"Are RC Helicopters Hard To Fly?" is a question I get asked so often.
I also get asked many times by people who know how to fly quad/multi rotors & micro coaxial RC helicopters if the single rotor collective pitch RC helicopters are as hard as people say they are to fly.
These folks want to progress to single rotor collective pitch, but are scared and don't know if they should, or if they have the required skills to be successful. As with most things, skills are learned and almost anyone can learn to fly one of these things - I'm certainly proof of that.
Progressing to a single rotor collective pitch bird should not be scary as long as you understand a bit about them. It wasn't that long ago, starting out on a large nitro powered single rotor collective pitch machine was the only option after all. It was possible then and with today's better equipment, even easier.
The micro coaxials & quadrotors were break-throughs and continue to introduced so many more people to this hobby; but they do fly so differently over a true single rotor collective pitch bird. This can be a big problem when people make the switch if they just think they will start flying a single rotor heli and it will be more or less the same as what they are used to on their quad or micro coaxial.
Crashing within the first 10-20 seconds is generally inevitable if you approach it that way.
First off, any good single rotor collective pitch helicopter, coupled with a good computerized radio is very capable of becoming a nice docile trainer with the correct settings - that is the first hurdle to get past.
As long as you are learning in low to no wind, a 450 size machine is generally the best to learn on due to the lower cost outlay and ability to easily see it. There is a fine line between the added stability offered in a larger bird and the added fear of crashing said lager machine due to the added repair expense. This is budget driven of course and depending on the persons budget may or may not be an issue. The electric 450 class/size for most people as I stated on the Best RC Helicopter Page offers the best overall combination of stability to cost ratio for learning on in my opinion; with the small micro collective pitch sizes coming in a close second.
The Blade 450 and T-Rex 450 Plus are two of my top recommended ready to fly 450 size birds to start with because they both come with a good computerized radio so they can be set it up correctly for learning on; while the costs remain very reasonable for the good quality and after sales support they both offer. In short, good bang for the buck...
Next is to understand the differences in how single rotor collective pitch RC helicopters fly compared to micro coaxials or single rotor with artificial horizon (auto leveling) stability modes.
"Micro coaxial RC helicopters or CP helicopters with auto leveling stability modes, behave like a ball bearing in a bowl. As soon as you stop moving them around and center your cyclic stick, the heli will settle into a nice stable hover the same way the ball bearing will settle to the bottom of the bowl.
Single rotor collective pitch helicopters (full size and model) on the other hand without any electronic auto leveling help behave like that ball bearing if you flip the bowl upside down and now try to balance the ball bearing on the top curvature of the bowl."
That is a pretty good assessment of how single rotor birds behave in a hover. It is basically a balancing act on a domed bubble of high air-pressure. The second you stop making cyclic corrections to keep it on top of the air dome, the helicopter will start drifting away and accelerate fast in that direction; just as if the ball bearing on the outside of the bowl would start rolling off the top of the bowl down the sides the second you stop balancing it on the top of the bowl.
Now, the control certainly isn't as extreme as that, but it is a nice way to illustrate the difference between micro coaxials & artificial horizon stability compared to true collective pitch single rotor RC helicopters which are much more dynamic to pilot.
Here is a better example - the ball bearing is now on the outside of a plate.
This is actually a pretty accurate feeling of what a collective pitch RC heli behaves like while in a hover.
Holding onto the plate in both hands, put a ball bearing or marble on it. Keep it steady and then start moving the ball around on the backside of the plate. If you can move the ball in all directions and stop it whenever you want on the backside of the plate, you will get an idea of what controlling a single rotor collective pitch RC helicopter is all about.
Command input, helicopter reaction, counter input to stop movement - that's essentially what's going on the entire time while hovering. In short, unlike a stable micro coaxial or a CP heli with auto level stabilization turned on, a collective pitch helicopter is dynamically unstable while hovering and to maintain a state of hover equilibrium, any time you change one variable, it upsets that equilibrium forcing you to constantly keep making control corrections - I call this "active piloting".
Of course you have to deal with many other variables that are going on. The ball bearing/plate example only demonstrates the cyclic control , not lift or yaw ; but cyclic is the hardest to learn when you are first starting out. As I mentioned, if you have the right settings and right equipment to make it as docile as possible, that is the key to learning how to fly successfully.
It sounds hard, but if you start with ground hover exercises and work up to small hops, spending longer and longer times in the air as your brain wires new pathways to deal with the new hand/eye coordination required, you sooner or later get the feel for it until something just clicks and you are able to hold a hover indefinitely; not even thinking about the many control inputs you are naturally giving every second to maintain a state of hover equilibrium.
As I say many times, learning how to fly a RC helicopter is just like learning how to ride a bike, learning how to ski, learning how to skate, or any other activity that involves balancing. It takes time and practice. Of course the big difference with an RC helicopter is you can't "feel" when things are drifting off balance, you have to watch for them and make the required corrections.
This is also why full size helicopter pilots say the RC models are harder to hover in many respects - "there is no feel".
Full size heli pilots are in constant communication with their birds feeling what the rotor disc is doing, how it's loading up, keeping an eye on their instrumentation, and what the heli is doing in flight. We don't get that immediate "feel" & instrument feedback flying a radio controlled helicopter, we have to watch for it and it simply takes time to learn, and in all orientations, but learn it you will.
I used to do some RC heli instruction back when we lived in the city and the average time it would take a student to learn how to hold a solid tail in hover (no orientation reversal) was generally about 3-5 hours. That usually equates to about 3-5 days since you are not going to be flying 5 hours continuously.
Learning how to hover a collective pitch RC helicopter is mentally exhausting. An hour or two of flying, spread out over an afternoon for example, with several breaks in between is about as long as most people can handle before they start making mistakes. That time can usually be cut in half if you have been practicing correctly on a good RC flight simulator .
If you go through my Flight School section on my web site, you will get a pretty good idea of the time line and the steps involved. Those lessons are the same ones I used while I was instructing.
By the way, I'm sure you may be thinking at this point, if collective pitch helis are so stinking unstable while hovering, why even bother, why not just stick with stable coaxials? The answer to that is a collective pitch helicopter becomes rock solid stable and smooth as glass once flying at speed not to mention the much better wind handling immunity. There is also the much better performance potential for faster flying, improved handling, and of course aerobatics making collective pitch so much fun that will rarely get boring for most people.
There is of course also the challenge of piloting a collective pitch RC helicopter. Why I'm personally not a fan or supporter of full autopilot stabilization systems on collective pitch helicopters for learning aids. I don't see the point then, where is the challenge? All these auto pilot systems end up doing is taking a lot of the required piloting skill out of the equation and enable people with little training the ability to fly a potentially dangerous collective pitch RC helicopter in situations they would never be able to get into without the electronic aids. This is dangerous and potentially detrimental to our hobby in my opinion - why?
It's pretty hard for a newbie RC helicopter pilot to get a CP helicopter flying long enough far away from his/her position to become a threat to others. As I said, most will crash within the first 10-20 seconds if they don't know what they are doing. Autopilot systems however now allow the RC helicopter to get much higher and further away with the exact same beginner skill sets. This worries me and without some basic training or lessons before hand, I can foresee some serious crashes and property damage occurring and spinning a negative shadow on our hobby. I cover this problem in depth on my Drone Misnomer page. Rescue modes however on some FBL systems I fully appreciate and see as great help aids.
Would you go flying in a full size plane or helicopter knowing the pilot was relying 100% on electronic aids to fly the aircraft without adequate training first? I know I wouldn't... Again, this is just my opinion and full well know some who will strongly disagree with me on this point, but it's something I did at least want to address.
I hope that helps take some of the fear or mystery out of flying a collective pitch RC helicopter.
The nervousness or perhaps adrenalin rush when you are spooling up never really fully goes away (at least with larger collective pitch helicopters) depending on how skilled you are and your experience level. Flying a larger RC helicopter or plane generally produces adrenalin flow. The more you push your and your machine's limits, the bigger the rush. That's all part of the addiction for many and the thrill of why we fly RC.
It is heart breaking when you make a mistake, but absolutely euphoric every time you learn something new - be it your first hover, first nose in hover, first inverted hover, first auto rotation, etc... The learning curve never really ends and that's the main reason this hobby is so addictive and has such staying power. Of course you don't have to push your limits with aerobatics, you can fly nice smooth style scale and for many, that has its own unique set of rewards and challenges.
In my own opinion, there is nothing more graceful or pretty as a butter smooth flying collective pitch RC helicopter sporting a shinny scale fuselage. I honestly can't watch 3D aerobatic stuff for long, but I can watch a good pilot flying a scale ship all afternoon. I have had some of my most enjoyable & memorable flying experiences flying my scale birds always striving to improve my control inputs to mimic what a full size helicopter behaves like. That takes a whole different skill set that can be just as enjoyable.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is you are having fun whether that means flying tame or insane; collective pitch allows you to do both or anything in-between all equally well. Just like full size aviation however, the more time you spend on the sticks, the better you get... So, are collective pitch RC Helicopters Hard To Fly?
I say they are actually fairly easy to fly, but difficult to master.