Sunday, April 15, 2007

Well It Flies . . . . . Kind Of

It was indeed a beautiful morning for flying. The Sky Fly, the CAP232, and of course the Mugi Evo bored numerous holes in the sky much to the childlike delight of their pilot. I can't wait until the Mugi Mobile is up and running so I'll have enough room to take the Cub along a little more often.

Dick even brought out his latest Mugi, rendered in stunning blue and yellow coroplast. Power comes from an Align 430L 3550kv brushless motor (the same motor that's in my helicopter) twisting an APC 4.1X4.1 prop. This power combo has been well proven on several local Mugis already, so no one was surprised that the thing honked along at a pretty good clip. The best part was the visibility. Turns out that blue and yellow are an extremely easy to see color combination, which is a good thing when you're piloting a 30 inch wide wedge across the sky at over 100 MPH. I've got a fair supply of colored coroplast myself now thanks to Dick, but I haven't got anything built out of it yet.

Keyword: Yet. Some time in the near future I intend on doing a full build post on a Mugi Evo, complete with pictures and a plethora of hints and tips that I've come up with over the course of building several of these things. Stay tuned.

Shown alongside Dick's newest Mugi, is of course my battered beast. I still haven't had anyone tell me otherwise, so I'm still claiming that it was the first Mugi in Billings, possibly even the first Mugi in the state of Montana. It's still powered by the well worn Multiplex Permax 400 that I originally installed on it, and it's amazingly still kicking in spite of the 3 cell lithium polymer battery that I power it with. This is a 6 volt brushed motor, being powered by a 11.1 volt battery. Brushed Speed 400's, especially 6 volt brushed Speed 400's, aren't supposed to run on 3 cell li-po's, but this one is still kicking ass although I expect it to make a really cool smoke trail any day now. The brushes are getting mighty worn. The new servos and linkages performed flawlessly by the way. Rock solid control, better than it's ever been, and no control surface flutter even at the highest speeds I was able to attain by doing some mad high altitude dives to near ground level. For the first time since I built it, it was actually capable of sustained inverted flight as well. I finally got to make a few relatively low altitude inverted passes without stuffing it in the dirt. A welcome change indeed.

Now for the skinny on the heli.

As I mentioned before, the first flights were mostly for tuning purposes. When you build an RC heli from a kit, actually putting it together is the easy part. After it's assembled, then the real fun begins. First thing is to set up the head. All of those nifty little linkages need to be synchronized to each other for everything to work properly, and all of the links need to move freely but without any slop. First you level the swashplate, then level each set of arms all the way up the head, finishing by adjusting the blades to neutral, or 0 degrees pitch in other words, when the throttle/collective stick is centered on a linear pitch curve.

After everything is centered and leveled and moving like it's supposed to, then it's time to program the radio.

The first step in this daunting task is to get all of the servos moving in the right direction. If you move the cyclic forward, you don't want your heli to pitch backwards, and if you move the rudder stick to the left, you don't want your heli to yaw to the right. There's several parameters that need to be adjusted in order to make that happen, and all of them take time and trial and more time and more trial. A modern computer controlled radio transmitter is a complicated little bit of technology, and while programming one is usually pretty straightforward after a little experience, the first few times you do it it's a real head scratcher from time to time. I've programmed several for airplanes, but this was my first venture into the world of rotorwing aircraft.

Not only does everything need to move in the right directions, it all needs to move the proper amount. Too little travel and you may not have enough control authority to keep the heli under control if a gust of wind catches it or you need to turn suddenly to avoid an obstacle. Too much and the heli might be too touchy and near impossible to hold steady, or worse, something could bottom out in its travel and hit something else or bind. This situation can result in a torched servo, or a bent or broken linkage, and likely a crashed heli. Obviously, none of these are a desirable situation so all of the throws need to be tried and tested prior to powering up the rotor.

Now it's time to learn about curves. No, not those kind of curves pervert, although I really like those kind too. I try not to think about them when I'm flying though, it's too distracting.

On a fixed wing aircraft, moving the left stick on the transmitter up and down controls only the throttle, and it does so in a completely linear fashion. Down is low throttle or idle on a glow or gas engine/motor off on an electric plane, and up is wide open, with an infinite number of points in between. Pretty much just like the gas pedal on your car. On a heli however, the left stick also controls the pitch of the main rotor blades, and the throttle is not linear since it needs to ramp up faster as rotor pitch is added in order to keep the rotor at a nearly constant speed. Too much throttle and not enough pitch and you can overspeed the head and send parts flying, then send even more parts flying when what's left of your heli hits terra firma. Too little throttle and too much pitch and you'll bog down the motor and lose your head speed making your heli fly about as good as a meteor. Although head speed can be recovered if you've got enough altitude and quit ham fisting the rotor pitch, do it at the wrong time and it's curtains for your helicopter. It's pretty much always the wrong time to lose head speed, so it's a good idea to do some testing and make sure that your pitch and throttle curves are compatible with each other before doing any serious flying.

Most people program at least two sets of curves into their radio, one called normal or hover mode, and another called stunt mode or idle up which is used for aerobatics. In hover mode, the throttle starts at 0 so that the rotor can be spooled up gently without spinning the heli on the ground, and then ramps up sharply at the point in the stick's travel where the heli starts to lift off the ground so that the motor will be spinning plenty fast enough when the pitch starts to really come on. A typical hover mode pitch curve starts out with a nearly flat rotor, I run 2 degrees of negative pitch at the bottom on mine, then it ramps up slowly to positive 10 degrees or so by the time full throttle is reached. Full pitch/throttle is rarely used in hover mode, but it's nice to know it's there in case a rapid getaway is needed.

In stunt mode, the pitch is absolutely linear. It starts out at negative 10 or 11 degrees, and gradually moves up to positive 10 or 11 degrees at the top of the stick's travel. The throttle curve in idle up is a little different though. Since 0 pitch is at the center of the stick's travel, and full pitch is at the ends in both directions, we run full power at low stick, full power at high stick, with a slight dip in the middle to 80 or 90 percent so that the throttle curve looks like a "V". That way no matter which side of the pitch scale the heli is on, it'll have at or near full power at all times for aerobatics, but won't overspeed the head when the pitch flattens out in the middle and the rotor unloads. The lower half of the stick is used for inverted flight, the upper half is used when the shiny side is up.

This brings us to the other reason for the rapid ramp up of the throttle in normal mode. When flying an RC helicopter, you start with everything stopped, then gradually add throttle to slowly spool up the rotor. At some point after lift off, the pilot can then switch to idle up, but never before the heli is airborne. Switch to idle up on the ground or at too low of a head speed and your heli will spin like a top, likely tipping over and sending chunks flying. For that reason, we ramp up the throttle pretty quickly in normal mode so that the point where the heli is hovering on the throttle stick in normal, will be about the same in both throttle and pitch as it will be in idle up. That way the heli isn't as likely to pivot or jump when the flight mode is switched.

Simple right? Actually it is, but it's still damn time consuming programming all of those curves into a radio and taking measurements and reprogramming all of those curves into the radio, only to take more measurements and start all over once again until it's right. OK fine, it really isn't all that easy, but for people like me that like to tinker with things, it's a blast.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the gyro.

As most of you probably already know, a helicopter has a tail rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor. Without the tail rotor, the heli would spin like mad in the opposite direction of the main rotor as soon as it left the ground. Since the torque of the main rotor is constantly changing whenever the throttle or pitch changes, we use a device called a gyro to make the heli more controllable by automatically controlling the tail rotor pitch in order to hold the heli on a constant heading. Moving the rudder stick will override the gyro and cause the heli to pivot when desired, but leaving the stick centered will once again let the gyro take over and hold the tail steady.

Before gyros, the pilot had to manually counteract main rotor torque with the rudder stick just like the pilot of a full scale helicopter would do with the yaw pedals. Early RC helis were difficult at best, and downright impossible for all but the most skilled RC flyers to manage. Counteracting the tiniest nuances of torque and yaw while sitting in a pilot seat looking forward and flying right side up is one thing. Doing it while standing on the ground and attempting to perform aerobatics is another altogether.

Did I mention that gyros don't adjust themselves either? Neither do the linkages that connect the tail rotor itself to the servo that controls it, and all of them take their orders from the almighty gyro, which has plenty of little settings and adjustments of its own.

Today was the day to find out if all of those things were going to come together and do what they were supposed to.

They did . . . . kind of.

The first couple of times that I lifted the heli off of the ground, it immediately wanted to pivot left. Obviously, a gyro issue. I began making adjustments and all was getting better, but about the time I got things to start to really steady out, there was a loud pop and chunks of the tail rotor servo went sailing across the yard. Luckily the heli was close to the ground or things could've gotten really ugly. Turns out that contrary to the advice given to me by someone that I figured should know a lot more about helis than myself, a Hitec HS50 isn't enough servo for the tail of a T-Rex. Lesson learned.

After recharging the battery and replacing the tail servo with a larger one, still not the optimum but at least big enough to handle the task, I started over trying to set up the gyro and actually managed get the heli hovering about 5 feet off of the ground for several minutes.


The tail was still pretty lively, but at least I could hold it steady with a little rudder input. I'll have to get someone with a little more experience to help me iron out the finer details after I secure a proper tail servo lest I invest a whole lot of time and still never get it right. Someone that knows their way around gyros can likely get it set up in a jiffy. I could tweak around on it for months and likely still never get it right, quite likely damaging the heli seriously in the process.

Then it seems that my good luck ran out. Right about the time the battery started to die, I thought I heard another pop, only this time from the area of the motor/gear train but immediately afterward the speed control went into throttle cut and I was forced to land. I went inside, replaced the battery, and went outside to fly again only to discover the source of the pop that I thought I'd heard.

I started to spool up, all seemed to be well, but a few seconds after the heli lifted off I heard the pop again, followed by the sound of the motor winding up as if it had no load and the rotor blades were gradually losing speed. Just as the copter settled back to earth, there was a LOUD pop, the whole heli jumped to the side, and the rotor began to spool up again only with a loud clicking noise every time that it rotated. Turns out that the one way bearing must've started slipping, allowing the main gear to spin up with the motor since it was disconnected from the rotor shaft. When the one way finally grabbed and forcefully hooked everything back together, the rotor had lost a good bit of speed, the motor had gained a good bit of the same, and the whole thing went BANG, effectively shaving a good section of teeth off of my main gear. Sort of like sitting at a stoplight, revving your engine to the max, and then jamming your car into gear without ever pushing in the clutch. Ouch.

Seems that I need some more pieces before I can do any more whirly bird flying, like a new main gear and a new one way bearing.

So the short answer to "i am cheap" aka "Closet Flyer's" question left in the comments of my previous post is both yes, and no. Yes, the T-Rex flew, for the better part of a battery pack actually. Yes, it's broken. And no, I didn't crash it and it won't be hard to fix. I even did my first autorotation today, two of them actually, even if they were only from two feet off of the ground.

Sorry I didn't get the video that I wanted, but about the time I got stuff ironed out and got the heli off of the ground, the battery went dead in the camera. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all it seems. There wasn't much to see anyway, just a pathetic helicopter noob doing a not too terrible but not all that good job of hovering a helicopter and thanking all things kind and good in the world that he had the good sense to install training gear (sticks with ping pong balls on the ends attached to the landing skids to help keep the heli from tipping over and sending chunks flying - My wife calls them training balls and thinks it's really funny) before attempting the task.

Special thanks to "finless" Bob White over at for his outrageously thorough and well made, and absolutely free for the downloading instructional video series on the T-Rex 450. I'd never have made it this far without some serious help from my heli flying friends without all of the knowledge that I've gained from his videos. He has loads of instructional videos on the building, tuning, and flying of several other RC helis posted as well, and all can be found in the Helifreak forums.

As far as the vehicle situation? Do you actually think that I had time to fix the car with all that helicopter tinkering going on? It's OK, I took her out to dinner just to make sure that she won't mind driving the Ford for another week or accidentally set the refrigerator on top of my T-Rex.

As for the rest of my evening? I don't know, maybe I'll work on this.

It started out as a toy free flight plane, but it'll be a full blown micro scale RC kinda sorta Piper Cub when I'm done with it. It's about half way there now, with only a few more minor details to iron out and parts to install before flight testing. The control surfaces have been hinged, the motor and speed control installed and taxi tested, and check out my made from scratch ultra strong and uber lightweight custom carbon fiber landing gear. This one's only a three channel, with rudder, elevator, and throttle control, but if it works the next one's going to have full four channel control, or at least ailerons instead of rudder. Maybe I'll convert one of these for the ultimate in micro scale cool factor.

Projects like this give me something to do while I'm waiting for helicopter parts. Projects like this also serve to confirm everyone's strong suspicions that I'm certifiably bat shit crazy.

You wouldn't want me any other way.

Oh What A Beautiful Morning . . . . . Oh What A Beautiful Day . . . . . . .

I've got a Krispy Kreme doooooonut,

And I really don't care what I weigh.

OK, I cribbed that one from my sister, but I don't care who ya are, that's funny right there.

It's early, I'm awake, the birds are chirping, the Billings airport METAR reports a wind of 8 knots out of the West/Southwest which isn't too ridiculous, and I've got flying things ready to load in the old Ford and head out to the park. Sorry, no insurance on the Mugi Mobile yet. Must have patience young grasshopper, must have patience. You're gonna love the Mugi Mobile. No . . . . . It's not a VW Bus unfortunately, but it's damn sure not bad for what I payed for it. It's not 4 wheel drive though . . . . . . . Nuts.

Mostly I'm just having a really hard time deciding which one of my beloved pick up trucks I'm going to drop the insurance on. I'm already paying for insurance on three outfits, and that's enough. I really like the big diesel Ford, but my old blue GMC just has too much sentimental value. Maybe I should drop the insurance on the car since it seems to be making a particularly bad nuisance of itself lately, and give the Ford to the Mrs. That way I could keep both of the trucks, and the Mugi Mobile. Since I'll once again be spending the afternoon with wrench in hand underneath the wife's family truckster, I'll have a little better idea as to which one gets the axe by this evening.

The old Cavalier has been a great car, I've gotten 10 good years out of it, but it's getting to the point where I really want to say "enough is enough". On the bright side however, about 75% of the expendable parts of the car are under lifetime warranty, with more soon to come, so if I keep this up I'll have a Rolls Royce before long. If the damn thing "fails to proceed" about one more time however, I'm likely to have a really cool bonfire out in my yard when I douse it with gasoline and toss in a match. Oh well, the old piece of shit could've busted in two 5 years ago, and it still wouldn't have owed me a dime so I guess I should quit complaining.

Before the wrench twisting proceedings commence however, there's a little something that's way overdue to leave the ground under its own power. Since there's a whole lot of folks around here that want to bear witness to the first tuning flights, the test flight will be delayed until after I return from the park. This one will be tested right here at the Big J Enterprises World Headquarters, and I intend on getting video of the occasion . . . . . . . Win, lose, or crash. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

So I Still Haven't Taken Pictures Of All Of The Airplane Projects . . . . .

You know how it is. Work, Life, Easter holiday, goofing off flying RC airplanes, you know, important stuff.

The helicopter is getting really close to being done, or at least I think it is. If simplicity and instant gratification are your thing, do yourself a favor and stay away from RC helicopters. If you like figuring out mechanical problems and tinkering with itty bitty little parts, then helis are for you my friend. Did you know that Murphy's law counts double for whirly birds?

There's currently 6, yes count 'em, 6 Mugis in various stages of assembly and 3 of them just happen to be made of the coveted transparent coroplast. I'm converting a little bitty tiny free flight toy Piper Cub to radio control and it's almost done. I've scored some really cheap and cool motors and speed controls off of ebay lately that are already slated for various other projects including a few of the aforementioned Mugi Evos.

My Fokker Mugi had an unfortunate high speed encounter with terra firma a couple weeks ago and is still awaiting repair, which is yet another testament to the durability of Morgan's design. This thing drilled pavement at about 90 MPH, AND IT'S REPAIRABLE! Find me another RC model that could do that. I never did get a definite top speed rating on the thing, partly thanks to a finicky speed control that just couldn't handle the mad RPMs of my top secret Mugi race motor. Unfortunately/fortunately however, the speed control didn't survive the crash and will therefore be replaced with one that's hopefully a little more up to the task. Bench testing of this speed control with my motor shows favorable results. Flight tests will commence shortly.

My other Mugi was recently the recipient of new servos as well as the new and improved Big J Aviation Slop Free Mugi Elevon Linkage System which will hopefully alleviate the dreadful control surface flutter that took the servos out in the first place. Flight testing to commence as soon as the weather is appropriate and work schedule allows. This was the first Mugi that I built, and I can't say that it was my best effort. More of an experiment than anything, and the fit and finish on the control linkages have always left a little to be desired. They don't anymore.

My IFO is now the beneficiary of brushless power since a GWS IPS motor can't seem to handle a 3 cell li-poly battery for more than about 5 minutes without making a really cool smoke trail across the sky. What's an IFO you ask? Here's a picture, or better yet, ask these guys.

An IFO looks like a big pair of flying panties, but they're about as much fun as a guy can have without actually sending a pair of panties flying, especially if he doesn't have a lot of room to fly . . . . . . . airplanes that is, not panties. I don't think you'd want to try flying one of these in your bedroom, unless you have a really big bedroom. I built this bad boy for the days when I don't have time to go to the park. I fly it right in my front yard. Loads of fun looping around all the power lines, which will be a whole lot more fun I'm sure now that it has about 3 times the thrust that it used to. All that excess power should translate into an insane rate of climb, provided that the airframe can handle it. At any rate, I shouldn't have to worry about being able to climb enough to clear my shop after launching it off of my deck anymore, it should be able to go vertical as far as I want it to with this motor.

I do have pictures of the "been finished for freakin' weeks" driveway!

No more mud in the front driveway!

No more mud in the back driveway!

Even a good skid steer operator needs a supervisor sometimes.

I am not a good skid steer operator.

Well that's all I have time for today folks. I had a short night last night and therefore have a couple hours of free time on my hands. I've already burned up a good part of it blogging, now I'm off to try to make something airworthy before the weekend. I'll take pictures of the planes soon, I promise. Besides, you definitely don't want to miss the blog debut of the Mugi Mobile. ;)