Is my airplane cool enough?

I had a hard time writing a title to capture what this article is about.  When I write articles I try to answer a common question, but I think that instead of asking this question most RC pilots make an assumption.  It goes something like this:  Everything exists on a scale from easy to hard, or goofy to cool, or beginner to expert.  And you always have to move to the next step in difficulty, speed, size, or greater cool factor because if you don’t, you will surely become bored, and thus fail as a model airplane pilot.

There are several of these categories.  Flat bottom airfoils, gliders, trainers, nose wheels, and high wings are for babies and nerds.  Symmetrical airfoils, low wings, military models, and tail wheels are for dynamic, exciting people who know how to have fun.  You start at the bottom, and with each new plane you have to continue to move forward, or risk boredom.  You can never go backwards because it isn’t any fun.

I have noticed this kind of thinking many times in the decades that I have spent with RC airplanes, and it frequently appears in advice given to beginners.  OK, you caught me.  What I’m really doing is responding to what I think is bad advice given on internet forums to beginners.  When a beginner masters the basic trainer and asks for a recommendation for the next plane, most people will suggest low wing planes because the low wing represents a step along the imaginary path from doofus to Ace.  If you keep flying a high winger forever you are a failure as a model airplane pilot, the conventional wisdom says.  Some guys will even tell a total beginner to skip the flat bottom trainer entirely and get a plane with a symmetrical airfoil for training “to keep you from getting bored”.  Because, you know, flat bottom high wing planes are boring, and the only reason to get one is if you don’t know how to fly, and you should try to avoid it if possible and learn with a cool plane, if you’re man enough to handle it.  If you can’t do that, you should at least get a semi-symmetrical airfoil, because even though it’s not as cool as symmetrical, at least it’s better than flat bottom.

The classic airplanes such as the Astro Hog or Kadet are frequently converted to tail dragger because of a higher perceived level of pizzazz.  (That’s the way we see landing gear currently, but it hasn’t always been that way.  In the 1960s and 70s a lot of planes were built with nose wheels to make them look modern, which was super cool at the time.)

The Astro Hog, which appeared in the 1950s, was outfitted with super cool modern tricycle gear. It's usually built today with a tailwheel in an attempt to avoid nerdosis. It is shown here with a rare tricycle setup. You may notice that the builder has tried to recapture some of his lost cool points by installing a suave four stroke engine.

The Astro Hog, which appeared in the 1950s, was outfitted with super cool modern tricycle gear. Nowadays it’s usually built with a tail wheel in an attempt to avoid nerdosis. It is shown here with a rarely seen tricycle setup. You may notice that the builder has tried to recapture some cool points by installing a suave four stroke engine.

There are a couple of special categories that most people don’t grasp as easily.  For instance, under cambered airfoils are usually thought of as being beyond flat bottom, so most people avoid them in an effort to maintain the appearance of a super cool flying ace.  Biplanes also don’t fit in neatly.  High wing is goofy, low wing is cool, and biplane is extra cool.  Old timers represent a special exemption.  They fly like trainers, but you’re OK if you fly them because it’s a historical pursuit, so that makes you cool.  But everybody knows they’re boring.  So an old timer biplane is confusing to most RC pilots.

Even the choice of which engine or radio to buy is subject to the imaginary cool scale.  When purchasing equipment a new pilot-to-be will frequently be advised to get an oversized engine for a trainer, or an expensive radio with a million channels and fancy programming options “because you’ll want it later”.  The implication is that after the trainer is put away (or laid to rest) if the new pilot was foolish enough to use a basic 4 channel radio or put a 40 engine on a 40 size plane, these items will be doomed to sit on a shelf collecting dust because they are just so boring.  (Unless the 40 finds its way onto a 20 size military model, which would be cool, except that another unspoken rule of thumb says that big is cool and small is for losers…..except for planes that are impractically small, which is another one of those special cases.)  The idea of getting a radio with more than 4 channels for a trainer “because you’ll want it later” really freaks me out.  I’ve built hundreds of planes since 1986, and I’m pretty sure that no more than half a dozen of them have had any need for extra channels.

Even the manufacturers get caught up in the cool scale.  In the 1960s the various sizes of glow engines were set by the classes in sanctioned competitions.  This is where we get the general idea of a 20 size or 40 size airplane, because these were common sizes that were established back in the day.  We still say “40 size”, but if you’re an RC pilot in the market for a 40 size engine, and the manufacturer offers a 45, wouldn’t you feel stupid buying the 40?  I mean, if you’re really cool you’ll buy the bigger engine, because it’s cool, you know? But don’t you know the latest thing is to put a 55 on a 40 size plane?  Only a doofus would actually put a .40 engine on a 40 size plane.

If you’ve never noticed the unspoken pro-cool bias, try looking for it.  I believe that it’s part of modern culture, and it came about due to the fact that plug and play has replaced craftsmanship in everyday pursuits.  When you’re a craftsman you build what inspires you, and it could be anything.  But when you’re just shopping for toys you want to buy the best.  In cases where all options are available and there is no such thing as the best, a scale has to be invented, thus the existence of the cool scale, which is based on completely imaginary criteria.

I believe I can tell you the actual reason why most guys believe that symmetrical airfoils are better.  They make aerobatic maneuvers inherently easy because they fly the same inverted or upright.  To do an axial roll a flat bottom wing requires rudder and elevator input at various times during the roll.  This is difficult and it requires the pilot to learn skills.  Once the new pilot learns to bring the trainer home undamaged, pretty maneuvers become the next goal.  But performing pretty maneuvers with a trainer is too hard, so the more attractive option is to find a plane that makes it easy.  So you get a mid wing airplane with a symmetrical airfoil, and if you want to do an axial roll you move the aileron stick and the plane does an axial roll.  Once a sport pilot has been flying an “advanced” aerobatic plane for a while, it feels right to say that beginner planes are inferior, or at least they are boring and not cool.  But the real fact is that the advanced pilot does not know how to fly, so he gets an advanced airplane to do it for him.

There is no such thing as a boring airplane.  Different planes have different flight capabilities, but they’re all fun and challenging, as long as you know how to challenge yourself.  Try doing precise maneuvers with a trainer, or any plane that has a high wing with a high lift airfoil.  It’s not easy, and it will make you a better pilot.  If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong.  Your brain is what makes this hobby entertaining, so make sure you don’t launch with the switch turned off.