How Do I Prepare for the First Flight of My Model?

By Terry Dunn

The Maiden’s Allure

If there is such a thing as a “maiden flight junkie”, I would definitely qualify. Between my own projects and those that I fly for others, I probably average more than twenty maiden flights per year. Despite all of the anxiety and nervousness that usually surrounds first-flights; I actually enjoy the opportunity to fly unproven airplanes. Sure my knees knock, and my heart races, but isn’t it that brand of visceral excitement that draws us to aeromodeling? Otherwise, we’d all be happy building static display models.

I have experienced and witnessed my fair share of failed maidens. To my recollection, none of these crashes were caused by some random equipment failure. Each ill-fated flight began with problems that were either ignored or unrecognized. While many of the necessary preflight focal points are obvious, some others may be less apparent. I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t all about the airplane.

In my day job at the Johnson Space Center, we frequently use the term “go fever.” It refers to the tendency of humans to ignore problems and take shortcuts for the sake of achieving a milestone. If you are part of a team that has spent years preparing for the launch of a satellite, an intangible momentum builds as you near the planned launch date. Your urge to maintain that momentum might sway you to dismiss an abnormal voltage reading on launch day as just a finicky sensor. Maybe you’re right; or maybe that abnormal voltage reading was your one chance to prevent disaster.

Applying the concept of go-fever to RC and maiden flights, it’s easy to understand how someone would be tempted to overlook any number of small quirks on their new model when the sun is shining and there’s a light breeze down the runway. How many of us have tinkered with a rough-running engine or jittery servo at the field, only to decide “it will probably get better in the air”? I admit that I’m guilty, and I’ve paid the price. My urge to feel the exhilaration of a maiden flight clouded my ability to make sound technical judgments.

In addition to the problems that we choose to accept, there are also those that we simply do not recognize. Whether these things are missed because we fail to look for them, or because we misunderstand how they should work, the result is the same. As operators of potentially harmful vehicles, we have an obligation to understand how those vehicles should work and confirm that they are doing so.

Performing a Pre-flight Check

Let’s take the example of reversed control movement, which has claimed many a new model. I think that most of us know which way the elevator and ailerons are supposed to move in relation to your control inputs. Having them reversed at the field probably just means that you didn’t bother to check. But what about an airplane with a V-tail or elevons? Their operation is not intuitive to everyone, so don’t assume you know the answer. Take a minute to verify that your particular set-up is correct.

Improper center of gravity (CG) location is another big model killer. For conventional airplanes with Hershey bar wings, determining and achieving a valid CG location is pretty straightforward. Add a little taper or sweep to the wing and things begin to get more complex. Biplane? Canard? Whatever the configuration of your airplane, the CG is critical. Make sure you know where the CG should be and do what it takes to get it there.

You may think that all of this is a bit much to remember amid the excitement of flying a new airplane…I agree. Therefore, I have created a maiden flight checklist that I use prior to that first takeoff roll. It forces me to evaluate the flight readiness of the model in terms of aerodynamics, mechanics, and electronics. Just as importantly, it guides me in assessing field conditions, weather, and my own mental state. There’s even a place for me to jot down any unplanned risks that I’ve decided to accept (there’s that jittery servo again).

Using a checklist is not a guaranteed way to avoid a maiden flight debacle. However, I have no doubt that taking an honest and thorough assessment of the whole scenario will certainly improve your odds of success. If the worst should happen, at least you have a complete picture to help you determine what went wrong.

My checklist is not comprehensive. It is simply what works for me. You may wish to add or subtract elements to suit your needs. Just keep in mind that the point is to hold yourself accountable for the flight worthiness of the plane you’ve built and the situation in which you will fly it. In that sense, it could also be applied to helicopters, control-line, free-flight, whatever. The intent is the same across all aeromodeling disciplines.

I think that by doing all of your homework before the maiden flight, you will begin the endeavor with much greater confidence. Not only will that increase your airplane’s chances of having a second flight, it may also help you to enjoy the event. Too many modelers view the maiden flight as a necessary evil that must be endured. With some basic preparation and a positive mental outlook, you may, like me, embrace maiden flights as a source of adventure and excitement.

Click here for the maiden flight checklist!