Thursday, May 28, 2009

Just bought a new battery charger

I was doing my usual YouTube viewing of RC videos the other day and NightFlyyer had posted a review of a battery charger he had just purchased for $45 USD, a "Thunder AC6". This thing looked awesome, with fully computerised charging of NiCd, NiMH (up to 15 cells), Lead-acid, and all types of Lithium batteries, including cell-balancing up to 6 cells. It also discharges batteries for you, as well as charge your Lithiums to the right voltage for long-term storage.

Compared to the prices we are forced to suffer here in Australia this was an awesome deal so I decided to buy one myself from The unit Dave had was the AC-power model, but it seems that everyone else thinks these are awesome too so only the DC power unit model (the Thunder T6) was in stock. All up it was $76 USD including Priority International Mail which is still much cheaper than the "Swallow" charger available here from ModelFlight which is about $180 and doesn't even come with cables!

Anyway the charger arrived yesterday, and I have to say it's a full kit of stuff you need! The pack included all kinds of charging leads, the DC input lead with alligator clips, and even the temperature probe (which is usually an optional extra).

Probably the most interesting thing I have discovered about this charger is not its capabilities, but the fact that it's just one version of a number of chargers made in some factory in China. So far these are the chargers which are all fundamentally the same device in slightly different chassis:

  • Thunder AC6 and T6
  • Turnigy Accucell-6 (they also sell an 8-cell, 7 amp version)
  • Mystery charger
  • Imax B6
  • GT Power A6
  • Max E6
Now depending on who you ask - and their personal experiences - these chargers are either the best thing since sliced bread, or the biggest piece of crap ever built. There is certainly a number of people who have experienced failures (the Internet *loves* to point out failures and ignore success), but the biggest gripe seems to be a lack of accuracy in the charging process, especially when balancing LiPo cells. When I say "lack of accuracy", we're talking folks griping about .1 to .2 of a volt.

OK, I can see these people's point, but they're being pedantic! What about the el-cheapo chargers that come with the planes we buy? You don't see people shouting from the rooftops that these shouldn't be used, do you! Of course not, but they're probably just as cheap componentry - if not cheaper - than these cheap 6-cell balancing chargers. And I wouldn't be surprised if those came-with-the-plane chargers also have charging circuits which are only accurate to within .2 of a volt. So what.

I get really sick of people having a go at cheap kit, and basically saying nobody should buy it. BOLLOCKS. If these fools sat down for a second and actually engaged their brain, they might possibly have some common sense thoughts, like:
  • Is a $500 charger actually going to make a difference to battery longevity?
  • If it does, is the additional number of charges you get out of it going to be longer than before you toss the battery anyway, for other reasons?
Statistically, the answer is no, you muppets. This is market forces at its finest: some European or German company invents a charging system/circuit from scratch and has to recoup their costs. So, they make the circuit supremely accurate and charge an equivalent premium for it. Soon, some other company creates a less accurate but mass-market version of this technology and sells it for a third of the price. The difference in the products is a higher failure rate per 1,000 units manufactured, and the tolerances are less accurate in the circuitry.

Does this somehow mean that new product has no value or place in the market? No, it does not.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Busting my flying cherry!

The Easter weekend at our friends farm indeed proved the best place to learn to fly, with some great wide open spaces. Prior to this though, I did actually try to fly during the week previously. Near my house there is a large block of land slated for development as a school, which is where I eventually gave it a shot, but before I get into that I need to bear my soul for a second.

You see, I'm a bit shy. I also have a high sense of embarrassment and generally don't like calling attention to myself. Now picture yourself standing in the middle of a large empty field, surrounded by roads and houses with a large yellow plane in your hands: it is going to get people's attention! I was - and some days still am - torn between a huge desire to go out and fly because it's just so much fun, and the huge desire to avoid people seeing me make a mockery of myself. This battle of the mind went on for a few days, making me get more and more crotchety with myself, my family, my friends, and co-workers, until I'd had enough of myself and grabbed the Aerobird and went down to the empty lot.

Of course, I really had no idea what the hell I was doing, aside from having some flying skills shown by the simulator. Hands shaking, sunglasses on and my hat pulled down low over my eyes, I whipped the plane out of the car boot and strode onto the empty land. Without much fanfare, I picked the plane up started the motor on full speed and weakly tossed it into the wind. Immediately, it banked to the left, hit the ground, and shoved the rubber-band-mounted wing into the spinning propeller, taking chunks out of the foam wing. I repeated this process a couple more times before calling it a day and meekly hobbling back to the car with my tail between my legs. I didn't know it then, but the plane had a twisted tail which was acting as left-rudder input; ultimately it was lucky I didn't get airborne as I will soon describe.

So anyway, at our friends' farm at Easter, I managed to slip away from the house to a paddock behind the machine shed, out of view from most of the guests. My two boys, my brother in law, and the farmer's son (and his son too) all came to watch, and brought a video camera. Now this is where I would like to post a link to the YouTube video of what happened next, but for some reason nothing I did would let me copy the videos "of interest" off the camera. Maybe it was some kind of guardian angel protecting me from further embarassment... who knows?

I managed to get the plane airborne sure enough, but the first three attempts resulted in the following:
  1. Flipping into the ground as soon as I launched it
  2. Smashing the plane into the machinery shed at top speed
  3. Almost taking everyone's heads off
I mean, I launched it into the wind (a good thing) and had checked the trim, but because the tail was twisted it made the plane roll to the left and negated any possible trim inputs I could have made on the transmitter. At the time, I thought that the wing was off centre so I literally shifted the wing about an inch to the left to increase the lift on that side. Amazingly it worked, but probably shouldn't have! Once I finally was airborne I was flying quite well and having probably some of the best minutes of my life. In those short moments I had confirmed that all my impressions on how much fun it was were correct! Fun, just pure unadulterated fun, which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

After a few minutes of flying around I managed a neat landing and was quite chuffed with myself. So that I didn't spoil the moment, I decide that would do me for the day and put everything away. But trouble was brewing, and little did I know it but the poor Aerobird was quite severely damaged internally...

...and the next morning before everyone was up and about, I decided to have quiet little flight. As you probably guessed it did not turn out well; as soon as the plane was airborne, I couldn't control it! And with no trained emergency response, I reacted badly and ended up very high in the air, getting far away from me and headed for a road. Finally I chopped the throttle shut and nosed the plane over into a hard dive, straight for the ground. The impact didn't look bad but after I arrived I discovered that I had overflown some three phase power lines, missing them by a bee's whisker, and then crashed in a ditch between those power lines and the main country road. I was very, very lucky to not have caused more serious problems either to road users or the power grid!

Once again with my tail between my legs, I collected my broken plane and went to inspect the damage. I had split the fuselage and broken off the rubber nose cone, but worse I discovered that the cause of this crash was instigated by the previous days' impacts. Unknown to me at the time, I had yesterday cracked the circuit board which mounted the servos that control the tail, and it had finally broken whilst I was in the air this very morning. Due to the tail control surfaces being held by a rubber band (to put force on the fishing line control wires), the elastic force pulled the elevators down, and the circuit board inside the Aerobird was backwards. With the circuit board loose the servos could not pull the elevators up and so I had no up elevator control or ability to turn, which explained the crash! If only I had cut the throttle earlier I could have avoided coming so close to power lines.

There was good that came out of this crash though; the damage forced me to sit down with the plane and become introspective whilst repairing the plane. It was here that I discovered the tail was twisted, and also learned about how to properly adjust the trim of the control services using the control horns. Ultimately, I needed to crash to force myself to learn these facts and it was much better to do this on somebody's farm paddock than in an empty lot surrounded by houses in Suburbia!

And you know what? The rest of the day I had many successful flights with some beautiful landings. Only one crash happened that day and that was when I let my brother in law fly it, when he had zero experience. He did quite well and the newly-fixed control surfaces allowed for a much more graceful impact with the ground.

All up, I had managed to learn to fly, and I did it without destroying the plane thanks to its toughness. Sure it was basically held together now by gaffer tape and super glue, but it was still airworthy. And as they say, any crash you can walk away from is a good one. I think the analogy still works here.

Starting with a simulator

While sniffing around the Internet, I found that folks sell USB RC radios - you can't use them for real but they function as a joystick, albeit in the shape of an RC transmitter. And not only that but there are heaps of RC flight simulators on the market, ranging from free up to many hundreds of dollars!

I did my research and discovered that there are two schools of thought for your radio controller: Mode-1, and Mode-2. Mode-2 is where your elevators and ailerons are on the right-hand stick and your throttle is on the left, along with your rudders. Just like a real plane, oddly enough. I've also been flying flight sims on my PC for years, whether they be just a simulator, or a combat simulator like Falcon 4.0, and used the right-hand stick, left-hand throttle and rudders layout with my funky Thrustmaster joysticks. So naturally Mode-2 suited me just fine and all the folks in the USA use this, but there is a snag when you're an Aussie.

In Australia, the majority of folks fly "Mode-1". Mode-1 is where your throttle and ailerons are on the right-stick, and your elevators and rudder are on the left. And worse, it's a religious debate on what Mode is the best. Lots of people were telling me to fly Mode-1, because nobody would teach me how to fly using Mode-2. And did I already mention how I HATE RULES THAT EXIST FOR STUPID REASONS?

The arguments about why Mode-1 is so freaking awesome just pushed all my buttons. Reasons like "because you might accidentally get aileron input when you use the elevators" are rubbish. You like Mode-1, great - but please don't push your opinion onto people who like it different. People who look down on you for using Mode-2 can take their attitude and get lost!

So yeah, "feck the status quo" was my motto and I stuck with my plan to fly Mode-2 (and I haven't looked back either).

I was excited, but also feeling justified by buying the simulator kit; if I found that I couldn't fly worth a damn, I would only have wasted about seventy bucks ($30 for the USB "transmitter" and another $35 for the flight simulator). The simulator software is brilliant, because it simulates you standing on the ground in one spot and looking up at your plane flying around you, just like in real life.

Unfortunately for my bank account, it turned out I could fly quite well. Which only made me want a real plane even more!

For anyone who is interested, the USB "radio" I purchased was the E-Sky simulator kit which included the free "FMS" simulator, and the simulator software I later purchased is ClearView.

My first plane

A few weeks after I had my simulator and being hooked on watching all the YouTube videos by folks like RCSuperPowers and NightFlyyer, I mentioned my new obsession in passing to a senior co-worker at the office. It turned out that he is also into RC - but only helicopters now - and that he had an old plane lying around which he didn't want anymore and had only flown six times.

To say that I jumped at the opportunity to acquire this plane is an understatment. I had no idea what it was of course - and I didn't care. I had to wait though, as me and the family were heading off to Tasmania for a week. I would say the wait was hellish, but I do actually like spending time with my wife & kids. So anyway when we were back home later that week I dropped around to my co-workers' place to pick up the plane.

It was not what I expected, to say the least! I had an image of a light, foam-bodied plane in mind, but what I got was a large, 55-inch wingspan Aerobird Xtreme, with a fibreglass tail boom and a V-tail, activated by a combination of fishing wire and rubber bands! The thing is huge, and very imposing. I was immediately scared to the fly it too, since it came with a Mode-1 radio that has a slider throttle on the back of the radio.

My co-worker had been advised by folks at his local club that it was a good plane to learn on. "Teh Interwebs" disagreed - most folks said it was a great plane, but not good for a learner. Again I figured they were full of it, but as time has worn on I can see why they were right. I am being completely truthful when I say that you want you first plane to be light, easy to handle, but also to have fast responses to control inputs. Let's see - the Aerobird Xtreme is heavy (with a big 6-cell Ni-Cd or Ni-Mh battery), handles slowly (great!), but has slow response to control inputs, so when you get close to crashing, it's hard to recover.

I took this plane down to the local club, looking for help with getting flying. The interest in helping me was there, but the enthusiam to do so was definitely low. Most folks saw this as a "toy" and nothing more, because it was electric. Once again, my enthusiasm for flying was beginning to be curbed by a bunch of too-serious close-to-retirement old buggers whose opinion was the only correct one. In the end I left feeling a bit dejected, because I was really keen to see the plane fly and be helped out. Since the result was basically "come back later", it just made me feel like when I was a kid - regimented rules on when stuff can be done, dictated by someone else.

I also wasn't impressed with the responses from the club members on how to get into the sport. "Minimum $600 to get started" was common. Oh really? A Hobbyzone Mini Super Cub will be delivered to your door in Australia for less than $200 - including radio, battery, charger, and everything. Please explain how this is somehow NOT an acceptable means of getting into the hobby? It was more narrow-minded, blinkers-on bollocks!

The weekend after my trip to the club was Easter, and our family traditionally travels to a friend's farm out near Maffra in Victoria (Bushy Park to be exact), and they have a few hundred acres to play on. I did some more Internet research and discovered that according to the CASA regulations (Part 101) you don't have to fly at model clubs; as long as you maintain good distance from houses and people, stay below 400 feet, and don't go within three miles of an airfield for real planes, you're good to go. So before we left, I packed the Aerobird into the car and planned to bust my flying cherry over the Easter weekend.

I wish I'd set up the blog when I first started flying.

So, this is a blog of me and my rapidly-developing obsession with model aeroplanes.

You know model aeroplanes - the flying kind. Not the kind you spend weeks painting and stick on a shelf, only to fill it full of gunpowder and see if you can turn it into a rocket. Hmm, did I just give away some of my childhood there?

Anyways, about three months ago I was putting my four year old son to bed and we were watching YouTube. Jet Fighter crashes and ejections, specifically - he thinks those are really cool (and hey, so do I). The usual Wikipedia effect happened and before I knew it, I had followed a trail of videos after my son was asleep which led to some stuff posted by a bloke named Dave Powers, otherwise known as RCSuperPowers, and he was having heaps of fun with RC planes.

Allow me to dig back into the past for a sec...
Now when I was a kid, I thought RC planes were very cool. My neighbour was a good mate of mine (hi to Marty Cooperwaite) and his dad was into RC planes *and* helicopters. This was the 1980s too folks, so it was scratch-build terrority and big dollars to get flying. I went to the local flying club with them a few times, but it all seemed quite rigid with rules and with some very serious people - maybe rightly given the costs if you crashed your balsa-framed beauty. It still put me right off though, because I'm all about fun, and I've always hated "thou shalt do it this way" garbage.

I guess it didn't help that I had no spare cash, consistently had no spare cash until I had been in the workforce for 6 years, and also happen to be a computer geek first (guess where the majority of my spare cash still goes). But I have digressed too far, so let me get back to the present day.

So there I am, watching Dave Powers on YouTube, and this guy is having a blast. He's out in the local park with his electric planes he builds out of foam (or testing planes from other RC merchants) and talking about how the planes work and how to fly, and the guy is really cool. His wife Val does all the video work and she's also really into it and having a laugh.

All I can think is "wow, maybe this can be fun after all". It doesn't hurt that I've got a more spare cash these days and people sell Ready To Fly (RTF) planes, including batteries, radio transmitters, the lot. And even under $250 - in Australia!

At that point, I found myself watching RC YouTube videos whenever I could. I knew I was hooked and that it would only be a matter of time before I actually did something about getting my own plane. That was three months ago, and I already now have TWO planes and want more. Finances will slow down the rate of acquisition certainly...