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Written by Patrick Sherman
As seen in the March 2016 issue of
Model Aviation.

More than 400,000 drones were released into the wild during the recent holiday season and, as spring approaches with the promise of improving weather, no doubt many new pilots are anxious to take to the sky for the first time. This raises a question which uncounted generations of humanity have lived and died without ever having asked: What is the best way to learn to fly a drone?

Whatever expertise I possess in this regard is the result of having gone about it in precisely the wrong way. Take full advantage of my mistakes by avoiding them yourself. You are my only hope for redemption.

I had never flown a radio-controlled aircraft before, but the lure of this new technology proved irresistible to me. My first (terrible) decision was that I was only going to fly payload-capable drones. “Real” drones, I told myself—the equivalent of a modern DJI Phantom or Yuneec Typhoon—in terms of size and capability.

Of course, this was approximately five years ago—or 35 drone years, with each calendar year representing the passage of seven years in the drone industry. Self-leveling and barometric altitude hold were not yet standard features on flight-management systems, and the notion of incorporating GPS into your aircraft would have been met with polite laughter.

This was a different era, but the hard truth that I learned still applies: crashing breaks parts and parts cost money. With my initial flights lasting only a couple of seconds before my machine ended up in a heap on the ground, this was an expensive, frustrating, and extremely time-consuming way to learn how to fly.

Don’t do it. Instead, I would like to propose a three-step process, built upon a premise I was unwilling to accept for myself: as a new pilot, you’re going to crash—a lot.

Step 1: Boot Up

It’s inevitable that you will break a lot of parts when you’re getting started, so the question becomes how to break them as inexpensively as possible. Real parts cost money, but virtual parts are free, so get yourself a simulator and log your first 10 to 20 hours of flying on your computer.

Hey, simulator manufacturers! I’ve had an idea for a while now, which I do hereby declare to be now and forevermore in the public domain. No need to send royalty checks—just make this happen.

Step 1: The computer is your friend! Use a good-quality RC flight simulator connected to an actual or simulated RC controller to begin developing your basic flying skills in a pain-free environment without worrying about hefty repair costs.

Put a counter, such as an odometer that tallies the damage from each virtual crash in a corner of the screen, so that people can see how much money they are saving by using your product. It would add up fast!

Apart from saving you thousands of dollars, simulators have other advantages. They can provide you with specific challenges, such as hovering inside a small circle or maneuvering through a series of gates, coaching you as you develop new skills, and allowing you to get back in the air immediately when you get it wrong.

To get the most benefit from using a simulator, you need to take it seriously and treat it with respect. Everything you do reinforces a habit—whether good or bad. If you are careless flying the simulator, you will be careless in real life. The same is true if you give up when confronted by a problem or take shortcuts instead of following correct procedures.

Step 2: Start Small

Modern RC flight simulators are great, and they improve with each new version, but they are no substitute for controlling a real aircraft moving through real air. Remember our premise: you are going to crash repeatedly while you are learning to fly, so the key to success is to reduce or eliminate the associated costs.

Here is where small, tough quadcopters, such as the Dromida Ominus and Vista, or the Blade Nano QX, enter your training regimen. Most of these are small enough that you can fly them indoors, which is a great place to start because you don’t have to cope with wind and other environmental factors.

There are a couple of important things to be aware of. First, the propellers on some of these small models spin fast enough to draw blood if they make contact with exposed skin (don’t ask me how I know this), so keep them well away from yourself and other people. Second, this buzzing, flittering aerial intruder might drive your pets into a homicidal (dronicidal?) frenzy, so take care that neither they, nor your machine, are harmed.

Step 2: Small is beautiful! Like other small quadcopters that are built with new pilots in mind, this Dromida Vista from Hobbico is indestructible and small enough to fly indoors. Watch out for people and pets!

Spend another 10 to 20 hours practicing with your small multirotor. Again, make the most of this time by consciously developing the good habits that will serve you well once you move up to a full-size drone. Also, give yourself little missions to perform: start on the ottoman, fly over and land on the credenza, then fly back and land on the ottoman. Repeat.

Floating around the living room is a lot of fun and it might feel like practice, but you’ll develop your skills much faster if your flying demands discipline and precision.

Step 3: Go Big

You’ve exercised patience, honed your flying skills using a simulator and a micro quadcopter, and now it’s time for the main event: taking your big machine out for its maiden flight. Set yourself up for success and be safe.

Bring along a friend who can serve as a spotter. If the friend is an experienced RC pilot, he or she can give you some pointers and perhaps take over if you get into trouble. You can even set your friend up on a buddy box, which is a second controller that is connected with a cable to the training port on the back of the transmitter. This allows him or her to instantly take control of your drone in an emergency.

Find an open space away from people, trees, power lines, and other obstructions. This basically describes every AMA club flying field in existence, so consider finding one in your area.

Step 3: Go big and go home with your drone still in one piece! Mastering the basics of RC flying with simulators and micro-size quads will substantially reduce the stress of your first flight with a full-size drone, and dramatically reduces the risk that you’ll do some serious—and expensive—damage.

If your drone has GPS—and most of them do these days—be sure it has a clear view of the sky, so it can acquire as many satellites as possible and give it time to achieve a positive lock before you take off.

Finally, start small. Take off, hover for a few seconds, and then land. No matter how much you’ve practiced to prepare for this moment, you’ll always find that there is a rush that accompanies your first few outdoor flights with a larger machine. Give yourself a little time to get past the jitters before you move on to more advanced maneuvers.

And remember, you’re always learning. Every flight is an opportunity to continue building good habits and developing new skills. Fly safely!


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Orientation is a big problem with me.The lights on most small drones are hard to see.My big one's haven't been flown yet,due to lack of flying fields in my area.Yes i'm a AMA member with. One registered drone and one plane,also registered.

I like the Hubsan H-107 series for low cost training and repairs, as well as easy to fly inside or outside....most parts are $5 or less (body, motors, props, batteries, ect), with circuit boards coming in priced closer to $20...These quads have ~ 7 minute run time and exchangeable batteries. You can get one with a camera, but camera free is lighter, faster, has longer run time, and is cheaper to replace , if damaged.
The Cheerson CX-10 series is even cheaper and VERY small ( 2"x 2" ) ...these are not really suitable for repair, and the batteries are not easily exchangeable...but these go for ~ $20 WITH, having a complete fresh drone charged and ready to fly, is the way to go ! Around 4 minutes flight time with these..and I took one to Costa Rica with a camera built in ( cost ~$15 @ got a fairly impressive video over water ! This does not have streaming video, but has a Micro SD, you shoot blind, and hope for the best footage on the card, after landing !
Happy flying ?

Does anyone fully understand the DJI "Go 4 " software interface, used to fly the DJI family of drones ? This is some of the most poorly documented software ever created, and even if you watch the online videos, you will have a LOT of unanswered questions,and associated aggravation ! I am a fairly good drone pilot....but figuring out the cool features, and the importance of various icons or warnings on the display is , at best, "COMPLICATED" ! I am willing to pay good money for face to face lessons on the software, and how to use it ! DJI has failed miserably in creating a user friendly, intuitive, software !

Fly clockwise squares in front of you by yawing the quad at each corner. When you stop turning in the wrong direction at the third corner, fly counterclockwise squares. Fly slowly and deliberately at the same height above the ground.

I run a nonprofit STEM program which uses drones. We start student out with a Syma X5 to learn the basics before they move up to flying their own scratch build drone. The Syma X5 is easy to fly, inexpensive ($52) and almost indestructible. They usually last a season of hard crashes. To date we have gone through around 20. The neat thing you can buy a striped down version and use you old controller for $23.

I’ve been flying over 50 years and have taught many to fly. Sims are a great way to learn
but I would suggest joining a local flying club. Many clubs have student night where they put you on a buddy box with an instructor and that’s the best way to learn to fly. All clubs require you to be a member of AMA. For those under 18 years of age the membership is free. Good luck to all.

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