History of Radio Control Flight
Hobbyists have enjoyed flying free flight model airplanes for well over 100 years. These early designs employed twisted rubber bands for power. Later and more advanced free flight planes incorporated small gasoline powered motors. Pilots dreamed of the day when these remarkable flyers could be remotely controlled as they maneuvered in the sky.
The ability to control a model airplane from a ground station depends entirely on radio technology. Walt and Bill Good successfully flew the first practical radio control model airplane in 1939. The Good brothers had to solve numerous challenges with fabricating a light weight airborne receiver and control system that fit into their plane layout. Radio control pilots during this era had to be highly skilled electronics technicians as well as capable aviators.
Progress with RC airplane designs paused during World War II. At the end of hostilities, model aviation benefitted from the rapid improvement in avionics and electronics know-how. Radio control sets were still limited to one channel of control for the rudder. In effect, these basic rudder-only RC systems served to guide free flight models back to their takeoff spot.
RC pilots strived for full control of their models. Radio sets advanced with reed systems. Under reed control a pilot could for the first time operate several aircraft flight surfaces. These typically included the rudder (turns), elevator (pitch), ailerons (bank) and engine throttle.
The limitation with reeds was that the control was either full on or off. The pilot pushed the rudder button and the rudder would go from neutral to full left. The next push of the button centered the rudder. The following button push commanded the rudder to full right, followed by a centering signal, and so on. This same scheme was used for the other controls.
Reeds offered a surprising degree of control for a model airplane, but the pilot needed to be very adept with pushing the correct buttons at the right time.
The dream of every RC pilot was a fully proportional control radio system. By the late 1960s, the first proportional transmitters were produced.
Under a proportional system, the transmitter uses small control sticks. As the control stick is displaced, a signal is transmitted to the model airplane’s receiver. The receiver is connected to an electro-mechanical servo that moves a small control arm the same relative distance as the transmitter control input.
Each aircraft control surface is moved by an independent servo. The model airplane is completely maneuverable via proportional control. The RC pilot can mimic any flight maneuver performed by a full scale aircraft.
From the beginning of the 1970s until around the year 2000, the main advances in radio control flight centered on lower system prices. Computer technology then started to be integrated with the transmitter. With computer programming, RC pilots could employ such useful features as dual rates, exponential control and servo reversing.
The next big change in the radio control hobby started around 2005 with the introduction of affordable, ready to fly model planes. Since the dawn of model flight, pilots had to build their own aircraft. Manufacturing advances, combined with computer aided design processes, laser wood cutting and state of the art foam fabrication methods allowed for the introduction of high quality ready to fly model planes.
For the first time, RC pilots could purchase a completed model airplane for less cost than if they had built it themselves. People took immediate advantage of this situation, often acquiring several RC models of varying types. Pilots can now hone their flying skills by having the chance to experience many additional different aircraft types than if they were required to construct each one.
The latest evolution in the RC hobby is the proliferation of micro, indoor ready to fly aircraft. You can literally open the box and be flying within minutes. There is absolutely nothing to assemble other that installing a set of batteries in the included transmitter. These miniature aircraft, some weighing a mere 18 grams, offer truly satisfying flight performance. Indoor flight also allows RC pilots in colder areas of the world to enjoy model aviation year round.
Radio control model flight has come a long way since the Good brothers flew their pioneering airplane in 1939. It is anyone’s guess where the hobby will head in the future. One thing is for sure, and that is more innovation at less cost. It’s a great time to be in the RC model plane hobby.