Free flight (model aircraft)

Free flight (model aircraft)

The segment of model aviation known as free flight is the original form of the hobby, extending back centuries.


The essence of free-flight is that the aircraft have no need for any form of external control, for instance by radio. Aircraft of this type have been flown for over a century. They are designed to be inherently stable in flight; if disturbed by a gust of wind or a thermal up-current they will return automatically to stable flight. For this reason most free flight aircraft are not replicas of man-carrying ones, for they are designed for a quite different purpose. Their stability is achieved by a combination of design and trim, - the relationship between centre of gravity, wing and tailplane incidence and rudder setting.

Because they are much lighter with respect to their wing area, free-flight aircraft fly very much slower than the engine-powered radio-controlled models that many people first think of when ‘model aircraft’ are considered. Most of them glide at little more than walking pace and few weigh more than 500 grams.

Usually the sole object in free-flight is flight duration, and one of the sport’s fascinations and challenges is to design the most efficient aircraft within the various competition limits on such parameters as minimum weight, maximum wing area and motive power. It is solely a stopwatch, rather than any judge’s opinion, that decides the result.


Free flight models may be broadly divided into four categories:

*Gliders (towline and hand-launched)
*Rubber-powered (pure duration, and scale with duration)
*Power (Co2, Methanol-fueled glow engine, or electric)
*Indoor (pure duration, and scale with duration)

When flown competitively, the usual aim is maximum flight duration. In the case of models flown outdoors, the modeler attempts to launch the model into rising column of air, a "thermal". These outdoor free flight models tend to be designed for two very different flying modes: climbing rapidly under power or tow, and gliding slowly while circling with minimum fall rate. Much of the challenge in designing and flying these models is to maintain aerodynamic stability in both modes and to make a smooth transition between them. Modern models use mechanical or electronical timers to move control surfaces at pre-set times. Detecting the thermal into which to launch is vital and can involve several methods, ranging from radio telemetered temperature and windspeed measurements plotted on a chart recorder to Mylar streamers or soap bubbles to show the rising air visually.

Because competitions normally involve up to seven rounds during the day, each flown to a maximum flight time hard to achieve without thermal assistance; an automatic on-board timeswitch upsets the trim of the aircraft when the "max" is achieved, to bring the aircraft down safely and quickly. Locating and recovering the aircraft for further flights is an important past of free-flight. Many aircraft carry radio location beacons, and flyers will use GPS, binoculars, a compass and a directionally sensitive radio tracking receiver to assist them. A day's flying and retrieval may well involve 20 miles or so on foot or on bike, depending on wind strength.

Models flown indoors do not depend on rising air currents, but they must be designed for maximum flight efficiency, because of the limited energy stored in the rubber or electric power source.

Within each category, there are different classes. Typically, there is an Federation Aeronautique Internationale(FAI) world-championship class, a so-called "mini" class, an "open" class, and possibly any number of national or unofficial classes, for which regional or national competitions may be held.


Gliders have no onboard motive power. The only energy inputs are the launch, and any rising air encountered during the flight. During launch many gliders withstand 30G or more, far more than any manned aircraft is stressed to and launch speeds of sometimes over 140 km/h which energy is then converted in altitude ; this has only become possible since the advent of composite materials such as carbon (graphite), fiberglass, and Kevlar, which are used extensively in many of their structures.

The FAI glider class is F1A, also known as A/2 or Nordic glider. The model must have a projected area (wing plus tail) of between 32-34 dm2, and a minimum weight of 410 g. Launch is by hand tow, using a cable of 50 m length. The "mini" glider class is A/1 (F1H). A/1 gliders must have less than 18 dm2 total area, and weigh at least 220 g. Open glider contests are rarely flown, and most competitors in such contests use F1A gliders. Other glider classes include magnet-steered (F1E) gliders - essentially a free flight slope soaring class, and hand-launched glider (usually abbreviated "HLG", and also widely known as simply chuck glider). HLGs are small models which are launched from level ground simply by being thrown hard. This is one of the more athletic of the free flight disciplines.


Rubber-powered models are powered by the stored energy of a twisted elastic material. These range from the simple rubber-band powered toys available in many toy stores, up to the open rubber class, examples of which often use 200 g of rubber in their "motor". Rubber does not produce a constant power output; when fully wound a rubber motor produces its maximum torque, but this drops rapidly at first before 'plateau-ing', finally declining again, after which the propeller stops. Using this initial burst efficiently is vital and automatically variable pitch propellers help here, together with timer-operated changes of wing and tailplane incidence and of rudder setting. At the end of the power run the blades fold back alongside the fuselage to minimise drag during the glide.

The FAI rubber class is F1B, also known as Wakefield. Charles Dennis Rushing has written on the history of the Wakefield Cup [ [ Wakefield book ] ] . F1B models may have a maximum of 30 g of rubber motor, and the empty weight of the airframe must be at least 200 g. The maximum total area of the model must be less than 19 dm2.The "mini" rubber class is Coupe d'Hiver (also known as F1G). "Coupe" models have no area restrictions. The maximum weight of rubber allowed is 10 g, and the minimum empty weight of the airframe is 70g. "(need Coupe history here - 100g vs 80g, min cross-section etc)".Open rubber is a popular event, featuring large models with enormous amounts of rubber crammed into them. Open models often have 50% of their flying weight composed of rubber.P-30 is a common beginner's event. A P-30 must use an unmodified commercially available plastic propeller. P-30 has a maximum wingspan of 30 inches, and uses 10 g of rubber. The empty airframe must weigh at least 40 g.


Power models are those with an onboard power source which is not a rubber motor. Frequently this is an internal combustion engine, and the engine run is limited, typically to just five seconds. Designing an aircraft which climbs as high as possible, with minimum drag at a low lift coefficient, but then must convert to a slow flying glider, is a challenge unique in aviation. However, the category also includes compressed gas motors and electric power. The FAI power class is F1C. F1C models are equipped with an internal combustion engine of up to 2.5cc and need to weight at least 300 g per 1cc (i.e. minimum weight of a 2.5cc equipped model is 750 g). These engines are usually custom made for optimal power output and often yield 1 HP at more than 30,000 RPM.

Another type of powered free flight models is CO2 (its FAI category is F1K ). These models fly using a small engine powered by carbon-dioxide. This models are very light. The amount of CO2 is limited to 2 ccm, which is enough for cca. 2 minutes of flight.

Another popular free flight Class is FAI category F1J which is similar to F1C however the engines are 1/2A Class ie less than .050 cubic inches. These models use engines like the Cox Tee Dee .049 model engine.

Sport free flight fliers also use Cox model engines and others to power free flight scale models.


Indoor models are models designed to fly indoors, as the name suggests. These models are typically very light weight. There are a number of classes of indoor free flight models of which some are scale reproductions and some are competition models. The international FAI has an indoor class that is called F1D. It requires models to have a minimum weight of 1.2 grams and a maximum wing span of 55 cm. These models are powered by .6 grams of rubber. Such models require a large space, such as a sports hall, aircraft or dirigible hangar. There is even a salt mine in Romania which has several times hosted the FAI world F1D championship. Times approach forty minutes in the highest sites that are currently accessible.

Although most indoor aircraft are rubber-powered, both gliders and power aircraft (usually compressed gas or electric) are also flown indoors. Some events concentrate on scale or semi-scale replicas of man-carrying aircraft. Others feature unusual flight configurations, such as ornithopters, helicopters or autogiros.

"Old Timer"

Sanctioned in the United States by the Society of Antique Modelers [] , and by a growing number of "SAM" organization chapters around the world (as well as similar national clubs in some nations) so-called "Old Timer" free flight model aircraft, which can be gliders, rubber powered or engine powered models, are flyable reproductions of free flight model aircraft designs that generally originated any time before the US involvement in World War II.

Low-pressure, enjoyable competitions for these models generally follow the modern competition formats, with special categories for these early-design models that re-create the model aircraft events actually held before WW II, and even the "old-timer" movement has seriously begin to embrace electric powered versions of designs originally built for the two-stroke gasoline fueled engines of pre-WW II free flight aeromodelling. Actual pre-WW II vintage gasoline fueled model engines are even used on some of the engine-powered designs, and a substantial interest exists in so-called "RC Assist" old timer free flight models within the SAM organization, which takes the engine powered designs of that era, powers them with more modern two and four stroke glow engines or electric motors instead, and adds rudder, elevator and engine control from a radio control transmitter, just as would be done in the regular RC hobby.

Old Timer free flight aircraft specifications, competition rules and guidelines are available from the SAM organization online. []


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