Bogey on our six, he’s got tone!…oh wait, my phone’s ringing…
The F-14 Tomcat is without a doubt one of my top 5 favorite jets. Honestly, as a kid, I dreamed of flying them. I would guess, anyone who has enjoyed the movie “Top Gun” probably had the same dream? — Fun fact: my dad and his company Jet Hangar Hobbies built the models that were used for the special effects in the movie “Top Gun” — For me, I just love the design of the Tomcat. Something about the shape combined with the variable geometry wing and sheer power of the twin turbines just bleeds awesome. So, when I caught wind of the Freewing F-14 80mm EDF foam jet I was honestly intrigued. I remained on the fence until I had the opportunity to fly the production prototype at the Big Jolt. I subsequently had the opportunity to then take that airplane with me to demo at the AZ jet rally as well. That’s what sealed it for me and so, in a moment of weakness I saw that they showed in stock at MotionRC, and I went for it! At $580, you get quite a bit of airplane (full airframe with ALL electronics, including fans, motors, and ESCs) for the money that’s overall pretty well done.
Truth be told, I don’t normally deal in foam. I very much enjoy building and my preferred mediums are the traditional balsa wood and fiberglass. In fact, back in the early 2000’s, I helped to design and bring to market a twin 70mm EDF laser cut all built up F-14 Tomcat kit (Matt Halton design) for my folks at Jet Hangar Hobbies (pics below). It flew awesome, even with the limited electric tech that existed at that time (the maiden flight was performed with NiMh round cells!) which was right as the lithium polymer batteries were starting to come to market. That airplane brought a lot of attention because at the time, no one had really done anything like it (I even competed with it!). Things have changed so much since then and it’s hard to believe how good these foam ARF’s have gotten! There are some really cool foam models out there now that are quite nice out of the box and with some extra effort can be made to look really clean with a quick refinish like I did with my “Lady Alice” P-51. I will say too that the instant gratification with them is a nice change when needing a break from my scale competition builds. What I also find is that since the relative investment is less, I’m willing to challenge myself more flying in non-ideal conditions with these airplanes which is good practice for any competition pilot whether foam aircraft or otherwise.
I feel the need…to open the box!
Opening the box of the Freewing F-14 Tomcat reveals a remarkably low parts count for such a complex airplane. The nose section is separated from the main fuselage for packaging and requires the assembler to glue it together which is an easy task. The remaining bits are the wings and tails and the hardware required for putting it all together. The kit comes double boxed for shipping and as I removed the inner kit box from the outer shipping box, I noticed that the canopy hatch latch had pushed through the top of the kit box since it was unsupported by anything. Thankfully, it was no issue with no damage to the airframe. I’m guessing with future shipments, they’ll have a piece of foam over it which should solve that problem. I have to say, I thought as I opened the box that I might have even heard the distant sound of Kenny Loggins playing some “Danger Zone”…turned out it was just gas…
Assembling the F-14 is quite easy and can be done in just a few hours. They have done an excellent job of simplifying the assembly process based on the engineering of everything and the amount of pre-fabrication that is provided. Unfortunately, the instructions aren’t great. There are plenty of pretty CAD images showing pieces going together, but it’s not initially apparent what hardware is used and where. The assembly is easy, so it’s really not a big deal, but I do wish that with MotionRC having the relationship they have with Freewing that they would have more involvement in writing the instructions.
Battery Area Modifications for Larger Capacity Batteries
As mentioned, the assembly process is quite simple and it starts by first gluing the forward nose section to the main fuselage. However, before doing this, I did some modifications to the battery area to fit 2 6s 5800 mah batteries. 4000 mah packs are recommended, but I can tell you from flying the production prototype that you only get about 3 minutes of flight time from them — too short for my taste! So, having an assortment of 5800s that I use for my JetFan90 powered JHH A-7 I knew I wanted to use them and figured that they would probably increase the flight time to over 4 minutes pretty easily.
Modifying the battery area first required removing the rear wood tray that is installed and intended for the rear battery. Using this tray ends up placing the battery too high based on the size of the 5800s resulting in being unable to close the hatch — so out it goes! From there, I simply opened up the foam (a #13 excel saw blade worked great) between the inlets the appropriate size so that the battery pack could be pushed all the way back to the aluminum wing carry through spar. Once I had that sorted, I moved onto assembling the rest of the airplane.
With the battery area sorted, it’s on to gluing the nose and putting the whole thing together. Freewing provides some sort of urethane glue (I think!), but I opted for some trusty 5 minute epoxy since I didn’t want to wait for the provided glue to cure. When gluing the nose, I did use some acetone on some of the mating surfaces just to ensure a good bond. There are two carbon rods that slide into carbon sleeves in the main fuselage which aligns things together well. However, I found that the interface doesn’t really seal up overly tight. It is a foam airplane, so I don’t expect super clean joints, but I do think it could have been a little better. Nothing a little filler won’t solve if I decide to do the “Lady Alice” treatment on this thing! 😉
From there, it’s on to the tails. The vertical tails gave me some fits as there’s not a deep enough channel at the root for running servo wires. I used a dremel to hog out some of the foam to clearance it, but either way it is still a really tight fit. They are screwed in place so can be removed, but I’m not likely to be pulling them off any time soon.
From there it was on to the horizontal tails which went on easily and fit well. The pivot mechanism consists of an aluminum rod that is held onto the tail via a collar at one end and then held into the fuselage via two bolts. The control horn is of aluminum as well which is screwed into the plastic pivot receiver. When installing onto the fuselage, I recommend getting a good synch on the fuselage bolts so that there’s no lateral play in the stab mechanism. This also requires a good synch on the outer collar also.
Wings and Overwing Fairing Hatch
The last assembly item is installing the wings. There are a few shims provided and so I placed two on each of the pivot rods in the fuselage, slipped the wings in place and then added a single shim on the top side. From there, the top wing pivot plate is screwed on and the main wing hold down nut tightened down. My impressions of the wing pivot mechanism is that it’s quite well done. The strength and rigidity is certainly there. Also, the wings are actuated via two retract units which I thought was interesting.
To close it all up all of the servo wires were routed into the aft nose section where I placed the receiver. All of the servos are routed to a distribution board which are then routed towards the nose to the receiver — It’s a rats nest of wires. The fit of the over wing fairing hatch over the wings themselves could and should be better. There was a sizable gap between the top of the wing and the inside of the hatch. I think in part, it’s due to some interference, but also that the foam may not have held its shape all too well either. To clean this up, I did remove a bit of material on the inside of the hatch which helped a little bit. I will probably go back to this at some point to clean up the fit a bit more. Especially if I decide to do a refinish on the airplane.
Wrapping it Up
With the airplane together, I placed velcro on the aluminum spar and at the floor of the nose. Also, I removed the velcro strap from the wood plate that was removed and screwed it to a 1/4″ piece of plywood and hogged out an area of foam in which I glued that wood into with some 5 minute epoxy. There’s a recess in the aft section of the nose in which the receiver ultimately ended up. So now, the batteries sit on the floor of the nose (with the receiver underneath), tandem front to back pushed back as far as possible. Simple enough!
FIT AND FINISH
In terms of the shape, Freewing has done an excellent job of characterizing the shape of the F-14 Tomcat. It does appear to be quite scale in outline. Obviously, some compromises had to be made for simplicity, most namely the gear. The mains tuck up against the side of the fuselage, but in the air, especially if you opt for the missile pylons, you’ll never notice it. The nose strut does have the aft support attached which is a nice touch, but I’m not sure what the deal is with the non-scale trailing link strut though. There are some aux air inlets on the inner inlets near the fan which I question. I would suffice to say that they’re probably not necessary based on the available inlet area as the F-14 inlets are quite large.
Regarding the finish, the paint job is ok. It’s not the greatest I’ve seen, but is by far not the worst either. It’s EPO foam, and so the foam texture comes through and there were some blemishes but a little weathering to dirty it up and it’ll hide a lot of that. Overall though, none of it bothers me too much. It’s a foamy and so there’s only so much that can be done to get a clean finish on bare foam. Now, with a nice refinish on the airplane like we did on “Lady Alice” it would take this airplane to a whole new level! So, we’ll see if I go there…One nice thing I noticed is that they’ve gone to water slide decals on the markings versus the peel and stick stickers of some of their other birds.
RADIO AND CONTROL SURFACE SETUP RECOMMENDATIONS
As I noted at the beginning, I had the opportunity to get a bunch of flights on the production prototype of this design which was a lot of fun. Also, this is not my first venture with F-14s and so using the knowledge gained from those experiences, I’ve done some things a little differently on the control setup to how Freewing sets it up stock. The end result is a much better flying airplane (I validated this with the production prototype) with both wings extended and swept but it does require a little extra radio programming. Note that I will have more detailed control system setup with my final control throws in my flight review once I’ve fully vetted the throws in flight. However, my discussion below is my recommended methodology when setting up the airplane. I can tell you from experience that setting up the airplane per the manual works great for the wings extended, but that is not the case for wings swept.
Ailerons on an F-14, really??
Now, Freewing has taken a fairly traditional approach to the control surface setup in that the wings have inboard flaps and outboard ailerons which is certainly untraditional to the full scale F-14. The tails act as tailerons (which they should) and so there is a mix between the ailerons and the tailerons that is taken care of in the factory electronics board. The goal is to help augment the roll control which it does, similar to the purpose of the spoilers on the full size. With the electronics board taking care of this mixing, Freewing does a good job of simplifying the radio setup. However, this setup only works well for the wings extended. The issue is that Freewing does not disengage the aileron mixing with the wings swept which causes problems in that configuration. The airplane shimmy’s weirdly and is not very responsive in roll due to strange coupling that occurs since the ailerons are moving in very close proximity to the tails. The aerodynamic reason for this is that every time the aileron deflects while the wings are swept, the downwash angle (and subsequent local AoA at the tail leading edge) on the tail immediately changes and so as a result, you get a non-linear response. So, I highly recommend that if nothing else, when setting up this model, setting it up to disable the wing ailerons with the wings swept. Also, set up dual rates for ailerons…the tailerons require MUCH LESS throw in roll with the wings swept than with the wings extended. To do this properly requires bypassing the aileron servos from the factory control board.
On the production prototype when I discovered these issues, I ended up completely disabling the ailerons all together and using them in combination with the flaps for a scale full span flap. What this meant is that I flew the airplane for most of the flights with tailerons only. I can tell you that the airplane flies very well in this configuration but the maximum roll rate I did wish was a little more. So with the airplane assembled in this article, I’ve setup the ailerons to act trailing edge up only in combination with the tailerons with the wings extended. This will help augment the roll a little better wings extended to gain back that little bit more roll response I was looking for. The ailerons are then disable when the wings are swept so I will be using tailerons only in that configuration. Note that keeping the stock configuration for wings extended works very well, but again, I recommend using tailerons only for wings swept.
Full Span Flaps For The WIN!
Now, since we’re playing with the ailerons outside of the stock mixing board, one of the other things I’ve done is setup the ailerons to deflect with the flaps for a scale full span flap. This is another configuration I validated playing with the production prototype and can say that the configuration works very well and provides extremely soft landings when executed properly. It provides a nice nose up attitude and requires a bit more power on the approach compared to the stock inboard flaps only configuration. One thing to note is that deflecting the entire trailing edge results in a significant pitching moment on the aircraft and so about a 60% up elevator trim mix is required when the flaps are deflected. Again, the final settings will be provided in my flight review article. Note that the airplane will drop a wing when slow and hard elevator is pulled, which it will do in any configuration.
Overall, the Freewing F-14 at $580 is an excellent value. It provides a really nice looking airplane with full electronics, 80mm fans, struts, retracts, the works! The engineering behind the swing wing is well done and works very well and reliably. Is the fit and finish perfect? I can’t say that it is, but when I buy a foam aircraft that’s not my expectation either. The only way to get perfect is to build your own (my folks have a kit 😉 ) and you’ll be hard pressed to do that for $580.
So, now that we’ve got this thing all together, it’s time to take it to the field and do “some of that pilot stuff!” I’ll get these settings fully dialed in and will report back with a full flight review in my next post. See you at the field!