If you're a regular reader of our reviews here at RCGroups.com, you may recall a combination review and essay I did about inexpensive flying toys and whether or not they were worth the money for young users. You can find that review here.
In the case of the PicooZ clone I reviewed, I said no, even though I only paid twenty bucks for the thing. Many of you agreed that the extra few dollars spent on such features as radio controlled guidance, gyroscopic stabilization and parts availability were worth it.
It would seem some manufacturers have taken notice as well.
Meet the Helizone RC Thunderbird indoor/outdoor coaxial nano helicopter distributed by RC Toy House of Los Angeles, California.
The original Thunderbird was - and is - available as a four-channel infrared controlled model with gyro stabilization. Key words: Infrared controlled. This is a term which, in my opinion, denotes a toy. With the upgrade to a 2.4GHz radio system and all-important replacement parts availability, this good looking, alloy-framed, rugged little coax is taking aim at something very much like hobby-grade status.
According to Mr. Vay Ho of Helizone RC, the Thunderbird is, in his words, a "toy/hobby hybrid." He describes it as a fun, inexpensive way for those who've mastered the controls of a three-channel coaxial and are ready for manual rudder control. Or, one could easily skip a three-channel helicopter altogether and jump right in with the Thunderbird.
Upgrading a toy to hobby grade isn't unprecedented, by the way. You may recall that Traxxas got its start in the industry with the ready-to-run Traxxas Cat 1/10-scale electric buggy, the first RTR hobby-grade buggy on the market. It was based on a Nikko toy buggy primarily sold through Sears and Radio Shack.
Shall we begin?
Helizone RC Thunderbird
|Main Rotor Diameter:||7.5" (190mm)|
|Weight:||1.86 oz. (53g)|
|Servos:||Linear proportional ultra-micro|
|Transmitter:||Four-channel 2.4GHz with digital trim tabs and LED display for battery level and motor arming status|
|Receiver:||Four-channel 2.4GHz proprietary|
|Battery:||3.7v 260mAh lithium polymer|
|Motor:||Two 07 coreless micro|
|ESC:||Incorporated with receiver|
|Typical Flight Duration:||Five minutes|
|Operating Range:||260' (80m)|
|Construction:||Alloy and plastic frame, alloy tail boom and horizontal fin, plastic and alloy landing skids, plastic blades, simulated tail rotor, vertical fin and flybar, plastic swashplate, polycarbonate canopy in blue, black or red|
|Distributor:||RC Toy House, 5363 Alhambra Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90032 USA|
|Available From:||Various online and "brick-and-mortar" retailers|
The glossy, beautifully printed display box with its equally nice protective sleeve is filled with the following good stuff:
You'll need the following:
You can imagine my surprise when the package I received from Helizone RC contained not one but two Thunderbirds, at least until I remembered that Mr. Ho had promised to send me two units in case of problems during the review phase.
The tape on one of the boxes was loose, thereby eliminating the need for a round of "eeny meeny miney mo."
The navy blue-canopied example which emerged was a beauty with its yellow lightning bolt motif and matte-finished alloy frame. Even the cream-colored plastic rotor blades were printed with a flame pattern.
As for the second model, I slid the outer sleeve off and was faced with the black version and its matching rotor blades.
Oakland Raiders fans are going to love this one.
It has a slightly sinister look with its black and silver color scheme and either of the two I have would look terrific on a desk or shelf when not in use. The red version would doubtless look just as nice.
If one is willing to overlook the upper rotor blades, the Thunderbird does a pretty good visual imitation of a big CCPM machine. The alloy parts, including the horizontal tail fin, are beautifully laser cut.
"Macho" isn't a term generally bestowed upon coaxial micro helis, but it fits the Thunderbird rather nicely.
The transmitter is pretty much what one would expect of a small ready-to-fly model of this type; its basis as a toy controller is evident in the overall feel of the sticks and its rather lightweight construction. Helizone elected to use the same shell and stickers used for the IR controller, so one of the stickers points to a non-existent IR channel selection switch. As with virtually all 2.4GHz transmitters, the antenna is jointed to point upward. The swivel base was somewhat less cooperative; it was too loose. Rather than try and fly the Thunderbird with a transmitter antenna flopped to one side, I chose to leave it in the extended position.
First things first, so some fresh batteries went into the transmitter. I'd recalled reading the original Helizone discussion thread on the the authors' forum and how the built-in li-po battery in Michael Heer's Helizone Combat Helicopter came with a full charge, so I decided to put the battery in the Thunderbird to the same test.
Switching on the helicopter resulted in a bit of unexpected razzle-dazzle. What I thought were simulated landing lights on the canopy turned out to be a pair of high-intensity multicolored LEDs.
These put on one heck of an electronically controlled light show much like the little PicooZ clone I tested and were a clear indicator of the Thunderbird's toy roots. No response from the helicopter itself, at least at first. The online instruction manual solved that issue quickly enough.
When the transmitter is first powered up, the "speedometer" in the center of the transmitter's face lights up with a ring of flashing LEDs and a steady burning LED in the center. The flashing lights are a safety feature; the throttle stick must be first advanced to full for a second or two and then moved back to full stop, binding and arming the system and switching off the LEDs. The center LED stays lit as a battery level indicator and flashes when the battery level is low. As for the ring of LEDs, it becomes a throttle position indicator, at least for what it's worth. The light display on the helicopter itself speeds up slightly as well, indicating the two units are "talking" to each other.
As for the manual itself, it's comprehensive, fairly well written save for some of the poorly translated English that seems to be commonplace with many Chinese brands and features a marvelous exploded drawing, parts listing and flight instructions. It also claims a charge time of 90 minutes which raised concern, but the actual time in my experience would turn out to be a far more reasonable 20 minutes. The charger is the epitome of simplicity; when the red LED indicator is off, the battery is charging. When it's lit, the fun is moments away.
A quick check of the servos showed them to be a bit slow and notchy, but the swashplate seemed to move smoothly in response, so I throttled up for takeoff.
Beginners, please note: The transmitter is the first thing to be turned on and the last to be turned off. You don't want any electric model powered up without its transmitter feeding it the signals which will keep the motor(s) from starting.
Since the throttle is digital proportional, avoid using the throttle as an on-off switch. Since the Thunderbird has fixed-pitch blades, application of throttle simply makes it rise faster, perhaps a lot faster than you might think. I can think of at least two beginners in my experience who applied immediate full throttle to their coaxials at takeoff. Both wound up plowing into their respective ceilings and putting an immediate end to the fun. Slow and steady is the rule; just be ready to compensate with the sticks if necessary.
Doom and gloom aside, flying a coaxial helicopter is arguably the easiest of R/C flying disciplines and the Thunderbird didn't disappoint. With its LED light show flashing happily, it rose straight from my living room floor with only a couple of left clicks of rudder necessary to keep it hovering nearly hands off and as steadily as any coaxial I'd ever flown. The factory did a heck of good job of setting up this little eggbeater. It's quite possibly the most "ready to fly" ready-to-fly heli I've ever flown.
Speaking of the rudder, pirouettes in place were the slowest I'd ever seen on a coaxial, presumably to tame the controls enough for any raw beginner. Fair enough. The gyro really showed its worth, immediately locking the tail in place when I let the stick snap back to neutral.
The notchy servos made for a slightly notchy transition to forward flight which, coupled with the slow rudder response, required nice, slow forward flight. Forward flight, while certainly not fast even at full cyclic, seemed at first to be almost too fast for the controls to respond to. There also didn't seem to be an excess of power, again on a presumption that too powerful a model might well smack against the ceiling with too much throttle.
That throttle is definitely your friend when coming out of a coordinated turn. The Thunderbird has a marked tendency to lose a lot of altitude unless you're ready to compensate with that left stick. In other words, fast forward flight, such as it is, is best accomplished with a freshly charged battery. Gentle stick input regardless of charge are rewarded with equally gentle, scale-like operation.
Backward flight is incredibly easy since the model stays relatively level with the right stick pulled back. It's a great practice machine for learning the basics of flying in reverse.
Despite these seemingly limiting factors, the Thunderbird put in nearly five minutes of flight time before the single cell li-po started to die. Less than twenty minutes later, it was ready to go again, this time with more power than on the maiden but with about the same run time.
Subsequent flights got progressively better, presumably because the little 07 coreless motors and linear servos were breaking in. Flight time remains about five minutes and starts to drop off after the 3 1/2 minute mark. The Thunderbird's 260mAh battery would suggest longer flight times, but the lights are almost certainly a contributing factor of the times I'd experienced.
As far as outdoor flight is concerned, I would advise caution. Dead calm winds and a protected area such as a patio are recommended. Most coaxial helicopters of any size really don't like wind and the Thunderbird was no exception. I tried it under the eaves of my front porch with an almost imperceptible breeze and I came darn close to crashing.
Getting video of the Thunderbird flying outdoors came off better, but not perfect. My videographer friend Ken Alan shot the video in a parking lot with a building as a backdrop and in calm conditions, but it was still difficult to keep the Thunderbird going where I wanted it to go.
Given the ease of operation of small coaxial helicopters, the field has become a crowded one. With the recent introduction of Horizon Hobby's breakthrough E-flite Scout CX coaxial with its US$69.99 list price and $49.99 average selling price and Hobbico's Nine Eagles Draco coaxial with its $69.99 list price, a comparison is inevitable.
Having flown both at Ground Control Hobbies in Yucca Valley, California, I can make a direct comparison.
For starters, the Scout operates on only three channels as opposed to the Thunderbird's more common - and sophisticated - four-channel operation. The left stick is throttle-only which I found confusing at first. Like the Thunderbird, the Scout is easy to fly and can be guided much like an R/C car.
That would be a really slow R/C car, by the way. If speed is what you need, you won't find it in the Scout. The Thunderbird is faster in forward flight.
These aren't necessarily bad things for a casual user, but an important part of flying more advanced helicopters is the mastery of flying with the rudder. Responsiveness is important as well; it keeps the learning experience from becoming boring.
From a strictly aesthetic viewpoint, the Scout is a sort of "plain wrap" choice with its simple red and black color scheme. As I mentioned earlier, the Thunderbird packs a visual wallop with its alloy parts and choice of three different color schemes. What holds the Thunderbird back is the power-draining LED display and built-in battery, leftovers from its toy roots.
With a name like "Draco," it's hard not to think of the iconic "Harry Potter" character Draco Malfoy played by Tom Felton in the movie adaptations.
Like that character, the four-channel Draco has a few tricks up its sleeve.
This is the fastest, most responsive nano coaxial I've ever flown. The Scout is nice and sedate, the Thunderbird less so. The Draco, by comparison, is an all-out game of Quidditch, that hair-raising combination of polo and hockey played by broom-riding wizards in the Harry Potter universe. Banging the sticks is not an option and I found out the hard way. The model will go into an unrecoverable tail spin; beginners might find the Draco to be one heck of a handful in the high control rate mode. Landing on the spindly skids with anything less than a gentle touchdown will mean a trip to the hobby shop for new skids with their built-in battery holder. The skids on my example were already broken, but my tail spin certainly didn't help and would have surely broken the skids had the helicopter not slammed down on the already broken area. The Thunderbird's skids are either tightly pressed or screwed into the floor of the frame and while it is a more involved procedure to replace them as compared to those of the Draco, the Thunderbird's skids are far more robust and unlikely to break in the first place.
Unquestionably so. The Thunderbird comes factory tested and ready to fly right out of the package. Careful review of the manual by a raw beginner will assure success as will assistance from an experienced R/C pilot. The manual will take beginners from basic hovering all the way to figure eights. The Thunderbird is exceptionally forgiving if one doesn't bang the sticks and success is assured with that knowledge and some practice.
The black Thunderbird went to just such a beginner. My wife and I gave it to our adult son Stephen as one of his Christmas presents, but I first asked if he wanted it. That's because Stephen has R/C car experience stretching back years (remember my Traxxas Cat story at the beginning of the review?) but no flight experience and he'd never expressed a desire to learn. He called me the day after Christmas to tell me that he was successfully flying sorties from his pool table with just a bit of practice and help from the online manual.
His only complaint?
The lack of flight time.
Based on its own merits and not in comparison to other machines, the Helizone RC Thunderbird is a terrific little coaxial helicopter. It doesn't do anything particularly noteworthy nor does it have a price advantage, but what it does, it does well. True, it shows some of its toy heritage with its light show, somewhat complex construction and its built-in battery, but it remains an outstanding effort for this relatively new company and one worthy of consideration for those in the market for a beginner's helicopter both for its gentle flying characteristics and four-channel operation. It's a handful in an outdoor situation even in nearly dead calm conditions, but it's perfectly at home indoors.
If Helizone RC can get enough of these choppers - and their parts - onto hobby shop shelves and back them with first-class customer service, first-class marketing and first-class interaction with hobby shops in terms of ordering both inventory and parts, they may well become a force to be reckoned with in the hobby industry. The company is certainly on its way; Mr. Ho informed me that Helizone RC is shipping quite a few of these little beauties.
The current Thunderbird can be vastly improved with a switchable light display and a higher capacity removable battery. At present, the flying experience is a rather evanescent one with its roughly five minutes of flying and twenty minutes downtime for charging. There's some really good news on that front: Mr. Ho is, of this writing, planning a trip to China to discuss upgrades to the product line, especially the Thunderbird. I've shared my opinions with him and I have every reason to believe that my feedback will aid him in the creation of a new, upgraded Thunderbird. He agrees with me regarding the battery issue; a new version would not only eliminate the built-in battery but the on-board charger jack and power switch as well.
It's hard not to like the great-looking Thunderbird, so it gets two thumbs up, but with slight reluctance due to the built-in battery. That should have been engineered out when the 2.4GHz radio system was engineered in. On the bright side, it may actually be engineered out in the near future. I've been averaging two to three flights per day without a hiccup from the battery, so I'll leave it up to time to decide how long that little li-po will continue to take a charge before it has to go bye-bye.
Has the Thunderbird made that rare and difficult transition from a toy to what is at least a quasi-hobby grade machine? My answer is yes. The fight for a market share of the small coaxial helicopter market is Helizone RC's to win with ongoing product improvement and the proper marketing strategy.
I've learned of some really great new stuff coming down the pike from Helizone and it will soon be my privilege to share it with you on these reviews.
All in all, if you're considering a small coaxial helicopter, the Thunderbird is more than deserving of a place on your short list. Between the lights and all that cool alloy, kids of all ages are going to simply go ga-ga when they see it rise from the floor for the first time.
Many thanks are, as always, due. Vay Ho of Helizone RC was eager, helpful, friendly and a real pleasure to work with. I hope to work with him again soon and I wish him nothing but the best of luck with this great little machine. My friend, occasional coworker and intrepid videographer Ken Alan came through with a broadcast-quality minicam; there's simply no way I can get raw video footage without his generous and eager assistance. Angela Haglund, our intrepid administrator, laid the groundwork for this review and that of the Combat Helicopter.
Naturally, it's you, our audience for whom we do these reviews so that you can make informed hobby decisions. All of us here at the RCGroups family of websites thank you for making us the number one hobby site on the internet. Enjoy your stay and we'll see you at the field!
Much is likeable where the Thunderbird is concerned. Among the pluses:
There are a few minuses which need pointing out:
|Jan 06, 2012, 04:07 PM|
Joined Jan 2009
Good work. From my brief experience with Helizone, the company has a better than/much better than average dedication to product integrity, customer experience and reputation. IMO they are NOT just an "in one door and out the other" retailer. Watch for e-coupons amounting to free shipping; they offered this on Firebird.
Not knowing the exact LEDs they are using, typical LED currents are on the order of 10-40mA. Assuming 40mA x 2 = 80mA, the 260mAh battery could light them for 3 hours with some lipo reserve. So even if/when we can switch the lights off, don't expect a big difference in flight time.
With interchangeable batteries (if/when supplied) comes the temptation to fly continuously until we run out of batteries. This has the potential to build up heat in the motors and shorten their lives. The 'rule' is, if we can't leave our finger on the motor more than 2 seconds, it's hotter than it would like to be. User choice however, to fly it until it breaks then fit spares. (I'm a silly old electro-conservative.)
|Jan 06, 2012, 08:01 PM|
Thanks for the kind words.
The LEDs are quite bright and controlled by the motherboard, so my assumption and that of Mr. Ho was that it was more than just the LEDs themselves contributing to the short times.
Excellent point regarding the motors. I haven't tried to take mine apart yet since I haven't needed to, but I'll study it to see what might be involved in a motor swap. I'll report on just how hot they get as well. I think they've been staying rather cool.
|Jan 07, 2012, 11:00 AM|
United States, TX, Austin
Joined Dec 2011
Thanks for the great review
Ralph, thanks for the very thorough review, I'm sure we'll came back to it again and again. My 10 year old son and I here in Austin just received our Thunderbird yesterday via Amazon, as an additional project while our Syma Big Chinook is down for repairs, and was disappointed by the lack of coverage on the Thunderbird to date. So this is fantastic.
I bought mine from "Siu Ho aka Halley R Us"—is that the same gent you refer to?
Also, the manual's translation issues really come up short on how to properly trim the Thunderbird. There are so many options and some trim buttons are not even referenced in the manual! So right now, it's beyond our ability to figure that out.
But we'll keep trying! Thanks again,
Toltec21 and son
|Jan 08, 2012, 02:07 AM|
I'm so pleased you enjoyed the review. I dealt directly with Fay Ho via our administrator, but given the similarity in names, I'd guess they're related somehow.
There are in fact some extra trim tabs on that transmitter and I neglected to mention that. I've managed to successfully trim the rudder and ailerons via the bottom tabs. I haven't needed to trim the elevator/cyclic, but I'll give you an edumacated guess and say that it would be the tab to the right of the "speedometer."
Helizone is very eager to make inroads and I've been told about some great new items coming down soon. I've been promised the opportunity to review these goods. Can't say anything yet, but you'll all be the first to know.
So far, so good with the battery on my example and I've been flying the living whee out of it. No real mishaps yet beyond striking a chair as the battery dumped. No harm, no foul. The spare blades are still in the plastic and the T-Bird continues to entertain.
|Jan 08, 2012, 11:21 AM|
United States, TX, Austin
Joined Dec 2011
Trimming Aileron, Cyclic rolls, etc
Is there a good noob guide for trimming helis on the RCGroups boards? We're still rather new to this and are relying on "take item A and perform task B" instructions. Obviously the rough translations on the manuals put us at a disadvantage. We've had small Air Hog helis before and there wasn't much room for trouble, but with the Thunderbird, we've just multiplied the dimensions of control and necessity for trim!
And here's a basic question: did I read elsewhere that if you remove the batteries from the controller that the "trims" are reset back to default?
I'm wondering, and if we can "erase our mistakes", we might be more inclined to "learn by doing", and know that I can reset back to zero if I really screw things up!
|Jan 08, 2012, 04:39 PM|
United States, TX, Austin
Joined Dec 2011
Ralph, if I might impose upon you again, O' Sage of the Airways...
Had an interesting afternoon, "breaking in" my Thunderbird. In the end, all is put back together, if that gives you a preview of what transpired.
One, my son and I are determined to trim the helicopter correctly and get that steady control that we've seen on a web review and that we are confident the Thunderbird is capable of. Today, when we first tried to lift off, the T-bird would wildly fly in reverse, just as it achieved any lift! Again and again, it was determined to just launch itself backwards!
Frustrated and unable to get the trim controls to show any improvement, and recalling a move from the Syma S022 threads about how to "reset the trim", I removed the batteries from the controller and reinstalled them randomly. Wow, HUGE difference, but now the throttle appeared weak and much too soon to have drained the batteries.
Upon close examination, my son's eagle eye spied that one of the lower rotor blades was slightly cracked (from a crash) and had come loose near an anchoring screw. Oh no! our first broken part!
So we opened the Amazon package for our new Maxtech Precision Multidriver Set (very nice, btw) that we ordered for just such an emergency and removed the broken blade, and after another moment of uncertainty of "oops, how did this guy look before? " we got the new blade on.
So finally, my question, we keep referring to the Manual, with all the translation confusion, and there on page 4 of 8, Item 4 "Level your helicopter" there are two illustrations, Fig. 3 and Fig. 4., saying check the "Level Station". Viewing from the front of our T-bird, there appears to be a physical alignment issue that doesn't correspond with the illustration.
Could we have "bent" that vertical rod(?) and what does Fig. 4 indicate? I can't tell if those are needle nose pliers twisting something or what?
Thanks in advance,
|Jan 12, 2012, 11:55 PM|
Joined Jan 2012
I think my heli is in mode 1
Full disclosure: I'm a total noob at this rc heli hobby, but I happen to know quite a lot about how real helicopters work, as I've been a big fan of flight sims, particularly helicopter sims, since forever. Jane's and Novalogic have gotten a lot of my money over the years.
I've got two thunderbirds (got impatient waiting for parts to repair the first so I bought a second), and something fishy is going on with one of them. While flying the second one tonight, the left-right function of the cyclic stick swapped places with the rudder control. I have no idea what I did to provoke this, though I was fiddling around with the trim controls trying to get the heli to stop backing up and may have pressed any number of buttons and accidentally triggered a mode switch, like some sort of secret hand-shake thing.
Now, I know some radios can switch modes, but this is apparently a condition of the heli itself, because: radio A and heli A work fine; radio B and heli A work fine; but both radio A and radio B behave in "mode 1" mode (lol) when paired with heli B.
The manual doesn't mention modes at all, nor is there anything meaningful at the Helizone site. While it seems slightly easier to fly in this mode (although it feels like cheating to be able to simply steer it like around like a flying bumper car and not actually have to "fly" it), I can't really have two of the exact same heli in different modes, and it goes without saying that if I can't get the mis-behaving one to act proper, I can't get the normal one to go rogue either.
|Jan 23, 2012, 01:44 AM|
Wow...I have none whatsoever. Sounds like a job for Helizone. I recall nothing in the manual that instructs on how to change modes. Both of mine came out of the box in Mode 2. My son hasn't had any problems and I flew mine just yesterday, again with no problems.
I'm glad you brought up the issue of parts. Immediate and easy parts availability is something I strongly suggested Helizone do if they don't wish to be viewed in a negative light. So far, I haven't broken mine, but if I do and I have to wait for parts, I'll give a really loud scream right here.
As for your problem, Toltec: If that swashplate isn't level, then yes, that little monster will fly as if it has a mind of its own. The photo appears to indicate that the swash is out of plumb. It's hard to tell, but the anti-rotation pin may have popped out from between the "forks."
If you're still having issues once the swash is leveled, the next step is trimming the transmitter. Most transmitters with digital trims have an audio signal that alerts you when a channel is centered. Not so in this case, I'm afraid.
Let us know how things turn out and either drop me a note here on the comment board or send me a private message. Good luck!
|Jan 23, 2012, 02:07 AM|
Joined Jan 2009
Helizone introduced the custom Firebird version of S107 with full parts support.
That doesn't mean a guarantee they will ALWAYS do that but it is a cut above what can rightly be expected from vendors on the toy/hobby boundary.
To some users, parts support DEFINES the toy/hobby boundary.
|Jan 23, 2012, 10:53 AM|
United States, TX, Austin
Joined Dec 2011
But I'll follow your hint and look further this evening.
Toltec21 in Austin, Tx
|Jan 23, 2012, 04:16 PM|
Tell you a better way to proceed:
Remove the blades and power up the heli. Make sure it's armed by advancing the throttle.
You can then use the trims to center the servos before you attempt to level the swashplate. I should have told you to do that first thing; I figured that the factory adjustment would have been fine.
Try that first. Servos first centered, then the swashplate leveled. Good luck and keep me in the loop!
|Jan 31, 2012, 06:30 PM|
Joined Jan 2012
Thunderbird rotation blade fixer
I see someone else broke their rotation blade fixer. I have the part, but don't see how you go about removing the old one. Looks like you actually have to remove the inner shaft, however, i don't see how you do that. It doesn't just slide off with a little force as is the case with a 107 . Top parts seem glued or on so tight they would break with any more force.
What is the trick???
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