Search This Blog

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The New Sport Pilot's Guide To 3D

3D flying is still sweeping the RC hobby and industry. 3D dominates the advertising in RC magazines, and the internet discussion forums, while more and more 3D planes are showing up at local clubs and parks. It is all the rage, and yet there is no clearly defined path for starting and learning 3D.

When I started, there was no one in my club to help me. I had to learn it all on my own, and that's the way it is going to be for a lot of you too. That's why we are bringing the Sport Pilot's Guide To 3D back for another run as a V2. Obviously if you have a friend who does 3D, or a good 3D pilot in your club, seek out their help. For those of you who don't, hopefully this guide will be the help I needed when I learned the hard way instead.

Some of you may remember the original Sport Pilot's Guide to 3D. Since 3D is a never ending learning process, and the game always seems to be changing, I think rather than update the old guide it would be better to simply start over.

Also, in the time since the first guide, I have learned a lot myself, have changed the way I do a lot of things, and I have changed the way I bring my students into 3D.

This is not an advanced guide, simply because I don't consider myself to be an advanced RC pilot, especially when I am surrounded by guys like Daniel Holman and Jens Van Dorpe. This is just intended to help you get out, get comfortable with the plane, and get started learning 3D.


One of the best tools any pilot is going to have is a copy of Scott Stoops' book "Mastering radio Controlled Flight." I could have written a comprehensive guide on how to do each maneuver, but I didn't need to because Scott had already done such a masterful job of that. Copies are in short supply, so don't wait too long to get one.
EDIT: Scott Stoops has reissued "The Pilot's Guide to Mastering Radio Controlled Flight" in a Kindle Edition file and you can get it here:

Scott starts from the very basic and teaches all the way  to the very extreme. Each maneuver is described in it's own chapter, complete with diagrams showing the proper stick movement. If you want to get it right, I believe you have to start with Scott's book. That, and many times when I am having trouble with a maneuver I supposedly already know, I'll check Scott's book to help me find what I am doing wrong.

Really, much of how I learned about 3D was from Scott's book. Even though I have been flying something since I was four years old, Scott's book was, and still is, invaluable knowledge. I have read it countless times, and try to read a little again every day to keep the knowledge fresh.


Another moving target, it seems. The term has been misused and abused so many times that it almost doesn't mean anything anymore, except to the people who are actually doing it. Pylon racers are being advertised as "The Ultimate 3D Machine," and in some clubs there is endless complaining about "Dangerous High Speed 3d." Clearly, a lot of people really don't know what 3D is.

But, let's back up and define 3D, and for that we will turn once again to Scott Stoop's "Mastering Radio Controlled flight."

"During 3D flight...the wing is often in a partially or fully stalled condition. The weight of the aircraft is being borne, in many cases, by the thrust from the motor/propeller." Scott Stoops, from "Mastering Radio controlled Flight"

This would include harrier and hovering, and almost any maneuver done with the wing in a partially stalled condition. Technically you could also include high speed stalls such as parachutes and walls because even though you begin at speed, the hard pitch rotation stalls the wing.

When I started 3D it was not much more than a bunch of hovering and otherwise puttering around with the nose way up in the air. When more and more guys got involved, and we started flying the planes harder and harder, that started to change pretty rapidly, and precision aerobatics came into the game along with wild tumbling. A good 3D plane is so enormously capable that there is almost nothing it can't do, and the way the sport has evolved reflects that.

So, as you can see, what many people consider to be 3D has evolved past what it was originally. 3D has really turned into a brand new sport that a lot of people like to call "Extreme Aerobatics." You have your post stall stuff, obviously, but also high speed precision work, and of course crazy blenders, snaps and tumbles. To fly Extreme Aerobatics, you really have to be able to do it all, which is sort of it's appeal.


All the new guys want to jump into 3D the same day they solo, and this is not the best way to handle it. You are going to be a lot better off if you have a good mastery of conventional aerobatics before you try to control a plane in post stall flight. For that you need something like a Park Zone T28, or an EFlite Mini Pulse. Almost anything aerobatic is going to be good, though the two I mentioned are very easy and forgiving while still being fun airplanes, especially the Pulse. If you put a 480 motor in the plane it becomes a little monster. A Mini Ultra Stick is also a good little aerobatic trainer, even if it is a bit quick and intense.

Once you are fearless with that, move into something like an Extreme Flight Extra EXP or Edge EXP and put My Sport Set Up on it. Fly that for awhile, get comfortable, and learn as much basic aerobatics as you can. When you are ready, put the full 3D set up from the manual on it and you will be going into 3D flying a plane that you are already familiar and comfortable with. Use the 3D set up as your high rate, the sport set up as your low rate, and you will have essentially the same plane as before except with the flip of a switch it becomes a 3D monster.

How do you know when you are ready? It's a bit different for everyone, but I would say if you can roll, spin, loop, fly inverted a little, do stall turns, and take off and land while rarely ever hurting the plane, that's pretty good. I don't think you need to reach masters class pattern, but you do need a good grounding in the moves I mentioned, and being used to looking at the plane in odd attitudes, like inverted and coming and going away from you.

One thing we are lazy about when we are sport pilots is getting our rudder control refined, and that really hurts us when we go into 3D.  I sport flew for 30 years and never really got my rudder under control until I started working it in 3D. In 3D it is an absolutely crucial control. This is why I like my students to work their stall turns and get a good grip on those before I put them into a full tilt 3D plane. Stall turns teach you how to use that rudder to turn the plane, and it also teaches you how the plane reacts at, past, and recovering from a stall. I certainly remember how much practicing those helped me.

Everyone moves at their own pace. Make sure you move quickly enough that you are always challenged, but if you start tearing up too much stuff, take a step back.

I think if you use it right, a simulator can be a really good tool. They are especially useful for teaching control orientation, memorizing stick movements, and trying new moves. It can also be used reinforce good, basic flying skill.

When I was learning harrier, my rudder skills were really poor and I would usually give it the wrong direction rudder when turning to come out of a harrier turn. After spending a couple of nights working those harrier turns on the sim, I never had a problem again, so I found that to be seriously helpful. Now I am using it to help me get my rudder orientation down when hovering belly in, but that's taking a little more time. Still, I can tell it is helping.

What you don't want to get caught up in is expecting a real radio control airplane to fly the same way as a simulator. I've never flown one that does. All the ones I have tried are too easy at best, and the planes fly awfully at worst. I think the best thing to do is realize a simulator is an imperfect tool and to use it that way. It can teach you a lot of good things, but don't get really good at something on the sim and think it's going to be just as easy when you get to the field. Don't expect a real balsa 3D plane to fly exactly like what your simulator.

Years ago I bought a Real Flight G3 (and updated to G3.5 online for free) and it has been so useful I have not felt the need to buy newer versions. If you just wanted the lastest toy, or something cool, certainly the newer versions have lots of great graphics, bells and whistles, but as far as being functional the G3 updated to G3.5 is just fine.

If you are on a budget, you can usually find a G3 or G3.5 on Ebay for about $40-50, which sure beats spending $200 on a new one. The money you save is almost enough to put a good Twisted Hobbys foamy together, or buy a really good 48" airframe.

You can add all kinds of planes to your real flight from the Knife Edge Swap Pages, or you can actually make your own. I repainted a few Edges and Extras in Extreme Flight EXP colors, and you can find those on My Knife Edge Swap Page.

There are other good sims too, but I don't have any expereince with them, so I can't really comment on them.

The most painless way to get started in 3D is to get a good foamy plane. Foamys are cheap and take a lot of abuse (crashing), repair quickly and easily, and they are good fun anyway. Personally I like the Twisted Hobbys lineup of foam aerobatic planes. I fly one in front of my house almost every night under the street light, just to keep me sharp and to try new moves, and also just for the hell of it because it is such good fun. I have hammered it into the road plenty of times and it still flies great.

Foam is great for teaching you control orientation, and learning to fly the plane at different angles, such as going away from or coming at you, and inverted. However, foam is a little bit too easy because a good foamy will hang and hang and hang in the air well after a balsa plane would have stalled and crashed. A lot of foam pilots cross over into balsa and have a hard time because they try to fly, and especially, land the airplanes way too slowly. You can also get used to being careless because they are nearly indestructible, but that's fatal with a balsa plane.

Foam is great to learn or, or to just have fun with, but when you jump to balsa you have to be aware it is a different animal. Keep your speed and altitude up at least for a little while and learn how the plane behaves differently.


For this report, let's pick the balsa plane that I feel is best for learning 3D, and that is the Extreme Flight Edge 540T EXP. The reason I like this plane is because it is the lightest and floatiest of the bunch, and also because the wing's straight leading edge provides incredible stability at and past the stall. The Edge is actually a little bit too easy, and I often say that flying one of those is like cheating. The Edge EXP is a superb 3D machine.

Also, there is good support on RC Groups from all the Extreme Flight team pilots. We are always talking about how to improve the plane and to improve your own flying, and if you have an Extreme Flight plane, we are always happy to try to help you get the most out of it and yourself.


Here is where it gets a little tricky and some people will disagree. For the new guys, a good 3D set up with a lot of exponential is solid and reassuring to fly. With a lot of expo a good 3D plane will feel like a sport plane until you start moving the sticks a lot. Exponential moves the responsiveness of the controls toward the outer movement of the transmitter sticks, so the plane is not twitchy when you are just flying it around.

Now, here's the thing: A lot of people are afraid all the throw and all that expo will be evil and diabolic, and too much for them to handle. This is just a lot of misinformation like you get about everything else when you are in an RC club. Blow it off and keep reading.

The truth is that just flying around, a good 3D plane with about 75% expo flies very simular to a sport plane with about 30% expo. This changes once you start pushing it, but there are times I forget which rate I am on because they feel so similar.

As a result, I have taken the low rate out of my 3D planes and I just fly them on high rate all the time. All the precision and high speed maneuvers you see in my videos are all done on my super high insane 3D rate, and I can do it like that because the exponential I use tames the airplane down and makes it a pussycat to fly.  I think anyone who flies a T28 could take any of my planes and fly it around on high rate and be extremely comfortable, though they have better be careful when jamming the sticks in the corners!

If you have never flown exponential, it is going to feel a little weird at first, especially if you are using a lot, like say 75%. The plane will seem numb until you start moving the sticks further, and then it seems to come alive very quickly. It is just something that you get used to and adapt to. Now when I fly a conventional plane with low or no expo, that seems weird.

Everyone seems to prefer something different, but for full 3D throws, I personally like about 75% expo on all surfaces. I like to set my expo the same on all surfaces so they all feel the same and control for one axis is not any more or less responsive than the others.

There is also no such thing as "mild 3D," or a "mild 3D set up." You either have enough control movement to fly in post stall or you don't. Initially I thought the best way to learn 3D was to increase the throw gradually, but the more I learned, the more this seems like a bad idea. If you just increase the throw a little at a time, you don't have enough for post stall flight, and you have too much for sport. You end up with a bad flying airplane.

This is the way I initially tried to do it. I just added throw and expo as I got used to it, but the whole time I really never had a 3D capable plane. It wasn't until I threw the full set up on the plane that I really started to make progress. I struggled for a long time because I was afraid to put the full throws on the plane. I never had a capable enough plane because I didn't set it up to be capable. I brought a knife to a gun fight.

I believe if you want to fly 3D you have to make the commitment and go all the way. I know this is a contradiction to what I said in the first article, but remember that I have also learned a lot since then, and I believe it is better to just make the jump completely. You need the the whole 3D set up, and that means the big control movements and big exponential settings. Anything less and you simply don't have a responsive enough airplane.

For those who might find this a bit scary, remember that you always have your low rate to fall back on. You can use that to take off and land, and for general flying around. Take some time to dial that in so that you are very comfortable on low rates, and you can flip to high when you have a little altitude.

Set the plane up exactly like the manual says. In fact, no matter what plane you choose for 3D, always use the set up from the manual. All the elite manufacturers extensively test their products before they put them in your hands, and all the set up work is figured out for you. Fly it that way before you start making wholesale changes to the set up.

We will be changing one thing on the set up of our Edge 540T EXP, though. All the EXP series planes have the capability of a full 90 degrees of elevator travel, and for learning that is just too much. The plane behaves a little differently, and is a little more tricky to handle once you get past about 50 degrees of travel. It requires a little bit different flying technique, and this is something best left for later after you have mastered flying harrier with the plane.

Some 3D pilots use a triple rate..... low, 3D and insane, but for now I am recommending against that and suggesting a simple high and low. The low rate is your security blanket and your high is for going nuts. We only want two rates because all of this is so new I want you concentrating on flying instead of flipping switches back and forth.

Finally, set up is a very personal thing. Everyone likes something different. Start with the set up from the manual, and if there is something you absolutely hate or can't deal with, change it to suit your own preference. If you can't deal with all the throw, set it to where you can deal with it. Just remember that you need the full set up to get the best results.


Now that we all have a good 3D plane with the manufacturer's set up on it, we can start flying and learning 3D. Best advice for right now is keep it simple, play yourself in slowly and don't get overwhelmed.  The first day I suggest that you take off on low rates and feel the plane out. It's a new plane, so enjoy it. Do what you always do.

After you are comfortable like that, get some altitude and flip to your high 3D rate. At first it is going to feel a little weird, but fly like you always do, only a bit higher in case all that control authority catches you out. It's going to at least once or twice because you simply aren't used to it, and the first few times you won't be sure what to expect.

You can play around and do some rolls and snaps and such, and just get comfortable with this new style of plane with it's very different set up. Good maneuvers for the first day will be the blender, and maybe try some spins and knife edge spins. You want to work your maneuvers that start with a little altitude simply because the plane and the set up are so unfamiliar. It might take a trip or two to the field for you to get the feel for the big throws and the massive exponential.

Once you get a good feel for that, you can move on to some post stall maneuvering. The building block of all 3D flight is the harrier. The plane is moving forward with the nose way up and the wings stalled. It is flying on a combination of thrust from the propeller, and limited lift from the airframe. If you cut the power, it's going to fall out of the air. I think there are too many things to learn to do at once when you are first trying harrier, so we are going to do something safer and simpler.

The Elevator
Let's start with the "elevator maneuver." It's called that because the plane will sink belly first, straight down, like it is going down an elevator shaft. This is not a particularly difficult maneuver, and since you start at altitude it is really safe. The beauty of starting with an elevator is that if you screw it up, you are at least 100 or 200 feet up and have plenty of time to power out and try again. It is also a great place to start because it teaches you how the airplane reacts in a stalled or partially stalled condition.

The elevator is not that hard and most people get a fairly decent one going in a single day. The important part is to stall the airplane in a gentle and controlled manner. Then you won't have to make any corrections for an improper entry, and instead concentrate on keeping the plane going straight.

At altitude, gently stall the airplane, and then lock your elevator control at about 7/8ths of stick movement. Stay off the ailerons as much as you can, and steer the airplane with the rudder, and you won't need to move it very much. You just want to keep the airplane going straight.

You will have to play the controls a little because too much elevator and you will completely stall the plane, and with not enough it will move forward and start flying again. Also, the wind is going to push it left or right, and pick up or drop a wing. You keep it pointed straight with the rudder and wings level (and nothing more) with the ailerons.

You can also slow the descent down a little by applying a little power, or speed it up by using less power.

However, the Edge EXP does the best elevator maneuver of any plane I have ever flown, and this is why I believe it is the best plane to start with. On a calm day I just lock in full elevator and watch it sink straight down with no corrections other than to steer it where I want it to go with the rudder. I almost never even touch the ailerons because the straight leading edge of the wing keeps the plane so stable on it's roll axis.

Once you have a really good feel for how this works, start lining the airplane up directly over the runway, like it is a landing approach. This helps you in several ways. First, since the plane will be coming directly at you, this will teach you good rudder orientation skills, something that will be absolutely crucial when you start working on your harrier. Also, if you treat an elevator like a final approach, this will teach you to put the airplane exactly where you want it to go in post stall flight. This puts you in control.

Work this maneuver over and over but be careful not to get hypnotized by how cool it is and let it get too low. Once you get down lower than 10 feet or so, you are into ground effect, which is low level turbulence. If you are going to fly it in lower than that, you need to start applying the power to slow the descent, and to get some more air flowing over the plane and stabilize it.

Eventually if you work this maneuver enough you will be able to set it right down on the runway at the bottom of an elevator maneuver. It's really pretty, gets lots of attention and is very satisfying.

The following is not a how-to video because there is so much you simply cannot teach unless we are standing there together. The video is intended just to show you want the manuever looks like, and how to get started on the path to learning it. Like I say, most people get a pretty decent elevator going the first day, and some even grasp it the first time. The only time an elevator gets hard or scarey is in high winds, or when you get really close to the ground. Keep it up a bit and there's nothing to be afraid of.

The Parachute
This one is a lot of fun, simply because it is so spectacular. You simply dive it straight down and then then yank and hold full up elevator. The plane will rotate to level and it will pop to a stop, sort of like a parachute opening, and then it will settle into a nice elevator maneuver.

I like this one because it builds confidence and teaches you about the plane's pitch authority. It is a simple one that's just fun, but it also is good because it puts you into an elevator, and more post stall flight that you need a good grip on to help you master your harrier. If you use reasonable altitude, it is not particularly scarey or dangerous to the plane, but it teaches you a lot.

The Harrier
Once you get a good elevator going for you, and a parachute isn't scarey any more, you almost understand what you need for a good harrier. Now, you simply take the same maneuver, use a little less elevator and a little more power, and start moving it forward instead of letting it sink. If you work that elevator maneuver enough, you will have already figured it out that the harrier is just an elevator going forward instead of straight down.

Initially harrier practice is going to be boring, that is, until you start to make some progress. Like I say, if your elevator maneuver is working good you will have a big head start. Once you get a reasonable straight line harrier going it becomes a lot of fun and that is all you will want to do.

At first, I recommend that you fly the first pack of the day doing nothing but harrier, and I mean nothing but harrier. Then, fly out the day, and finish up with the final pack being nothing but harrier. It takes some discipline, but once you can see some progress, you will start flying all harrier all the time.

It's just fun. It is also crucial for learning 3D.

Once your straight line harrier is looking good, start doing harrier turns. You begin one by using the ailerons to bank in, and then add in rudder to get it to turn. At this point, the rudder will try to roll the plane into the turn, so the more rudder you use, the more opposite aileron you will need to keep the wings level. Again, it is one of those things that feels a little weird t first, but you will adapt quickly. Once you get the feel for it, you will be surprised how tightly you can spin the plane around on it's yaw axis.

On most of my flights, I would estimate at least half is in harrier or elevator mode. Still, there are times I dedicate a flight or two to work on my harrier, just because it is something I need to do to keep it sharp. You have to have a sharp harrier to keep a good 3D game going.

Everyone wants to try to hover on the first day. Go ahead and try. You are going to anyway no matter what I or anyone else says. When you can't get it, remember that the harrier is what makes it all work, and you need to go back to that and get it right first.

My hover is still not what I want it to be. Part of that is because I live on a peninsula and it is always windy, and part of it is that I just haven't gotten it figured out yet. It's getting better, and I am finding out that I make the most progress with my hover after I have done some dedicated harrier practice.

The one thing I have found is that hover is something you have to work and work and work. I've been on it hard for about a year and it is just now starting to come around, but I still want it to be a lot better. Looks like I am just going to have to burn pack after pack on the sim, the foamy, and on my Extreme Flight EXP planes until I get it.


From here, just keep flying and keep reading Scott's book. Keep reading RC Groups, and try to hook up with some more experienced 3D pilots at the field or at events. Always try to fly with someone who is better than you because you can always learn from them. If you are a competitive tye it is also pretty motivating.

Fly within your own limits but also don't be afraid to push yourself. Don't be afraid to wreck an airplane every so often either.  Even the great smash up a few from time to time. Just don't push so hard you are wrecking faster than you can pay for all the stuff.

If you work hard, especially on getting a killer harrier going, all the 3D stuff just sort of falls into place. Read a little of Mastering Radio Controlled Flight every day, hammer your simulator and get out to the field every chance you get. It will all come together sooner than you think.



  1. Excellent work Doc!

    Guy (gmarisiv) Maris IV

  2. Good stuff Doc! Thanks!


  3. Excellent work! I have to find stoops book. Keep up the good info. Ron