The first time that I flew an RC plane at night, it was illuminated by a few chemical glow sticks that had been hastily taped in place. Unsure of success, I used an old model that wouldn’t be missed if things went badly. It was a seat-of-the-pants, half-baked experiment by any measure. Looking back on that experience, it’s hard to believe that the soft light of the glow sticks was adequate for me to see the model very well. Yet, the concept was sufficiently proven, and so began my still-active interest in night flying.
The E-flite Brave is a newly-released ARF night flyer using foam construction. (photo courtesy of Horizon Hobby)
These days, modelers can choose from a variety of very bright off-the-shelf lighting systems to illuminate their favorite airplane. There are also several Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) models with factory-installed lighting systems. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the choices that are available for a moonlight stroll around the flying field.
The easiest method to make a model suitable for night flying is to add LED light strips. Many electric models already have a 12-volt power source for the lights. (photo courtesy of Hobbico)
My use of glow sticks was limited to just a few experimental flights. I soon moved to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to brighten my night flyers. LEDs are ideal because they are adequately bright, very efficient, and they are available in a wide variety of colors. My initial experiences with LEDs required that I pair each diode with a resistor to establish the desired amperage. Setting up a simple model with a couple dozen LEDs required a little Ohm’s Law and a lot of soldering.
Before long, prefabricated strings of LEDs became available. These lights have the LEDs and resistors integrated together on a flexible strip with an adhesive backing. You just snip off the length of light strip that you want and attach a 12-volt DC power source. LED strips are not an RC-specific product. They have been embraced by the DIY crowd for custom PC cases, car accents, home theater lighting, and many other applications.
While they are not the only lighting option available, LED light strips make the task of creating a night flyer a real no-brainer. Many electric-powered airplane models use a 3-cell Lithium-Polymer battery, which has 12.6 volts at full charge. It is a simple matter to tap into this battery to also power the lights.
More recent iterations of lighting strips use multi-color LEDs. In non-addressable versions, every light does the same thing. Addressable light strips allow you to control each light individually. When used with a small controller board, the lights can be programmed to flash and change colors in numerous different ways. The lights can be purchased with controllers and remote controls. Some users prefer to control them through an Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The different effects that are possible with multi-color LEDs are really impressive…especially on a model flying through the night sky.
These night flyers illustrate the different methods used to illuminate RC models. Some use external lights while other have the lights inside.
There are two primary goals when adding lights to a flying model: You want to be able to see where the airplane is and what direction it is going.
There are two primary goals when adding lights to a flying model: You want to be able to see where the airplane is and what direction it is going. There are many ways to accomplish this, so there are no hard and fast rules. Many modelers choose to emulate the colors used for navigation lights on full-scale airplanes to help determine orientation. This approach uses red on the left wing, green on the right wing and white or some other color on the tail surfaces. The big difference is in how much relative light is used. Whereas a full-scale aircraft will typically have only a few points of light, most RC night flyers are brightly lit from nose to tail.
Many multi-rotors models come with different color LEDs built in. Their primary purpose is to aid orientation during daylight flying. Yet, some of these models may have adequate lighting to allow for night flights too. You can always add more lights if you need to.
One of the primary considerations when adding lights to a model is whether you will place the LEDs internally or externally. The external option is usually easiest. You simply stick the lights where you want them on the exterior of the model and run wires as needed to your power source. When dealing with wet-fuel models, you’ll have to make sure that engine’s exhaust residue does not affect the lights’ adhesive or wiring.
When the light strips are placed externally, each individual light is easily distinguishable. In fact, the lights may be the only thing you can see in some conditions. The rest of the airplane will sometimes blend into the darkness and virtually disappear. When this happens, you’ll understand why it is so important to arrange the lights in a recognizable pattern.
The lighting on this model uses different colors at the wingtips to improve inflight orientation. There are also opaque segments on the bottom of the wing for the same purpose.
If the model has reasonably translucent skin, it is possible to mount lights internally. The skin diffuses the internal lighting and makes the entire model glow. Rather than the points of light seen with external lighting, internal lighting often allows you to see the complete model in flight. It is a neat effect. The challenge with internal lighting is to accommodate areas with skin doublers, bulkheads, and other things that can affect how the light is diffused. It can be tough to achieve a homogenous “glow” throughout the airplane.
Even with internal lighting, it is very important to have visual cues for orientation. This can be achieved with different color lights or applying opaque sections to the skin that block the light in certain areas. Again, there are countless ways to skin this cat. Just make sure that you approach the orientation problem before you go flying.
The Flitework Shiny is a balsa ARF model with a colorful trim scheme that is visible day or night.
Turnkey Night Flyers
Most of my night flyers are foam models that were either scratchbuilt or assembled from kits. I recently acquired my first ARF night flyer, the Flitework Shiny. The Shiny is unique among currently-available lighted ARFs because it is built with balsa and plywood rather than foam. It has factory-applied iron-on covering with a tribal pattern that provides some color variance with or without the lights on.
The Shiny reminds me of the Great Planes Electrostreak, one of the first electric-powered models that was capable of aerobatics. The design translates very well to modern brushless motor/LiPo battery power systems. The Shiny is a strong performer. In fact, I had to add some opaque stripes to the bottom of the wing to improve orientation during loops, rolls and high-speed passes.
The Shiny’s lighting system uses all-white LED strips. Whoever named this model got it right…it is definitely bright. The lights are powered by the same 3S-2200 LiPo battery that powers the motor and radio system. A mechanical switch on the fuselage allows you to turn the lights off for daytime flights.
You get an idea of just how bright the Shiny’s lighting system is as Fitz Walker prepares to launch his into the night sky. (Jeff Dunehew photo)
While being able to see and orient your model is a fundamental aspect of night flying, it is equally important to recognize and avoid any obstacles on the ground that may get in the way.
Flying at night can be a little disorienting at first. It’s probably better to make your first flights with a docile model that you are familiar with. That will remove a few of the variables. For me, my early LED flights revealed that that certain colors of blue lights were really hard for me to focus on. I make sure to avoid those colors now.
While being able to see and orient your model is a fundamental aspect of night flying, it is equally important to recognize and avoid any obstacles on the ground that may get in the way. You will ideally be flying at a location that is already familiar to you from daytime flights. Even so, your usual flying spot can take on a different feel at night. Take the time to identify trees, powerlines, and other model snatchers so that you can stay well clear.
Landing is not usually a problem with night flyers. As the model nears the ground, the onboard lights will illuminate the terrain. It’s easy to see when you need to flare for a soft arrival.
RC night flying is one of those topics on the agenda as Congress contemplates the 2016 FAA Reauthorization Act. For the time being, night flying is perfectly legal for hobbyists. It is still a good idea to consider the potential impacts of nocturnal flying and mitigate any concerns. Noise and light pollution could be a factor if your flying site is adjacent to homes. You also don’t want to cause a distraction by flying near a busy road.
Night flying provides great opportunities to experiment with long exposure photography. (Lee Ray photo)
Night flying is a lot of fun in several respects. First of all, it is a unique piloting challenge. Even when flying a familiar model at a familiar place, doing so at night gives the experience a whole new feel. You don’t even have to fly to enjoy it. Watching the lights and shapes move around the sky provides the same kinds of “oohs and “aahs” as a fireworks display (but hopefully with fewer explosions). For you photography buffs, night flying offers really great opportunities to capture colorful and unique log-exposure shots.
I have listed a few options for night flying supplies and models. Look them up when you are ready to give night flying a try!
- LED Strips
- More Lighting Options
Night Flyer Kits:
- ParkFlyer Plastics L-19 Glow Dog
- ParkFlyer Plastics Popfly 2
ARF night flyers:
- E-flite Night Visionare
- E-flite Brave
- Flitework Shiny
Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org. You can also follow Terry on Twitter and Facebook.