When I first began flying radio-controlled model aircraft as a teenager, helicopters were reserved for an elite class of modelers—those with lots of time, money, and skill. Decades later, remote-controlled helicopters remain a challenge to fly, but nowadays at least, you can test your skills with one without spending more than it costs to take the family out for a decent meal.
Warning: A good fraction of remote-control helicopters crash and break the first time their new owners try to fly them, which could be especially discouraging for a young person. But there are ways to avoid that fate. One is to purchase a helicopter with two rotors that spin around the same axis. These coaxial models tend to have the most docile handling characteristics.
Some of the least expensive model helicopters of this kind can be had for less than US $30. But these typically offer only an infrared communications link and very limited control—just two channels: One adjusts the amount of power fed to the rotors, lifting the helicopter off the ground; the other varies how the power is split between the two rotors—when power is not evenly distributed, a reactive torque results, turning the craft.
Instead of buying at the very lowest end, for a little more you can get three control channels and true radio control. I bought such a helicopter (the X-Chaser, manufactured by a company called H.C.W.) for about $45 from Banana Hobby in Monterey Park, Calif. It amazes me that for this price you can buy a radio-controlled helicopter that can be made to go up and down, forward and backward, and turn left and right in a controllable fashion.
The X-Chaser, like most model helicopters being sold these days, requires no assembly. It can be flown as soon as you charge the onboard lithium-polymer battery. But there are some small modifications you might want to make if you’re the tinkering type. These are designed to make this tiny toy copter feel a bit more like, well, a bigger toy copter. They can all be accomplished with just a small amount of hacking to the transmitter.
The first and easiest modification is to the throttle control stick on the left side of the transmitter. An electric helicopter has no throttle per se, of course, but this is the name given to the control that powers the rotors. As with radio-control transmitters designed for use with airplanes, there are detents in the throttle stick, which cause it to move in a series of closely spaced increments. For helicopter flying, where you often want to make very fine adjustments of the throttle, such graduations are not close enough. So it’s best to make the throttle move smoothly by reversing the metal clip inside the transmitter that adds friction to the throttle stick’s movement.
My second modification to the transmitter prevents the helicopter from always turning to the left, which mine did even when the trim tab on the transmitter was adjusted to its rightmost position. More expensive models typically provide a way to center this control by adjusting the electronics carried on the helicopter. The inexpensive X-Chaser didn’t offer that recourse, so I added a 1 kilohm resistor to one side of the corresponding 5k potentiometer inside the transmitter. That allowed this ”rudder” control to be properly centered with the trim tab on the transmitter.
The final modification was to transfer the potentiometer I had just doctored from the right-hand stick to the left. This involved swapping a few mechanical parts and extending three wires so that they reached from the rudder potentiometer to the transmitter’s main printed-circuit board with the control in its new position. I wanted to use my experience flying the X-Chaser as a stepping stone to an even more capable four-channel model for which the rudder control would be on the left-hand control stick. Best, I thought, to train my thumbs only once.
The four-channel helicopter I chose to graduate to was another comparatively tame coaxial model: the Big Lama, manufactured by E-Sky. Although a 72-megahertz version of this helicopter can be had for slightly less, I bought one with an interference-resistant 2.4-gigahertz radio for $89.90, also from Banana Hobby.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the package contained a USB cable for the transmitter, allowing me to use it to run Flying Model Simulator. (The CD from E-Sky failed to install properly, so I just downloaded a copy of this free software.) I suggest you do the same. Indeed, flying a virtual model helicopter is an excellent way to avoid maiden-flight catastrophes with the real thing.
Another crash-prevention measure—and a very easy one—is to purchase a ”training kit,” a lightweight gizmo with cross struts and ping-pong balls that clips onto the helicopter’s landing gear, providing it with a wider, more stable stance and the ability to slide around on pavement. For $6, Banana Hobby sold me one that works great.