This is the third installment of the series "Hard Landings & Flyaways."
If the DJI Phantom or Inspire series are the F-18s of the drone world, than the Hubsan X4 is the trainer for aspiring pilots of this blossoming industry. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Hubsan X4 has probably broken in a respectable number of drone pilots over the years, including this pilot.
Admittedly, my first RC experience was with my dad’s Syma (S-109?) army Blackhawk-like helicopter that he just kept up on the shelf with all his other non-flying model aircraft. He never flew it for fear of crashing it as he didn’t believe enough in his hand-eye coordination.
It was when I was visiting that I enquired about his helicopter and he gave me permission to give it a try. It had sat around for so long, he wasn’t even sure if it would power up. But power up it did, and indeed I flew it and crashed it all over the house that summer.
But it would be two years before that little taste of flying a drone would spread into a passion. I came back the next summer and flew it some more—having never flown anything else in between those two times.
But sometime after that second visit, I started googling drones and watching YouTube videos of anything to do with drone, leading to my discovery of what a huge world it already was. Once again, I was late for the party.
Once the dust settled, it seemed the X4 was the trainer of choice based on my brief, but intense research. At the time, I didn’t know what a great choice it really was because not only did it lack “headless” mode, but it was very nimble and responsive—requiring me to really pay attention to every little movement.
The big mistake I made in those early days was I was too lazy to take it to a big open field when I first started flying outdoors. Rather, I just stepped outside the front or back door of my house and started flying. And, having a small city-lot-sized yard turned out to be a curse.
Sure, I lost control of it a number of times and occasionally it ended up in a neighbor’s yard. I would sneak over, jump a fence, open a gate or do whatever to quickly grab the X4 and be on my way. I was lucky in that I never encountered anyone—let alone resistance to being in their yard for a moment. There were a number of crashes in these early days too—and motors to replace, a camera would stopped working, etc. I even learned how to solder. A couple X4s just wore out from multiple crashes and became too damaged to repair.
In all, I ended up losing two X4s around the neighborhood—one of them I never recovered, while the other I inadvertently found hours after giving up on it.
My first X4 to vanish was one that had just been resurrected from a crash, and I was pretty proud to have it flying again. As these things go, I was probably a little too excited to get it outdoors and into the air—never mind that it was pretty windy that day. So, up it went to an altitude beyond any recognition of its orientation—where a moderate gust of wind grabbed it and carried it over a block or two of houses.
I ended up walking the streets where I thought it might be (trying to look as casual as possible), looking over fences and into yards, on rooftops, hoping to see its flashing LEDs indicating that the battery was getting low. But, it wasn’t to be, and suddenly I was the owner of another orphaned controller.
The second X4 to disappear during a flight happened in the same way except it was carried off by the wind in another direction—toward Powell’s little downtown district. I was certain that it ended up in the cover of a big pine tree near the Catholic Church which was why I never spied it. To be sure, I also combed the area around that tree to be sure. Eventually I gave up and chalked it up to another loss.
That afternoon I was walking home from the local coffee house and decided to walk up one of the alleys along the way. The morning drone loss hadn’t crossed my mind when I spied its crushed remains by the alley mailboxes behind the post office—a good 100 yards farther than the pine tree that I assumed had snagged the drone. To my surprise, the tiny X4 had flown over the church, across the street and into the alley where its unsuspecting size resting in the alley probably resembled a discarded candy wrapper to the day’s drivers with their utility bills to mail off.
Today, I still have two other X4s. One can barely fly, while the other is still in decent shape. Both are now resigned to house-flights only—which usually involves the cats. However, because of these losses, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t study the wind and consider whether it’s a good day to fly a drone.