How to Fly a Quadcopter and Rule the Skies

It all happened so suddenly: quadcopters everywhere. Top publications like the New York Times, the Economist and Popular Science have all picked up on the fact that the skies are filled with multirotor aircraft. So maybe it’s time you learned how to fly a quadcopter.

Flying these many-rotored beasts has become a worldwide pastime, but before you plug all together and take to the skies I want to have a few minutes of your time to actually go over what it takes to fly a quadcopter.

Droning On

Let me first take the chance to talk about the terms “drone” and “quadcopter”.

A drone is an unmanned aircraft, so strictly speaking even classic radio-controlled planes are “drones”.

In modern usage when you read the word “drone” it’s a catch-all term that refers to the new breed of quad-. hex- and octo- copters that we see flying around.

Some of these have cameras and some of them can fly themselves to one extent or another.

A “quadcopter” is one specific design for a flying machine. It’s a special type of helicopter that has four rotors. They are much easier to fly than conventional model helicopters and provide a stable platform for cameras and other instruments.

Still, learning to fly a quadcopter takes patience and practice. At first, it can be frustrating, but by performing deliberate exercises it will become second nature.

Even if you intend to buy a drone that can fly itself completely, you still need to have manual flight skills. Autopilots and GPS systems fail, so you need the ability to bring the craft back safely when the worst case happens.

Learn to Fly A Quadcopter

So let’s get down to the basic of control and flight for your quadcopter. In general, these instructions apply to all multi-rotors, whether they are quadcopters or not.

I recommend that you don’t learn to fly on a multi-thousand dollar drone. Instead, buy a $50 4-channel nano drone to learn the basics. It’s just the sensible thing to do.

Now we’ll cover the following topics that are essential to fly a quadcopter:

  • The controls
  • First flight
  • Next steps

The Controls

fly a quadcopter controls

This is a typical radio controller for all sorts of remote aircraft, including model planes and helicopters. While the other details and additional controls may differ, the main flight controls are always they same.

The two sticks you see are the controls you’ll use to move the quadcopter around. There are only three types of movement any aircraft can make: roll, pitch and yaw. This diagram illustrated all three:

fly a quadcopter flight dynamics

What each stick does can differ depending on the “mode” of the layout. I’m going to use the common Mode 2 as a basis for this article.

The left stick controls the throttle and yaw. Pushing this stick up or down will make the rotors speed up or slow down. This lets you control the altitude of the quadcopter.

Pushing left and right on this stick will make the quadcopter’s nose turn left and right.

The right stick controls the pitch and roll of your quadcopter. Pushing left or right on this stick will make the craft move left and right without changing the direction of the nose.

Likewise, pushing up or down on this stick will make your quadcopter fly forward or backwards.

Depending on how your quadcopter is set up, pushing hard on the right stick in any direction can make the craft go upside down or even loop entirely.

Note that your control will probably have something called trim controls for each axis of either stick. These are used to calibrate the signal sent to the quadcopter.

For example, if the copter is yawing even when you aren’t touching the stick, you can use the trim controls to tune that away. Most copters need a minor bit of trim when you first take off and perhaps a bit more as the battery starts to empty.

First Flight

Our first goal is simply to practice taking off and then immediately landing.

These instructions are based on the general ones for most quadcopters. Where your quadcopter’s manual differs on the sequence, go with the manual!

Here is how to do it:

  1. Place the quadcopter on a flat surface with plenty of space around it.
  2. Switch it on.
  3. Make sure the throttle on your transmitter is down all the way.
  4. Switch on the transmitter.
  5. Wait for the quadcopter and transmitter to bind
  6. Smoothly and carefully push the throttle up until the quadcopter lifts off.
  7. When the quadcopter is about 30cm off the ground, reverse what you did on the throttle and gently set it down.

Repeat this until you feel completely comfortable getting the quad in the air. Don’t be hasty! Spend as much time doing this until you feel 100% confident.

Don’t worry if the quadcopter drifts a bit. As long as you left enough space, you’ll be landing quickly enough to set it down safely.

Next Steps

Your next goal should be to practice a stable hover. What this means is getting the quadcopter to stay over the same spot and is very important for safe flight.

To learn a hover all we do is modify the takeoff exercise. When the quadcopter reaches 30-50 cm in altitude, don’t just land it again. Instead, try to keep it at that height with the throttle, while you use the right stick to keep in in one spot.

Once you can hover like a pro, I suggest you practice flying in a circle:

  1. From a stable hover, push forward gently on the right stick.
  2. Give a little yaw input either to the left or right.
  3. The quadcopter should fly in a circle

If anything goes wrong, return to the stable hover you’ve been practicing.

From here, one of the hardest things to learn is orientation. When the nose of the craft is pointed in a different direction than you are looking, the controls appear to invert.

I find it useful to learn the controls relative to where the nose is point and not where I’m looking. A good way to practice orientation is with the nose-in hover.

This is the same as the normal hover exercise, but the quadcopter faces you, which means that the pitch, roll and yaw controls seem inverted.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

To fly a quadcopter means that you can’t rush things. Your brain was not made to fly, so it needs a lot of rewiring to make flight seem natural. Add to this the orientation problem and it can be quite a pickle.

The most important thing is not to be too hasty.  If you’re diligent and take it slow you’ll fly a quadcopter like a pro as quickly as possible.


Lead Image is Public Domain

RC Radio Control By Foma39 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Flight Dynamics Diagram By ZeroOne (self-made using Blender) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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