Getting into the RC hobby has never been easier or more affordable than it is right now. There are tons of high-quality, beginner-oriented RC vehicles to choose from. However, there are also a lot of sub-par products as well. Even with the right equipment, learning the ropes can sometimes be a challenge. Making a few missteps as you’re just getting into the hobby can ruin your enthusiasm and sour the fun. Here are a few tips to help potential RC hobbyists make a positive start.
Whether you are interested in aircraft, cars, or boats there is probably someone in your area who is already up to speed and knowledgeable. Seek out RC clubs, racetracks, or hobby shops. You are bound to find folks who are willing to help you get started.
If flying is your goal, attend a club meeting even before you buy any RC equipment. Most RC clubs have dedicated instructors who teach newcomers how to fly. The majority of aspiring pilots who try learning all by themselves either fail completely, or destroy many models on their path to competency. Also, an instructor can help you choose the right equipment. Some clubs even have models set aside just for training.
If you’re more interested in surface vehicles (cars, trucks, boats), find out what models experienced hobbyists in your area are using and recommend. It can be a big boost to have local experts who are familiar with your specific equipment. You’re bound to receive helpful advice for setup, maintenance, and repairs.
Having a mentor is the best way to make smart buying decisions and learn the skills you need for the RC hobby.
If you live in a rural area, you may have trouble finding other modelers nearby. There are numerous online forums such as RC Groups and RC Universe that can sometimes partially fill that void. Just be wary of advice received online. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts who give out bogus advice. With a little research, the true experts are often easy to identify.
The bottom line is that RC is as much a social activity as anything else. Finding other modelers with similar interests makes the RC hobby more enjoyable and also speeds up your learning curve.
Start at the Beginning
Many aspiring hobbyists get into RC with dreams of scorching the runway with an F-16 jet or driving a tire-squealing racecar through hairpin turns. The allure of those types of models is understandable, but they are rarely suitable for newcomers. Just as full-scale pilots and racecar drivers start out with more docile machines, those of us controlling downsized versions must also do the same.
There are some exceptions where beginner-oriented products are styled to look like those airplanes, cars, and boats of your dreams. But it’s merely a facade. These models still have detuned performance to help build your skills without an overabundance of crashes.
The fast and flashy models that interest many newcomers are rarely appropriate for them. You must build your skills and experience with slower and more docile vehicles.
I think it’s helpful to accept the fact that your first model is probably going to take a lot of abuse as you learn the ropes. So try to release any concerns you have over cosmetic issues. It probably won’t be long before you’ll get to the point where you can ditch the frumpy beater that you started with and have those sleek machines you dreamed about.
Local hobby shops are becoming a rare thing. Within the last year, my local shop closed its doors…so did the next closest store 2 hours away. Now my nearest brick-and-mortar hobby store is a 5-hour drive. If you’re lucky enough to have a hobby shop nearby, give them a shot at earning your business. Otherwise, they may not be there when you need them.
As mentioned earlier, hobby shops are often a focal point for area hobbyists. They are a great place to begin your hobby education. There is also no substitute for being able to see and touch a model before you buy it…a luxury that online ordering can’t provide. And when you need a replacement part or special tool “right now”, buying locally is the only option. Some shops even offer used and consignment deals. That is often a good way to save some cash or get better equipment on the same budget.
There are many outlets for purchasing RC equipment. Buying locally is often the best bet. (Lee Ray photo)
If, like me, you don’t have a local option, then be cautious when buying online. I’m not suggesting that all online hobby retailers are bad. Many in the US and abroad are quite good and have solid reputations. Others…well, not so much. Before you click that “submit order” button, invest a few minutes looking up complaints of previous customers. Also consider the recourse you’ll have if you need to return a defective item to an overseas vendor. If you’re not ready to eat the cost of the product and/or wait for trans-oceanic shipping, you should probably reconsider your purchase.
Use Technology Wisely
There is a wide range of tools available to help new modelers get the hang of controlling their vehicles. This is especially true of airborne models. Computer-based RC flying simulators are tremendously useful for helping new pilots learn the basic fundamentals of flying, but without the intrinsic risk of crashing. There are simulators for fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters, and multi-rotors.
RC simulators are a great training tool. Crashes here don’t hurt.
Even experienced RC pilots use simulators to practice maneuvers and keep their skills sharp. Plus, you can practice no matter what time of day it is or how bad the weather conditions are. The expense of a simulator is easily justified when you consider the number of real crashes it will prevent and the boost to your training timeline. Some multi-rotors even come with free simulators.
Onboard stabilization systems have also become a popular feature on RC models. While they are mostly used on aircraft, there are also systems that assist with steering on surface models. These systems can be very helpful to new pilots, as they remove some of the workload to keep a model flying. It is important to remember, however, that a stabilization system is not a substitute for an instructor. Most new pilots still require a gentle, calming voice to talk them through a flight, or step in to prevent a crash.
It is also important to realize that stabilization systems do not reduce the skills that you must learn. In fact, the opposite is often true. You must master the inputs necessary to fly the model as well as the intricacies of the stabilization system itself. If you’re not the tech-savvy type, an artificial stabilizer may do more harm than good.
Overall, I have a neutral opinion of stabilization systems. I’ve seen instances where they work really well to help a pilot improve their proficiency. I’ve also seen times where the stabilization system was the only source of trouble. As an instructor, I’m comfortable teaching with or without artificial stabilization. Your instructor may feel differently.
DIY is A-OK
Most beginner-oriented models (air and surface) are pre-built these days. It’s really a double edged sword. On the plus side, the owners do not have a lot of sweat equity in their machines that could make them overly timid and risk-averse. Remember, your first model is probably going to get banged up no matter what. There’s no point in being uptight about it.
Another benefit of pre-built models is that they remove the variable of having been assembled by a rookie. For the most part, you can expect that a factory-fresh model is properly built and is going to function as it’s supposed to.
The flip side of a factory-built model is that you may have no idea how it works or how to fix it when it breaks. If you buy a model with the intent of taking it to a hobby shop or a friend if it breaks, then you’re missing out on half the fun and benefit of the RC hobby…especially for kids! Don’t be afraid to dig in and see what makes a model tick. Hobby-grade vehicles are meant to be repaired and upgraded at home.
Half the fun of RC is learning about how things work. Don’t ignore this side of the hobby.
The mechanics that go into hobby-grade models are often just like their full-scale counterparts. In that sense, RC models are very educational. It’s one thing to read a book about spring rates, Ackermann steering, and camber angles. But to tweak those things on an RC model and see first-hand how they affect the car’s handling creates a much deeper and long-lasting understanding.
There is also the satisfaction and confidence that comes from creating or repairing something with your own hands. RC provides a relatively risk-free and affordable avenue for working with metal, wood, foam, composites, fasteners, and all of the associated tools. I am fully convinced that my childhood spent wrenching on RC cars and airplanes was the best preparation I could have had for working on space hardware years later…same skills, different price point.
Jumping into the RC hobby can be an intimidating (and expensive) proposition. There is often a lot to buy and a lot to learn up front. Hopefully these tips will help guide new RC modelers over those first daunting hurdles and get them started with a firm footing.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.