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Radio Control Model Airplanes

Build and fly radio control model aircraft – enjoy a great hobby!

Ever since the Wright Brothers were the first to get airborne with their gas engine powered Flyer in 1903, hobbyists have enjoyed emulating their achievement by flying model planes.


Early rubber powered model airplane

Early rubber band powered model airplane

Technology has always been the pacing item for successful model aircraft flight. The first flying models were free flight designs powered by wound rubber band motors. Expertise grew.

Soon, free flight models were powered by small gas engines. By the late 1930s the first primitive radio control aircraft took to the skies under single channel rudder control. In these exciting early days, simply getting a model plane back to its landing site in one piece was considered a resounding success.

Early RC airplane

Early RC model airplane

Practical Radio Control

The development of lightweight, solid state electronics lead to the introduction of practical radio control gear for the RC hobbyist in the early 1960s.

These early radio control sets offered “bang-bang” control via reed technology. The RC transmitter had up to four channels of control (rudder, elevator, throttle and ailerons) but the model’s control surfaces were either centered or at full throw. RC pilots had to be very agile on the transmitter control buttons (no sticks with RF reeds) to properly guide their model through a series of maneuvers.

Kraft RC transmitter

Kraft was a state of the art early proportional RC transmitter

The ultimate desire of model pilots everywhere was a fully proportional radio control system. Proportional control describes servo arm position that matches the transmitter control stick movement. If the pilot moves the elevator transmitter control stick halfway, the model’s elevator moves 50 percent.

Proportional radio control sets became routine by the early 1970s. The price of electronic hardware continued to drop while technical features increased. It soon became common to see RC systems of up to ten channels of control operating features such as flaps, retractable landing gear and bomb drops.

This state of technical development for RC model aviation remained fairly static until the late 1990s. About the only notable change was the continued drop in price for electronics. Modelers still built their own aircraft, and the flying scene did not vary much year to year.


Demoiselle RC airplane kit

Sig Demoiselle is an advanced RC kit

Significant developments

Starting in the late 1990s, three significant events rapidly changed the face of remote control modeling. These included the introduction of computer functions to the transmitter, 2.4 GHz spread spectrum technology and the advent of practical ready to fly model airplanes.

The inclusion of computers as part of the most basic RC transmitter had a major impact on modeling. Tasks that used to be challenging, such as reversing a servo’s movement direction, could now be programmed with the flip of a switch.

Spektrum computer RC transmitter

Spektrum DX6i 2.4 GHz RC transmitter

Computers for the first time allowed the introduction of new control techniques. These included exponential rates, where the airplane control surface moves in a non-proportional manner compared to the transmitter stick to allow for high performance 3D acrobatics. Dual rates can also be employed, to allow for selectable total control movement when practicing varied flight maneuvers such as landing approaches or acrobatics.

Havoc Cyclone foam RC aircraft

The Havoc Cyclone is an innovative RTF foam flyer

The adoption of 2.4 GHz spread spectrum radio technology started around 2005, and has been the most significant change to radio control modeling since the introduction of fully proportional control in the early 1960s.

Prior to 2.4 GHz usage, all RC transmitters operated on discrete frequencies, commonly referred to as channels. Pilots had to be absolutely certain not to fly on the same channel at the same time, or else they would jam each other resulting in loss of radio contact and a model airplane crash.

Spread spectrum technology

Spread spectrum technology has completely fixed this problem by technical deconfliction of transmitter radio signals. 2.4 GHz techniques have been so completely accepted by modelers that you will have a challenging time even finding one of the older single frequency transmitters for sale today.

Pocket Copter RC model helicopter

Pocket Copter is the word's smallest RTF helicopter

The final advancement for flying model aircraft involves the introduction of high quality and affordable ready to fly (RTF) models. Until quite recently, modelers had to build whatever aircraft they wished to fly. Manufacturers now create designs using CAD and laser cutting techniques that allow for the rapid construction of radio control models overseas.

These models vary from the smallest micro flyers to large scale acrobatic contest winners. Due to efficient manufacturing processes these RTF aircraft can often be purchased at a lower cost than if the modeler built the aircraft in their workshop.

The combination of affordable models, inexpensive RC gear and no requirement to earmark numerous days for model construction allow pilots everywhere to enjoy flying a wide range of aircraft types. It truly is a great time to enjoy the hobby of radio control model planes.

Author: Gordon McKay

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