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Understanding the Controls of an RC Airplane

As a newcomer to the radio control flying hobby, learning about the primary rc airplane controls of your new plane is key to becoming a good pilot, and getting the most out of your model.


Primary controls

RC airplane controls are, of course, the same controls as those found on real planes and they control the model in exactly the same way.

The four primary controls of an rc plane are throttle, elevator, ailerons and rudder. The elevator, ailerons and rudder are known as control surfaces and the picture below shows where these main controls are located on a fairly typical 4 channel rc 'sport' airplane....

The primary rc airplane controls

Above: location of ailerons, elevators and rudder on an rc plane.


The control surfaces are the hinged sections of the flying surfaces (wing, tailplane and fin) and each control surface moves - up and down in the case of elevators and ailerons, and left and right in the case of the rudder.


This movement alters the airfoil shape of the entire flying surface, and thus changes the amount of lift/downforce/sideforce being generated by that flying surface. The airplane responds to these changes in force.


This movement of the control surfaces is referred to as deflection or throw. The very crude (sorry!) animation below shows how a control surface moves in relation to its parent flying surface:

Deflection of an rc airplane control surface

Which controls do what?

Now you know where the primary rc plane controls are located, let's take a look at each one...



Throttle assembly of a glow plug engineThrottle controls the speed of the engine and hence how fast or slow the propeller turns.

On a glow plug (or petrol) rc airplane engine the throttle works the same as any internal combustion engine throttle, by changing the amount of fuel and air that enters the combustion chamber of the engine. The carburettor is operated by a single servo connected to the venturi of the carb, which opens and closes (thus changing the fuel/air mixture) in response to your throttle stick movements on the transmitter.

On an electric rc airplane the throttle is usually referred to as motor power rather than throttle. Very basic electric rc planes (i.e. toy ones) might not have proportional control to motor power but just a simple on/off switch instead.


Electric planes that do have proportional control to motor power have an electronic speed control, or ESC, that controls power to the motor in direct response to your Tx stick movements.


In the air throttle/motor power not only controls the forward speed of the airplane but also, more importantly, the rate of climb and descent, because different amounts of lift are generated at different airspeeds. For example, if your landing approach path is too low you can make the airplane rise slightly without changing speed much, simply by opening the throttle instead of using up elevator. Conversely, closing the throttle will cause the airplane to sink before the speed reduces.


Using throttle/motor power in this way is the correct way to fly your rc airplane, but many pilots use the elevator to control altitude and rates of climb and descent rather than engine speed.



The elevators are the hinged section of the tailplane, or horizontal stabiliser, at the very rear of the airplane and are the single most important control surface.
Elevators control the horizontal pitch attitude of the airplane, in other words whether the nose of the plane points upwards or downwards.


When elevators are in the up position (upward deflection) the nose of the airplane is forced to point upwards, and with the elevators deflected downwards then the nose is forced downwards. This resulting nose up/nose down pitch attitude comes about as the upward/downward deflection of the elevators changes the amount of down force being generated by the tailplane.


It's worth noting that a plane can still fly level, or even be descending, with a very nose-up attitude but a nose-down pitch attitude will almost always result in the plane entering a dive, thanks to our friend gravity!

Elevators directly effect the plane's airspeed more than the need to climb or dive.

Using elevators changes the airplanes pitch attitude

Elevators should be used in conjunction with rudder and/or ailerons when making a turn, to maintain altitude during the turn and also to get the plane to bank during the turn.



Not all rc airplane controls include ailerons, in fact the majority of 3 channel radio control trainers use rudder instead. But where fitted, ailerons control the roll of the airplane about its longitudinal axis (imagine a straight line running through the centre of the fuselage, from nose to tail).


Ailerons work in pairs and are found on the trailing (rear) edge of the wing, and they work opposite to each other i.e. when one aileron moves up, the other one moves down and vice versa.

Using ailerons changes the airplanes roll

Ailerons work by changing the amount of lift generation over the wing. As an aileron moves upwards so it disrupts the smooth airflow over the wing surface and so lift is reduced slightly on that wing. Over on the other wing the aileron moves downwards and increases lift slightly. As a result, the airplane tilts and hence rolls towards the side that's experiencing less lift.


When up elevator is applied at the same time as ailerons, the airplane is pulled round in to a banked turn; the ailerons cause the plane to roll and the up elevator causes the nose to pitch round in that direction.
Ailerons are used in all aerobatic maneuvers that involve a rolling motion.



The rudder is the hinged section of the fin, or vertical stabiliser, at the rear of the airplane.
It's used for directional control by changing the yaw of the airplane and works in the correct sense i.e. moving the rudder to the left causes the airplane to turn left and vice versa.

Using rudder causes the airplane to yaw

Applying rudder makes the nose of the airplane point to the left or right, but rudder alone does not make the airplane roll like ailerons do. It's actually the dihedral, or the upward 'V' angle of the wing when viewed from the front, that makes the plane roll when rudder is applied; a plane with very little or no dihedral will have a much flatter turn when rudder is applied. This is all to do with a natural force called Dihedral Effect.
Planes with ailerons require less dihedral than planes that rely solely on a rudder for turning, as the ailerons make the plane roll.


Rudder is also very important on the ground, it's the one control that will keep your rc airplane tracking straight during a take off run or landing roll, if your plane isn't fitted with a steerable nose or tail wheel.

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