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 or semi 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.

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. In modern times 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 understand.  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.

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 to a pilot who is beyond the baby steps.  (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.)

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? Then the other manufacturer offers a 46, then another one offers a 47, and another offers a 48.  Only a doofus would have a 40 size engine with an actual displacement of .40 cubic inch.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the old days any airplane that would take off and fly by radio control was already as cool as it needed to be.  A flat bottom airfoil would be employed in an aerobatic plane to give it a wider speed envelope and a lower landing speed.  Flat bottom airfoils are a lot of fun.  Other choices such as high or low wing, and tricycle vs tail dragger landing gear were all held in equally high regard.

A neophyte needs an easy trainer.  After you can get a plane up and back down without destroying it, my advice is to try everything.  It’s all a lot of fun.  Don’t listen to the peanut gallery.  If you’re tired of your flat bottom high wing trainer, go ahead and build that P-51 you’ve had your eye on.  But don’t get rid of your trainer.  Put it away for a while, and then bring it out again after you’ve mastered aerobatics and you’ll see how much fun you can have with a basic trainer.  People complain that trainers don’t handle wind.  Learn to handle the wind with a trainer.  Try to do an axial roll with a trainer.  Better yet, try to do an axial roll with a three channel old timer.  My flying buddy can do an outside loop with my Buzzard Bombshell.  It’s not easy.  Maybe you also want to fly helicopters and pylon racers, and that’s great.  The only point I’m trying to make is that 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.  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.

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.  Presumably you’re reading this website because you’re a builder, which should exempt you from this trend.  If you ignore the cool scale and build what you like, I believe that you will have more fun.