For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been slowly building a radio controlled airplane, primarily out of foam board from Dollar Tree, packing tape, plastic gift cards, and lots and lots of hot glue. You can use plain old clear packing tape, but I ordered some colored 3M tape to make things more fun. There’s also a fair amount of duct tape on the airplane (more to come, no doubt), and a bit of double sided tape and sticky Velcro for mounting things. We used super cheap Chinese electronics (is “Chinese electronics” redundant?) from Hobby King, which are way nicer than the high-end stuff from my youth. The actual airframe probably cost less than $10, and the more expensive stuff will likely survive to be reused in the next airplane. Having built one of these, I bet I could knock one out in a couple of evenings if I really focused. It’s fun, crafty work and the kids helped, especially Tape Meister Guthrie.
I didn’t come up with this scheme myself, but followed the techniques of Ed of http://www.youtube.com/user/ExperimentalAirlines . Ed is a crazy mad genius cheapskate geek of RC airplanes, and his how-to videos are well-organized and exhaustive. Our plane is a slightly modified version of his “Axon.” We made the wing a couple of inches longer, and our fuselage three inches shorter than his specs. We also put on some pretty beefy landing gear, because taking off and landing is fun, and it helped balance the airplane. I really appreciate the open-source approach that Ed promotes. Just dive in and build it.
Today, we went flying. Well, I went flying, Guthrie watched and took some pictures, and Sayer wandered off into a swamp. Flying an RC airplane is not easy, and we built this plane with the understanding that it might not survive its first flight. That’s the whole point of the cheap airplane. I hadn’t flown for well over twenty years, and I never flew enough to get very good at it back in the day. In spite of the “disposable” airplane, I was really nervous. My hands were literally shaking on the first few flights, which certainly didn’t help. The very first flight, I crashed right into a fire hydrant, the only solid object within fifty feet (gotta use the rudder on takeoff). After the first “real” flight and crash, I moved the battery way forward, and programmed the transmitter for 70% control throws, which made things much less twitchy. Roll, especially, was very responsive (there was one accidental barrel roll). Several crashes later, some semi-controlled, I finally got my nerves settled (the plane was damaged enough that I didn’t care anymore), and actually started to fly. With minimal trim the plane would basically fly hands-off. Most problems were caused by my interventions and over-correction. I used the controls to make “suggestions” to the plane, and it worked really well. I made three decent landings (four if you count the one after the big bounce). The hardest part about landing is that this plane glides like crazy. At around 1050g, by the kitchen scale, I thought we were a bit heavy, but after shutting off the power, the plane just goes and goes. The battery was never depleted, and I decided to quit while I was ahead, though the plane was still quite flyable. After some hot glue, bamboo skewers and duct tape, I’ll be back for more.
I’ve promised the kids that once I learn to consistently fly and land, I’ll give them a go at it. We’d probably better build a back-up airplane first.