Electric vs. Glow Power for Model Airplanes

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Electric vs. Glow Power for Model Airplanes
Most flying model aeroplanes use a glow engine or electric motor. (Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Most flying model aeroplanes use one of two types of power plants: electric motors or glow engines. Electric motors use battery power to turn a shaft to which a propeller is attached. A glow engine is a miniaturised internal combustion device that burns fuel to create power.


Electric motors are adequate for most beginning- to intermediate-level aeroplane models. They require an on-board battery pack that has to be recharged after each flight. An electric motor can be started remotely and does not require a separate starter. This is considerably safer for flyers, whose fingers don't have to get near a spinning propeller during start-up.


A glow engine uses what is called a glow plug to ignite fuel inside the combustion chamber. Glow engines come in two-stroke or more powerful four-stroke varieties. A glow engine requires a battery-operated glow starter to heat the plug, in addition to a propeller starter or hand starting.


Both types of engines have their supporters. A glow engine provides a lot of power in a small package, plus a realistic engine sound that some modelers like. An electric motor is usually less powerful, but it is quiet and can be started with the push of a button. Glow engines can be messy, because they use oily fuel that can soak into the wood of your model plane, and they require constant refuelling. They also often have a cylinder or carburettor that sticks out of the aeroplane's fuselage to the possible detriment of the model's aerodynamics and appearance. Fans of electric motors enjoy the devices' low maintenance, as opposed to the difficulty of tuning a glow engine. Either type of engine is usually suitable for aerobatics.


The glow engine requires a specialised fuel, which can get expensive. Electric motors just need a recharge from any standard power source. The flight time of a glow-powered plane depends on the size of the fuel tank, whereas an electric plane can stay aloft for nearly an hour with the use of lithium-polymer batteries. These types of batteries, however, are still pricier than other power cells that may not last as long.

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