Choosing Your First Glider

You have decided you are interested in RC Sailplanes, and now you need to choose your first glider.  The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you will be flying at a slope site or if you will be on a flat field searching for thermals.

Keep in mind as you read this page that the suggested choices for first planes are my suggestions, based on my opinions.  I think they are very good suggestions, I just don't want you to think I'm saying they are the only good suggestions.  Other people will offer you other suggestions, but this is what my research has led me to believe are some of the best options.  You will find lots of other opinions and suggestions on the sites on my Sailplane Links page and at R/C Sailplanes.

Thermal Sailplanes

Thermalling is trying to find lift in the form of thermals (as opposed to slope lift), then circling up in the thermal like a hawk or buzzard until your plane is just a speck in the sky -- known as "specking out."  What a great feeling it is!  If you will be thermalling, the next thing to consider is whether you have experience flying powered RC aircraft (real aircraft don't count -- flying models from a fixed point on the ground is a totally different experience since when the plane is coming towards you "left is right and right is left") or will have lots of help from an experienced RC glider pilot as you are learning to fly.  If so, you may want to choose a balsa plane, which is lighter and will perform better in most respects than an EPP plane (other than in a hard landing or a crash).

[Update:  As noted on the Background page I am no longer actively maintaining this site, but much of the information is still useful.  However, the Highlander sailplane described in the following section is no longer available.  I suggest the DAW 1-26 2-meter as a replacement -- if anyone knows of a better choice (my info is rather outdated now) please let me know.  The information here should still help you to understand what factors to consider when choosing your first sailplane.]

If you do not have RC experience AND you will be learning to fly without lots of experienced help, you should probably get an EPP foamie (EPP is Expanded Polypropylene foam, which looks like Styrofoam but is MUCH more durable).  EPP gliders can be crashed with little or no damage, so you spend less time repairing and more time learning to fly.  On the downside, they are heavier and will not perform quite as well as a lighter plane (but a working foamie works much better than a broken balsa glider!!)  If you will be flying at a large field (minimum 700 feet in length), the information I have read indicates no other EPP plane thermals as well as the Highlander from MAD Aircraft.  If you will be flying at a small field such as a schoolyard football field, you might want to consider the 1.5 meter Dave's Aircraft Works (DAW) Schweizer 1-26 EPP foam hand launched glider (HLG) as your first plane.  Build either plane with rudder/elevator and polyhedral wings for thermalling.  The Highlander is available from several sources -- see the "Highlander shopping list" page for further info.  See the paragraph on slope planes below for links for the 1-26 HLG.  If you are considering the TG-3 Foamie by Dave's Aircraft Works (DAW), from what I've heard it is a good choice, but not the best choice.  The Highlander or the DAW 1-26 HLG are better.  DAW also makes a 1-26 2-meter, but if you want a 2-meter for thermalling, most people think the Highlander is slightly better (but not everyone, especially those who prefer aileron ships).  The 1-26 2-Meter may be the best choice in a two-meter aileron foamie for a combination of thermal and slope flying -- though the 2-meter Highlander built with ailerons is great for this purpose as well.  I've heard the Highlander and 1-26 are a lot better than the Floater.  I have also heard "the Zagi THL is a good choice for beginners.  With a small hi-start (20 ft of light tubing and about 40 ft of cord) it flies well and takes abuse."  But keep in mind that it is a "flying wing," which is harder for beginners to fly, so personally I would still suggest the Highlander or 1-26.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in sailplanes, bigger really is better as far as performance.  If you can, go with a 2-meter or larger, it will perform better than a HLG with similar wing-loading (but then many non-foamie HLGs are designed with much lower wing-loading for that very reason, and perform quite well).  While beginners are attracted to mosquito class (.75 meter) or Micro HLGs (MHLGs), even the people who make them will tell you they are NOT for beginners (they are fast-moving twitchy objects that are too hard to control for a beginner).  Speaking of wing loading, it is simply the ounces per square foot of wing area.  If the wing area is given in square inches, simply divide the number by 144 to get square feet.  Then divide the flying weight of the plane in ounces by the square feet of wing area to get the wing loading.  As a rule of thumb, the lower the wing loading, the better.  Low wing loading, while not the only factor, is one critical factor for HLGs and MHLGs.  It is still a very important factor for 2-meter planes, and slowly becomes less critical as the wingspan increases, for reasons that are too advanced for this page.

A note about the 1-26 HLG:  While it is a very good small glider, it does not work very well as a "true" HLG (hand launched glider), as it is too heavy for that purpose.  It is, however, good as a small glider using a small hi-start (usually called an up-start).  Get it if your field is too small for the full-size hi-start you need for a Highlander, or if you plan to fly on the slope rather than on flat ground.  For a full-size hi-start you need a field at least 700-800 feet long, as that is the length of a full-size hi-start when stretched out (100 ft. tubing, 300-400 ft. line, plus stretch the tubing another 300 ft).  A typical up-start is 50 ft tubing, 150-200 ft. line, stretch another 150 ft., so you need 350-400 ft. to use it.  By the way, a 2-meter glider is 79", a HLG is generally 1.5 meters or 59".  If you want a true HLG, you can get something like a Lil Bird 2 (more info below), but only if you will have lots of help (or after you have learned to fly with a foamie).

I am very happy with my EPP Highlander.  I had many days of flying before my first crash (other than one not-too-rough tree landing) but I trained on MS Flight Simulator (see Learning the R/C Orientation Using a Free Simulator) and I had flying help.  I finally crashed it a couple of times (on one flight a telephone pole got in the way and the glider hit it HARD, and another flight ended in a rough tree landing, followed by my roughly removing the glider from the tree with a long stick) but I still did not damage it.  I finally damaged it when I forgot to change my computer radio from "Model 2" (my Orion) to "Model 1" (the Highlander) and launched on a hi-start.  The servos are reversed on the Highlander but not on the Orion, so I crashed it nose first under full hi-start power going about 100 mph.  I actually did some damage, but nothing that can't be repaired.  A balsa glider would have been dust in that crash.  I am also glad I got a Highlander as it thermals very well and nobody else in the Fort Worth group has an EPP glider -- I will always feel comfortable letting newcomers train on my Highlander.   It also makes a great plane for windier days or when I want to try something new and I want to do so without risking damage to my more fragile planes.  My EPP 1-26 HLG will not only be a great slope plane, it will give me another EPP option for thermalling and a chance to try out a non-polyhedral aileron ship for thermalling.  I expect to still be enjoying my Highlander and 1-26 HLG in these circumstances for years to come.  If you do not have lots of help, you will most likely crash multiple times, and you will be very glad you have an EPP glider.  But wait, you say, I've heard that EPP planes are built to crash, not to fly.  This may be true of some EPP planes, but I sure get tired of hearing people tell me all EPP planes are BUILT TO CRASH when I've been easily and regularly specking mine out in thermals since my second day flying it.  A lighter glider WILL fly better, but will not survive crashes nearly as well, leaving you nervous on those few days when you are actually flying rather than repairing.  For all the above reasons, you might want to start off with an EPP glider EVEN IF you will have experienced help, while planning to add a lighter glider to your hanger as soon as you are comfortable doing so.

For someone with flying experience or someone who will have experienced help as they learn to fly I would suggest a less crash-proof but lighter balsa plane like the Lil Bird or Lil Bird 2 or the Great Planes Spirit ARF.  If you are willing to build a plane, the Lil Bird or Lil Bird 2 appear to be a wonderful choices.  The Lil Bird 2 is a good plane for beginners, but it can also win contests as you get better.  It is a 1.5 meter HLG, and can be launched by hand or with a small hi-start (up-start).  This plane is available for $59.95 from NSP or from the manufacturer, Skybench Aerotech  Skybench also has a 2-meter Lil Bird, a 100-inch Big Bird, and a 2-meter Osprey (kevlar/fiberglass fuse) that are supposed to be great as well (and remember, bigger is better if you are not stuck with a small field -- saving the HLG for your 2nd or 3rd plane might be your best bet).  If you do not wish to build a glider, the Great Planes Spirit ARF (almost-ready-to-fly) can be purchased for $99 pre-built.  One source is Tower Hobbies - Spirit ARF .  Let me know if you find a better source.  If you prefer to build AND you prefer a 2-meter, the Spirit is also available as a kit for $42.99 at Tower Hobbies - Spirit Kit .  One plane that is often recommended as a first glider is the Gentle Lady.  This is a very nice plane that is even easier for a beginner to fly than the Spirit.  However, if you will have experienced flying help, you should have no problem flying the Spirit, which will serve much you longer, as it works as both a beginning and an intermediate glider.  And if you will not have help, the Highlander is a better choice than the Gentle Lady, in my not-so-humble opinion.  Another option if you do not want to build is the Orion HLG or a similar pre-built HLG with low wing loading (4.5 oz or less), but keep in mind that many people recommend you start with a 2-meter or larger glider.  I think this is primarily because on a handlaunch you do not have enough initial altitude to recover from common beginner errors, but in my opinion if you start out only launching from an up-start with at least 50 feet of tubing and 200 feet of line (no hand launches) you should have plenty of room for error IF you have flying help.  Another reason I do not recommend you start out flying an HLG primarily from a hand launch or zip-start (if it is your first plane) is that it requires more skill to find and stick with thermals at lower altitudes, and you will not have as much fun if you never "speck out" in thermals and all your flights are short.  The Orion is available from NSP for $159 (current price as of April 2000, though web site still shows the old price of $169) and is often on sale at NSP for less than $140 (see their weekly specials page).  I strongly recommend you don't get the Orion from Chief Aircraft -- if you want to know why email me.  The Highlite-HLG appears to be the exact same plane as the V-tail Orion HLG and is available at for $149.  [Update as of 2/2001:  the Omega Poly from NSP is a newer and lighter plane by the makers of the Orion, and is a better choice unless it is simply out of your budget].  Should you get an Orion or Highlite [or Omega], you should make an easy and lightweight Orion/Highlite Reinforcement BEFORE you install the gear that will avoid cracking the fuse like almost everyone who has one does.  It is much easier and lighter to do this before you have the gear in and have the added weakness of big cracks....  [The information above is rather outdated, and some of the models may no longer be available, or there may be better choices.  The other information still applies, but do some research before choosing a particular HLG, and consider getting a DLG instead of an HLG -- DLGs were brand new in 1999 and have come a long way since then.  You can still launch a DLG with an up-start until your flying skills improve to a point that you want to try the discus launch.]

Okay, so what about ELECTRIC-assist sailplanes?  Yes, these can make good trainers.  The throttle is one more thing to worry about, and electric motors tear up pretty easy, especially if mounted on the nose, but you don't have to worry with a hi-start or other launch device.  However, this is not my area of interest and I am not familiar with any specific electric gliders, so I cannot give you any suggestions here.  I suggest you post a question on the rec.models.rc.soaring newsgroup (see bottom of this page) for advice on what models are good choices for beginners.

Slope Planes

If you plan to do slope flying rather than thermalling, get a Dave's Aircraft Works (DAW) Schweizer 1-26 EPP foam hand launched glider (HLG) as your first plane -- build it with ailerons and with reduced dihedral (2 degrees) straight wings (no polyhedral for the slope).  It is supposed to be great in a wide range of lift conditions and fairly aerobatic.  Other possibilities include the DAW 1-26 2-meter, the Boomerang and the Zagi (EPP version).  There are many more, look at the "Slope" and "Combat" lists at R/C Sailplanes.  Also, DAW has lots of other great slope and scale gliders.  Their planes both look and fly great, and their customer service is top notch.  Tuff Planes makes slope, combat, and DS gliders from EPP.

Here are some links for the 1-26 HLG:  
DAW 1-26 HLG page
(1-26 HLG building tips I have collected, links to pictures, etc.)
(manufacturer's site -- info on plane and Foamie Construction Tips) Price: $52.99 + $?.?? s/h (Cliff Schwinger's pictures)

And here is a link for the 1-26 2-Meter:
DAW 1-26 2-Meter Page

Other Important Stuff to Consider

So what if you plan to both thermal and slope?  Well, you can use your thermal plane at the slope, or vice versa.  Many experienced fliers even prefer aileron models for both slope and thermal flying, but beginners tend to benefit from polyhedral gliders when thermalling.  Just build it for what you plan to do the most.  Better yet, do what I did and get a plane for each.  I now own a Highlander, an Orion HLG, and a Spirit ARF 2-meter for thermalling, and a 1-26 HLG and a Boomerang wing for sloping.  [I've now added an XTerminator HLG and a "Mosquito Hawk" 0.75 meter foamie.]

Before you buy anything, read the excellent info at R/C Sailplanes.  If you have more questions, check out my Sailplane Links.  Lastly, search the last five years of posts on the rec.models.rc.soaring newsgroup (see Sailplane Links for details on accessing this newsgroup and searching for old newsgroup posts).  You will find tons of information on plane selection or most any other question you have about sailplanes.  If you don't find your answer, post a question on the newsgroup!

Remember, the above choices for first planes are my suggestions.  Other people will offer you other suggestions, but this is what my research has led me to believe are some of the best options.  You will find lots of other opinions and suggestions on the sites on my Sailplane Links page and at R/C Sailplanes.

I also HIGHLY RECOMMEND joining a sailplane club, if there is one in your area (see Sailplane Links for info on finding a club).  The benefits FAR outweigh the small cost of a one-year membership.  You can get expert help choosing your first radio and glider, you will have someone local to call when you hit that inevitable building problem, and they can help you trim it and avoid crashing on your first flight.  Flying with other people is lots of fun, and it is much easier to find lift when there are multiple planes in the air -- one guy finds it, everyone else joins in.  Even if you are a recluse, you can always fly alone once you learn if you prefer, and you will get your money's worth out of that membership the first week, even if you never fly with the club again.  Personally, I love having made friends who share my excitement about R/C Sailplanes and don't start nodding off as soon as I start talking about them....

The hardest thing about R/C planes is getting used to dealing with the controls being backwards when the plane is coming towards you.  This is just as true for experienced pilots (non R/C) and computer gamers as for complete novices.  See my Flying and Trimming Tips page for important tips on overcoming this problem BEFORE you fly your glider for the first time.   Also see my Learning the R/C Orientation Using a Free Simulator page for details on where to get a free simulator and why this is such a good idea.

If you decide on the Highlander, see my Highlander Page for building and flying tips.  Actually, some of these tips, such as the shopping list, may be worth looking at regardless of what plane you choose.  You just might see something you need but had forgotten.

No matter what you choose, if you are interested in R/C Sailplanes then you need to use your mail/newsgroup reader to subscribe to the newsgroup "rec.models.rc.soaring" where you will have access to a wealth of information and experts on the subject.  If you are not sure how to do this, just call your Internet Service Provider for help.  If you have access to email at home you probably have free access to newsgroups -- if you only have access to email at work you can still access the newsgroup by using Google Usenet at and searching for "group:rec.models.rc.soaring", though this method is not as nice as subscribing to the newsgroup through your ISP.

Yeah, I know the info on this page could be better organized, but I've packed a lot of info in and laid it out as best I had time to so far...and the info keeps growing, so what started out simple has grown more complex.  Remember, I'm not getting paid for this......  ;-)

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