RC Airplane Parts and Controls

01
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RC Airplanes From Nose to Tail

Main Parts of an RC Airplane
Main Parts of an RC Airplane. © J. James

There is a great deal of variety in the shape and configuration of RC airplanes. However, there are basic parts found in most any style plane. Understanding these basics can help you in making a good choice when purchasing your first RC airplane and in learning how to fly them. The parts described here paint the big picture. There is much more detail involved as you dig deeper (or fly higher) into the world of RC airplanes.

  • Nose: Part of the fuselage, the nose is the front of the airplane forward of the wings. Some RC airplanes have a propeller on the nose. This part of the airplane is susceptible to damage in diving crashes.
  • Fuselage: The main body of the airplane. In a real airplane this is where the pilot, passengers, and cargo would be found. The RC electronics (motors, servos, batteries, wiring) are often housed inside the fuselage. Some RC airplanes have little more than a long stick or rod for a fuselage.
  • Wing: Airplanes are called fixed wing aircraft. Attached to the fuselage, the wings don't usually flap or turn. Wings may be straight, curved, flat, rounded, ellipitical, triangular (such as Delta wing style, the plane on the right in the illustration), or other shapes.
  • Tail: At the back end of the fuselage, the tail comes in many forms including conventional or T-tail, V-tail, or flat.
  • Propeller: Most RC airplanes have some form of propeller. 2 and 3 blade propellers are common. The propeller is usually affixed to the motor and may be mounted on the nose, tail, or the wings. RC airplanes may have 1, 2, or more propellers.

Also see: What Materials Are RC Airplanes Made Out Of? for an introduction to the range of materials used to construct the wings and fuselage of most RC airplane models.

02
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Wing Placement Affects How a Plane Flies

4 Common Wing Placements on RC Airplanes
4 Common Wing Placements on RC Airplanes. © J.James

Wing placement makes a difference in how an RC airplane handles. RC airplanes with certain wing placements are easier for novice pilots to control. There are 4 general wing positions for RC airplanes.

Monoplanes

So named because they have one wing, monoplanes usually have one of three configurations: high wing, low wing, or mid-wing.

  • High wing: The wing is above the fuselage. It may be attached or supported with wires or struts of some kind. A very stable, steady flyer.
  • Low wing: The wing is attached below the fuselage. You'll find this configuration on a lot of planes designed for aerobatics.
  • Mid-wing: The wings are on either side of the fuselage. Jets and sports planes often have this wing placement.

Bi-Planes

A bi-plane is a two wing design.

The plane has two wings, usually one over and one under the fuselage. The wings are connected to each other with various configurations of struts and wires. The two wings may be directly above/below each other or they may be offset or staggered with one a little further back than the other.

Best Wing Placement

Wing placement changes the way an RC airplane flies because it affects maneuverability and mass distribution. High wing monoplanes and bi-planes are considered more stable and easier to fly, making them ideal for beginner pilots. You'll find that most RC trainer airplanes are high wing models.

While the increased maneuverability and response to controls in low wing and mid-wing models may sound good, they can be harder to control for inexperienced RC pilots.

03
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Control Surfaces Are Moving Parts

Location of Control Surfaces on RC Airplanes
Location of Control Surfaces on RC Airplanes. © J. James

Moveable portions of RC aircraft that, when moved into specific positions, cause the airplane to move in a certain direction are control surfaces.

Movements of the sticks on RC airplane transmitters correspond to the different control surfaces available on that model. The transmitter sends signals to the receiver which tells the servos or actuators on the plane how to move the control surfaces.

Most RC airplanes have some kind of rudder and elevator control for turning, climbing, and descending. Ailerons are found on many hobby-grade models.

In place of moveable control surfaces, some types of RC airplanes may use multiple propellers and differential thrust for maneuvering. It doesn't provide the most realistic flying experience but can be easier to master for novice pilots and children.

04
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Ailerons Are For Rolling Over

Ailerons on an RC Airplane
Rolling With Ailerons On RC Airplane. © J. James

A hinged control surface on the trailing edge (rear side) of an airplane wing near the tip, the aileron moves up and down and controls the direction of a rolling turn.

An airplane has a pair of ailerons, controlled by servos, that move opposite of each other unless they are in the neutral (flat with the wing) position. With the right aileron up and the left aileron down the airplane will roll to the right. Move the right aileron down, the left goes up and the airplane starts rolling to the left.

05
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Elevators Are For Going Up and Down

Elevators on an RC Airplane
How Elevators Move An RC Airplane. © J. James

Yes, just like elevators for people the elevators on an RC airplane can take a plane to a higher level.

On the tailend of an airplane, hinged control surfaces on the horizontal stabilizer -- the mini-wing at the tail of the plane -- are the elevators. The position of the elevator controls whether the nose of the airplane is pointing up or down and thus moving up or down.

The nose of the plane moves in the direction of the elevators. Point the elevator up and the nose goes up and the airplane climbs. Move the elevator so it is pointing down and the nose goes down and the airplane descends.

Not all RC airplanes have elevators. Those type of planes rely on other means such as thrust (power to the motors/propellers) to ascend and descend.

06
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Rudders Are For Turning

Turning With Rudder on RC Airplane
Turning With Rudder on RC Airplane. © J. James

The rudder is a hinged control surface on the vertical stabilizer or fin at the tail of an airplane. Moving the rudder affects the left and right movement of the airplane.

The airplane turns in the same direction that the rudder is turned. Move the rudder to the left, the plane turns to the left. Move the rudder to the right, the plane turns to the right.

Although rudder control is basic to most RC airplanes, a few simple, indoor RC airplanes might have a rudder fixed at an angle so that the plane always flies in a circle.

07
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Elevons Are For Mixed Control

Elevons
All The Ways Elevons Move On An RC Airplanes. © J.James

Combining the function of ailerons and elevators into a single set of control surfaces, elevons are found on Delta wing or flying wing style RC aircraft. On this type of aircraft the wings are enlarged and extend to the back of the plane. There is no separate horizontal stabilizer where you would find the elevators on conventional straight-wing aircraft.

When the elevons are both up or both down they act like elevators. With both up, the nose of the airplane goes up and the aircraft climbs. With both down, the nose of the airplane goes down and the aircraft dives or descends.

When the elevons go up and down opposite of each other they act like ailerons. Left elevon up and right elevon down -- aircraft rolls to the left. Left elevon down and right elevon up -- aircraft rolls to the right.

On your transmitter, you would use the aileron stick to use the elevons separately and use the elevator stick to control them in unison.

08
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Differential Thrust Is For Moving Without Rudder Or Elevator

Differential Thrust
Moving An RC Airplane With Differential Thrust. © J.James

As used to describe how RC airplanes maneuver, differential thrust or thrust vectoring are essentially the same thing. You will find differential thrust in some RC airplanes that have no ailerons, elevators, elevons, or rudders. Other names you might read: twin motor thrust vectoring, differential throttle, differential motor control, differential steering.

Although the definition for thrust vectoring for real aircraft is a bit more complicated, for RC aircraft the term thrust vectoring is generally used to describe a method of changing the direction of the aircraft by applying more or less power to a pair of (usually) wing-mounted motors. Applying less power to the left motor causes the aircraft to turn to the left. Less power to the right motor sends the aircraft to the right.

Differential thrust is more or less the same thing (and probably a more accurate term for most RC aircraft) -- applying differing amounts of power so that you get differing amounts of thrust from each motor. It may be found with rear-facing or forward-facing twin props.

This method of turning is often used in small RC aircraft without elevator or rudder control. For craft without elevator control, equal amounts of increasing power cause the craft to speed up (propeller spins faster) and go up, less power slows it down. The differing amounts of power act like a rudder.

09
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2 Channel / 3 Channel Radio Gives Little Control

Controls on 2 Channel and 3 Channel RC Airplane Transmitters
Controls on 2 Channel and 3 Channel RC Airplane Transmitters. © J. James

RC aircraft use stick style controllers. There are many configurations but the typical stick controller has two sticks that move in either two directions (up/down or left/right) or four directions (up/down and left/right).

A 2 channel radio system can control only two functions. Typically that would be throttle and turning. The left stick moves up to increase throttle, down to descrease. For turning, the right stick either controls movement of the rudder (right to turn right, left to turn left) or provides differential thrust for turning.

A typical 3 channel radio system does the same as the 2 channel but also adds up/down movement on the right stick for elevator control - climbs/dives.

Also see: What Is Trim And How Do I Trim An RC Airplane? for information on the connection between your RC airplane control surfaces, transmitter, and trim.

10
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4 Channel Radio Gives More Control (in Multiple Modes)

4 Channel Transmitter
Controls On A 4 Channel RC Airplane Transmitter. © J. James

Hobby-grade RC airplanes often have at least 4 channel controllers. 5 channel, 6 channel and more add additional buttons, switches, or knobs, or sliders to control even more functions. However, the basic 4 channels needed are controlled by two sticks that move up/down and left/right.

There are 4 modes of operation for RC airplane controllers. Mode 1 and Mode 2 are the most widely used.

Mode 1 is favored in the UK. Mode 2 is favored in the US. However that is not a hard and fast rule. Some pilots prefer one over the other depending on how they were originally trained. Some RC controllers can be set for either mode.

  • Mode 1: One of the reasons some pilots might prefer Mode 1 is that it puts the elevator and aileron controls on opposite sticks. Some feel that this is good, especially for beginner pilots, because you won't accidently change one while adjusting the other.
  • Mode 2: With both the elevator and aileron control on the same stick it acts more like the controls of a real airplane and provides more true-to-life flight control.

Mode 3 is the opposite of Mode 2. Mode 4 is the opposite of Mode 1. These might be used to get the same effect as either Mode 1 or 2 but reversed for left-handed pilots (or anyone who prefers it).