Free Flight

FREE FLIGHT model planes which fly entirely on their own, with no external control, were the first type of model aircraft. They are designed to stabilise themselves when disturbed in the air by gusts and turbulence. A simple glider or rubber powered model can be the first step into aeromodelling, before building more refined models to fly in duration contests.They bring the joy of building something from basic raw materials and the enormous satisfaction of seeing your creation flying.

Despite the enormous advances in technology, this simple type of model still has many attractions and it has an enthusiastic following of modellers who enjoy flying free flight models in duration contests. F/F duration models are designed purely for performance and there no attempt to even resemble full size aircraft.

Contact: Jim Arnott:

The competition circuit dates can be found here: events.html

Overview of Free Flight Duration Models

There are four main types of free flight duration models.

The Towline Glider.

The flyer kites his model to the top of a 50 metre line, searches for lift by feeling the tension in the line, then releases the model to fly free. The flight time starts from the point of release from the line. Athletic and skilled fliers can tow models for many minutes in search of a thermal in good conditions. Windy conditions can cause a 50 metre sprint toward the model to reduce the strain on the model while getting it the top of the line.

The Rubber Model.

A hank of strong rubber is tight wound into the fuselage of the model and drives a large hand carved propeller, typically 24" diameter and 30" pitch. In an Open Rubber model where there are no restrictions, the rubber can make up 50% of the flying weight. The flight is timed from launch. The power run is generally over a minute, after which the large propeller blades are arranged to fold flat along the side the fuselage for the gliding portion of the flight.

The Power Models

Here a glow, diesel, or electric motor gives a rapid climb with a very short motor run - 7, 10 or 12 secs depending on the contest type. Clockwork or electronic timers are used to cut the engine. The model is gliding for the remainder of the flight. A good power model will perform a steep spiral climb to over 400 ft in 10 secs. When the motor stops the model needs to transfer smoothly into a slow circling glide. It is a challenging design and trimming prospect when you have no control of the model after launch.

The Indoor Duration Model:

These models are flown in a sports hall. The lighter they are the better they fly. The beginners class is the Pennyplane model, 18” span and the weight of a US Penny ( 3.1gm) they can fly for six or seven minutes with a thin rubber motor. The other lighter class we fly, the F1L with a weight of 1.2 gms can do flights over 10 minutes. It is enthralling to watch these models defying gravity while flying at less than walking pace.

The History of Free Flight Modelling

Free flight model planes have been around for a very very long time as the first successful model glider was flown some 200 years ago.In 1804, Sir George Cayley, an enthusiast for the then popular kite flying thought he could make a kite that flew untethered. He wrote a series of scientific papers describing how the model was able to maintain a stable flight pattern. He used a long rod fuselage, with the main kite wing near the front and arrow style four small wings at the back set at an angle to give longitudinal stability, he used dihedral for lateral stability, he used a movable weight at the front to experiment with CG positions. His gliders provided a solid foundation for aerodynamics 100 years before the Wright Brothers flew. Certainly a man well ahead of his time.
In 1857, Frenchman Felix du Temple built a steam powered model that took off flew and landed under its own power. This was generally accepted to be the first successful powered model flight.
In 1871, another Frenchman Alphonse Penaud demonstrated a small 18 inch span rubber powered model to a scientific society. It featured starched feathers for prop blades and flew a distance of 131 ft in 11 seconds.
Since then model builders have tried to make models that fly higher and for longer. From the earliest days most free flight models have been built to gain a competitive edge. Once someone had flown for 15 secs, someone else tried for 20 secs.
The first formal model aircraft contest in Britain was held in 1907 at the Alexandra Palace, organised by the Daily Mail. There were 130 entries. The winning model, a rubber powered model by a young man called Alliott Verdon Roe flew the length of the hall. He used his cash prize to build a man carrying Triplane and then founded an Aircraft Company called Avro – which went on to make the legendary “ Dambuster” Lancaster bomber.
Now in the 21 st century, what attracts people to build and fly Free Flight models? There are many aspects to the sport. There is the joy of building something from basic raw materials and the enormous satisfaction of seeing your creation flying. There are the skills of understanding aerodynamics and adjusting your model to fly well. There are the challenges of matching yourself and your model against others in competitions. It is not expensive - one can put together a Glider or Rubber Model for say £40 that could win contests. There is the purity of being judged by a stopwatch and the not the opinion of a judge. There is the attraction of actively using the countryside and developing an understanding of the weather conditions and how they will influence your models flight.
These are all part of the package, but they just scrape the surface of a myriad of little complexities that make Free Flight Contest flying an intriguing sport.

Free Flight Contest Flying

You can build Free Flight models purely for the joy of seeing them fly but, entering into Free Flight duration contests does add a competitive edge which encourages you to design, build, test fly and adjust each model to be a little better than its predecessor, and hopefully better than the other models in the contest.
The objective of all Free Flight duration events is to achieve a series of flights, where the duration of each flight exceeds the target time set. This target time is set by the Contest Director and varies according to the class of model and the weather conditions.
Free Flight models are normally trimmed for a circling glide pattern to stay in thermals but, in a breeze, they will drift at wind speed over the moor for considerable distance. For example, in a 10 mph wind, a 3 minute flight will travel a half mile downwind. The flight is observed by an official timekeeper, using binoculars if necessary to see the model in the distance.
Most contests are either 3 round or 5 round events. On a breezy day, Free Flight competitors can cover many miles in a day. At our regular flying site this means high stepping through rough moorland, one reason why we consider this aeromodelling discipline to be a sporting challenge as much as a model making hobby.
In the 1940's early free flight events were flown to unlimited times but it was quickly realised that one "lucky" thermal assisted flight could win the contest. Setting a target time as the MAX time allowed per flight rewarded consistently good performance. Ideally the MAX is set at a flight time that a very good model can just achieve in neutral air.
In order to achieve the time, FF fliers become very skilled at detecting thermals by noting changes in wind speed, changes in air temperature, bird and insect activity in the air. (thermal detection equipment is banned at Scottish events ). The models are hopefully launched into rising air and achieve a max flight.
Having achieved their MAX flight, they need a device to destroy their flight pattern and bring them down out of the thermal before they travel too far away. The common way to do this is to spring the tailplane to a 45 degree angle and the fully stalled model descends smoothly down.
On a breezy day, when your model has landed a mile away across the moor, retrieving your model ready for the next flight is a challenge in itself. Not being controlled, the models can land anywhere – up a tree, in the bull field, or hidden down a hollow. Retrieving is an enjoyable mixture of a nature ramble, an assault course and orienteering.
Although keen to win their contests, Free Flight competitors are universally helpful and encouraging to other contestants. Newcomers to the sport will find plenty of help and encouragement to ensure they can get their models to fly well.
If you would like to see our models flying and learning more about how you could get started in the sport, then please visit us at the Newbigging flying site. Check out our calendar of contest dates. Choose a calm day to see most activity. If you get in touch by email, then we can advise when meetings are definitely on.


“Newbigging” site is in the south-west corner of the Pentland Hills, off the A721 Carnwath to Peebles road.