Summertime, and the Tailwheels Are Flying

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Airshow season is at its height and hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to watch some of the coolest airplanes on the planet being flown by some of the finest pilots around. At the same time, summer weather means the backcountry airstrips are open and pilots with a certain lust for adventure are taking advantage of the season to do some of the most enjoyable flying imaginable.

What’s the connection between the two? Most of the airplanes involved in those endeavors have tailwheels. While a tailwheel is not required for airshow or backcountry flying, they are affixed to the most common types of airplanes used—so if you want to expand your aviation horizons into some more adventurous flying, why not get a tailwheel checkout and endorsement? If nothing else, it will greatly expand the spectrum of types of airplanes that you can fly and, in my opinion, substantially upgrade your aeronautical skills.

Yes, I know, the accident data also says that you are three times more likely to have a loss of control accident on takeoff or landing in a tailwheel airplane. Rather than throw cold water on the idea of getting your tailwheel endorsement, fully recognizing that you are about to operate an airplane that is unstable by design when is touching the earth means you will go into the adventure with your eyes open. And ready and willing to learn, demand much of yourself as well as upgrade your judgment.

What follows is an introduction to the world of flying tailwheel airplanes—boiled down to those things that you need to keep in mind when operating an airplane in which the center of gravity is behind the main landing gear—which means integrating into your very soul that when on the ground, once the airplane starts to turn, it will continue to do so, ever more rapidly, until you take action to stop that turn.

Semantics

A quick comment on terminology: most of the earliest airplanes had tailskids, not tailwheels. Skids served to help keep the airplane straight on landing rollout by providing significant drag—essential because early aerodynamic controls were, politely, lousy. Those airplanes were incredibly difficult to fly compared to ones built after the mid-1930s when engineers figured out the concepts of stability and control. Those airplanes were taildraggers; the tailskid dragged on the ground and they required special ground handling. In many cases, those airplanes could not successfully be landed in a crosswind due to the limitations of the primitive controls. In my opinion, the pilots who survived flying tailskid airplanes were the early heroes of aviation—so referring to a tailwheel airplane as a taildragger is disrespectful to those who went before us in the sky. As a result, if an aiplane has a tailwheel, I refer to it as a tailwheel airplane.

Here are the guidelines I’ve developed in checking out pilots in tailwheel airplanes over the last 42 years:

Turns

You must start and stop each turn. Because the center of gravity of a tailwheel airplane is behind the main landing gear, any turn on the ground requires the pilot to take action to stop the turn. In a nosewheel airplane with the c.g. ahead of the main gear, the pilot must take action to keep the airplane in a turn. Release the rudder pedal or brake and the airplane straightens out. Not so with a tailwheel airplane. Rudder deflection is required to stop a turn. By the same token, when the turn has ended, it is necessary to stop the rudder input. Sounds simple, and it is, but it is essential to understand this on an emotional level.

Vigilance

Be hyper vigilant anytime the airplane is on the ground. Being alert and wary is the key to doing well in tailwheel airplanes when on the ground. In a nosewheel airplane, it is common for the pilot to breathe a big sigh of relief when the gear touches the runway. In a tailwheel airplane ground time is the time when things get most interesting. When the airplane starts to swerve, it will not correct itself. The pilot must take immediate and assertive—if not aggressive—action to stop the swerve. Then he or she must make the needed correction to point the airplane back in the direction desired, and then stop the correction. Sure, the adage about flying the airplane until all of the parts stop moving may be a clich, but many catchy little clichs in aviation tend to have evolved because they were true. It is a good one to heed.

I often think of the new Luscombe owner who came to me for a checkout. I talked landings and the importance of paying attention after touchdown for well over an hour before we flew. He came down final, made one of those absolutely gorgeous landings where the tires slowly start rolling, then looked over at me as if to tell me all my warnings were so much drivel and said, “$@%#, this is easy.” The Luscombe promptly headed for the weeds. Between us we eventually got the airplane straightened out. He never made that mistake again. He was also able to check out very quickly, because he was totally alert anytime the airplane was not tied down.

Directional Decisiveness

Make a decision as to where you want the airplane to go at all times. You must decide as to the route and then act on it. If the airplane turns to the left or right from where you want it pointed, by any amount at all, correct it immediately. That means two degrees of turn, not 10 or 15 or 20 before corrective action is taken. Tailwheel pilots get in trouble when they allow a change in heading rather than intentionally making it. While heading sloppiness may be tolerable in a nosewheel airplane, in a tailwheel airplane it will mean a groundloop. When operating a tailwheel airplane on the ground, pick a point well ahead of the airplane—if the nose is in the way, use points on either side of the nose—then do whatever is necessary to keep the airplane in the correct relation to the reference point(s) and going where you want it to go. That is part of the reason what you are doing is called being pilot in command.

Controls to the Stops

Be willing to put the controls to the stops. It is sometimes necessary to put a control surface to the stop to get the airplane to go where you want it to go. While it may be something you have only done with the ailerons while taxiing crosswind in a nosewheel airplane, you will find that a normal landing (as well as taxiing) in a tailwheel airplane means the stick or wheel will come to the full aft position. If there is a crosswind, the ailerons may need to be traveled to the stop while on rollout. You rarely put the rudder to the stop in a nosewheel airplane, however, in a tailwheel machine the need will arise from time to time, so be prepared to do it. Additionally, on roll out, you may find that a swerve is so severe that putting the rudder to the stop will not correct things and the throttle then has to be shoved from quiet to noisy to get enough airflow over the tail to have the effect you desire. It may mean a go-around, which may also be a very good thing.

When in Doubt, Three-Point It

When in doubt on landing, make it a three-point. (This is a general rule for single-engine machines, not twins.) If you bounce twice on an attempted wheel landing, either go around or make a three-point landing. That way you will not have to buy a new propeller or embarrass yourself more seriously.

Go Around

If you do not like the landing, go around. Yes, we mouth that platitude on nosewheel airplanes. With tailwheel airplanes, it is one of the quintessential truths. In all candor; it may be the difference between a little delay on getting to the tiedown and a lot of twisted metal.

Crosswind

Land as nearly into the wind as possible. In a crosswind there is no magic to the runway centerline. Landing at an angle across a runway may reduce the effective crosswind component. Choose a grass runway, rather than pavement. If all other things are equal, the rolling resistance of the grass on the tailwheel will assist with directional control. If no runway is sufficiently aligned with the wind for your assessment of your skill level, go to another airport or land on a taxiway which is into the wind—landing on a taxiway is not prohibited by the FARs and may be your safest course of action.

If you feel you cannot control the aircraft under existing weather conditions, you have an emergency situation. In a Kansas dust storm with 60 mile per hour winds, you wouldn’t hesitate to declare an emergency and land into the wind would you? The conditions are clearly above your ability to land with virtually any crosswind component. So, why hesitate to do so in a wind of 30 MPH or 20 if those exceed your personal minimums? Remember, you are the pilot in command.

Wheel Versus Three-Point Landings

There will never be agreement as to which type of landing is better: wheel—touching down on the mains and holding the tail off for some period of time before lowering the tail; or three-point—a generic term for touching down at or near stall speed, although the actual touch down may be tailwheel first, or tailwheel and one main gear in a crosswind. The important point for each is that the enemy of a successful tailwheel landing is excess speed on the approach and touchdown—landing rollout is energy management and starting out with too much asking to lose control. You should be able to do wheel and three-point landings equally well and make some decisions as to which works for you in different situations, understanding that the risk you face is on rollout, not on touchdown. (There are some airplanes that do not three-point well, such as the Globe Swift, or don’t have enough up elevator deflection to three-point, such as the Luscombe Sedan.)

I’ve heard some pilots say that a wheel landing is easier to control because the center of gravity is closer to the main gear with the airplane in a more level position than when it is three-point attitude. The difference is miniscule—and the airplane still has to transition to three-point attitude during rollout, the high-risk part of the landing, so the difference is also irrelevant.

Do It

Go get a tailwheel check out. Yes, you will work hard. Yes, it will be challenging. Have you ever done anything that was really, truly personally rewarding which did not take some determination and hard work?

I think you will also discover some delightful things: A tailwheel airplane can be landed in far worse wind conditions than a nosewheel airplane. No kidding. Generally its flight controls are more effective. However, you must plan as to how you will go about the process. The built-in control authority will go a long way to allowing you to carry out your plan. Plus, for fun, discover that on a light wind day you can make turns while taxiing into the wind by deflecting the ailerons, right stick to turn left and vice versa. You will clearly understand why those instructors kept telling you about aileron corrections when taxiing.

Of course it is not easy. However, the day you do a wheel landing in a stiff crosswind, hold the downwind main wheel up until you want it to touch down, then select the point where you want the tail to come down, the level of personal satisfaction will be overwhelming.

Besides, you will never have trouble landing a nosewheel airplane again.

Rick Durden holds an ATP and CFII with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.