It all started at the end of 2006, when we were looking for cool stuff to add to the holiday buyer's guide.
One of the items that kept coming up as a reasonably priced gift for the gamer/geek was RC helicopters. Sure, they're not exactly the type of thing we wrote about before at Tom's Hardware Guide, but we all thought they were kind of cool. PC hardware junkies are usually impressed with nifty machinery, and what's niftier than your own personal helicopter? Yeah, it's a stretch- but it's fun, too. Armed with absolutely no experience and very little idea how helicopters even stay in the air, we set out wide-eyed into the world of RC helicopters.
Choosing Your Helicopter
Our first concern was choosing the right helicopter. We wanted something fairly simple and easy to start with, but at the same time something that we wouldn't outgrow in a few days.
When we started looking into it, we learned that there are two main classifications of RC helicopters, and these classifications are different based on the configuration of a helicopter's rotors. (For those of you who don't know, a "rotor" is the big spinning fan thingy on a helicopter).
If helicopters had only one rotor on top, once they started flying they would also start spinning like crazy, because of the twisting force from the main rotor. This twisting force is called "torque."
It turns out that the two main classifications of helicopters describe how a helicopter counteracts "torque" from the rotor.
The most common helicopter classification is called the Sikorsky configuration, named after the Russian aviation pioneer who invented it. The torque from the main rotor is counteracted by a smaller rotor on the tail of the helicopter. This type of helicopter is the one most people are familiar with.
Helicopters in the Sikorsky configuration are usually quite nimble, but on the downside they can be touchy to fly.
A Helicopter in the Sikorsky Configuration
The second most-common classification of helicopter is called a Co-axial Rotor Helicopter. Instead of a tail rotor, Co-axial helicopters use a second main rotor on top that spins in the opposite direction of the first main rotor. The two opposite-spinning rotors cancel out any torque that they generate.
Co-axial configured helicopters tend to be more stable, but aren't as nimble and acrobatic as those with a Sikorsky configuration.
A Helicopter in the Co-axial Configuration. The little yellow tail rotor doesn't spin. It's only for show.
Talking to folks in the RC world, we learned that co-axial RC helicopters were typically smaller, beginner helicopters that worked well indoors. They are more stable and are a better choice for smaller spaces, but they aren't very acrobatic.
We also learned that standard helicopters with a tail rotor (AKA the Sikorsky configuration) tended to be a little larger. Although they could be used indoors as well, they were more suited to larger indoor environments like halls or gymnasiums. These helicopters are also more acrobatic and will take longer to outgrow.
Since our mandate was to find something that we wouldn't outgrow too quickly, we decided to start with a beginner's RC helicopter in the Sikorsky configuration.