The top performers in our review are the Sport Cub S, the Gold Award winner; the Delta Ray, the Silver Award winner; and the Super Cub S, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a great RC airplane, along with details on how we arrived at our rankings of the 10 best.
Who doesn't like remote control toys? Many of us played with RC cars when we were young or watched RC helicopters fly around our local mall, but RC airplanes were always set apart. Big, fast, nimble and able to pull off more stunts than any other remote control vehicle, they are the rulers of the RC world. While they might seem complex and expensive, the RC planes you find for sale today can be as approachable as any miniature car.
If you're looking to get into the hobby, you want to start yourself off with a trainer. Made of impact-resistant foam, today's entry-level aircraft are far lighter and more forgiving than balsa wood planes, without sacrificing aerobatics. After researching, finding and flying 10 of the best RC planes for beginner enthusiasts, we're confident we've reviewed fliers that fit your needs, no matter what you're after.
Long before we flew the RC airplanes in this comparison, we ran each of them through a series of performance and specifications tests. We discharged each plane’s battery at least three times, then measured how long it took to recharge them. In addition, we tested flight times over and over again to narrow down just how long each plane could safely stay in the air. We also meticulously determined the maximum range of each transmitter and plane pairing, measured the precise dimensions of each aircraft and even timed how long it took to assemble them.
Nothing, however, was as important as our flight tests. Over the course of several days, three of our reviewers took turns flying all 10 planes – often three at a time, weaving them around one-another like stunt performers at an airshow. We learned how each plane felt, how it behaved in the wind and at great heights, and how it fared under the direction of beginner, intermediate and experienced piloting. We crashed seven planes into five different trees and climbed three of them to get the planes down again.
It quickly became clear what was and wasn’t important in an RC airplane. SAFE technology, which we discuss in Learning the Hobby: Flight Assistance below, became our favorite beginner-friendly feature. We realized the smaller a plane is, the less critical its range because you naturally keep smaller aircraft closer to you during flight. In fact, we were wary of flying planes with 900-foot ranges even half that distance, simply for our own peace of mind.
In the end, several planes stood out with distinctive features that suit different pilots. The Super Cub S, with its large, stable frame and graceful movements, was probably the easiest plane to learn on, but its weight made crashes devastating. Conversely, the Night Vapor’s slow movement and light chassis meant we could crash it over and over without suffering significant damage. The Delta Ray’s speed shocked us the first time we took it to the sky, while the F4U Corsair’s superb dexterity put smiles on our faces – once we were good enough to handle it, that is.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We were loaned the planes in our comparison by a major manufacturer and distributor of RC toys. However, none of the planes’ manufacturers had any input or influence over our test methodology, and that methodology wasn’t provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results from our evaluations were not provided to any of the companies in advance of publication.
If you're going to get into the hobby and reap the most benefit from our reviews of remote control airplanes, you need to understand some basic principles of flight. All RC planes use propellers to give them thrust, but whether they sport rudders, elevators and ailerons is another matter.
Rudder: Most planes have three fins, called stabilizers, which together make up the tail. Found on the vertical stabilizer, the rudder turns the airplane by swinging left and right. Rudder-based rotation is called yaw in the aerospace world and is quite common among RC planes.
Elevators: Below the vertical stabilizer sit the horizontal stabilizers, home to an aircraft's elevators. The elevators tilt up and down, which in turn helps the aircraft pitch up or down during flight, raising or lowering its altitude. Elevators are found in virtually all RC planes because you usually can't ascend or descend without them.
Ailerons: The secret weapon of the best RC planes, ailerons run along the back edges of each wing. They independently tilt up and down in opposition to one another, shaping the air around the wings and causing the plane to roll. Ailerons enable stunts like corkscrewing and barrel rolls, and some RC airplane kits even use them in place of elevators.
Differential Thrust: Some planes have propellers on each wing and circuitry that can operate their motors independently. Instead of using a rudder on the back of the tail, they spin either propeller faster or slower to provide yaw rotation. It's a neat feature that reduces the number of moving parts an RC plane might have, but it has a downside: You can't turn the plane as effectively unless you’re throttled up. This can be a little counterintuitive to new pilots, whose first instinct is often to cut power when they lose control.
The vast majority of RC airplanes are made from one of two materials: foam or balsa wood. Balsa wood can be finely sculpted and takes paint and glue very well, but it's also brittle and comparatively heavy, making crashes unforgiving. Consequently, many trainer planes are built from different kinds of foam. Foam is far lighter than balsa wood, so no matter how hard you crash, you take less damage. You should still expect destruction, and no RC pilot's flight kit is complete without a variety of different kinds of glues, tapes and paints, but you'll have an easier time of repairs.
Foamies, as they're known in RC circles, are generally built from one of three foam varieties: EPS, EPP and EPO. There are some important distinctions between each type:
EPS: Expanded Polystyrene
Better known by the brand name Styrofoam, EPS is the stuff you might find in cheap disposable coolers or supermarket meat trays. It tends to be quite stiff and bouncy, but any dents or scratches are permanent defects that can't be fixed. Resistant as it is to impacts, EPS foam is vulnerable to shearing forces and tends to tear in brittle, jagged edges.
Never use superglues (cyanoacrylates) or Goop with EPS, as the chemicals in those adhesives melt polystyrene. Instead, use a strong epoxy like Gorilla Glue. Since EPS is made by expanding thousands of tiny balls of polystyrene into little bubbles, epoxies can get into those bubbles and help hold two pieces of foam together.
EPP: Expanded Polypropylene
In many ways, EPP is the polar opposite of EPS. It is soft and malleable where EPS is hard and inflexible, and it is resistant to dents and scratches where EPS can quickly be covered in them. Polypropylene is the foam you commonly find in pool noodles. It's light and springy, but it doesn't take to molds very well, which can lead to oddly shaped foamies.
You probably won't find many foam RC planes made of EPP. None of the planes we reviewed use it, for good reason: It's just too unpredictable to shape.
EPO: Expanded Polyolefin
Polyolefin is essentially a blend EPS and EPP, offering some of the more reliable rigidity of EPS, with EPP's more forgiving impact resistance. EPO isn't perfect – it still expands a bit when it comes out of molds, which can lead to some very slight flight imbalances. Taken as a whole, it's generally considered a superior RC foam, marketed under brand names like Z-Foam and Elapor by major RC manufacturers.
EPO's biggest weakness is that it bonds poorly with many modeling paints. Colors easily peel away from the foam when scratched, and if you try to glue two painted parts together, their adhesion is only as strong as the paint – which is to say, not very strong. Fortunately, there's a simple solution: Scrape away paint before applying glue.
Whichever foam your next RC plane uses, remember that eventually all RC planes need repairs. Clear tape, double-sided tape, epoxies, superglues, modeling paints, spray paints – the dedicated hobbyist should have all on hand. In the meantime, don't get disheartened if your plane breaks. Almost any damage is repairable, and broken parts can be easily and affordably replaced online.
In RC parlance, the device you use to control your airplane isn't called a remote or controller; it's known as the radio transmitter. Transmitters can use a variety of different technologies to communicate with a given plane, but all the RC planes we reviewed use the 2.4GHz radio spectrum – the same connectivity that routers use to send you a Wi-Fi signal.
Transmitters communicate with their planes using channels. Each channel manages a single aspect of flight: throttle, pitch, yaw, roll, LEDs, cameras or other features. Some planes only need three-channel transmitters because they only have three flight elements, usually throttle, pitch and yaw. The best have at least four, but some demand more. It is, consequently, important that you have a transmitter that can handle all the needs of your RC plane.
If you buy your transmitter and airplane separately, you need to bind the transmitter to the plane. The process is laid out in each transmitter's instruction guide, and if you're serious about getting into the hobby, you need to learn it at some point. To start, however, you can buy the ready-to-fly (RTF) version of an aircraft, which comes with a prebound transmitter. RTF aircraft are more expensive than their bind-and-fly (BNF) versions, but transmitters can run between $50 and $200 anyway. If you buy an RTF plane with a decent transmitter like the Spektrum DX4e, you can keep using the transmitter with other planes down the line.
No matter how well made remote control airplanes are, they're still small, light machines driven by simple motors. A light wind can buffet planes around mercilessly without some sort of compensation, and even with compensation, beginner pilots can have a rough time handling the incredible nimbleness so many RC planes are capable of.
Most good trainer airplanes feature a gyroscope-enabled stabilization system. These systems work to automatically counteract the effects of wind and turbulence. Your inputs on the transmitter are filtered, and the result is far smoother, more effortless flight, regardless of your skill. These systems go by different names: AS3X Stabilization is one of the more common; Virtual Instructor is another. But they're all just gyroscopes helping you fly.
Gyroscopic stabilization is wonderful, but the SAFE system is even better. A proprietary training technology designed by Horizon Hobby, SAFE (Sensor-Assisted Flight Envelope) offers you three flight modes, each suited to different levels of experience. The Beginner and Intermediate modes restrict the degree to which you can force an airplane through turns, dives and climbs, while the Experienced mode gives you full access to the plane's capabilities.
In all three SAFE modes, you can push a panic button at any time to immediately override your controls and level off the plane. The panic button's ability to stave off crashes is money saving; assuming you're more than a few feet off the ground, pushing it rights your plane from almost any disaster.
Having narrowed down the hundreds of RC airplanes in the world to just 10, we're confident we've found aircraft that fit every beginner enthusiast's needs:
The Best Beginner RC Airplane: HobbyZone Sport Cub S
Offering an exceptional balance of maneuverability, durability and flight assistance, the Sport Cub S is our pick for the best beginner-friendly remote control airplane on the market. The plane’s ailerons and four-channel control enable barrel rolls, backflips and the sorts of aerobatics that will have you grinning ear to ear. Its light weight and nose construction make it highly resistant to crash damage. Add integrated SAFE technology to help you panic-button your way out of crashes, and the Sport Cub S’s superiority is clear.
The Best Budget RC Airplane: HobbyZone Duet
The HobbyZone Duet is an RC airplane for the budget-conscious. It may not come with a fancy Spektrum DX4e transmitter or be able to pull off barrel rolls, but this dual-prop flier still offers solid maneuverability and gyroscopic stabilization. It uses differential thrust instead of a rudder to power its turns, so you don't have as much control during throttle-down glides, but its looping ability and graceful aesthetic make for some fun outdoor flying.
The Video Flier: HobbyZone Stratocam
SAFE-equipped and designed for smooth flight, the HobbyZone Stratocam comes with a top-mounted 720p video camera you can turn on and off from the transmitter. The plane itself wobbles a bit during takeoff, but once you have it in the sky its graceful turns are great for capturing gorgeous video.
The Fun Pick: E-Flight F4U Corsair
Once you’ve gotten a bit of piloting experience under your belt, you can move on from trainer aircraft to acrobatic marvels like the E-Flight F4U Corsair. Though it’s not true to scale, the Corsair is still a gorgeous RC airplane with an aesthetic straight out of World War II. Upswept wings, a triple-blade propeller and four-channel flight define the plane, but its spectacular nimbleness made it our personal favorite of the lineup. It’s definitely not the airplane you want to learn to fly on, but we couldn’t stop laughing with glee as we took it around our test field – this plane is pure fun.
Should you still find yourself struggling to pick an aircraft, check out some of our articles on remote control airplanes. Between the articles and the comparison chart we've assembled at the top of this page, you shouldn't have a problem finding a new plane to jumpstart you into this finest of RC hobbies.