The Road to Bonze Wings (Solo
Flying at DAC)
By David Stevens (July-2016)
Learning to fly an RC plane is a
bit like learning to drive a car. It can be daunting at first,
requires a lot of practice and
are consequences if you crash. However, once you’ve learnt the
basics it is very rewarding and the sky is literally the limit
in terms of how far you can go within the hobby. There is the
satisfaction of learning new manoeuvres, the enjoyment of
building a kit, the fun of adding to your plane collection (some
might say addiction) and the camaraderie of your local club. If
you are interested in competition there are many different types
including: fun fly events, scale, aerobatic, pylon racing and
I have driven RC cars
competitively for many years but my forays into RC planes always
ended with a quick trip to the “scene of the accident” at my
local park. After wasting a lot of money trying to teach myself
to fly over the years a friend suggested I visit my local flying
field which is Doncaster Aeromodellers Club (DAC).
I was surprised to learn that if
I bought my own equipment and joined the club that a licenced
instructor would teach me to fly for free. So this is the story
of that journey.
I went to the club one Saturday
afternoon in January 2016 and everyone was very friendly. I was
introduced to the resident instructors Michael and Alex and was
asked if I’d like to have a go. You bet I would! So after a
brief introduction to the flying field and boundaries Michael
and I set off for the flight line with Michael’s Trojan T-28
trainer and two radio transmitters. One for me and one for
Michael. This is called “buddy boxing” and means that the
instructor has control of the aircraft normally but if he
presses and holds down a button then the student has control. On
my first flight Michael took off and demonstrated flying the
plane in the circuit. After asking if I was ready he pressed and
held a button on his radio and I then had the ability to turn
the plane left and right using the ailerons. Michael retained
all other controls so that I could concentrate on just turning
and getting a feel for the plane. A couple of times I got into
trouble and Michael simply released the button on his radio and
regained complete control, put the plane back on course and,
after asking if I was ready, gave me control again. After 6
minutes Michael took control and landed the plane.
I had a big smile on my face.
What a brilliant system! I could learn at my own pace with very
little risk of crashing the plane. I had a second flight that
day and went away to consider whether I’d found a new hobby.
DAC encourage you to try flying
on 3 different days before deciding whether the hobby is for
you. It is completely free to this point with no obligation.
So one week later I was back to
try it again. This time Michael gave me elevator control as well
as ailerons. The elevator changes the pitch of the model
pointing the nose towards the sky or towards the ground. By
using some up elevator in the turns you can stop the plane from
losing height when turning. You can also turn tighter by using
more up elevator. This was all new to me and Michael had to take
over a few times while I struggled with the combination of
ailerons and elevator. Unfortunately I had to leave after only
one flight but I was seriously thinking that this might be for
me. The question is could I do actually do it as it seemed quite
difficult so far. I decided to splash out $40 on eBay for a
cheap controller and flight simulator to see whether with more
practice I might stand a chance of being able to do this. It’s
worth noting that the club has a very good simulator but my
couple of tries on that ended up with a crashed plane. I thought
that if I could sit down at home I might have a better shot at
keeping it in the air by myself.
The courier knocked on my door a
few days later and I eagerly installed the software and plugged
the controller in to the PC’s USB port. It’s worth noting that
radio transmitters come in different configurations called
“modes”. DAC recommends Mode 1 for planes where the left
joystick controls elevator and rudder while the right joystick
controls throttle and ailerons. So I’d bought a Mode 1
controller with the simulator.
I found the simulator a
challenge. The software wasn’t very good and it was difficult to
see the plane once it had taken off. After about an hour of take
offs followed by crashing at some point I changed the viewpoint
to above and behind the plane and from there I could actually
fly the plane reasonably well. I even managed to land it. At
that point I decided that while flying an RC plane is difficult
I had proved I could do it when slightly above and behind the
plane. Now I just had to translate that to standing on the
ground. So I decided to invest the money in my new hobby.
Back to DAC at the end of January
and I had 3 flights that day, taking my total to 6. At the end
of the day Michael asked me whether I’d like to join and I
confirmed that I would. As previously mentioned DAC provides 3
free days of instruction. At that point if you wish to continue
you must join the club. This sounded very reasonable at the time
and still does. What other RC hobby can you try before you buy?
Particularly one which has the potential to end up in a tree
while using someone else’s plane!
So I submitted my membership
application which was accepted after being approved by the
club’s committee. Michael provided a list of club recommended
equipment and between flights I’d been picking the brains of
other members on which radio transmitter to buy.
My membership was accepted within
a couple of days and so I was off to my local hobby shop. They
had everything in stock and I staggered home under the bulk of
large shiny new boxes. The first order of business was to
install the Phoenix Flight Simulator which was a massive step
forward on my eBay simulator. I also now had a shiny new
Spektrum radio which also felt a lot better to use. The
simulator came with a cable that connected the PC to my radio.
The club recommended the E-Flite Trojan T-28 aircraft which is
exactly what I bought. The Phoenix simulator allows you to fly a
number of different planes including the Trojan. This was
important as all planes have their own flight characteristics so
being able to practice on the simulator with the same plane I
use in real life was a big help. You can also download the DAC
airfield imagery from the DAC website which allows you to
practice as close to the real thing as possible. I found it very
handy to set the simulator to always keep the ground in view (so
I didn’t get disoriented) and to turn on Binoculars so I could
see a close up representation of the model at the bottom of the
screen (so that when the plane was far away I could glance at
the binoculars view to see which way it is facing if I wasn’t
Now I didn’t want my plane to
look the same as the other Trojan’s at the club so some new
paint was in order. I liked the look of the stock red and white
paint scheme but I thought I could improve on it somewhat. I
wasn’t going to rush the paintjob so my next club day I went
without my own plane and Michael was happy for me to use his
plane to continue my training.
The Trojan T-28 takes about an
hour to fit the wheels, screw on the wing and install and setup
a Spektrum receiver with ASX stability control. I was a little
frustrated to learn that it wasn’t possible to turn on the
stability control in the ASX receiver without a $40 cable – sold
separately. However, Michael was happy for me to use his cable
for the initial setup.
In addition to painting the model
I also used black packing tape to add stripes to the bottom of
the fuselage to make it easier to tell when I was looking at the
bottom of the plane from a distance. Adding larger diameter
wheels improved the planes ground handling. Taxiing through
grass with the stock wheels often led to the nose wheel digging
in and flipping the plane onto the propeller.
So on my 4th club day I was still
using Michael’s plane but he now gave me all the controls.
Throttle, ailerons, elevator and rudder. I ignored rudder
(except when taxiing where it provides steering on the ground)
and concentrated on the other controls which I had been using in
the simulator. At this stage I was presented with my membership
card and an information packet and I was officially a member.
That day I tried my first landing approach (messy – and without
actually landing), my first taxi and even my first loop. I left
that day with a large grin on my face!
On February 13 I took my Trojan
to DAC and Michael gave it its maiden flight. Making sure
everything was working as expected before passing control to me.
A week later on my 12th flight I took off and landed myself for
the first time. I also tried procedural turns and figure eights
for the first time which I found quite challenging.
So how long does it take to get
your Bronze Wings and why does it matter? Without Bronze Wings
you can’t fly by yourself at the club and you can’t visit other
clubs and fly at their airfield either. How long it takes
depends on the individual and how much time and effort they
invest. The good news is it’s not a race and there’s no time
limit. Some people may take a year or more. Others might achieve
it within a few months. I decided early on that Bronze Wings was
a priority for me and so I went to the club every Saturday to
fly and used my simulator for hours at the start and settled
down to about 30 minutes per week as I progressed.
During March I continued to make
about three 8 minute flights every Saturday afternoon. Two
months on since joining the club and I’d clocked up 25 flights.
At this point I felt fairly comfortable with taking off, flying
the circuit and landing.
On April 2 on my 28th flight
Michael took me off the buddy box. If I got into trouble Michael
no longer had a radio with which to fix it. I took off,
completed one circuit and landed – all with no safety net. It
was an incredible feeling to fly “solo” for the first time and
my smile was very wide indeed!
The next Saturday I was back on
the buddy box for the first flight (so I could get my eye back
in after a week away) and then off the buddy box for the rest of
On April 16 I took off for my
34th flight with Michael and the buddy box. Michael then
arranged for a senior member to stand with me for my next few
flights. The number of flights per afternoon was typically 3-4
because Michael was also busy training others and everyone had
to wait their turn. Because I’d demonstrated that I could
identify when I was doing something wrong, and correct it
myself, I could now have a senior member stand with me and
provide advice. I’d now fly with Michael about every 3rd flight.
This meant I could get 6-7 flights in per afternoon instead of
I was now flying with the ASX
stability mode turned off and practicing dead stick landings and
by April 23 was up to my 46th flight.
At DAC we normally fly left hand
circuits which means you take off to the South and keep turning
left until you’re back over the runway. On my 47th flight the
wind was blowing from the other direction so for the first time
I took off to the North and flew a right hand circuit. Because
the flying field is very tight, lined with trees and not
rectangular, landing to the North is quite a different
experience but after a few flights I felt that I’d managed to
get the hang of it.
Up until now everything had been
going very well. I’d been improving fairly constantly and the
worst that had happened was a slightly heavy landing. So when I
turned up for my 50th flight in early May I was full of
confidence. We were flying right hand circuits again because of
the wind and Michael asked if I’d like to go on the buddy box
for my first flight on the day. I didn’t give it a moments
thought before deciding that I’d be fine without the buddy box.
Even though I hadn’t flown for a week and had only 3 flights
experience in right hand circuits. You can probably see where
this is going and you’d be right. I came in to land and a gust
of wind caught me about 2m off the ground, I gave the wrong
control inputs and the plane nosed into the ground. My beautiful
plane was in three pieces and I felt rather silly.
Everyone rallied round and gave
advice on putting the plane back together. I was sceptical that
it could be repaired as the nose had been torn right off the
fuselage and the wing had come off in addition to other minor
damage. But I was surprised how easy a foam plane is to repair
and after a lot of repairs and some touched up paint I was back
at the field the following Saturday having spent just $10 on
parts (a new front cowl).
After a crash the plane is
treated as if it has never flown before and everything is
checked for airworthiness. The plane passed with flying colours
and Michael took the plane back up to test its flight
characteristics which were also fine. It was another very windy
day on right hand circuits and I grabbed that buddy box life
line with both hands!
20 May and 11 flights following
the crash and I my confidence was restored. Unfortunately
Michael would be overseas for the next 5 weeks and I’d be flying
with others. This actually worked out well as everyone I flew
with had some advice that I learned from.
2 July was the big day - Michael
was back from overseas and would assess me for my Bronze Wings.
Taking off, flying the circuit, landing, procedural turns,
figure eights (all in both directions) and dead stick landings
(simulating a battery or motor failure). 3 flights later and a
40 minute verbal test on flight theory, aircraft setup and club
safety rules and I was awarded the long awaited Bronze Wings.
Achieving Bronze Wings took 5
months of flying almost every Saturday afternoon. I can now fly
by myself. At the same time I recognise that the journey is just
beginning as there is so much fun to look forward to. Honing the
skills I’ve learnt so far, learning new manoeuvres, perhaps a
new plane once I’ve learned all I can with the faithful Trojan
and there’s a fun fly event coming up. More than enough for now.
Later on Silver Wings and Gold Wings may beckon, who knows.
from joining the club until achieving Bronze Wings took me 5
months – is that some sort of benchmark? Nope! This was my
journey and I’ve recorded it in the hope of encouraging others.
But everyone will have their own journey. How long it takes
depends on how much time you commit to practice, previous
experience, natural ability, age (younger people may pick it up
more quickly), whether life gets in the way, and the rules at
your club. But every journey starts with a first step so check
out your local club and go from there.
I’d like to thank the DAC club
and in particular the instructors Michael Best and Alex
Zattelman as well as all the members who stood with me and
provided encouragement and advice.