Print this articlePrint this article

Written by Ed Anderson
Any club can benefit
For members
As seen in the June 2008 issue of
Model Aviation.

On the surface the AMA Park Pilot Program seems to address the needs of people who are flying those small, electric-powered models we call park flyers. But I believe it can do more.

Most beginner-level park flyers are essentially powered gliders. The Hobby Lobby Wingo USA is a fun and versatile trainer. Shawn teaches son, Devin, about trim.

I started out as a park flyer pilot, but now I fly gliders most of the time. Many Long Island Silent Flyers (LISF) members have gone down the same path. After I share this path with you, you may decide that the AMA Park Pilot Program could help your sailplane club.

If you stop in at the local hobby shop and look at the models it sells, you will likely see piles of RTF electric airplanes, some receiver-ready electric aircraft, electric ARFs, and even some electric airplane kits. There may also be a display of RTF glow-powered models, some glow ARFs, and maybe some glow kits.

Where are the gliders?

If the shop has any, it may be a Spirit kit, a Gentle Lady ARF, or an e-Aspire RTF sitting on top of a rack somewhere. There will probably be a thick layer of dust on the box. If the store has a histart, it will most likely be a short one and will probably have been there for a while.

The majority of people have not had exposure to RC sailplanes. The only experience many have had with these types of models is the $1 balsa variety or maybe a $5 foam chuck glider that never flew right. So why would these people come looking for gliders?

All these models qualify for the AMA’s Park Pilot Program. Local clubs may have their own recommendations as well.

Most people, and I’m included, have never seen a full-scale sailplane in the air or on the ground, but they have seen many airplanes with engines. Numerous people have dreamed of flying, and those dreams probably include an engine, the drone of the propeller, or maybe even the whine of the turbine. So when they want to start flying model airplanes, that is what they look for and that is what the hobby stores stock.

If one of these new park flyer pilots came upon your glider field, would you welcome that person or would you tell him or her that you only fly sailplanes at the site and send the flier away? If you do the latter, you are missing the opportunity to develop a new glider pilot.

When I started, I bought a HobbyZone Aerobird 3 RTF Electric: a three-channel, pod-and-boom park flyer. A friend told me that there had been a glider club a mile from my home for more than 25 years. I never knew about it, even though I had wanted to fly RC airplanes all my life. I never noticed the pilots were there, because they were quiet.

A friend had joined that club with a HobbyZone Firebird electric park flyer; the club had recently opened its membership to these small models, viewing them as trainers. If you look closely, many of these RTF park flyers are really electric launched sailplanes in disguise.

A two-channel Firebird is really an electric launched glider. When you cut the power it soars nicely, needing only rudder control to guide it around the sky. And it thermals too. The same applies to my Aerobird, a THawk, a Multiplex EasyStar, and many RTF park flyers. That is what makes them so easy to fly.

People often remark that gliders are the best trainers, and these airplane makers seem to agree. In fact, the president of the LISF at the time I started had learned to fly with a Firebird.

If you start thinking about these models as electric launched sailplanes, perhaps it would be a good idea to welcome these new pilots into your club and teach them how to fly their new aircraft. Naturally you would instruct them in the glider-pilot style and teach them how to operate on a glider field. They would learn how much fun it is to fly their models with the motor off and to catch thermals.

Learning to take off and land is as simple as a hand launch—a procedure Soaring clubs are familiar with teaching.

The first time I managed to get my Aerobird up into a thermal, I was hooked. Because I was surrounded by sailplane pilots, I received all kinds of coaching on how to hunt for thermals, work thermals, and enjoy extended flight time without the use of my motor. This was cool!

Six months after I joined the club—having no idea about or interest in gliders—I bought Great Planes’ 2-meter Spirit. Of course, it was an RTF package. In addition I purchased a hi-start. That winter a Slope Soaring pilot showed me how to slope-soar my Aerobird. Soon after that I was flying a Zagi slope wing. My sailplane fleet was growing.

Today our club has a growing number of pilots who have followed a similar course. They learn to pilot their park flyers, and then they learn to fly them like gliders.

We even have monthly climb-and-glide, limited-motor-run contests. Park flyer pilots are encouraged to join. We do a two-minute maximum motor run and a six-minute task, with landing points for putting the airplane in a large circle.

Last season the top score was achieved with an Aerobird. Oddly enough, the pilot normally flies a Pike Superior, but he started on that Aerobird.

Today the first real sailplane these people typically buy is a Multiplex Easy Glider or Easy Glider Electric. Soon afterward they move on to 2.5- and 3- meter models and start flying in club Thermal Duration contests. They learn how to launch with a hi-start and a winch. You may be thinking, “This is all good stuff, but what does it have to do with the Park Pilot Program?”

Many glider clubs fear that once they let in the electrics, they will take over. And that has happened to some sailplane clubs. Sometimes it is because of a large influx of new electric-power pilots, but just as often the existing members take up electric flight too. After a while the glider fliers diminish as other pilots bore holes in the sky.

The electric-powered HobbyZone Aerobird 3 is extremely durable and thermals very well.

People forget that this fade of glider pilots was happening anyway. They point the finger at the electrics and say, “They did it to us,” but they probably didn’t. What really happened was that there was no plan.

If you make a plan and work it, you can bring in new park flyer pilots with the understanding that yours is a sailplane club first and foremost. Aircraft flown at your field will be done so in a “glider-like” manner and at low to moderate speeds. If you state this up front, people will understand that your club is not for speed jockeys, 3-D pilots, etc.

I have learned from experience that if you take this approach, roughly half of the members will eventually take up gliders in addition to whatever else they fly. Some will also belong to other clubs in which they can fly their high-speed or 3-D airplanes.

The Park Pilot Program brings in a clear definition of what a park flyer is and what it is not. It includes small airplanes—weighing 2 pounds or less—that are quiet and incapable of flying faster than 60 mph on a flat run. They must be electric or rubber powered, or of any similar quiet means of propulsion, and that includes pure and electric sailplanes.

Whether flying competition aircraft or RTF park flyers, a thorough preflight inspection is a good idea.

According to that definition, Gentle Ladys and Easy Gliders are park flyers. Hand-launched and discus-launched gliders are also park flyers. That means new pilots who show up at your field with AMA Park Pilot Program membership cards can fly sailplanes. If they ever want to fly something larger than the program permits, all they have to do is upgrade their membership with the AMA.

A concern about the Park Pilot Program is that these new pilots have a lower level of personal insurance coverage than regular AMA members. What impact does that have on the club’s insurance? The AMA has confirmed that having Park Pilot Program members in a club has no impact on its coverage. Your club coverage is the same as always and will not be compromised in any way.

If your flying-site property owner requires that all your club members are AMA members, those who are part of the Park Pilot Program meet that condition. Unless your lease or agreement for field use specifies a dollar amount of personal coverage for each member, a Park Pilot Program member is covered.

Admitting Park Pilot Program members does not mean you have to adopt the full extent of the program’s definition. If you feel that an Aerobird or an EasyStar would be acceptable but you would not want airplanes zipping around your field at 59 mph, amend your club’s bylaws to reflect this.

Safety is the most important point to learn. Flying with a friend is more fun, and the extra pair of eyes on the flightline means fewer accidents.

You could declare a top speed for models at your field of, say, 45 mph. That is moderate. My Easy Glider Electric, with a brushless motor, tops out at approximately 45 mph. You could further stipulate that all flying below treetop level should be at less than 20 mph, to be compatible with models that are on approach and preparing for landing.

The numbers are unimportant. What is important is that you have always had the right to set guidelines for how flying is conducted at your field; the Park Pilot Program does not change that.

Gliders always have the right of way. That would not change. And you would train these new pilots to fly properly with gliders. They would learn where and how to launch and where and how to land, according to your procedures.

Do not radically transform your sailplane club into an electric club. Incorporate slow- to moderate-speed electric-powered models into your club’s design.

Welcome these new pilots, train them, and introduce them to gliders as a path they have not considered. You will find that these new fliers and the AMA Park Pilot Program could be good friends and bring new energy to the life of your sailplane club.

Dayle Cook, who has been learning to fly gliders, is shown preparing to make one of his first unassisted winch launches. He has since flown in competition in the Eastern Soaring League.

Gliding in the Park

Many park flyers are similar to gliders. The pod-and-boom park flyers in particular, such as the Firebird and Aerobird, the T-Hawk, the Multiplex EasyStar, or even the Hobby Lobby Wingo, bear a strong resemblance to discus-launched and many 2-meter histart- launched sailplanes.

The pod-and-boom park flyers’ undercambered or flatbottom wings allow them to fly at extremely slow speeds, and they glide well when you power off. They glide even better if you can set the ESC to enact a propeller brake or replace the ESC so you can stop the propeller’s freewheeling.

Ed Anderson (R) holds his Aerobird: his first RC airplane. Pete Nicholson, Ed’s instructor, holds his 3-meter Supra competition Thermal Duration sailplane. Notice the similar pod-and-boom designs.

Although those park flyers may not glide as well as “true” sailplanes, they do so well enough to teach flying with the motor off. Any of them can thermal well enough to introduce thermal-duration flying to a new pilot.

You may not have considered these park flyers as trainers for glider pilots, but with some creative thought you can help those new fliers learn to soar.

-Ed Anderson


Park Pilot Program
(800) 435-9262

Add new comment