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The Free Flight Fiasco - A story of one adventure gone wrong

The Free Flight Fiasco

Have you ever seen a free flight model in action? I have and will say it’s pretty damn impressive. The name of  this site is All R/C  flight but I must say, for a guy to build a plane and then set it up to fly proper on its own with no outside input from a pilot is more than a skill, it’s an art. My hat is off to those guys.

I did have one brief venture into free flight. Ok it wasn’t much of a venture. I simply paid five bucks and some change for little foam, electric powered, free flight plane that was on sale at Harbor Freight. It was an impulse buy and thought for the money maybe it would keep me and my daughter busy for part of an afternoon.

Construction was pretty simple with the most difficult part making sure the thin foam wing and horizontal stab were taped onto the foam fuse straight. Once the plane was together, if you squinted your eyes, turned your head sideways and stood back ten or more feet it kind of resembled a Cessna 172.

simple foam electric free flight plane with charger

Electric free flight plane from Harbor Freight

The little plane had a small onboard battery cell that was charged by a supplied charger powered by two AA batteries. If I remember correctly the instructions said to charge the onboard cell by leaving it plugged into the plane for one minute.

With the plane charged, I took it out to the homestead flying field (AKA the backyard) for the maiden flight. Turned on the switch and gave it a genital toss and watched that little foam plane fly with all the grace and splendor of a rock. Considering an uncoordinated six year old school girl could have chucked this plane further than it flew, it was to ye ole’ work shop for a little modifying.

After some tweaking with the CG and removing unnecessary stuff like the landing gear to shave some weight, I recharged it and tried another flight. This time it was able to make one and a half circles around the yard before coming to rest in the grass. All subsequent flights had similar results and since my daughter was as equally unimpressed as I was, onto a high shelf in my shop it went, to collect dust.

Fast forwarding about a year, I had to move this little plane from its resting spot to get to some other stuff. The brief revisit with this plane got the ever tinkering modeler in me wondering if a little more modifying will make it fly any better. Well, that was a stupid question, of course it would. Never ending tweaking always makes something better… Right?

First thing to do was see if the batteries in the charger still had power, so a connection to the plane was in order. After a minute or so of charging I turned on the switch and the motor spooled up fine but went complete flat in about 15 seconds. Encouraged the batteries still had enough life for another round of Free Flight Follies, the charger was hooked up again but I decided to leave it attached a little longer this time.

This is where I say “Oops”, because I was slightly sidetracked during charging. What was supposed to be a two minute charge turn into more like five minutes. I turned on the switch but this time it really came to life with plenty of prop turnin’, air bustin’ motor time. Much more than it ever showed before. This thing wanted to fly! Right then I had one of those, “Aha” moments. This thing is probably not the dog I originally thought. Just needs more charge time than one stinkin’ minute.

The next morning winds are just about dead calm, a perfect occasion to test my longer-than-instructed-charge-time theory. I hooked up the charger and proceeded to have another “Oops” on the charge duration. Really got sidetracked this time and left the charger connected for more like 40 minutes. Oh well, out to the yard for a test flight.

Standing in a spot well away from any obstacles, I turned on the switch and gave it a gentle hand launch. The now overcharged and overheated cell burst into flames sending the whole thing to the ground in one big Hindenburg inferno.

That’s probably what you electric guys were thinking but not true! That little plane flew and flew quite well. Right away it went into a slight climb with a little bit of a left bank. Within a few seconds it showed it was going to exceed any previous flights.

Making wide circles and gaining altitude, it had me feeling quite proud of my discovery. About half a minute later, still climbing and circling, a very slight breeze was taking it towards the neighbor’s property. I follow along while thinking; this is way cool, understanding now why the free flight guys get into this.

Another minute passes and I’m quite amazed how well it’s going, but figure any moment the motor will quit and the gentle decent back to earth will begin. With the little plane now at an altitude of about 200 ft. my amazement is starting to turn into uneasiness. I decide it’s time for it to come down now but it has other ideas, running wild like a high strung dog that realizes nobody has the leash and it can’t be caught. With it still climbing and getting further away with each rotation of its circle, the plane is almost beyond the next door neighbor’s property now heading over a swamp.

Twenty some odd years of flying R/C has me a bit unnerved that I don’t have control of this contraption. Not a single thing can be done to make it stop climbing however my subconscious is screaming, “CHOP THE THROTTLE DUMMY!” I’m looking around for a rock to throw at it in desperation, although I don’t know why because it’s far beyond that range.

Amidst my frustration I conclude, those free flight guys are friggen nuts. Why would anybody build a plane to fly it without having SOME control? That’s just crazy!

It’s not long before the probability of recovery goes from hopeless to not a stinkin’ chance. At this point all I can do is laugh and try to convince myself the little plane has just given me more than five dollars worth of entertainment.

I keep watching as it goes higher and further away but soon it becomes difficult to keep an eye on. I head back to the house for my binoculars, but assume by time I get back, it will be out of sight and beyond the swamp likely descending into a corn field.

Standing on my deck and scanning the sky with the binos I catch sight of it right away. Even with the binos it’s just a tiny spec but even more amazing I can tell that it is STILL climbing and circling. I watch for another half a minute or so until losing sight of it for good.

If you’re thinking that’s the end of the story you would be mistaken. Fast forward almost one year to the day of losing that little model when my friend Rich and I were flying proper model airplanes, radio controlled ones, at the homestead flying field. About five minutes into on of my flights, Rich started giving a ground traffic report of a small pickup coming up the driveway. So I wouldn’t need to take my eyes from my plane, he’s giving me the play by play. “A guy is getting out… He’s walking towards us… He’s on the field”.

When the gentleman got within our vicinity he said, “I think this might belong to you.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw in his hand the little yellow and white plane that had flown away the previous summer. With a chuckle, I told him indeed it was mine.

After landing my plane we listened to his story about how he found it in his yard while mowing last year and stored it away on a shelf. He could see the planes from his house and came over to see if the one he found belonged to us. Well obviously his assumption was correct and I told him the entire account of a charging experiment that went a little awry.

This gentleman’s name is Chuck and he lives about a 1/3 of a mile from my house, as the plane flies that is. That’s a pretty decent distance covered by a little plane was circling and only slowly getting further and further away with each rotation.

Examining the plane, it looked as good as the day I last saw it. At that point I handed it back to Chuck and asked if he would like the charger that goes with it. He declined and said he just wanted to get it back to the rightful owner.

I explained how bringing it back he had just made a nice final chapter to the story and that my free flight days were over. “Plus” I said “you must have grandkids or nieces and nephews that would certainly enjoy it”. Chuck took the plane and the advice of not leaving the charger connected for too long.

Anybody else have experience with free flight? How about those dime store rubber band planes? I could never get those to fly worth a darn as a kid.


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