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Costs of Getting Started with Radio Control Airplanes

May 02, 2015

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Airfield Models ( Much Money does it Cost to Buy a Radio Control Aircraft?

Any time a visitor comes to a flying field he usually approaches one of the pilots and starts asking questions.  Within a minute or two of the conversation the question, "What does that cost?" is asked.

While we try to encourage others to join the hobby, we also try to be honest and the honest truth is that none of us knows what it costs because we don't want to keep track.  To truly figure out the cost of buying, building and flying an R/C aircraft we would have to count the cost of every trip to the hobby shop, flying field, and all other related expenses included paper towels stolen from the kitchen.

Easy to fly 3 channel R/C aircraftHere's the short answer:  This is an expensive hobby.  If you are looking for an economical hobby then look elsewhere.  Some people do better than others though.

For example, I know a small handful of people who fly the same airplane for years.  For them the cost is not too bad after the initial outlay basically just maintenance, fuel and membership costs.

This hobby is really expensive for me because I'm a builder and no matter how happy I am with the planes I have I'm never not building something new.  Unfortunately I don't have room for a lot of airplanes.  Thankfully I crash often enough that I never have too many planes sitting around. :(

OK... let me get off that tangent and on to different ones...

Also see


The Lowdown on What You will Need

Everything that follows assumes you will be purchasing new items from a discount mail order or online store.

Generally speaking, you can get all the major items for the airplane for around $400 and the cost you will normally be quoted will be in that neighborhood.  That is what we've all been told and have come to believe but apparently not much thought has been put into the answer.  Unfortunately, $400 is roughly half of what you will actually spend getting started.

That sum will get you a good basic radio, a decent .40 size engine and good .40 size trainer as well as miscellaneous items you will need to complete the plane.  Most models do not come with everything you need.  Covering, wheels, fuel tank, etc. need to be purchased separately.  Many kits come with poor quality hardware that should probably be replaced.  These "not included" parts are covered by your $400.

If you build your first plane, which I strongly recommend that you do,  you will probably spend in the neighborhood of $100 on basic tools, glues and a small building board of some type.  If you do not build your first plane, you will still need a lot of the same tools and glues even to assemble an Almost-Ready-to-Fly (ARF) aircraft.

Almost-Ready-to-Fly models are a good value for beginners because they are already built and often come with most of the accessories that kits do not include.  Some come with radios and engines and some do not.  You will probably spend less on an ARF than you would if you bought the kit and accessories separately.

Nevertheless, I still recommend that you build your first trainer  A trainer should teach you the basics of flying as well as the basics of building.  When you move on to more advanced aircraft the way it is built is more critical and it is not the place to start learning how to properly construct a model.  If you never plan to build ever, then go ahead and get an ARF.

Typical Flight BoxYou are now up to $500 and that still does not cover everything.  You will actually spend around $600 to get into the air but you will end up spending $700 if you do not give up immediately.  The additional money will cover the costs of some basic field equipment that is essential: a manual fuel pump (which I prefer over electric pumps that break too often), a field box, a glow igniter, a jug of fuel and a few other items.

Most people buy an electric starter, motorcycle battery and charger fairly early on.  Beginners tend to have problems hand starting their engines and get frustrated when they keep flipping it and can not get it to run.

If you have a motorcycle battery you can buy a power panel that hooks up to the motorcycle battery and provides power to your starter and to your glow plug clip.  You will not have to buy a separate glow igniter just a clip.

You can get into the air more economically with a smaller plane.  You will save a few dollars on the cost of the kit and engine and less covering is needed, but the rest of the costs are the same.  However, small trainers are a poor choice.

If you go to any club and ask for recommendations, most flyers you talk to will recommend a .40 size trainer.  In fact, if you look in various catalogues and hobby shops, you will see that there are very few other options as far as size goes.  By the way, ".40" is the size of the engine in cubic inches.  In other words, it is a 0.40 cubic inch engine.

There is a good reason why this size engine/trainer is recommended.  A .40 size model is the smallest size that can be seen easily in the air.  Smaller trainers get small quickly in the sky and it is difficult to see which way they are going.  Disorientation is a leading cause of crashed models.

A trainer larger than a .40 size is even better from a training and flight quality standpoint, but it also represents a bigger investment.  Most trainers get crashed a lot so you want as small of a trainer as is feasible to learn on.  Again, the .40 is large enough to see, but inexpensive enough to not send you into bankruptcy.

As a direct result of this, there are also a large number of kits and ARF's other than trainers that use .40 engines.  Manufacturers know everyone has one and .40 size models fit easily in any car even two-seaters.  You do not have to buy a van, SUV or trailer to transport your model around.

Now that I think of it, there are two more costs that will take you to around $800.  To be a member of most clubs you have to join the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).  The reason for this is your membership in the AMA provides you with liability insurance.  There is also the cost of joining the club and a lot of clubs charge you a one time join fee which is often called a "runway fee."

I strongly encourage you to join the AMA and be a member of club.  You will get more help and learn faster with fewer crashes.

Ultimately my answer to how much it costs is to answer how much it costs for what I believe you should start with.  Unfortunately, many people who did not listen to these recommendations or did not know any better quit the hobby before they ever started due to a bad experience from having the wrong airplane or equipment.  Remember... these are just the costs of getting started.  Advancing costs more.

Several experienced R/Cers whom I have discussed my views with said that I should clarify some things:

  • Costs are quoted assuming you are starting with nothing and will purchase everything new from a hobby dealer.

  • Most clubs have members who will sell their trainers for much less than the cost of new equipment.

    Be careful that the plane looks like it is airworthy.  Many trainers have a rough life and are better put by the curb or left in the last tree they landed in.

  • Often a beginner shows up at a club field with a trainer that is "ready to fly."  At this point he has spent $350 - $550 on his plane, radio, engine, club membership and AMA membership.

    The Instructor provides support equipment to help the beginner get into the air.  The beginner then realizes what he needs and then spend a couple hundred dollars on his own field equipment.

  • You can learn to fly with a less expensive plane.  These planes are often poor choices because of their marginal ability to maintain flight.  If you purchase one of these, you will spend more because you will have to buy a second plane.  A poor flying airplane will impede your progress.

  • Costs are based on defacto standard items but not the least expensive.  For example, I use a Sullivan starter which is a great starter.

    However, there are other starters available that are less expensive.  You can probably save around $100 by purchasing store-brand equipment.


Starting with an R/C helicopter

Thunder Tiger Raptor 30 V2 - A typical beginner's helicopterI am a beginner helicopter pilot who did a lot of research on various helicopter models before purchasing my Raptor 30.  Unfortunately, I do not have enough experience to give you a decisive answer, but I can give you some ball-park figures.

One of the most important things you can do to save money on your helicopter happens before you ever buy it research!  Search the internet for people's home pages who have the helicopter(s) you are considering buying.  Usually people will discuss the problems they had and what parts tended to fail.

You need to know how expensive replacement parts are and just as important, how available they are.  There were three or four helicopters I was considering purchasing as my first, but most of them were eliminated due to complaints of parts availability or the cost of replacement parts.

Helicopters are more expensive than aircraft models.  If you are starting from scratch and need to buy the tools, field box, etc, then you will have to spend more.  An electric starter is required to start a helicopter engine where it is optional for most aircraft.

Without getting into specifics, a helicopter, engine, gyro and radio will cost between $800 and $1,200 for a .30 size model.  You can save a lot of money by purchasing an entry-level helicopter radio, but if you can afford a better unit, then I recommend you buy it so you do not have to buy it later and put the original radio on the shelf.

Wermacht is the Airfield Models Shop Kitty

Wermacht - Master Modeler, Elite Infanty KittyHigh performance helicopters, such as John Henderson's "blinged out" Hirobo Freya cost mega $$$ and are not recommended for beginners.

By the time you learn how to fly your first heli it will probably be old and worn.  When you're a good enough pilot to fly a performance heli then you'll be ready for a new machine and that's the time to look at more capable helicopters.

Your first heli should be a solid, well engineered design for beginners.  There are many to choose from.

John Henderson's "Blinged-out" Hirobo Freya.

I recommend you purchase a name-brand gyro and avoid the low-end gyros.  I had one and it failed soon after purchasing it.  You can get a good gyro for less than $150.  I also recommend you buy a mid-level heli radio.  This combination will put your right around $1,000 to include a few tools, a field box, starter, etc.

Be sure to buy a good set of hardened, metric hex drivers.  The Allen keys you normally see are too soft, will not last long and can damage the bolts making them difficult to remove later.

Talk to Ron Lund (Rick's R/C Helicopters) or the guys at HeliProz.  I have received excellent service from both of these companies and they took the time to answer all my questions thoroughly without seeming to be in a rush to get me off the phone.

The only upgrade I recommend that you purchase is a tail-boom mount for your tail-rotor servo if your heli doesn't come with one.

My Raptor had so much drag in the stock setup that I never even attempted to use it.  Other than that I recommend that you don't purchase any upgrade parts for your heli until you're a good enough pilot to tell the difference.  You will be doing nothing but hovering for quite some time and you will see no benefit from the upgrades and your first heli will probably be too worn out in training to be worth upgrading rather than buying a better one that's new.



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