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.

Glenn Daly
The author in a moment of self-assessment following his first taildragger lesson in the Citabria.

TrainingWe tricycle-gear drivers don’t know jack about flying.

Tricycle gear makes nearly every landing a greaser. (Well, if you’ve ever seen one ofmine, we’ll call every landing “survivable.”) And, once we’ve learned to fly, wenever much worry “whence the wind.”

Think about it: Since you got your certificate, have you ever really considered acrosswind? Or sideload? Could you, this instant, describe the procedure for taxiing in aquartering tailwind? Do you really care?

Try flying a taildragger.

Now another writer for this esteemedpublication defines taildragger as an airplane with a tail “skid,” asopposed to a “wheel.” And, while I admire his accurate and entertainingappraisal of learning to fly them, I think he quibbles about his definition. For a dorklike me, “taildragger” has an entirely different meaning.

I call them taildraggers because, after the first few attempts at flying one of thesquirrelly 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 staggeraround 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 backto the booze, again.

How many hours did you say?

Kal, the CFI
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 ataildragger corkscrewing itself toward El Capitan Reservoir, east of El Cajon’s GillespieField. It recovers from the spin and starts heading home to Montgomery. Pan in a littlecloser 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 isRandy 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 getmy CFI. What’s it gonna take? Two hours? Three?” From where I am in the front seat, Ican’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 andabout four hundred hours. Stearman, Pawnee, Super Cub, Champ, a little Citabria time whilehe 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’rereally, really good, another ten sittin’ in the back learnin’ mistakes. Then anothertwenty or so tryin’ to keep from groundlooping yourself into the loony bin. Twenty hoursdual, 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’ heralong.”

“Forty hours?” I say. “You nuts? It’s just an airplane, man. What’s itgonna do, bite me?”

“Maybe,” he says with that same simian grin I’d learned to hate in my IFRtraining. “We’ll start in the early mornin’ when the winds are light – take it downto the long runway at Brown before the tower wakes up. Land it. Stop it. Add power, raisethe tail, hold it straight, chop the power, let the tail down, stop it. Then do it allover 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 inthe early morning sun, Kal waiting patiently in his pickup.

“What you gotta remember is that you’re always flyin’ a taildragger,” hesays, as we insert ourselves into the cockpit. “Until it’s tied down, you don’t everrelax.” Sure, Kal, I think. Forty hours. You better send me an invitation to yourdaughter’s graduation.

Starter button. Toggle switches instead of keyed ignition. Some half-assed intercomvelcroed 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 punchthe starter button. The little engine whines to life, loud, and I’m glad for the headsetI’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 wouldhave 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 musclesas 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’relearning. Fortunately, the forward visibility’s good, so I don’t have to do S-turns downthe taxiway and add to my embarrassment. I find out quickly, however, that my feet are 180degrees out of phase with the intentions of 9610S. It starts heading to the left of thetaxiway, I try right rudder, lightly, and it keeps heading left. I try more right rudderand it continues left. I try right heel brake, my leg starts to cramp and the thing startscoming right. Left rudder – no response. Left brake – it’s heading off the taxiwayagain. And this is with no wind, barely crawling. This thing might be tougher than Iimagined. Maybe, five hours, huh?

I trace a serpentine course down Juliet, where I pirouette onto Hotel and almost headeast, like I’m ‘sposed to. We approach the runup area and I’m still behind it – I staggerleft with brake, but not enough, add power to finish the turn upwind and nearly do anotherpirouette. 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 thebackground. “Citabria niner six one zero sierra’s cleared for takeoff, two eightLeft. (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 from9610S, even the off-duty controllers grab their binoculars and race to the tower cab. It’smore 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 assoon as you can, and be ready to come in with more right rudder as the tail comesup.”

I release the brakes, apply power, it turns left. I apply right rudder, lotsa rightrudder, it starts turning right. I relax right rudder, it starts turning left again. Islowly figure out how much right rudder to add, then I remember to raise the tail, and allheck 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, theprecession 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 havereally hit the jackpot.) I relax right rudder too much, it starts heading left again, so Iooch in a smidgen more right rudder, realize that we’ve got flying speed, and pull back alittle 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 marvelousinstructor named Dave Parish-Whitaker, and it stuck. That experience, and Richard Bach’swords, which told me that when it seemed like you were going to land only on thetailwheel, you needed to pull back a little more.

“Wow. Nice landing,” Kal said, stunned, after my first three-pointer atBrown. 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 sideto the other. With just a little more leftward moment, we would have needed a customsinspection 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 ofits own. Once we got it stopped, Kal said something non-committal, like, “Really nicerecovery.”

Back on the centerline, I tried it again. But, try as I might, I could not keep thesucker 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 broncwould climb to beyond what Kal’s kid would need for Med School, and I began wondering ifhe and Debbie were planning other kids, just to take advantage of my taildraggingineptitude.

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 torturoustail raisings at Brown), Kal felt comfortable enough to suggest that our next lesson wouldbe 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 wecruisied back to MYF. “I’ve never had a student who mastered three-point landings asearly as you did.”

Big mistake.

That little bit o’ praise went right to my head. (After struggling so hard with thetail 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’tquite stop all of the downward – or sideward – moment.

“BA-WANG,” said Citabria niner six one zero sierra, as we bounced main wheelsto tailwheel, the tail just beginning to come around. Kal jerked the stick back and kickedrudder, stopping the porpoise, and the incipient ground loop, before either could gaincontrol.

“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 untilafter we were out of it before the critique began.) “I was starting to think that youwere onto this taildragger biz.” (Translated that means: “You know, it might benice 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 offfor solo flight. So, now I’m in the midst of the two thousand or so hours of dual Ibelieve 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 ofyou that leans the wrong way whenever you want to check a gauge. There is somesatisfaction, however, in having your instructor in front of you. You can whack him upsidethe headset whenever you feel like it, and don’t have to worry about retribution until theprop’s stopped.)

The best part about it, though, is that taildraggers (especially, cute, underpoweredones 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, taxdeductions – pitch them right out the window. Flying is fun. Flying taildraggers is theessence of that fun. And the stuff you’ll learn about wind, especially on and near therunway, will save many a maintenance bill on your trike, as you start eliminating the sideload from all your landings.

And, after an especially nice landing in a stiff crosswind, there is that little bit ofswagger in your walk when you emerge from a taildragger to the admiring glances of thosetricycle drivers who clutter up our airports and our airspace.

“Yep, podnah … I’m a taildragger pilot. Ain’t you?”

Editor’s Note:

For another perspective on this subject, see Rick Durden’s column “Why Not Fly Tailwheel?