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Scale Modeling Tips & Tools Monthly, Issue #039-- "Night Flight"
March 15, 2010
The Ides of March, 2010

RC Night Flying Challenges
Your Perception of Up and Down

There is something about the concept of flying RC planes in the pitch black of night that presents a real challenge to many RC enthusiasts. The mere act of flying a radio-controlled model airplane at night calls for a creative solution of simply seeing what you are doing.

That’s the real nub of the problem, illuminating an aircraft in the dark. After all, if you can't see it, you can't fly it. You will often hear stories about people attempting to light up their airplanes in the sky from the ground, or flying from a lighted baseball or football field, or even lining up automobiles along the runway so their headlights would light up the runway. This is not real RC night flight.

Night flying is the practice of an art that stands on its own. When flying a model airplane, all that should be involved is the airplane and the pilot. So, as it turns out, the best way to illuminate an aircraft is to put lights on the aircraft. And in order to do this, one needs a light source, and a power source (to power the lights).

Many airplanes operate from a battery power pack, but please don’t attempt to also use it to power your lights. That is an accident waiting to happen.

A “pilot’s” perspective of an aircraft in the dark is much different than during the day, because during the day you can see the aircraft. At night, all that is visible is a pattern of lights. One alternative is to use chemical light sticks. They are cheap, easily set up and require no power source.

Disadvantages: They represent added weight to the plane, disrupt the airflow over the craft and have a limited life span. You need to arrange enough light sticks on the aircraft to enable you to see it’s outline and determine where it is going and whether it is up-side down, or right-side up. Remember, you still have to land it.

But light sticks do represent a good way to get started at night flight. They are simple and quick.

Make your first few flights at night simple ones (take offs, fly around in circles, and landings), because you need nighttime lessonss in orientation. It is important to be very familiar with flying an aircraft during the day before taking the same aircraft up at night. This way, it makes it easier to predict where the plane should be headed and how it should be oriented after issuing control inputs. You will need to be able to predict the movements of your aircraft until you become familiar with the new perspective that the nighttime offers.

After you try night flying, there is potential of getting hooked on it, and then after some practice, you can progress to more elegant and advanced lighting systems.


Night flying: 
a. Remember that the airplane doesn't know that it's dark. 
b. If you're going to night fly, it might as well be in the weather so you can double count your exposure to both hazards. 

First, Understand Light and Visibility

Excerpted from an article by William Hubbard

First, you are going to need some insight into how the human eye responds to light and how to configure light on your night flyer to maximum visibility and efficiency. You don’t need to be hauling around a 15-pound dry cell battery.

Hubbard explained that when a lamp is emitting light, the light travels away from the bulb in every direction within three-dimensional space. The only light that we can see is the light that happens to shine directly into our eyes. This means that from a distance, we can really only see one beam of light from the source at any given moment in time. The rest of the light is lost into space and is useless to the pilot. If there were four lamps mounted on the exterior of a model aircraft - one on each wing tip, one on the nose and one on the tail - a pattern much like the one depicted in Figure 1 will be visible. This works reasonably well, but is very inefficient and wasteful, and all that is really visible is four points of bright light.

Figure 1

Bright points of light rarely, if ever, appear as single points. Usually, the light striking the eye will be affected by (and scattered within) the eye, itself, causing the point of light to appear as a star, as if short strings of light are stretched outward around the perimeter of the point.

This phenomenon can become extremely pronounced as a source of bright light moves closer to the observer. If a light source is too bright, it can create a situation where the light scattering in the eye can actually wash out other surrounding details.

This glare is often evident in sunlight during daylight hours, especially while driving in the late afternoon, and can be rectified to a large degree by wearing sunglasses to filter the light. However, wearing sunglasses at night is not advisable.

Now, think of a light bulb up close. If the glass of the bulb is clear, then the filament inside will be clearly visible. If that is the case, then when the lamp is emitting light, you will notice that the light is coming entirely from the filament. It will appear as a glowing white squiggly wire.

This is because the only light that you can see is from the rays that are entering your eyes directly from the filament. Most of the light being emitted from the filament, however, escapes your detection and is scattered about in all directions, flooding the space around it. If the light reflects off an object's surface and back into your eye, then that object's surface will become visible. Reflected light is what enables us to see things around us.

With that in mind, imagine a light bulb that is white and opaque. Bulbs that are white have a thin powdery coating on the inside of the glass, which serves to diffuse the light from the filament. This allows a wider area of light to become visible from the bulb when the lamp is turned on.

When the lamp is turned on, it appears to emit light from the entire surface of the bulb, and the filament is no longer prominently visible. What this means is that more of the light that is generated by the filament is intercepted over a wide surface area, redirecting more of the available light toward your eyes than you would ordinarily see from a naked filament.

Figure 2

This leads to Figure 2. Figure 2 illustrates an extension of the white bulb concept by placing a thin, opaque surface between the bulb and the observer. The light striking the surface will become diffused, much as it would along the surface of a white bulb, reflecting in scattered directions. This makes better use of the light emitted from the lamp, because it captures a wider area of light rays, resulting in a larger visible area as opposed to a single ray of light from a distant, externally mounted bulb.

By placing lamps inside an airframe, and using a thin film covering, the aircraft skin can be made to glow. The light emitted from such an arrangement is less intense than an externally mounted bulb, but there is more of it to see at any given moment in time, and the pattern begins to look more like an airplane. Figure 2 shows how such a lighting pattern may appear on an aircraft in the dark.

Check and Check Again

I have had the habit of seeing some neat N Scale product line, deciding it would be great for my pike and plunking down my debit card to get it as quick as possible, but sleeping on it at least overnight is a lot better way to proceed, even on eBay.

Such was the case with a real neat eBay store with an expansive line of detailed texture sheets priced at anywhere from $2.90 apiece for five to over $6.50 for singles, not all that expensive, but for a Senior, it does give one pause, and time to think.

I do have the Model Builder program I have used to generate my own wall, roof, wood, brick, stone materials plus doors and windows to scale. I wonder…

I opened the program and quickly pulled up a block of “aged brick” in N-Scale. From the eBay site, I used SnagIt to copy one of the brick samples and saved it in my textures file on my computer.

Model Builder gives you the ability to import a variety of textures, so I imported the sample and dropped it alongside the eBay sample. The bricks were identical in size and comparing the normal brick in the sample to my bricks, the texture looked about the same. Admittedly, the magnified portion looked like it had a lot more depth, but brick-to-brick, I’d almost give the edge to what I can produce on my own computer

. But add to that the ability to create a wall of any size, populate it with windows and doors and print it on my own printer—what’s the advantage in buying?

All too often, we jump on the buy-it-now option just because we happen to have the proper amount and it is just too darn easy.. I have a whole rack of seldom used paints and a drawer full of glues that attest to the fact I am guilty.

What a difference a night’s sleep will make.

Your Help and Ideas Needed
To Expand SMH Idea Base

Making daily decisions involving for the past 35 months has led to the creation of over 375 pages of articles on the various facets of scale modeling, this monthly e-zine and a host of modeling questions answered.

As we get ready to embark on our third year, I am hoping to open the site up to input from other scale modelers. You may have noticed the Navigation Bar has been sub-divided into the major hobbies covered.

Each of these sections now has one or two pages that invite participation with questions, tips and pictures regarding your various modeling endeavors.

We want to hear from you as do the other 25,000 modelers who log onto this site monthly.

As I get ready to roll into my 71st year, I can’t believe how much I have learned about hobby activities In the past two years. I have heard from other modelers with similar experiences.

To help me develop and maintain my website your comments on its content are essential. You can send me your comments by visiting the “Voice Your Opinion” feature at the top of the Navigation stack in the left column on each page.

It was never my intention to make this website a one way street as my knowledge is no where deep enough for me to be termed an “Authority”. I hunger for your feedback, comments, ideas, tutorials, plans, pictures and even your negative comments if considered constructive.

The Internet and that includes work best when they are interactive and that is collaboration only you can provide. It has been a pleasure serving as your guide for these past two years and by no means am I throwing in the towel, for I honestly believe the building and maintaining of this website are instrumental in keeping my mind active.

I want to open up this site in the fast lane. That is your part of the two-way street.

Its In Your Best Interest

If you have been giving some thought to launching your own home business in 2010, it is worth your time to take a look at what I found:

Steps To Success

Make Your Straight Lines Straighter

When that line must really be straight forget thin masking tapes if you want it straight and sharp, Masking tapes tend to come with microscopic imperfections that allow paint to seep under creating smudges.

Instead, opt for blue “no lift” masking tapes from the hardware store to outline the line to be painted. Do not overlap, make your line border one continuous strip.

Make all four corners of the line clean and square. Xacto makes this an easy chore. The key "trick" is next. Paint a thin coat of clear, acrylic matte medium, that dries transparent, in the line area outlined. When this is thoroughly dry, paint the acrylic color line. When all is dry, pull up the masking tape and you will see the cleanest line that you could ever want. The matte medium filled in the valleys that exist in the tapes paper texture. Those valleys are what gives the paper its "no lift" characteristic.

Make all four corners of the line clean and square. Xacto makes this an easy chore. The key "trick" is next. Paint a thin coat of clear, acrylic matte medium, that dries transparent, in the line area outlined. When this is thoroughly dry, paint the acrylic color line. When all is dry, pull up the masking tape and you will see the cleanest line that you could ever want. The matte medium filled in the valleys that exist in the tapes paper texture. Those valleys are what gives the paper its "no lift" characteristic.

When A Little Dab Will Do You

Looking for a spot to set down a little dab of glue or paint while you apply it in moderation to a joint or small surface? I was always doing that until I stumbled across the ideal surface which keeps the paint off my workbench, stays in one spot and is disposable while still wet with paint or adhesive.

Bet the folks at 3M never imagined this use when they came up with the PostIt Flags and Labels lines of sticky notes…Use #433 --paint pallet. They each measure ½ by 3 inches and there are 15 strips per color.

Actually these five-packs of colorful adhesive tabbed strips have a multitude of uses in scale modeling, but I use them most as pallets. Just stick the sticky end to the bench, plop on a drop of paint, dip your brush and put it to use.

When you are done, pick up the loose end and drop it in the trash. No mess, no fuss.

Until Next Month

Make It Your Best Effort!

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