How to Make Model Flying Airplanes

By Brian Jung

Model airplanes vary widely, from indoor duration planes that weigh as little as a gram to giant scale models as much as half the size of a real airplane. Fortunately, all model planes can be built using similar principles. Still, for the beginner, finding the right plane to build can be as daunting a task as building it. A little thoughtful planning can help you decide on a model before building and flying it.

Selecting a Model

Choose a type of plane. Flying model airplanes are either controlled or free flight. A controlled model airplane can have a line--increasingly rare--in which the plane is tethered to the pilot, or work via a radio signal from a transmitter that sends control signals to the plane. Free flight airplanes fly without intervention from the pilot once they are released into the air. The pilot does trim the airplane, shifting its center of gravity and adjusting its control surfaces so that it flies in a circle that may skirt the edges of the room or flying field.

Choose a power source. The simplest power source is your arm. Many hand-launched gliders perform quite well. Gliders can find sources of lift from rising warm air currents known as thermals or from wind blowing up the side of a slope. Some free flight planes are powered by loops of rubber wound a thousand times or more with winders geared for the purpose. A revolution of sorts has occurred in radio-controlled modeling with the introduction of small, light electric motors with long run times thanks to lightweight lithium polymer batteries. Electric motors, quieter and more versatile than gas or nitro, allow RC planes to fly in smaller parks and even indoors. Gas and nitro engines, however, are still quite common among experienced modelers.

Choose a plan or kit. For the first-time radio-control modeler, the best kit is probably one labeled ARF, for Almost Ready to Fly. These planes are typically made of very durable foam, and take from minutes to a couple of hours to assemble. They fly very predictably. A simple foam model from plans or a basic built-up balsa model from a kit or plans makes a good second plane for the fledgling RC modeler. Beginning free flight modelers are often lured by the scale model kits. These are difficult to build and not appropriate for beginners. The first-timer is better off with a model that has a high wing and either a stick fuselage or a simple box fuselage. Such a plane will be more forgiving to inexperienced builders. The Resource section of this article has links to sites with free downloadable plans.

Building Your Model

Create a work space. Smaller models don't require an elaborate workshop. You can buy a building board from a hobby or craft store, or make one from a large piece of ceiling tile purchased from your home improvement store for about $3. (Don't use old ceiling tile, because it may contain asbestos.) Larger models will require a long, flat workbench, small wood clamps and a small saw.

Build your airplane's frame. Whether you are working with balsa wood or other materials, work carefully and follow the plan precisely. Lay the plan down on the building board and cover it with wax paper. Build directly over the plan. Use multiple shallow cuts, rather than a single deep cut, to cut out pieces. Cut and sand the pieces so they fit snugly without being forced into place. For best flying results, make sure your structures are straight, aligned and symmetrical. Without actually pinning through the pieces, which can weaken or even crack them, use straight pins to hold the pieces flat against the plan. Spring-type clothespins can be used as small clamps where necessary.

Cover your plane. Unlike a foam sheet plane, a built-up balsa plane needs to be covered. Smaller, rubber-powered planes can be covered with Esaki, a strong, grained tissue paper available from hobby supply websites. Crumple the tissue and then smooth it either with your hands or with a warm iron. This will keep it from shrinking over time and warping your frame. Apply the tissue to the model carefully a little at a time, using a glue stick to adhere it. Larger built-up models are usually covered with a plastic such as Monokote, which the modeler adheres to the frame and then shrinks with heat from an iron.

Add your motor and radio gear if your plans call for them. Take your new model to the flying field.


Join a model airplane club. Not only will club members help you build your plane, but clubs often hold informal competitions among members and offer flight training for beginners. The Resource section includes a link to search for clubs in your area.

About the Author

Brian Jung has been writing professionally since 1991. Currently he works as a software developer for University Hospitals in Cleveland, Ohio, where he also contributes reviews and commentary on children's and young adult literature to his own blog, Critique de Mr Chompchomp, and to Guys Lit Wire. Brian holds a Doctor of Philosophy in English from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.