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Shipping an R/C Airplane - A unique method for safe shipping

Shipping an oversized R/C plane

Recently I sold a four meter sailplane online. For the metrically challenged, like me, that equates to roughly a thirteen foot wing span. As you can imagine the problem with selling something this big online is shipping it to the buyer. Just one wing panel, including joiner rods and such, was almost seven feet long. Wasn’t sure if something this big could even be shipped by convention method? Before I ever posted the plane for sale I took it to my local UPS store to get some preemptive shipping info.

4 meter sailplane

Yes they could ship the plane. But the big question was at what cost? Since a box didn’t exist for this plane, I asked for quote to have them box it up as well. To say I was stunned by the quote for boxing and shipping to a fictitious destination a couple thousand miles away, would be an understatement. Just the cost of having them box it was $80.

Not much I could do about the cost of shipping, but knew I could do much better than $80 on boxing it myself, if I could find a box that big. You just don’t down go to the local store and ask them to save you a box that has to be at least 7 ft long, 12 inches wide and 8 inches high. Unless its a sporting good store expecting a shipment of pole vaults.

After posting the plane for sale, potential buyers were lining up and I still had no clue how to securely package this thing to make a safe journey anywhere in the US. One day the idea came to me to use a Sonotube. A Sonotube is a trade name for a concrete form used to make columns. In other words it’s a big ole tube you dump concrete in. They are made of a dense cardboard like material, making it light weight and very sturdy. Many makers of these tubes exist, but most everybody in the construction trade calls them Sonotube.

This would be perfect because they come in different diameters from 6 inches to well beyond 24. Another plus is many of the specialty concrete suppliers that sell these do so by the foot, allowing you to buy only what is necessary. Home improvement stores do carry these, but diameter sizes are limited and I have only seen them in four foot lengths. I needed a 12 inch diameter tube about 8 feet long. At that length it gave me a little extra to work with and you will see why later.

With the container figured out I needed to answer the question on how to pack the plane inside so pieces didn’t bounce around and rub together during transport. I had a few ideas and called friends looking for certain materials that I thought would get the job done. However it was a call to my friend Mike, who has been mentioned in other articles on this site before, who had the perfect solution.

Mike’s idea was to use an extruded polystyrene insulation as bulk heads. Well Mike didn’t actually say extruded polystyrene. He called it what most everybody else calls it; “blue board” or “blue foam”. This is a high density foam insulation board that comes in various thicknesses from half an inch up to 3 inches. As a side note; it does come in colors other than blue, depending on who makes it. The stuff I used happened to be pink.

The plan was to make four bulkheads and at 12 inch diameter so I only needed a 2’ x 2’ piece of foam board. Fortunately for me the local home improvement store sells pieces exactly that size. Perfect! Was worried I’d be left with the remainder of a 4′ x 8′ sheet wondering what the heck I was going to do with for the next 20 years.

With the tube and the foam board in my possession I was ready to start packing a plane for safe passage to my buyer on the other side of the country. First thing I did was cut about six inches off the end of the tube to use as a template for making the bulkheads. A word of warning about cutting these tubes: One would be hard pressed to accomplish this task with a utility knife so a power saw is highly recommended. With that said; cutting with a power saw the tube can get a little unruly, so get some help to steady the tube and rotate it for you while cutting.

Using the template piece, I traced circles onto the foam board making sure they would be slightly undersized once cut. I did not want a tight fit inside the tube because everything needs to slide inside nicely. Even though the foam cuts easy with a knife I found the best way to make all my cuts was with the band saw. I suppose a saber saw or jig saw would work just as well. Using a saw produces better results and is much easier than using a knife.

Template for cutting bulkheads and ends

Template for cutting bulkheads and ends

With four bulkhead circles cut, two would be used to cradle the plane parts and the other two were for each end of the tube for added protection. Now for the tricky part; figuring out how to position the pieces so there was enough separation between each airplane piece and the wall of the tube.

Since the fuselage was going in the middle, that was tackled first. I cut those two bulkheads in half and made the desired cut outs so each half snugly held the fuse when it was taped back together. Satisfied with the fit and the bulkheads still on the fuse, I laid the wing panels next to fuse where I figured they would be a good fit. Then I simply took wing cord and thickness measurements at the point where it would rest in bulkheads. With those measurements I removed the bulkheads from the fuse and drew my best rendition of the wing profile on each half. I suggest going a little smaller with the wing profile. You want this to be a snug fit and you can always take more material off.

The bulkheads on the fuselage and laying out the location for the wing

The bulkheads on the fuselage and laying out the location for the wing

Here again I used my band saw to cut out the wing profiles. Starting the cut from the outside edge is actually a benefit when it comes time to inserting the wing panels. Being able to slightly pull the foam apart when inserting the wing makes that process a bit easier.

Fuse and wing panels cradled with the bulkheads

Fuse and wing panels cradled with the bulkheads

Once satisfied with how everything fit in the bulkheads I used tape just to make sure the bulkheads stayed where intended. With the bulkheads cradling the plane pieces the whole assembly slid nicely inside the tube. The two remaining two pieces of foam board were taped flush into each end of the tube. Using the template again I cut pieces of cardboard for a more durable outer skin over the foam end pieces.

shipping 3

Neatly tucked inside the tube and ready to be closed off for shipping

Neatly tucked inside the tube and ready to be closed off for shipping


I should also mention that before finalizing the capping of the ends, I cut the tube at a length that provided just enough room between the foam ends for the plane, so it would not slide.

Even though I resorted to using a Sonotube because I couldn’t find a box long enough to ship a four meter sailplane, I certainly would use this method to ship a plane of any size. It’s easy and in my opinion much more durable than a regular box.

What do you think? Does this sound like a method you would use to ship a plane? Leave any questions, observations and rude comments in the “Speak your mind” section below.


Received an email from my buyer and he said the plane traveled very well. Some other information he added gave me great insight on what I should have done different.  When making the cutouts for the wing panels the cuts were started from the outer edge, which allowed setting the bulkheads on the wing panels an easy task. With the information I received I should have altered where those cuts were made.

As you will see in the diagram below the original cuts, indicated by the black dotted line, are right straight back off the trailing edge. I image the TE of the wing would be able to move down into that cut. Those cuts should have come in from an angle, which is indicated by the red dotted line. 


Bulkhead diagram showing modifications that should have been made after getting a report from the receiver of this plane.

Bulkhead diagram showing where cuts should have been made.


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