RC Helicopter History 
Vintage Gear & Costs

by John Salt 

Why cover RC Helicopter History? Simple, it's fun to see where this hobby started, the vintage equipment used, costs and the challenges involved to fully appreciate how things have progressed up to now. 

Vintage RC HelicopterVintage RC Helicopter Courtesy HeliFreak.com

I'm always fascinated at how difficult it was in the early years to even get these egg beaters off the ground, never mind have some form of rudimentary control over them.

How far we have come in the past 55 years since the first controllable RC helicopters were designed and flown by Dr. Dieter Schluter, the undisputed father of our hobby.

Controllable RC helicopters have been around since about 1967 (coincidentally the same year I was born); however it really wasn't until the early 1970's before kits were becoming commercially available for the public to purchase.   

I got into the hobby in the late 80's so I have been at it now for about 35 years, but there are certainly other folks who have been into it much longer and have a much better RC helicopter history background. 

I only flew and had experience with one model back then. In those days it was just too bloody costly to have multiple RC helicopters unless you were very wealthy, which I was not. I was just a young guy in my early 20's and had to work my butt off saving for my first & only bird.

I also realize I have very little in the way of documentation or photos of my first machines. Luckily however, I still have my very first RC helicopter and I will talk about it here so you can see what has changed and what has stayed the same over the years.

It's far from a true "vintage RC helicopter" in my opinion. I'm sure however when you see it - you may think otherwise :-)

Best RC Helicopter History Web Site

Before getting into my own RC Helicopter History however, I do want to share with you what I feel is hands down the best RC helicopter history web site out there right now.

Vintage RC Helicopters Website

Vintage RC HeliCopters (VRHC)

Joe W Richardson is the site's author and his passion for the hobby shines through. This is what good informative websites are all about! I don't know Joe personally, but after spending a good deal of time on his site, I feel like I do and would really like to meet him some day.

His site not only covers older RC helicopters ranging from Pre -70's up to the end of the 80's, but also all the various vintage equipment and gear. It's absolutely fascinating stuff and Joe's site will not disappoint if you want to learn all about RC Helicopter History!

It All Started At The Hobby Shop In 1986

I recall this video playing on a looping VHS tape at our local hobby shop next to the GMP heli display. While I was only flying RC airplanes at the time and certainly couldn't afford an RC helicopter in my late teens, I was always captivated watching that video, and the seed was planted!

My first bird and the full story behind it & my personal RC helicopter history...

My RC Helicopter History Started With The X-Cell 40 Back In 1989My RC Helicopter History Started With The X-Cell 40 Back In 1989

My very first RC helicopter was a nitro powered X-Cell 40 (same size as today's electric 550's) manufactured by Miniature Aircraft USA. They are under new ownership, but they are still doing what they always have, building high quality RC helicopters.

Back in the late 80's, through the 90's, and into the early 2000's; Miniature Aircraft's helicopters were pretty much the SAB Goblins of the day. Most of the top pro sponsored pilots flew them and parts support (at least here in North America) was extremely good.

I'm sure the first thing many of you "older" guys will see on it is the infamous "HeliBall" muffler. I don't know why so many make fun of those shiny aluminum tennis ball size mufflers? Even to this day I still think they look "vintage cool"!

I also have a set of the original wooden X-Cell blades that came with it. Out of the box, you had to balance them with lead weights to get both the center of mass matched and then balance them again on a high point balancer so they were both the exact same weight.

You then had to cover them with an adhesive plastic coating and then seal any exposed wood with dope or CA and hope to hell the balance didn't change during that fiddly process. It was a good hour to two hour job to build up a set of blades (if you were lucky). And the cost for these labor intensive woodies back then??? $45 bucks! 

I actually still have all the bills and instructions for this helicopter. Talk about a trip down memory lane going through the bills of sale.

Original X-Cell 40 Build Instuctions & Bills From SunSet RC That Was Located In Millet Alberta CanadaOriginal X-Cell 40 Build Instuctions & Bills From SunSet RC That Was Located In Millet Alberta Canada

In case you're curious of the costs back then and how they compare to today's prices for a helicopter kit like this, here's what we had to shell out. Again these were the prices back in 1989.

  • X-Cell 40 Bare Bones Helicopter Kit: $500.00
  • Futaba FP-T6NHP 6 Channel PCM Helicopter Radio: $480.00
  • Futaba 154 Mechanical Rate Gyro: $110.00
  • OS 46 SFH Nitro Engine: $195.00
  • HeliBall Muffler: $40.00
  • OS Flange Tool: $20.00
  • Du-Bro Balancer: $32.99
  • X-Cell Pitch Gauge: $26.95
  • Throttle Servo Futaba S128: $28.50
  • X-Cell Starting Shaft: $28.95
  • Sullivan Hi-Torque Starter: $125.00
  • Mitutoyo Dial Indicator & Magnetic Base: $150.00
  • Misc Odds & Ends (fuel tubing, paint, CA, etc) : $50.00
  • I already had an RC field box, glow panel, and fuel pump, for my nitro powered airplanes, so I didn't have to get any of that stuff which saved about $125 bucks...

So, about $1780.00 CND beans (about $3700 today), while lacking much of what we all consider to be part of a modern day RC helicopter.

No carbon fiber, mostly plastic head parts, no slick looking pre-painted fiberglass canopy, more bushings than bearings, no computerized radio, no fast & strong digital servos, no flybarless stabilization or heading lock gyro technology, no engine governor or built in glow driver. In the 80's just having an electric-mechanical tail gyro was a big advancement!

Yes, it was primitive by today's standards, but it was still just as fun if not more so because it was a bigger achievement & challenge back then successfully getting into the hobby. Despite the lack of all the modern surface mount electronic components and high strength carbon and full metal heads that are in today's modern RC helicopters; these late 80's machines still flew extremely well and are really not that "mechanically" different from the newer stuff we have today.   

To put some perspective on the costs of this bird, $1780 in 1989 works out to about $3700 today. That's about right since I blew a month's wages from my first real job as an entry level lab technician at an ASIC semiconductor manufacturing facility. Actually my girlfriend (now my wife) got me the helicopter kit for Christmas and I acquired all the rest of the gear so it was kind of a joint purchase/adventure.

I did months of research first so I knew which model I wanted so she knew exactly what to get at the hobby shop. Lets just say we both had lots of time invested in it, and crashing it the first day out was simply not an option :-)

Yes, when you find a girl that is willing to gift you an expensive RC helicopter and also seems interested in the hobby - you marry her!!! You definitely had to be very committed back then to get into the hobby, or perhaps a better statement would be "should have been committed" LOL. Still, I can' t think of any gift I have ever received that has given me so much pleasure over the years while teaching me so much in the process.

If it were not for my understanding girlfriend giving me that X-Cell 40, this website would likely not even exist!

This is why I'm not the least bit sympathetic these days when I hear people complaining about how expensive this hobby is or that $400 is way too much to spend on an RC helicopter. Talk about entitled ignorance. They have no clue how fortunate they are with vastly better equipment & quality that costs a fraction of what we used to have to pay to take up the hobby. 

Back then, most of us who got into the hobby were extremely passionate about it and had a fascination with helicopters (full size & model); not because it was the latest disposable fad. Nor did we whine about how hard it was. We knew it would take effort and lots of time to learn just how to hover the silly things. This was the fun and the challenge! 

This is also why most of us "average income folks" didn't do much aerobatic RC helicopter flying back then; it was just way too risky & expensive when things went sideways. Not only that, these machines didn't have the power to weight ratios and strength to perform the crazy 3D stuff that you see today's machines pulling off.

My X-Cell 40 has actually only seen one really major crash. A high speed inverted impact that almost totaled it, but that was the only bad one. Incidentally, it happened when I tried my very first loop. I've certainly had a few light "kisses" with the ground since then which required new blades, shafts, flybars, and a canopy or two; but with over a thousand flights on it, it's still very flyable and enjoyable to this day.

I learned to fly it basically the same way I show on my flight school section and had no simulator or help - all self taught.

Again, this is why I say you can learn on the big collective pitch stuff if you have some basic knowledge in how it all works (which I try my best to cover on this site). But no question, looking back knowing what I know now, I would have had a much less stressful and likely more enjoyable time learning on an inexpensive OMP M2 or 400 size electric (if there were such things back then).

This size helicopter (30/40) is the same size as a 550 electric and they were about the smallest you could get back then (at least if you wanted something fairly decent and robust).

I was actually really trying hard to justify getting the larger X-Cell 60 because everyone rightfully said it was an easier one to learn on (bigger = more stable), and a better all round helicopter. However, it really would have broken the budget and been much more than the girlfriend was willing to put into the collective pot; so given our modest income level at the time, we got what we could afford.

Miniature Aircraft X-Cell 40 With Bell 222 Scale FuselageX-Cell 40 Mechanics Inside FunKey Bell 222 Fuselage

These X-Cell 40 mechanics have since seen their way into two scale fuselages over the years as well. First was an X-Cell MD500, and then they had a fairly long stint inside a FunKey 222 before a crash rendered the fuselage a worthless pile of fiberglass. Its final demise is documented on my RC helicopter crash page

My X-Cell 40 Today

I did a fairly major update to my aging X-Cell 40 to breath some new life & performance into it.

Updated X-Cell 40 Carbon Frame Set and Full Metal Control SystemUpdated X-Cell 40 Carbon Frame Set and Full Metal Control System

The biggest upgrade was to the frame set. Gone are the old stamped aluminum frames in favor of a stronger and stiffer stacked carbon fiber frame set. A new full metal and ball raced control/bell crank set was also added replacing the old plastic set that used simple plastic bushings. I also replaced the older style cone starting hub in favor of a machined hex hub I turned on my lathe. A new style piezo electronic GY240 heading lock gyro, and stronger/faster digital servos finalized the update.

The original wooden servo/RX tray remains, as does all the gearing, engine, cooling fan, fan shroud, clutch, fuel tank, landing skids/struts and of course that hand polished HeliBall exhaust ;-)

I have replaced the engine's piston and cylinder sleeve 3 times and the carburetor & crankshaft once due to the hundreds of hours this thing has on it. They simply wore out. It would have been cheaper in hindsight just putting new engines in...

X-Cell 40 Head UpgradeX-Cell 40 Head Upgraded

I also put a full metal XL-Pro head on during the update, but kept the original plastic grips, Bell mixers, washouts, and swashplate. None of those parts have ever been replaced on this vintage machine (who says metal is the only thing that will last). Gone are the wooden blades of course in favor of much stronger and stiffer carbon fiber.

X-Cell 40 Tail Remains 100% OriginalX-Cell 40 Tail Remains 100% Original

To finish off the updates to the good old 40, a full carbon boom and fin set were added. The original wire tail drive shaft has also been replaced with a beefier torque tube. The enclosed plastic tail gear box, gears, shaft, hub, pitch slider, pitch arm, and plastic blade grips however are all 100% original that came with the helicopter. Carbon fiber tail blades have replaced the plastic blades it came with.

X-Cell 40 With Trex 700E CanopyX-Cell 40 With Trex 700E Canopy

OMG! I can only imagine the moans and groans from all the MA fans when looking at this X-Cell 40 sporting a T-Rex 700 canopy - "sacrilegious"! I actually lost my original X-Cell canopy for it during our last move and had this spare 700E one that actually fits not too bad so that's why it's on there currently. One day I hope to locate the original and get this thing looking like it did 3 decades ago - only better!

Original Miniature Aircraft X-Cell 40 BoxOriginal X-Cell 40 Box - Canopy Had To Be Painted - It Was Clear Polycarbonate Much Like RC Car Bodies Of Today

This Miniature Aircraft X-Cell 40 was my first and only RC helicopter for over a decade before I got into a couple Miniature Aircraft Furys in the early/mid 2000's flying both a 50 and 60.

X-Cell Fury RC HelicopterX-Cell Fury

With the improved quality, power and responsiveness, those two MA Furys really got me back into the hobby again in an obsessive way and I'm somewhat sorry I sold them now; but we were building a new house at the time, money was tight, so bye-bye birdies :-(

I also purchased a small electric fixed pitch helicopter called the "Humming Bird" by Century Helicopter in 2005 thinking I could fly it in the yard. It was powered by a small 600mAh NiMh battery pack coincidentally called the "Bird Seed" (and that was about all it was good for).

This Century Humming Bird RC helicopter was the biggest piece of junk and waste of money I had ever purchased despite its small size! In my RC helicopter history, this is one I would truly like to forget about with an honorable mention going out to the Blade SR.

My First Disappointing Venture Into Electric Flight, The Century RC Fixed Pitch Humming Bird - YUCK!My First Disappointing Venture Into Electric Flight, The Century RC Fixed Pitch Humming Bird - YUCK!

It was nearly impossible to fly and the battery went dead very quickly. That is also when I found out about the major limitations of motorized fixed pitch tail rotors. It unfortunately really turned me off electric powered RC helicopters for several years and it wasn't until I flew a Blade 400 in 2008 that I finally stared getting hooked on the electric stuff and saw the huge potential it offered.

Then the T-Rex 600 ESP entered the picture in 2009 as did a turbine powered Intrepid manufactured by Bergen RC, and I never looked back at nitro power again. 

My Favorite RC Helicopter in 2009 The T-REX 600ESPFlying my favorite RC helicopter back in 2009 - The The Align T-Rex 600ESP.

To this day, I still think the T-Rex 600 ESP was one of the best electric helicopters of all time. Looking at it in comparison to my old X-Cell 40, the parts quality, strength, and performance are so much better today then what they were back then; but the good old X-Cell 40 has, and will always hold a very special place in my heart for obvious reasons. It has logged more hours than anything else and no, I will never sell it...

Johns RC Heli Fleet 2023The RC Heli "Fleet" Has Grown Over The Years & It All Started With The X-Cell 40!

I feel so fortunate I have been able to enjoy this amazingly wonderful hobby for over 3 decades now. With a little luck, maybe another  couple decades will be possible. Anyway, that's my personal RC helicopter history; boring, but true...

Incidentally, for those that remember Mattel's VertiBird, I have a fun little page about it. Figured I better mention it here since that truly was my first helicopter, albeit not RC.

Now some real vintage RC helicopter history videos. They show Dr. Dieter Schluter flying some of his first truly controllable RC helicopters. Absolutely awesome stuff! 

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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