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Flying Toy and Hobby RC Helicopters

Basic Flight Controls for RC Helicopters

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3-channel toy RC helicopter

3-channel toy RC helicopter

Photo © M. James
In the RC hobby, flying RC helicopters is often considered the hardest RC skill to master. This might make the marketing claims for easy-to-fly toy RC helicopters hard to understand. The difference is in the helicopter design, the controls, and the range of movement that the helicopter is capable of performing.

Hobby-grade RC helicopters are designed to look and operate very much like full-size helicopters. Toy-grade helicopters are configured and operate a little differently. They are designed for more stable flight so that children can more easily use the transmitter and control the flight. These changes mean that the helicopter is not capable of the same speed or maneuvers as hobby-grade helicopters. Both can still be fun to fly.

Controlling RC Helicopters

What you can do with an RC helicopter (such as going up and down) are actions initiated by radio signals from the transmitter. The number of channels on a transmitter tells you the number of actions that you can control on the RC.

These actions usually involve things like changing the pitch (tilt) of the rotor blades or making the blades spin faster. A hobby-grade RC helicopter normally requires at least four or five channels for normal flight that closely mimics the controls and flight of full-size helicopters. Toy-grade helicopters may have only 2 or 3 channels and much more limited actions.

Flying Toy RC Helicopters

The typical toy heli is a 2- or 3-channel model that can fly up and down, maybe forward and sometimes backward, and go left and right. It may run at a constant speed. It can hover in place but it's probably not going to be able to do high speed chases, loops and rolls, or inverted flight.

In order to provide more stable flight, the tail may not have the familiar tail rotor and blades of real helicopters that are set perpendicular to the main rotor. Instead they often have fixed pitch, counter-rotating dual main rotors (ringed for safety). These rotors eliminate the need for the operator to use tail rotor controls to counteract a natural phenomenum of helicopter flight that makes the body of the helicopter want to spin around and around.

Because the main rotors are fixed pitch (blades don't tilt independently), there are no cyclic controls -- tilting of the main rotor -- for climbing and diving or doing banking turns. Instead, the dual main rotors provide level turning. Some models have a small rotor on the tail (parallel to the main rotors) or vertical rotors in other locations that control forward flight and provides further stability.

These design changes sacrifice some of the maneuverability found in hobby-grade helicopters but it also means that the pilot needs to perform fewer actions to keep the helicopter in flight. Simpler controls, slower speed, and less aerobatics ability makes these toy helicopters easier to fly and provide children and novice pilots with more entertainment value. It doesn't mean that you can master RC helicopter flight right out of the package though. Even with the toy helis it takes patience and practice to hover, fly around the room, and land upright.

For a step up from toy helicopters but with the stability features that make for easier flight, consider a hobby-grade Blade CX. It provides easier hovering and control but has the advanced features of hobby helicopters.

Flying Hobby RC Helicopters

With hobby-grade RC helicopters there are many more actions that the pilot can do and needs to perform to keep the helicopter aloft. Variable pitch rotors and other design features allow the helicopters to do more diving, climbing, rolls, and loops in addition to going up and down and hovering. These actions along with adjustable speed make hobby helicopters extremely challenging to fly but also more exciting.

Transmitters for hobby RC helicopters may come with many channels to control basic helicopter functions, provide more precise control of mixed actions, and change settings on the helicopter from a distance; but, for basic flight four or five channels is normal.

All four or five channels are activated with just the two sticks on the transmitter. The movements typically controlled by a 5-channel transmitter are:

  • Throttle
    More throttle equals more power and speed. Less throttle slows down the helicopter.

  • Main rotor up and down movement
    The collective keeps the pitch of the main rotor blades level with the fuselage and allows for the ascent and descent of the helicopter.

  • Tail rotor side to side movements
    The tail controls yaw -- keeps the helicopter from spinning around and around. The tail rotor also acts like a rudder for turning.

  • Main rotor forward or backward tilt
    The elevator or cyclic pitch controls forward and backward movement and altitude (diving and climbing) when in flight.

  • Main rotor left and right tilt
    The aileron or cyclic roll causes the helicopter to bank left or right or roll to the left or right.

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Everything About Radio Controlled (RC) Vehicles
FAQs:Frequently Asked Questions About RC Vehicles, Answered
Basics:Types, Key Parts, and Operating RC Vehicles
Buying an RC:How to Choose the Right Radio Controlled Vehicle
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