Pico Stick

I've been eyeing the electric radio controlled planes at Rancho San Antonio for years, whenever Dave and I hike there.  I flew powered R/C planes years ago, but gave it up because it was too much hassle.  So when a layoff gave me some unexpected leisure, I decided the time was right.

For my first foray into electric flight, I tried a GWS Pico Stick.
This little plane weighs about 5 oz with radio and a small (150mAh Ni-Cd) battery, and it took me an evening plus a few hours the next day to assemble it.

TakeoffThe guy at the hobby shop warned me that the plane was sensitive to wind and I shouldn't fly if it was too windy.  (He also recommended the Slow Stick, but I've always liked little planes so I went for the smaller Pico Stick anyway.)

Naturally, it turns out it's always windy at Rancho San Antonio.  (Admittedly, we more or less knew this -- we hike there all the time.)  But there I was with my brand new plane and radio gear, and a little wind didn't scare me.

First step: get the pin for the frequency.  (The RSA crew, like many model airplane clubs, use labelled clothespins for frequency control.  You take the pin corresponding with the channel your radio uses, to establish that you and only you are using that frequency; you don't ever turn on your radio if you haven't first gotten the pin.)  The "20" pin isn't up on the top of the board where the active fliers are, so it's not being used.  Whew!  So we look behind the board to find the right pin ... 17, 18, 19,  21, 22 ... hmm.  While we're puzzling over what to do, someone comes over and asks what we're looking for, and we tell him 20, and he points to the notice on the front of the board: No channel 20.  Turns out the store sold me a radio in the one channel that interferes with everything.  There's some interaction with television channel 4 and various other popular frequencies, which makes channel 20 verboten.  In a dark mood, we pack the equipment back into the car and go for a hike.

After the hike, I went back to the store and talked them into giving me crystals for another frequency, and the next morning we go back to RSA.  This time things work outed, I grabbed the pin and we were off.

Pico Stick(This picture shows Dave with the plane, though I was flying, that first day.  Dave professed disinterest in trying it -- that lasted about two days. Unfortunately, Dave forgot his camera, so we have no pictures yet of me flying it; pictures on this page are some that I took a few days later, after Dave decided maybe it might be fun to try flying after all.)

Building:

I built the Pico Stick in an evening plus an hour or so the next day.  The instructions are mostly fairly clear.  I was surprised that the instructions called for drilling, on such a simple model; but it turned out "drill a hole" mostly meant through foam, so I didn't even need the drill, just a small drill bit (and if I hadn't had a drill bit I probably could have made do with a piece of wire or something).  Also, the instructions call for epoxy and CA glue as well as the supplied GWS glue.

The only problem I had was with the receiver mount: the receiver sticks to the mount with double-stick tape, but then the plastic mount is supposed to be glued to the stick.  Sounds fine, but I tried this first with the supplied GWS glue, and it fell off on the second flight; then I tried with epoxy, but that didn't stick either.  I ended up using a grocery bag wire tie to hold the receiver onto the stick.

A note about the GWS glue: I learned from web searches after the Pico Stick was all built that it isn't actually glue at all -- it's contact cement, and you're supposed to apply it to one side, match the two sides, then separate them and let the cement dry until it's tacky before reassembling.  The instructions say nothing about how to use the glue or what it is.

Flying:

As advertised, the Pico Stick is very sensitive to wind.  The little motor is so underpowered that in a moderate wind, it really can't make any headway -- it nearly flies backward.  This is interesting, but it makes flying challenging since if you want to fly circles, you run the risk of not being able to fly back to the landing area.  I lost the Pico in the weeds downwind of the flying field quite a few times due to this.

The turning response is very slow.  It has only a rudder, no ailerons, but it has very little dihedral.  It took a while for me to get used to the idea that giving it right or left stick meant "sometime in the next five or ten seconds, think about maybe starting a lazy turn in that direction."  On the first few flights, I tried to turn, found it didn't respond, and gave up to try to turn the other way.  With the Pico Stick you have to be very patient, hold the control input and wait ... eventually it will respond.

Elevator is more sensitive -- I had no problem getting it to climb or descend on command, and there wasn't much delay.

Crashing:

On the plus side, the incredibly light weight (around 5 oz fully equipped with radio and battery) means that it's very difficult to hurt it in a crash.  Even when I lost all control and the plane spun in from fairly high off the ground, it hit with no damage.

On the other hand, Dave found some more creative ways of crashing it.  Flying nose-first into the ground with throttle still on most of the time just shakes the wings loose (push the dowels back into their holders and it's good to go for another flight) but after a few of those, I discovered that the plastic battery holder had broken.  That didn't affect the Pico's flying ability, but it did make battery changes more difficult since the rubber bands had to stretch around the stick body, and tended to slip out.  Eventually I pulled the whole thing off and built my own (see below).

Dave practices taxiingAs a trainer:

As someone who's flown in the past, but is very rusty, I didn't have much trouble adjusting to the Pico Stick.  I found it a bit boring to fly, but good practice for me in being smooth and a good vehicle for practicing touch-and-goes while I worked up the nerve to try my next plane, a Formosa.

For Dave, who had never flown R/C before (he flew control line long ago), the story was very different.  Dave couldn't get used to the slow control response of the rudder -- he felt like he had no idea what the plane was doing, or why, most of the time.  Since there was plenty of elevator response (perhaps too much), he tended to give it lots of up, which slowed the plane even more and made the rudder even less responsive, then a gust of wind would come along and blow the plane in some unexpected direction.  He found it very frustrating and hated the plane.  The Pico Stick might be a decent first trainer if you have a gym or other large indoor area to fly, or a very windless outdoor area, but for most people, get something that's a little faster and probably larger.  We're told the Slow Stick is better.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the Pico Stick as a second plane, for relaxing between way-too-exciting Sporty flights, and for playing around with hovering and spot landings.  I actually like it on windy days, because it's a challenge to compensate for the wind and still make a spot landing.  I haven't had a chance to try it indoors yet.

Modifications and Aerobatics:

I pulled all the radio gear out of the Pico Stick and played around with a Formosa and a Sporty for a while.  But reading about indoor and slow fliers made me want something light, and something slow with which to practice things like spot landings; and when the Formosa broke, I decided to get the Pico Stick flying again.  The plastic battery/servo mount piece was broken, as were several of the other plastic pieces, so I glued a couple of basswood sticks to the main stick to use as servo mounts, and a rail with velcro to mount batteries.  I thought I'd get creative and mount the servos longitudinally rather than one below the other -- stronger, I figured.  Bad idea.  The problem is that now the servos plus battery tray (all glued on) take up all the available space under the wing, so I can't adjust CG by sliding the wing mounts fore and aft.  That's not a big problem right now (I checked the CG when I glued it together) but it means I can't do any further modifications if they change weight balance significantly.

Dave had already clipped the wings on his Slow Stick, and reported that it was much less sluggish to turn.  So I clipped the wingtips off at the first "rib", set the rudder throw as high as I could make it, and used a Li-Po battery (2 cell, 1300mAh; I'm going to get a smaller one since that's way more than it needs, and the motor gets pretty hot after flying at full throttle).  Sure enough, it does fly better.  It's still pretty sensitive to wind, but that makes it good practice.

When I finally broke the original 10x7 propeller, I didn't have a spare, but I did have a couple of 9x7 props that I kept around as spares for the Formosa.  So I stuck one on.  Turns out the Pico Stick flies better with a 9x7 -- it's a little faster (not very much) and seems like it might be a little more responsive (more airflow over the tail surfaces?)  I'm going to stick with 9x7 for now.

Aerobatics: it loops pretty well, though watching the wings flex in wind gusts makes me wonder how well they'll hold up to the tight loops it can do.  Every now and then it stops being able to loop, and it turns out the battery has slid in its casing and the weight balance is off.  I've tried to do a split-esse, but it just doesn't bank enough on turns to roll over (it has very little dihedral).  I'm not sure it turns tightly enough for indoor flying (there's a group nearby which sometimes flies at a middle school's gym) but perhaps with more wing clipping or the addition of ailerons (somewhat tricky because of the two-piece wing design), that's probably curable if I decide I care enough.  More likely, I'll just build a similar but smaller stick plane with ailerons.

But really, the Pico Stick is a pretty fun little plane, for the low cost, easy build and easy transport.  Despite initially hating my Pico Stick, Dave got jealous when he saw how much fun I was having with mine, and bought a Pico J3 Stick of his own.

More Planes
Shallow Sky Home