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Model Building and Flight Line Safety Information

May 02, 2015

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Airfield Models ( Building and Operating Models

I am not a safety expert.  What is written on this page is general guidance from my personal experience.

My goal is for people to always have safety in mind because nothing we do is worth some of the things that can happen.  When a bad accident happens what will matter most to the victim and his family is that he's maimed or dead, not whatever he was trying to accomplish.

Please don't be one of those people who think that instructions and safety warnings do not apply to them.  If you spend an appreciable time associated with model building you will meet people who are missing body parts or have life-altering injuries from propellers, tools or impacts with models.

Some are having other ongoing maladies such as respiratory problems, hearing and vision loss and a multitude of others.

  • Please be very careful with dangerous objects in your shop.

  • Do not leave loose, sharp objects laying around.  Store tools safely when they aren't in use and put individual pins away as soon as removed.

  • Supervise your shop and keep visitors out of danger particularly visitors who haven't developed common sense such as pets and that neighbor guy who causes a catastrophe every time he leaves his home.

Our "toys" are people-magnets, particularly kids.  Display your model where ever you want, but do not fly in public places such as parks.  Out-of-control models have killed and maimed people and have done a great deal of property damage.


The Ultimate Tools

I do not want to imagine what my life would be like if I somehow became impaired in a way that model-building were to become excruciatingly difficult or impossible.

These tools are the most important ones you have.  It should seem obvious, but I think we've all been guilty of putting them at risk "to get the job done."  In retrospect if things had gone badly we would have done things differently.

I had a relatively serious, nearly life-altering, accident not too long ago.  I was fortunate to have learned a valuable lesson about safety in my shop without losing any important body parts but it was a very close call.  Specifically, I did something I should have never done and knew better but did it anyway.  I grabbed a piece of wood on the back side of my table saw to pull it through and the blade grabbed the wood pulling three of my fingers through the blade.

My finger after healing a month.One of my finger tips was cut nearly to the bone (graphic image).  The others were just the skin on the tips.  All of them bled a lot and I never did find one finger tip but there was a nice line of blood up the wall and across the ceiling.  The finger that lost the tip now has no feeling in it as the nerves were severed.  It's a weird feeling.


Your brain is the most important tool that you have.  I have never known anyone who I thought was too intelligent.  Therefore, I have never known anyone who could afford to kill off their brain cells.  No matter how smart a person is being even smarter wouldn't be a bad thing.  Becoming dumber certainly is though.

Chemical fumes can be as bad or worse than drugs and alcohol and can cause serious neurological damage.  Take appropriate measures to protect yourself.  Usually protecting your brain involves wearing an appropriate mask.  I can't think of any model-building tools that require a helmet but you might want to consider one if you're a klutz.


There are people in the world who have done amazing things without eyesight.  While I envy their motivation and determination I don't want to join their ranks.

Hands and limbs

Do not take your hands for granted.  Losing only a portion of a single finger is a life-altering event.  Generally speaking a person would have to be really talented to remove a digit with hand tools, but with power tools, an accident can happen in a heartbeat and there's no turning back the clock.

Model airplane propellers can do extremely horrific damage.

This includes propellers on electric motors as well which are even more dangerous because they can start up by flipping the receiver switch on.  Glow engines can not start themselves except in the rare instance that the piston is stuck at top dead center, there is the proper amount of vapor in the head and the piston pops out hard enough to compress the vapor into another explosion the next time round.  Of course that's a theory.  I don't know anyone who has ever seen it happen.

I have started engines by flipping the propeller when no glow-igniter is attached, but this is always immediately after an engine quit (like within 2 seconds).  I've never seen an engine start itself although I read a post on a forum by a person claiming it happened to him in the manner described more less as above.

Regardless of how the engine or motor started, if the model is not under control when it happens then you immediately have a very dangerous problem!


Shop Safety

  • First Aid kits can be purchased at hardware stores and stores that carry home safety equipment.

  • Eye protection can be purchased at most hardware stores, home improvement centers or anywhere tools are sold.  They are intended to protect your eyes from things that shouldn't get into them.  Consider wearing eye protection at all times when working in your shop especially when operating a model aircraft engine or when using power and hand tools.

    I gave up on the type having an elastic band because they tend to be cheaply made, don't fit right and cut into my face.  Consequently I didn't wear them which makes them kind of useless.  I purchased a pair that work like regular glasses.  They are not as protective, but they will protect my eyes from a shattering emery wheel on a Dremel tool and the best part is that I actually use them.

  • Fire extinguishers can be purchased from most hardware stores and home improvement centers.  It is a good idea to have one in your shop and another as part of your field equipment.  Many of the chemicals and fuels we use are highly flammable.

  • Hearing protection can be purchased in sporting goods departments and gun shops.  Most of the power tools I use are not loud enough to require hearing protection, but when I was using a circular saw to cut wood for benches the protection was very necessary.  I can't believe how many construction workers I've seen using circular saw with no hearing or eye protection!  They'll be deaf old men and possibly blind.

  • Ventilation is extremely important.  If you are using solvents or solvent based products then you can be doing a great deal of damage to your respiratory system and brain.  If you have gotten to the point where the solvents do not make you want to leave the room then you have been around them for too long and have developed a tolerance.  That's a bad thing.

    Masks are addressed under Chemical Safety.

  • Any time you use a tool to do something it wasn't designed to do, you risk injury to yourself, your model and the tool.


    • Using over-sized drill bits with turned down shanks in a drill.  The manufacturer limits the size of the chuck for a reason.

    • Knives, screwdrivers and pry bars are not interchangeable.  Knives or screwdrivers are not pry bars.  Use tools only for their intended purpose.  If you don't have the right tools and you don't want to buy them, then build models that use the size tools you do have.

  • Make sure sharp things are not pointed up (do not put knives in cups with the blade pointed up).  In fact, knives should be capped if possible and should never have the blade exposed and hanging past an edge of a shelf or workbench.

  • Make sure things can not roll off your table particularly sharp or heavy objects or anything else that will hurt a lot when it lands on your foot or shop kitty.

  • Keep your shop uncluttered.  Many accidents happen due to tripping over something such as an extension cord.

  • Be sure you have a stable position while you work.  If you have to use your feet to move you to a place where you have better stability then do it.  Do not put yourself in a precarious position trying to reach something that is too far away.

  • A power cord drapped across my bench sander got hurt.This photo is the result of multiple mistakes.  First, I was using my bench sander and didn't clear the area for safety purposes.  Clutter is a great way to create accidents.  The second mistake is that the cord shown here is on my heat gun.  I wasn't using it so it shouldn't have been plugged in and it should have been put away.


Chemical Safety

  •  A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) outlines the safety hazards of various chemicals such as solvents and paints.  Manufacturers are required by law to provide you with this information.  Usually you can get an MSDS at the point of purchase.  If an MSDS is not available then contact the manufacturer who will send you a copy.  Read and head the warnings on all your tools and any chemicals you use.

    Material Safety Data Sheets are free!

  • Chemical Gloves can be purchased at hardware stores or home improvement centers.  They are to protect your skin as well as prevent absorption of chemicals through your skin.

    Use them when you have to work with solvents or are handling anything that you don't want on your hands or in your skin.

    I use gloves when using milder cleaners (detergents) if my hands will be in them for a while.

    Old style chemical gloves were made from some type of rubber and would stick together when taken off.  They were a very loose fit which made it difficult to feel what was being worked on.

    If you have the old style gloves, turn them inside-out to wash them.  Dust them with baby powder when they are dry and turn them around right side out.

    There are gloves available at home centers that have a cloth liner inside to prevent them from sticking together.  These gloves are a better fit and allow better feel while wearing them.  The liner makes the gloves easy to put on and take off.

    Latex gloves can be purchased by the box of 100 for about ten bucks at home improvement centers.  I really like these gloves as they give me a better grip and don't interfere with my tactile sense.  In fact, I like them so much I plan to make a purchase for a case of boxes from a medical supplier so I can get the exact size and type I like best rather than the one size fits all at home improvement centers which are actually size medium and a little too small for me.

  • A good quality charcoal mask made by 3M.Particle and Dust Masks (the ones that look like doctor masks) come in a variety of capabilities.  Always read the packaging so you know what you are getting.

    If the packaging does not specifically tell you what the mask is supposed to protect you from and just as importantly, what it can't protect you from, then do not buy the mask.

    Particle masks are usually intended to protect you from inhaling dry airborne particles such as sawdust.  Some woods are toxic so a mask should not be considered optional when working with them.  If you're creating billowing clouds of dust, then it doesn't matter if the dust is non-toxic.  Your lungs are not supposed to be filled with any kind of powder, right?

    A Particle or Dust Mask will not protect you from liquid particles!

  • Chemical Protection Systems can be purchased at many hardware stores and home improvement centers.  Protection should always be worn when using liquid chemicals that are toxic.

    Some chemicals and paints require the use of a simple chemical mask that uses charcoal or similar canisters to filter out the chemical.  Canisters have a short shelf life after the packaging has been opened.  You must replace the canisters per the manufacturer's recommendation for the mask to continue protecting you.

    Really bad chemicals require the use of a respirator which has a self-contained air supply.  I can't think of anything you should even consider using in a model building shop that would require a respirator.

    Always consult with the manufacturer of the chemical for their recommendation to protect yourself.

    Note that if you are wearing a mask and can smell fumes it is not protecting you.  Just because you can't smell fumes doesn't mean you are protected but smelling them means you definitely aren't protected.


Pride is Dangerous

If you get into trouble in the air, please ask for help.

A pilot at our field was having difficulty landing his aircraft one day which was clearly a problem with his piloting and not with the aircraft.

What brought my attention to his situation was that he had flown his plane over the pits at least once and buzzed pretty close to it a couple times.  The pits is a no-fly zone at all clubs.  No aircraft in flight should even be anywhere close to it.

I then approached the pilot and asked if he needed help getting his plane down.

He declined the offer, stating, "If I need help getting my plane down, then I shouldn't be flying."  He continued to make unsuccessful landing attempts and I kept my eyes on the plane because I wanted to be ready if I needed to get out of its way.

While all this was going on another pilot's aircraft ran out of fuel and was forced to land dead stick.  This pilot left his plane on the field while waiting for the first pilot to land his.  But his "troubles" continued and he still didn't ask for help.

When he finally got his plane down it landed directly on top of the dead stick plane that was still on the field.  As you can imagine the ensuing scene between the two pilots was not pleasant.

The pilot who was having difficulty landing should have allowed someone to help him.  Whatever his reasons were, they were not valid.  His piloting was putting everyone else at the field at risk not just his aircraft.

I could tell a dozen other stories that are even more frightening from a personal safety standpoint, but my aim is not to embarrass pilots.  Ask for help if you need it.


Field Safety

  • There is no such thing as a flying model airplane of any type that is so small that it can't hurt anybody.  What's the smallest thing that you can think of flying through the air that could not damage your eye upon impact?

    Experience and common sense dictate that attempting to learn to fly on your own is a dangerously bad idea.  Your chances of success are extremely slim.  I strongly suggest that you seek qualified assistance.  You will be much safer, save time, money and learn faster.

    I belong to a couple of online forums for R/Cers.  In each of these forums there is almost always an active thread started by a new person wanting to know if he can learn to fly R/C without an instructor.  Unfortunately there is always an irresponsible person or two who respond to these threads encouraging the new person to go for it.

    The problem with taking advice is that if it's bad advice then you and possibly others suffer the consequences.  The person who blessed you with the advice gets to walk away.

    Some things to keep in mind if you choose to try it anyway:

    • Several people have been injured or killed by R/C, control-line and other types of models and those numbers appear to be rising.  Can you personally afford this type of lawsuit?

    • If you decide to go it alone, then find a large field in the boondocks where there is nobody else or any property that can be damaged.  A school field is not big enough to fly traditional R/C aircraft.  A model aircraft can cover a lot of ground quickly.

    • Very small electric models can be flown at a small field but the same rules apply avoid people, pets, property, etc.

    • I originally made the following incorrect claim:

      'If you are not a member of and flying at sanctioned club, your AMA insurance will not cover you if you cause personal or property damage.'

      On March 7, 2005 a visitor (flicka5) noted in the Guest Book that the claim is incorrect.  A while later, Willy Bergeron sent me a link to a document that states that AMA insurance applies any time, anywhere.  Thanks Willy!

      Please note you may not be covered if you are not abiding by the AMA Safety Code.

  • Always look at the throttle to see what the position is before you attempt to start the engine.  Move the stick and be sure the throttle moves.  How many times have you seen somebody start the engine with the throttle wide open?  Probably more than once.

  • It is a good idea to wear eye protection, hearing protection and heavy work gloves when starting and running your engines.

  • After the engine is started move behind the plane of the rotating propeller.  Do not be in such a rush to get into the air that you reach through the spinning propeller to adjust the needle valve.  It is not only embarrassing, but painful as well.  It also annoys the other pilots when they have to stop what they are doing to help look for your finger off in the weeds.

  • Do not point an aircraft with a running engine in the direction of anyone else in the pits.  I see this every time I go to the field and it seriously aggravates me.  Your plane should always be pointed away from others preferably toward the flight line.  I've seen too many times when a model went out of control due to a careless operator.  I've never seen an airplane run into anybody, but that was just luck because the events I'm talking about never should have happened in the first place.

  • Always make sure you can positively shut down your engine from the transmitter.  I have seen more than one run-away aircraft because the operator had not set up the throttle linkage to allow him to lower the throttle below a high idle.  There is absolutely no excuse for this if caused by something the operator could have fixed.  In other words, it was other than sudden radio interference.

    Every time you make a mechanical adjustment to the throttle (or a throttle-program change in your transmitter) you should always have someone hold the airplane securely, start the engine and make sure the throttle works properly and that you can shut off the engine from the transmitter positively, every time, no exceptions.

    I witnessed a beautiful Proctor Antic Bipe go out of control immediately after release.  The fuselage was badly damaged when it ran into a safety fence.  The throttle linkage had not been attached to the engine.  One quick rev of the throttle stick would have let the pilot know something was wrong.

  • Unless there is an immediate safety concern, such as a runaway plane heading for somebody unaware, ask a person before grabbing things in an attempt to help.  If two people haven't specifically discussed what their roles are, one or both may lose his concentration during a dangerous task because he's wondering what the other is going to do.

    I've had all of the following things happen thanks to uninvited helpers:

    • Unexpectedly jerking the plane backward which made the propeller strike my field box followed by propeller shards flying all around me.

    • A guy came up to help me when I was landing a plane.  He said that he would retrieve my plane for me.  But instead of waiting until the plane was on the ground, he stepped right in the path of the plane and I had to dive it into the ground so the model wouldn't hit him.

    • Cracked turtledeck sheeting due to squeezing too hard.

    • Damage from fingernails and jewelry.

    If you're going to help somebody then ask the person if they even want your help and then ask how you can help.  Don't just walk up and start grabbing things.

  • When there is a guy at your field flying a fuel-soaked brick with ten times the power it needs, quarter-inch hinge gaps and field repairs all over the airframe do not fly with him.  Keep your plane on the ground and your eyes on his because it is fast, heavy and dangerous.  Why clubs let anyone put these missiles in the air I will never know.

  • The first habit you should develop when flying is to immediately pull back the throttle when you get into trouble (disoriented, etc.).  The slower airspeed will give you more time to work out the problem and get your aircraft out of trouble.  Obviously there will be times when the action necessary to save the plane is to increase the throttle, but 99% of the time you want to do just the opposite.

  • Every club has a guy who thinks he's a hot-shot and does all his flying at full throttle.  The only maneuvers he knows are the high speed (what else?) low, inverted pass and the cross-country re-kit.  He crashes a lot and always claims radio interference.  The crashes are truly spectacular because they tend to occur with the throttle wide-open.  Hence the cross-country part.

    If you value your planes (or reputation) then don't be the guy, but do be there when he is so you don't miss out on the fun.

    So what's the safety tip here?  While he's flying, stand next to something his aircraft can't puncture all the way through like a stout tree or someone slower than you.



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