How to Rescue Your RC Plane from a Tree

Through painful personal experience, I’ve learned the best techniques for freeing your RC airplane from the evil clutches of mother nature’s best weapon against pilots: trees. Read on and I’ll share with you the pearls of wisdom that helped me libreate my HobbyZone Super Cub after 3 long days of arboreal bondage.

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Last Friday, I decided to tape my digital camera to my HobbyZone Super Cub and do some aerial video. I had done this in the past with great success, so I was natually quite excited. I taped the camera to the side of the fuselage directly under the left wing, set the radio to full throttle, and hand launched it into the wind. I had trouble climbing at first, so I piloted the plane in a wide clockwise circuit around the field trying to gain altitude. After about 20 seconds of flight, disaster struck. In this case I am defining “disaster” as “pilot error”. To be specific, I should have pushed the stick to the right, but did the exact opposite. This unexpectedly pointed my Cub directly at the tallest tree on the perimiter of the field, and simultaneously caused me to loose about 20 feet of altitude. At this point, the plane was about 300 feet away from me, which would soon provide me a valuable lesson about depth perception. I thought that the plane was well clear of hitting that big, looming tree, but I was wrong. The plane was in fact on a collision course with the leafy tree tops.

The impact was suprisingly soft. The plane landed (crashed) into the thinnest of the upper most branches, which cradled it like a baby about 60 feet up. No problem, I thought. I can just spin the prop and wiggled the tail until it falls free. No such luck. Mother nature had claimed its sacrifice and was not about to relinquish with a little tail wagging.

What Not To Do

The first thing you may think to try when your plane is stuck 60 feet up in a tree is to throw a stick at it. There are usually plenty of sticks around parks, and you’ve got a pretty good arm, right? Wrong. Throwing a stick 60 feet into the air, hoping to hit a plane that is securely lodged in a tree will likely not work. Plus, you are not as strong as you think (at least that was my experience).

The second thing you may think to do is return home to get some rope, which you can tie around your trusty stick, hoping to latch it onto a branch close to the plane and shake it free. This will also fail, but you will get a great upper-body workout.

Failing the stick-and-rope trick, you may think the stick is just not heavy enough, so you get a piece of brick, tie the same rope around it, and try to lob it over a tree branch. This also fails, because, again, you just haven’t got that much arm strength. Then you get clever. Maybe you could swing the brick around in big circles (a la David and Goliath) and, using your college physics knowledge, hurl the brick-and-rope up and over a tree branch near the plane. This will also fail, because your brain will simply refuse to let you lob that brick straight after it’s been orbitting your head for 30 seconds (again, that was my experience anyway).

At this point you are getting tired, but you decide to repeat the last two paragraphs about 10 times before finally giving up for the day. So you say good night to your plane, and go home for the day. The next day, in desparation, you replace the brick with a tennis ball, and the rope with fishing line. Your arm is sore from the previous day’s efforts, but you are confident that a new day will bring new hope. This is where you are wrong again, and you give up a lot more quickly than the previous day.

Then it rains.

Finally, Some Hope

After a good nigh’s rest and lots of sighing from a supportive, patient wife, you come up with two more ideas. The first involves about 50 feet of 1/2″ PVC pipe and lots of duct tape. The second involves a sling shot, lead weights, and fishing line. So you go buy 6 9-foot lengths of PVC pipe, 700 yards of fishing line, some lead weights, and a sling shot, and you head off to the field with new found confidence.

The pipe idea ends up failing for two reasons: 1. PVC is very flimsy, and at 50 feet, you can barely control it, let alone knock a plane out of a tree. 2. 50 feet is not actually enough pipe, apparently.

The slingshot idea, however, shows some merit. If you tie a lead weight to the end of some fishing line, unravel about 50 feet of line on the grass, and shoot the lead weight toward the plane, you will find (suprisingly) that you can shoot that line really close to the plane. What’s more, you can actually get the line to wrap around a branch pretty close to your plane. This brings new found hope! What you soon discover, however, is that the fishing line breaks very easily when you tug on it. Not to worry. This is where you head back to Wal-Mart and buy line that is rated at 50-lbs. Spider Wire, they call it, and it is tough. But it’s green and very difficult to see on the grass, so you are careful not to drop it. At this point, you’ve recruited a co-worker with good aim (though not required) and lots of patience (strictly required). Maybe this co-worker is named Steve. Steve’s got good aim with a sling shot and knows that you will let him fly your plane if he helps you get it down. Steve has such good aim that he shoots the lead weight right up and over the plane, with the 50-lbs fishing line in tow. He slowly pulls on the line until it wraps around the plane. If you are lucky (and apparently Steve is very lucky), the line will not only wrap around your plane, but also secure itself crane-like on a neighboring branch. At this point, Steve gives the line a few good tugs, and is able to free the plane from its leafy captor and lower it to the ground, where you stand with outsretched arms like a giddy girl at a weddinng boquet toss. If Steve considers himself pretty funny, he may even jerk the plane back up right before you can reach it, but you’ll forgive him since he got your plane down.

And that, my friends, is how you get an RC airplane down from a tree using fishing line, lead weights, and a slingshot. Total cost: under $20.00.

Oh, by the way, unless your hands are made of steel, you’ll also want some gloves so your fingers don’t get burned by the fishing line as you pull on it.

For those of you wanting a damage report, here are the details: After 3 days of tree captivity and one night of rain, the camera still works, and the only damage to the plane was a broken prop and a small incision in the wing where the fishing line cut into it. 30 minutes with my favorite 5-minute epoxy had the Cub airworthy again.

And now, for those of you morbid enough to want to see first person what the on-board camera filmed as it crashed into the tree, here’s the video. You can skip the first 1:30 because it’s just me taping the camera to the plane. The tree crash happens at about 2:00. At about 10:00, you can hear me trying to spin the prop to free the plane, and then the prop breaks against a branch. Enjoy!

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