Becoming a better pilot

By Dave Lockhart.
Becoming a better pilot.
Sport & Aerobatics Column.
As seen in the Spring 2016 issue of
Park Pilot.

I am often asked by others, “How can I become a better pilot?” The answer(s) can vary depending on the pilot’s skill level, experience, and goals. In most cases, establishing or affirming some basic fundamentals provides a tangible benefit.

Sports analogies are plentiful and relevant for this topic. With a few exceptions, the most successful athletes are those with solid fundamentals, and it is no different for RC pilots. I want to share a couple of my favorite tips for improving your piloting skills.

Flying posture is often overlooked in the RC hobby. What I mean by flying posture is not only how the transmitter is held, but whether any “body language” is used while flying. A sports analogy (there are always exceptions), is that successful baseball players, golfers, bowlers, tennis players, etc. generally all have a specific way to grip the bat/ball/club and a specific hitting/throwing technique. A bad hit or throw of the ball is often the result of a lapse in technique.

With RC flying, stick inputs are the only means of controlling the airplane. Just as grimacing, dancing around, or waiving a bat will not change the trajectory of a baseball after it has left the bat, no amount of body language by a pilot will generate improved control inputs.

RC flying is much the same. No amount of body language will generate a proper or improved control input. In fact, not keeping the transmitter “silent” (relatively stationary) can lead to errant control inputs.

A good batter might be able to make adjustments and still hit the ball with a crooked bat, but it adds another level of difficulty. Similarly, a continually moving and shifting transmitter makes it harder to command consistent and accurate control inputs.

The first consideration is how the transmitter is held. The hands need to be placed comfortably on the transmitter in a manner that allows the full range of each stick to be easily achieved. Any switches used in flight should be operable without compromising control of the sticks.

Although it has been an ongoing debate since the beginning of RC, I advocate a “pinch” method (thumb and at least the index finger) of holding the sticks and not the “thumb only” method (where the thumb is used singularly on the top of the stick). Our hands were designed to be the most dexterous and accurate when using the thumb in combination with one or more fingers.

I highly recommend using a neck strap, mini tray, harness tray, or a European-style full tray to assist with holding the transmitter. The obvious benefit of a strap or tray is that it will hold the weight of the transmitter, allowing greater flexibility for how the hands are placed on the transmitter. The additional benefit of a strap or tray is to keep the transmitter “silent,” limiting the amount it can move and maintaining it at a consistent height and orientation.

Ron Lockhart utilizes this well-used, homemade transmitter tray that keeps the height and angle of the transmitter secure. It has small pads to support a pilot’s wrists.

Canadian F3P Junior Team member James Millson at the 2015 F3P World Championship. With his small hands, James relies on his transmitter tray to hold the transmitter so he can center his hands over the sticks and command the full range of stick motion.

The ideal strap or tray is not the same for everyone, nor is the same height ideal for all pilots. Finding the most comfortable strap, tray, or height can take some experimenting, but, in my experience, it is worth doing.

The key point to finding the right length or height for the neck strap or tray is to start long and shorten the length or height until there is no slack in the strap(s). If there is slack, the strap or tray is not actually holding the transmitter’s weight.

The last consideration of flying posture is the actual stance. The most important aspect is to be comfortable. Whether in a wide stance or slightly crouched, it makes no difference as long as it is comfortable and can be maintained for the duration of the flight. As with a silent transmitter, maintaining a silent stance is important. No amount of leaning, rocking, swaying, or dancing will improve the control inputs.

As seen at the 2015 F3P World Championship, USA Junior Team member Joseph Szczur is in his typical flying position with a long, low neck strap and “downward” tilt on the transmitter. This is a style common for pilots who are 10 to 30 years old.

Dave uses a short neck strap and pinches the sticks with his thumb and index finger. His middle fingers wrap around the top corners of the transmitter to easily flip switches.

Ron in his typical flying stance. The transmitter tray allows him to use a pinch method on the sticks with his thumb and index finger, leaving his other fingers available for flipping switches.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find an airplane that, or a pilot who, exemplifies the type and flying style that you like. Copy every detail of the mechanical setup of the airplane and the radio programming. If the option is available, have that “model” pilot fly your airplane and verify that the setup is within reason for your desired type of flying.

With many modern radios, it is possible to copy or transfer programs between transmitters using a buddy cord or a memory card (or even by emailing programming files). Although this might be a foolproof way to match programming, it is important to understand every aspect of the acquired program, such as what switches or flight conditions are active and what flight regimes they are used for. More importantly, it is critical to verify that control surface movements are not reversed and that control surfaces are centered and move freely to the desired amount of deflection.

Without the opportunity to directly copy a programming setup, many of the aerobatic kits or ARFs that are for sale today include a substantial amount of setup and programming instructions that can be later tailored to specific flying styles or preferences.

Manually programming a transmitter to replicate an existing setup removes some variables in setup. An increasing number of transmitters makes it is possible to copy or transfer a program using a buddy cord or a memory card.

This Extreme Flight Laser is an example of a popular aerobatic aircraft that has good setup tips in the instruction manual. Extreme Flight has an active following online for additional information and support.

Various aerobatic setups have been well documented in numerous periodicals, and several excellent books about aerobatic aircraft setup have been written—notably the series by Dave Scott from the 1st U.S. R/C Flight School (, which includes several books for a variety of aerobatic skill levels.

Other often plentiful sources of information are online communities through Internet forums and Facebook groups. Some popular airplanes have discussion threads with thousands of posts. It can be challenging to sort through the mountain of information, but it is a way to communicate with other pilots who have similar interests.

Using the methods that I have mentioned ensures that your airplane or setup is capable of the type of flying that you like and want to excel at. Knowing that your setup has the performance capability needed, focuses the learning curve on the pilot and not on the airplane setup.

Practice with purpose. Before the practice session, you should have goals for that session. Before each flight, have goals for the flight. After each flight you should be able to identify improvements or weaknesses. Those results should be factored into subsequent flights and practice sessions. Without a specific purpose or plan, most pilots fall into a repetitive habit of flying what they know. They fly what is comfortable and new skills and maneuvers are not added to the repertoire.

Common challenges when learning new maneuvers include knowing the exact inputs and timing. Many maneuvers utilize similar control inputs and small variations on amount and timing of the inputs produce different maneuvers. For example, some “extreme aerobatic” maneuvers such as the Pop Top, Crankshaft, and Blender, have similar inputs starting with aileron, then opposite rudder with down-elevator.

Along with small changes in timing, the entry attitude is different for each maneuver. That is a big part of why the maneuvers appear to be different. Traditional slow rolls, rolling circles, and rolling loops are another example. The inputs are the same for each maneuver, but the amount of and timing of the inputs are different.

As with aircraft setup, local pilots, periodicals, books, and the Internet community can offer great resources for learning specific maneuver inputs. Additionally, flight simulators can be useful for learning new maneuvers.

Simulators are limited to the extent that they are not fully accurate in the reproduction of some maneuvers (predominantly in 3-D and extreme aerobatics), but they are still useful for learning basic inputs. Programming flight simulators to more accurately replicate actual flight behavior is a topic unto itself, but substantial improvements can often be achieved.

Dave Lockhart


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