Tips on flying an RC Helicopter

This is how I feel when I fly my helicopter.
This is how I feel when I fly my helicopter.

Around 2 years ago, I thought it would be fun to learn how to fly an RC helicopter. I will attempt to enlighten others on the process so that they can avoid my mistakes. I had been on shoots where we had brought them out and while the guys could fly, I never felt like they “got” video. That was several years ago, times they are a changin’.

I began by buying a $100 (about) helicopter. On the first flight, and flight is an overly optimistic term, it flipped over and never got off the ground.

Next I purchased a simulator for the computer. It was hard as hell to fly but I believe instilled some basic skills that I needed.

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Next I ordered 2 little $50 4 channel mini helicopters. I crashed them a lot but eventually was able to fly them pretty well in the house and yard. I ordered extra rotor blades and went through quite a few but the little things were pretty durable and cheap to fix.

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Then DJI announced the Phantom. For just a little over $600 I could have a platform that would carry a GoPro. I knew that I must possess one. 5 days later the box came. I carefully unpacked it and assembled it while watching the tutorial videos. We have a big open lot across from my house and off I went. The first flight went as good as I could have hoped. Day 2, flight 2 equally as positive.

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http://www.dji.com/product/phantom/

Day 3, Mother’s Day, I woke up early. The plan was to go to Loose Park and fly over the rose garden. I was convinced I was a seasoned pilot ready for any challenge. The cool morning air refreshed me as I set up the copter for flight. I took off and had a successful flight over the rose garden. At Loose Park, there is also a large duck pond. It is a concrete pond about 30 by 100 yards. Off the heli went, zooming back and forth, it was exhilarating right up to the point I caught the tree branch and the brand new little helicopter spun out of control and splashed into the pond.

See how beautiful it is.
See how beautiful it is.

2 important points here, the DJI Phantom does not float.

And it comes with a little mount for the GoPro. You take the GoPro out of its waterproof housing and can use it. I assume it is to save weight. I was using the little mount and not the waterproof housing. This was a flaw in my setup I realized as the helicopter and camera sank beneath the black water.  I dumped my cell phone and wallet, removed my boots and braced myself for the chilly water. I guessed the pond to be about 2 feet deep. I slipped in and it turns out the water was about 5 feet deep and slightly above ice cold, because ice cold would mean it was ice and it was not.

I began to wade to the crash site and then began to swim, the pond got deeper. I got to the spot and remembering my high school water lifesaving skills dove down. I could hear the heli beeping underwater, calling out for me, but I could not see it or discern which direction it was coming from. The best I could do was swim around under water and try and decide if  the beeping was louder or quieter.  This went on for some time, a small crowd began to gather and question what I was up to.

Side note… this pond is gross, full of duck poop and condoms (the condoms part I can not confirm, someone just told me that).

I realized after about 15 minutes that I was starting to feel funny and realized I was going into hypothermia which is bad.  I no longer heard any beeping at all. The beautiful sunny morning had turned gray. It was at this point I remembered a friend telling me a story about his prized fishing pole getting knocked off a dock. He was giving up hope of snagging it with a line when a friend called up and said he should pray for God’s help. He said a prayer and within a minute had snagged his pole and had it back. When he had first told me the story, I scoffed at the concept. Now I began to reconsider this option. With all the humility I could muster, I asked God, if he didn’t mind, I could sure use some help.  I was bobbing up and down and on my next down kicked the helicopter. I raced to the bottom and grabbed it and burst through the surface in victory. The crowd cheered and the props began to turn again. I raced to the edge climbed out and pulled power to everything. I got home a sprayed some contact cleaner on the motors and waited 2 days. I also blew it out with an air compressor. To my surprise, both the GoPro and helicopter survived the 15 minute ordeal. I believe God is chuckling at me.

How I felt when I saw my helicopter sink in the pond.
How I felt when I saw my helicopter sink in the pond.

I vowed no more above water flights and now use the waterproof GoPro housing all the time. I practiced and practiced. My  father in law owns a large wheat farm and I figured it would be a good place to fly with big open fields. My first flight out there was amazing. Full of confidence and a fresh battery up went the heli for a second flight. I wanted to test range. The DJI Phantom has a “come home” option if it goes out of range. I flew it so high I could not tell which direction it was going and decided to engage the “come home” switch. The controller does not have a lot of switches but somehow I confused them and put it in full manual mode. This turns off GPS and flight stability making it much harder to fly. It began to plunge. I flipped the switch back and tried to gain altitude. It shot back up and I lost visual sighting completely. The group that was with me could not find it either. It was gone. I forgot that all I had to do was turn the controller off and it would return home. I spent the rest of the day driving around in pastures on an ATV scanning for it. I never found it. I made a mental note to write my name and phone number on the next helicopter.

Helicopter 2 has served me well. On my most recent shoot for an outdoor show, I brought the helicopter as a freebie and the first thing they wanted was for me to fly over Table Rock Lake to film bass fishing. These caused great anxiety in me. I would be in a chase boat and fly from that platform. Return home would be worthless, I was in a moving boat, home would be water. I had gotten a pool noodle and made little floaties for the landing gear.  I will post the wonderful results after the show has aired or you can watch The Total Outdoorsman Challengeand see them on the air.

DJI Phantom with hi tech flotation devices.
DJI Phantom with hi tech flotation devices.

 

Benny shared the platform with me.
Benny shared the platform with me.
the next step... still waiting for the 3 axis stabilizer...
the next step… still waiting for the 3 axis stabilizer…

Next up I have a 6 rotor “sexycopter” coming in with a MOVI style stabilization system coming in that will carry a Panasonic GH3. Due to regulations, I will continue to fly as a hobby and offer it as a freebie. I still will not fly over crowds of people. Oh, and also always check the bolts that hold the blades on the Phantom. They tend to come off, which is bad also.

And one more thing. Jason Miller has an awesome setup with LED lights. It is a monster copter. Look him up in KC.

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