatic slope soarer designed by Steve Lange. It’s almost completely neutral in all attitudes of flight (meaning it flies inverted as easily as it flies upright, and can even knife-edge), and like the Zagi, it’s made from EPP foam. And like the Zagi it, too can handle the rough impacts that are part and parcel of learning to fly aerobatic maneuvers close to the ground.

The third was a Raptor 2000 Advance from R2 Hobbies. This is a 2m motor glider that’s designed for thermals and for high speed. R2 Hobbies also sells a non-motorized R2k fuselage for pure thermal flying, but since I don’t have room for a winch or high start, I opted for the motor. The plane is offered in several versions. I went for the one with the Dbox wing construction and flaps. The control surfaces of the Raptor and the Bixler are similar enough that I hope to be able to try out full house glider mixes on the Bixler before applying them to the Raptor.

Which brings me to the last bit of kit I bought: a new radio. The radio I’ve been using – a Turborix 6ch 2.4GHz radio I picked up for KAP work – is a good solid piece of equipment, but it doesn’t offer enough options for setting up a full-house glider. The new radio I chose, a Turnigy 9XR, offers a lot more options for gliders, and should let me set up all four planes just the way I want. And if not, it’s one of the most hackable radios on the planet. The guts of the thing is an AVR processor from Atmel running open source code developed for an earlier Turnigy radio. Want a new mix that the radio doesn’t offer? Write it. And since I did AVR development for robotics several years ago, the language and development environment is familiar territory.

So I’m in for a penny and in for a pound. I’ve got my next radio, three another planes, and probably several months of building and covering to go. True, it didn’t happen in kindergarten when I first caught the spark. But it happened.

– Tom


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