by John Salt - Updated September 2021
"Are RC Helicopters Hard To Fly?" is a question I still get asked several times a week.
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, and if so - why?
These folks want to progress to single rotor collective pitch (BS marketing calls them 3D RC helicopters), 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, knowledge replaces fear, and almost anyone can learn to fly one of these eggbeaters - I'm certainly proof of that.
Progressing to a 3D/collective pitch RC helicopter should not be scary as long as you understand a bit about them. It wasn't all 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 and much less expensive and intimidating.
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 and setback 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 beginner settings - that is the first hurdle to get past.
As long as you are learning in low to no wind, a 450 size machine (310 - 330 mm long rotor blades) is generally the best to learn on due to the lower cost outlay, fairly long flight times, 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 person's budget, may or may not be an issue. The electric 450 class/size as I stated on the Best RC Helicopter Page offers the most size/stability & flight time per battery to cost ratio for learning on in my opinion; with the small micro collective pitch sizes coming in a close second.
Next is to understand the differences in how single rotor
collective pitch RC helicopters fly compared to micro coaxials or fixed pitch single rotor & quadrotor with electronic stabilization auto leveling help/stability modes.
"Micro coaxial RC helicopters or RC 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 analogy of how collective pitch 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 & electronic auto-level stability compared to true
collective pitch single rotor RC helicopters which are much more dynamic and fun to pilot.
Here's 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 the basic idea of what controlling a single rotor collective pitch RC helicopter is all about.
Command input, helicopter reaction, counter input to stop movement (in two planes of direction no less). That's essentially what's going on the entire time while hovering. In short, unlike a stable micro coaxial or an RC heli with artificial auto-level stabilization turned on, a collective pitch helicopter is dynamically unstable while hovering. To maintain a state of hover equilibrium, any time you change one variable, it upsets that equilibrium forcing you to constantly keep making multiple control corrections - I call this "active piloting".
Of course you have to deal with other variables that are going on. The ball bearing/plate example only demonstrates the
cyclic control (pitch & roll), not
; 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 so you don't over-control it, that is the key to learning how to fly
It sounds hard and it is (at first). You basically start with ground hover exercises and work up to small hops, spending longer and longer times in the air. This is when your brain is creating new pathways to deal with all the new hand-eye & radio stick control coordination required. It's mentally exhausting at this stage.
Just when you think you'll never get it, all of sudden, something just clicks and you find yourself holding a steady, controlled hover. I have to tell you, it's one of the most amazing feelings & experiences that will happen in the world of RC.
It's a feeling of pride and accomplishment that you'll never get with any other form of radio control.
What usually happens at this point is
you get so bloody excited, you lose focus, and have to land quickly to regain
composure. However, once you get that first small taste of a controlled hover, the addiction hits! There is no going back now :-)
several more hovering sessions, you'll likely be able to hold a tail
in hover indefinitely; not
even thinking about the many multiple control inputs you are naturally
every second to maintain that state of hover equilibrium.
As I say many times, learning how to fly an 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. Remember how frustrating any of those activities were at first, and then just how fun they got once the light bulb finally went off. It just takes time and practice to get there. 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 via hand/eye coordination.
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 multiple orientations, but learn it you will.
Back when I did RC heli instruction, the average time it would take a student to learn how to hold/maintain a solid tail in hover (no orientation reversal) was generally about 1-3 hours. That usually equates to about 1-3 days since you are not going to be flying 3 hours continuously.
As I already mentioned, 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 saying to yourself at this point, "if collective pitch helis are so stinking unstable while hovering, why even bother, why not just stick with stable coaxials, or easy to fly fixed pitch or quad-rotors with electronic auto level stabilization?"
The first reason I've already obsessed endlessly over - massive satisfaction. You'll never experience that wonderful high that all of us who have learned to fly a CP heli first experience; and then get to experience over and over again whenever we learn another collective pitch milestone.
The second reason is performance. A collective pitch RC 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 as the rewarding learning curve never really ends.
No question, collective pitch RC helicopters are not for everyone. If you have a short attention span, want instant fun/gratification, and simply don't have the time or desire to practice much at this particular juncture in your life, cross collective pitch off your list, at least for now.
I can't tell you how many people who have contacted with collective pitch success stories after an initial failed attempt/s several years or even decades back. If the hobby is not right for you now or in your past, it very well may be later down the road. This holds especially true if you love helicopters.
As you likely know by now, I equate learning to fly a collective pitch heli right up there with other very fun and rewarding activities that most of us have experienced in our lives (like learning to ride a bike); and why I consider the challenge of such activities vital to experience that overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
This is why I, like most instructors, are not a fan or supporter of autopilot / self-level stabilization systems on collective pitch helicopters for hovering learning aids. To pass even the most basic RC helicopter proficiency tests at most flying clubs, you can't have self level turned on.
I also don't see the point in using them - where's the challenge? Where are the light bulb moments that get you hooked? Why would you get excited about the hobby when the electronics are doing it all for you?
I know for a fact if I never had experienced that first hovering eureka moment, it's doubtful I would have stuck with the hobby because it was at that very moment where I became hopelessly hooked! We are all different of course...
Missing out on the fun satisfaction aside, what about the danger aspect?
Autopilot/self level systems when used as hovering training aids end up 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 and forgo the "ground-up" learning curve.
Autopilot/level 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 when loss of control is inevitable.
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...
I hope that helps take some of the fear or mystery out of flying a collective pitch RC helicopter.
The nervousness or perhaps adrenaline 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 adrenaline 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's 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 buttery 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 bird 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. I have never once met or talked to any RC helicopter enthusiast who told me they have learned it all and mastered the hobby. Why? Because there is no such thing as ever mastering this hobby.