by Iain Butler
So if you’ve got a RC plane, Helicopter or Multirotor for Christmas congratulations, I’m sure you’re going to really enjoy it. I’m hopefully going to explain the opposite of the article title and give you some pointers so you don’t crash your new drone. It should also make your flying more enjoyable and less stressful.
Now for starters like anything most things there are a couple of rules that you need to understand. Generally drones are governed by the countries airspace authority, such as the CAA in the UK and the FAA in the USA. Policy, advisories and rules exist to separate RC aircraft from manned aircraft, keeping them apart and avoiding collisions. Globally airspace authorities are struggling to keep pace with the massive explosion of the hobbyist and commercial drone market. However the general rules are:
Fly no higher than 400 feet. Why? Manned aircraft do not fly below 400’, small drones no higher than 400’, therefore they avoid collisions. Never ever fly above 400’ AGL (above ground level) your risking people’s lives.
Always keep your aircraft in sight, you need to be able to determine where is pointing, which direction it’s traveling and be able to recover it and fly it safely back to you. If you cannot see you don’t have correct situational awareness and you likely to crash or have a flyaway (more later.)
Never fly within 5 miles of an airport or on the approach paths to an airport. Again it’s pretty commonsense, but worth mentioning.
If you see a manned aircraft nearby, avoid any chance of flying nearby and if possible land.
Do not fly over or near people. Well the reason is pretty obvious, loose control and you can really hurt someone, if your batteries run out of power, you’ve got a 2lb flying brick falling from 400’, yes it could really hurt.
Don’t fly over Stadiums, this is generally restricted airspace during sporting or events. Again you don’ want your drone falling on people.
Join a club and take a lesson.
Inspect your drone for loose parts, good wiring connections, and tight propellers. Now is the time to find out your wing is loose, not 300’ up in the air.
Do fly for fun, not commercially unless you have a commercial license.
Normally weight restrictions apply, in the USA don’t fly a RC aircraft over 55 lbs (unless waivered.)
Don’t fly recklessly or dangerously. If you fly dangerously you can be arrested for reckless endangerment.
Respect privacy. Drone privacy regulations are been formulated and discussed, but normal privacy laws apply. Doesn’t matter if it’s a drone, camera, telescopic, spying on your neighbors is illegal.
For the USA here is a short FAA video on small UAV policies:
OK so that is a quick discussion on the present policy, advisories and regulations, but let’s give you some hard learned lessons and pointers to help you fly safe. So how can you fly safer? Here are some pointers:
- When you get your drone, read the instructions cover to cover. Follow the instructions. This is where problems first start. You need to know what each knob, switch, lever on the transmitter does. You need to know the calibration procedures, most drones after been turned on need to be left untouched to calibrate the electronics, plus get things like compass and GPS calibrated. Imagine taking off with your compass wrong and GPS thinking you’re in Cape Town, South Africa, when you’re actually in Huddersfield, England? Well when you take off it’s going to start flying to South Africa! That’s called a “Flyaway”, where the drone just fly’s away out of your control (again flyways mentioned soon.)
- Join your local flying club, in the USA your local AMA @modelaircraft club. The people here enjoy RC flying and have lots of knowledge, people who can help train you and hold events like flying contests, fun fly days, BBQ’s etc. Contact your AMA club and attend.
- Buy a flight simulator, it really will save you money in the long term. Flight simulators from Real Flight http://www.realflight.com/ . Are very realistic in graphics and flight dynamics. You can learn to difficult maneuvers without crashing, and if you do you just hit RESET and you’re flying again. This really will save you lots of money and climbing trees. Flight simulators are particular important for RC planes where you need to learn takeoff and landings, this is where most crashes occur for beginners. It also teaches you about orientation. Normally a RC plane, copter follows the direction of your transmitter sticks when viewed from behind, however when the plane or copter is pointing towards you the transmitter stick movements are reversed! This is another reason for beginner crash, you’re up in the air and no idea front from back, and you’ve taken off in your back yard and stuffed it into that 40’ conifer tree. Trust me, get a flight simulator fly in manual mode, and avoid all those fancy stabilization modes for now. Fly until its subconscious. Once you have done that, go fly at your RC Club field with seasoned pilots. You’re still going to crash but no way near as if you hadn’t practiced on a simulator. Also the best way to improve is to avoid crashing on the simulator. Fly as if the aircraft was real. You’ll learn a lot faster, practice each simulator session with a set maneuver to improve in mind i.e. take-off, landing, level turns, loops, rolls etc.
- Fly in a big open space, not your back yard unless it’s big! Flying in a small area with limited beginner skills probably means you’re going to crash, your reaction skills and muscle memory haven’t had the correct training yet. You need to subconsciously react, normally if you have to think about which direction you’re pointed, or what to do, you’ve already crashed.
- Fly two mistakes high. It’s an old saying but very true. You’ll come to learn what you safety margin is, but your should be able to make two mistakes and recover before you crash. This is more applicable to planes, as nowadays Multirotor have stability recovery systems which recover if you let go of the sticks. Planes if you let go of the sticks they just crash (unless they have the new recovery systems now entering the market.)
- Never fly over your head or behind you. It’s the best way to loose orientation and crash. It’s also a safety issue, as any spectators should be stood behind you.
- Never fly into the sun. There is a reason WW2 fighter pilots dove out of the sun on their prey, you cannot see and will lose sight of your aircraft and probably crash.
- Always check your transmitter and aircraft batteries are fully charged before taking off. There is nothing like the fear of hearing the beeper as your transmitter batteries run out of power and you try desperately to land your aircraft before you lose connection and it flies off in to the sunset.
- Avoid Flyaways or recover from them. This can be caused by a number of issues such as firmware updates of your drone, bad GPS and compass calibration, incorrect switch settings etc. Main thing be very careful after doing a firmware update on your drone, and make sure you have completed the correct compass and GPS calibrations. Also be careful when flying with GPS when Solar Flare activity is high, this can disrupt GPS and cause flyaways. If your drone starts to fly where you don’t expect it do the following:
1. Check your switch settings and move to correct positions.
2. If that is OK, switch to MANUAL.
3. If that doesn’t work, switch to RTL or LAND.
4. If that doesn’t work turn off your Transmitter and the failsafe’s should kick in.
5. Follow the Instructions for your drone about Flyaway recovery.
- For RC planes practice dead-stick landings, where you throttle the engine all the way back and land by gliding. It’s a good technique to learn for WHEN your motor quits in the future, either from a lack of gas or a low battery.
- For Collective pitch helicopters practice autorotation’s, where you cut the throttle and use the blades energy to keep you flying with a flare at the bottom for landing.
- Don’t try engine off landing on fixed pitch Multirotor, you’ll just dig a hole in the ground as it falls like a brick.
- Follow a checklist every time you fly, manned aircraft do it, it gets you into a routine of checks that no matter how obvious will help you spot issues before they become crashes.
- Always aim to land with >20% battery or fuel left. All you need is somebody to crash on your landing area and you’ll be glad you had that spare fuel. Plus it helps your batteries.
- Use small smooth control inputs, imagine you’re holding two glasses of water filled to the top. Don’t spill the water, make smooth small movements. Big fast movements over-control your aircraft and before you know it it’s in a death spiral or rocking violently from side to side. Smooth is king. If you’re out of control, center your controls, let the aircraft recover and then take control again.
- For RC planes always take-off into the wind and land into the wind, you get more lift and slower takeoff and approach speeds.
- For all aircraft monitor the wind and be prepared for gusts. If it’s too windy land.
- Practice crosswind landings on the simulator, A LOT, then try them at the flying field.
- Practice the basics before trying more complicated flight modes. The basics will save your aircraft when everything else goes wrong.
- Have fun, but be safe.