The Reason They Call 'Em "Taildraggers"
No, it's not because they have a tailwheel. It's because by the time you've managed to learn to control their cantankerous behavior, a previously elevated portion of your anatomy is bound to be dragging on the tarmac as you skulk away after your first crosswind landing. For proof, read Glenn Daly's riotous account of his experiences learning to tame a wild Citabria.
The author in a moment of self-assessment following his first taildragger lesson in the Citabria.
Tricycle gear makes nearly every landing a greaser. (Well, if you've ever seen one of mine, we'll call every landing "survivable.") And, once we've learned to fly, we never much worry "whence the wind."
Think about it: Since you got your certificate, have you ever really considered a crosswind? Or sideload? Could you, this instant, describe the procedure for taxiing in a quartering tailwind? Do you really care?
Try flying a taildragger.
Now another writer for this esteemed publication defines taildragger as an airplane with a tail "skid," as opposed to a "wheel." And, while I admire his accurate and entertaining appraisal of learning to fly them, I think he quibbles about his definition. For a dork like me, "taildragger" has an entirely different meaning.
I call them taildraggers because, after the first few attempts at flying one of the squirrelly things, it was my tail that was dragging.
Left rudder, right rudder, more right rudder, LOTS MORE RIGHT RUDDER ... NOW.
Oy, whatta pain. Then, when drag your sweaty carcass out of its cockpit, you stagger around like a drunk on a three-week bender, your feet moving independently of each other. Try taming a taildragger and your friends will think that your flying has driven you back to the booze, again.
How many hours did you say?
Kal, my CFI. It's easy to tell us apart: He's the one who looks like he knows what he's doing.
So, if you would, punch the rewind button back to August. The image that appears is a taildragger corkscrewing itself toward El Capitan Reservoir, east of El Cajon's Gillespie Field. It recovers from the spin and starts heading home to Montgomery. Pan in a little closer and you'll see that Kal and I have just completed my CFI spin training requirement (and I almost enjoyed the experience and I didn't even puke). The plane we're flying is Randy Lake's red and white sunburst Citabria, 9610S.
We land (or, more accurately, Kal lands) and as he's taxiing to the pumps I say, "I wanna get checked out in a taildragger so I can make some easy money after I get my CFI. What's it gonna take? Two hours? Three?" From where I am in the front seat, I can't see him, but I can feel him chuckling to himself.
He'd dusted sunflowers, corn and wheat back in North Dakota for a couple of seasons and about four hundred hours. Stearman, Pawnee, Super Cub, Champ, a little Citabria time while he was learning. He always wanted some AgCat time, but never got the chance.
"More like ten hours," Kal says, "if you're real good. And, if you're really, really good, another ten sittin' in the back learnin' mistakes. Then another twenty or so tryin' to keep from groundlooping yourself into the loony bin. Twenty hours dual, forty hours total, might make it — if you learn fast and listen hard. If not ... well, my little girl's goin' to med school, some day, and you'll be helpin' her along."
"Forty hours?" I say. "You nuts? It's just an airplane, man. What's it gonna do, bite me?"
"Maybe," he says with that same simian grin I'd learned to hate in my IFR training. "We'll start in the early mornin' when the winds are light — take it down to the long runway at Brown before the tower wakes up. Land it. Stop it. Add power, raise the tail, hold it straight, chop the power, let the tail down, stop it. Then do it all over again. You'll learn to love it."
Learning to love it
And, so, we did. Wiping the sleep from my eyes at the god-awful hour of 7 a.m. (okay, okay, 7:30), I arrive to find 9610S out of the T-hangar, pre-flighted, all dew-shiny in the early morning sun, Kal waiting patiently in his pickup.
"What you gotta remember is that you're always flyin' a taildragger," he says, as we insert ourselves into the cockpit. "Until it's tied down, you don't ever relax." Sure, Kal, I think. Forty hours. You better send me an invitation to your daughter's graduation.
Starter button. Toggle switches instead of keyed ignition. Some half-assed intercom velcroed to the upper left cabin wall. Seats that don't move. Aerobatic shoulder harness. And heel brakes, bloody heel brakes. At seven, er, seven-thirty, a.m.
I roll down the checklist, slide back the window, bark, "CLEAR," and punch the starter button. The little engine whines to life, loud, and I'm glad for the headset I'm wearing. We get a taxi clearance and the battle begins.
Had the Good Lord not been out fishing the day the heel brake was invented, you would have read about an airplane designer who had been vaporized by a bolt from the blue. Ergonomics was not a buzzword in Citabria-land back in 1966, when this sitka-spruced, dacron-doped demon came off the line. As it is, you quickly develop a new set of muscles as your heels rest on the dreaded brakes, your feet cocked at awkward, upward angles, pressing against the rudder bars.
I'm sitting up front, where all good, little, taildragger pilots sit when they're learning. Fortunately, the forward visibility's good, so I don't have to do S-turns down the taxiway and add to my embarrassment. I find out quickly, however, that my feet are 180 degrees out of phase with the intentions of 9610S. It starts heading to the left of the taxiway, I try right rudder, lightly, and it keeps heading left. I try more right rudder and it continues left. I try right heel brake, my leg starts to cramp and the thing starts coming right. Left rudder — no response. Left brake — it's heading off the taxiway again. And this is with no wind, barely crawling. This thing might be tougher than I imagined. Maybe, five hours, huh?
I trace a serpentine course down Juliet, where I pirouette onto Hotel and almost head east, like I'm 'sposed to. We approach the runup area and I'm still behind it — I stagger left with brake, but not enough, add power to finish the turn upwind and nearly do another pirouette. Sheez. I'm thinkin': Maybe seven hours?
Runup goes okay — with no apparent casualties — and I call tower.
The tower controller keys his mic and I hear mirth in his voice, and laughter in the background. "Citabria niner six one zero sierra's cleared for takeoff, two eight Left. (Chuckle, chuckle.) And have a nice flight. (More laughter in the background.)" Is there a joke I'm missing? (I find out, later, that whenever a new voice emanates from 9610S, even the off-duty controllers grab their binoculars and race to the tower cab. It's more fun for them, I hear, than asking you to call the tower supervisor.)
I take the runway and line up on the centerline. "Stay with me, Kal," I say.
"Right with you," he says. "Remember to push forward on the stick as soon as you can, and be ready to come in with more right rudder as the tail comes up."
I release the brakes, apply power, it turns left. I apply right rudder, lotsa right rudder, it starts turning right. I relax right rudder, it starts turning left again. I slowly figure out how much right rudder to add, then I remember to raise the tail, and all heck breaks loose. I've got what I think is full right rudder and it's veering left.
"Right rudder," Kal says.
I tromp right rudder and now it's going straight, but, by then the tail's up, the precession bit is over, and now I've got too much right rudder and it's going right again. (Fortunately, I'm so flustered that I can't even remember the heel brakes or I'd have really hit the jackpot.) I relax right rudder too much, it starts heading left again, so I ooch in a smidgen more right rudder, realize that we've got flying speed, and pull back a little on the stick ...
… and, just like that, we're flying.
It was that easy.
And don't even ask about the landing.
Okay. Ask. It wasn't bad. I'd had one previous taildragger flight with a marvelous instructor named Dave Parish-Whitaker, and it stuck. That experience, and Richard Bach's words, which told me that when it seemed like you were going to land only on the tailwheel, you needed to pull back a little more.
"Wow. Nice landing," Kal said, stunned, after my first three-pointer at Brown. Then I blew it with the power up, raise it, keep it straight, lower it, stop it, routine. I could not keep it straight, careening the 200-foot width of 26 Right, one side to the other. With just a little more leftward moment, we would have needed a customs inspection as we lurched toward Mexico, a thousand yards to the south.
"Whoa, nelly," I said, truly believing the red and white nag had a mind of its own. Once we got it stopped, Kal said something non-committal, like, "Really nice recovery."
Back on the centerline, I tried it again. But, try as I might, I could not keep the sucker straight. Hell, at one point I swear I heard Tijuana tower say, "Hey, meester borracho, keep that steenkeeng taildragger in your own country."
Harder than it looks
I slowly realized that the running total of hours I'd need to master the bucking bronc would climb to beyond what Kal's kid would need for Med School, and I began wondering if he and Debbie were planning other kids, just to take advantage of my taildragging ineptitude.
The landings, however, were superb, and they remained that way for weeks.
And I actually progressed. After about four hours (and four billion of those torturous tail raisings at Brown), Kal felt comfortable enough to suggest that our next lesson would be at noon — with the winds up, so we could begin working on wheel landings. "Because you don't need any work at all on three point landings," he said, as we cruisied back to MYF. "I've never had a student who mastered three-point landings as early as you did."
That little bit o' praise went right to my head. (After struggling so hard with the tail raising exercises, my ego was desperately needing a little bit o' praise.)
My approach was a little fast, for traffic, and I kept my speed up until short final. Chopping power, I slipped it in a tad fast, kicked it out over the numbers, and didn't quite stop all of the downward — or sideward — moment.
"BA-WANG," said Citabria niner six one zero sierra, as we bounced main wheels to tailwheel, the tail just beginning to come around. Kal jerked the stick back and kicked rudder, stopping the porpoise, and the incipient ground loop, before either could gain control.
"Nice landing," he said, as we climbed out at the pumps, my cheeks burning. (Sarcasm, I've been told, has no place in the cockpit. Maybe that's why he waited until after we were out of it before the critique began.) "I was starting to think that you were onto this taildragger biz." (Translated that means: "You know, it might be nice havin' a couple of doctors in the family.")
It gets better
I did improve. Honest. And, like he'd said, just after hour ten hours he signed me off for solo flight. So, now I'm in the midst of the two thousand or so hours of dual I believe I'll need from the back seat.
(Talk about a pain. Not only can't you see over the nose, you've got a lump in front of you that leans the wrong way whenever you want to check a gauge. There is some satisfaction, however, in having your instructor in front of you. You can whack him upside the headset whenever you feel like it, and don't have to worry about retribution until the prop's stopped.)
The best part about it, though, is that taildraggers (especially, cute, underpowered ones like Cubs and Citabrias) make everyone smile. There's a mystique about them, too — the sense of what brought us to flying in the first place. Practicality, utility, tax deductions — pitch them right out the window. Flying is fun. Flying taildraggers is the essence of that fun. And the stuff you'll learn about wind, especially on and near the runway, will save many a maintenance bill on your trike, as you start eliminating the side load from all your landings.
And, after an especially nice landing in a stiff crosswind, there is that little bit of swagger in your walk when you emerge from a taildragger to the admiring glances of those tricycle drivers who clutter up our airports and our airspace.
"Yep, podnah ... I'm a taildragger pilot. Ain't you?"
For another perspective on this subject, see Rick Durden's column "Why Not Fly Tailwheel?"