Check it out: Knowing what you're getting into helps. Reading the rest of this article will be a good start but there are also many excellent books and videos that cover all aspects of building, flying, aerobatics, etc.
Find an instructor: With an instructor, you'll learn faster, and with less frustration, than you can on your own. If the instructor has a radio with a buddy box (trainer system) feature, you'll be able to buy a compatible radio and learn to fly with less risk to your plane. There are a number of different ways to find an instructor. Check with friends in the hobby. Check the phone book for flying clubs. Attend Fun Fly events (see newspapers or free circulars for dates & times), and ask around. Of course, one of the best sources of club information is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). You can call them at 1-317-287-1256 or write to: 5151 East Memorial Drive, Muncie, IN 47302 and ask for the location of the club nearest you.
How much does it cost?
A lot depends on your budget. You can spend as little as $100.00 or as much as $1000.00 on assembling the basics. Average cost for a complete (but no frills) beginner's package, however, still runs around $250- $400.
How fast does a model go?
Trainers usually cruise at 25-30 mph and can land at speeds as slow as 12-15 mph. However, there are also unmodified, off-the-shelf airplanes that can deliver speeds of up to 200 mph!
How far can a model fly?
The range for a modern R/C system is about a mile. However, to maintain control, you need to have your model close enough to tell what it is doing. Even a plane with a 5-6 foot wingspan looks tiny at half a mile.
What happens if I run out of fuel in flight?
Contrary to popular belief, you have control even if your engine stops running. You just glide your plane in for a "dead stick" landing. The radio system has its own batteries for power.
After reviewing the Flying Basics below, you should have a good idea of the design characteristics you will want in your first plane and certainly more than ready to get started. After practicing the basics of flying and gaining some confidence "behind the sticks", you will want to explore the many other exciting styles of R/C aircraft.
Aerodynamics: To fly, an airplane's wing has to overcome gravity by developing lift greater than the weight of the plane. Since it can't do that standing still, airplanes use thrust...force directed backwards...to drive the wing forward through the air and generate lift. However, thrust has its own opposition to overcome in the form of drag - the resistance of the air to a body moving through it. If lift and thrust are greater than gravity and drag, the potential for flight...and fun...is there.
Wing Location: Wing placement, for the most part, falls into two major categories: high wing design and low wing design. In a high wing design, the weight of the model is suspended below the wing. When the model tilts, the model's weight tends to try to return the model to a level position. As a result, high-wing models tend to be more stable, easier to fly - and natural choices as trainers. A low-wing model is generally the opposite: with its weight above the wing, it tends to be less stable - excellent for advanced fliers who want to perform rolls, loops and other aerobatic maneuvers.
Airfoil: If you face the wingtip of the plane and cut it from front to back, the cross section exposed would be the wing's airfoil. There are three major categories of airfoil. The Flat-Bottom Airfoil will develop the most lift at low speeds. This is ideal for trainers and first-time pilots. A Symmetrical Airfoil's top and bottom have the same shape allowing it to produce lift equally when right-side up or upside down and transition between the two smoothly. Lastly, is a Semi-symmetrical Airfoil which is a combination of the other two and favored by intermediate and sport pilots.
Wing Area/Wing Loading: Wing area is the amount of wing surface available to create lift. Wing Loading is the weight that a given area of the wing has to lift and is usually measured in ounces per square foot. Generally, a light wing loading is best for beginners; the plane will perform better and be easier to control.
Dihedral: Dihedral is the upward angle of the wings from the fuselage. Dihedral increases stability and decreases aerobatic ability.
Wing Thickness: Wing thickness - measured from top to bottom - determines how much drag is created. A thick wing creates more drag, causing slower speeds and gentler stalls. A thin wing permits higher speeds and sudden stalls - desirable for certain aerobatic maneuvers.
Landing Gear Location: Tricycle gear includes a nose gear and two wing (main) gears making take-offs and landings easier - ideal for beginners.
Radio Equipment: Most trainer aircraft require no more than a 3 or 4 channel radio. But which to buy?? Your best bet is to check with your local hobby store to find out what most of the area fliers use. If you are planning on learning with a buddy box you will want something that will be easily hooked up with buddy box equipment that your instructor may have already. If you opt for one of the new fancy computer type radios you may find that most of them require an identical type transmitter to be used as the buddy box. This is particularly true if you have used any of the computer functions, mixing etc., when setting up your plane.