Brakes? Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Brakes


People like me who are too cheap to buy airplanes made in the current century and which have tailwheels are occasionally heard to remark that only real pilots fly taildraggers. And within that excruciatingly parsimonious cohort is an annoyingly sacrosanct subset who say real taildragger pilots don’t use and therefore don’t need brakes.

Neither of these things are true and as for the brakes, I surmise that it got started because to fly tailwheel airplanes, you really have to use your feet. There’s no cheating on this. And, evidently, this morphed into the belief that your feet get so skilled that they can bail you out any possible jam you might get into merely by applications of judicious rudder. Airplane on fire? Rudder. Lost over the Amazon? Rudder. Two inches of ice on the leading edge? You know what to do.

These things are not true either and from reader Peter Bentley comes a funny story proving as much. Bentley is involved in a shop in the UK specializing is Luscombe repairs and restorations. Here’s the story:

“Customer rings up and enquires about getting his bent Luscombe fixed. One of the group owners had landed high and fast and found himself running out of farm-strip runway. 

Me: What happened?

Customer: The aeroplane ended up in a hedge.

Me: How so?

Customer: The left brake didn’t work and it swung off the runway into some trees.

Me: Any idea why the brake failed?

Customer: It hadn’t worked for a long time. We never use the brakes.”

This will sound quite familiar to anyone who flies old taildraggers. It would be folly for me to pretend it never happened to me. A few years ago, we converted the Cub’s ancient expander-tube brakes to modern Grove disc brakes. Because we retained the original master cylinders, they work better but not exactly so well that you could ever flip the airplane up on its nose, as you can with the brakes on a Legend or a Carbon Cub.

We did this because I got tired of fussing with the expander tubes, mainly trying to keep them bled well enough to offer at least imaginary braking effect. One day after months of knowing the right brake barely worked, I taxied into the hangar alley way and nearly clipped one of the airplanes in the sunshade hangars across from us because…I needed a stab of right brake. Enough. A purist I ain’t and I don’t need to actually taxi with bad brakes to understand that 1930s technology is curious but hardly charming.

When I was explaining this to another veteran taildragger pilot, he seemed disappointed at my thinking and launched into a heartfelt argument that having bad brakes or no brakes at all actually made you a better pilot. The reasoning, of course, is that it forces you to plan more carefully and never land too long or too fast and to stay on the bubble when taxiing.

Feeling diminished in the presence of such aeronautical prowess, I meekly explained that I like to have brakes for the run-up, knowing full well what was coming next: “Real taildragger pilots do a rolling run-up.” Sigh. I guess I was a real taildragger pilot only for the four months I staggered along with a barely working right brake and did rolling run-ups.

The reality of taildragger flying is that you don’t often need brakes. But when you do need them, you are likely to need them badly, which is why I kinda like having them working. That way I can, you know, not use them even though they’re there. Think of it as real taildragger pilot lite.

This being the case–and as in the story Peter told–deferring brake maintenance is understandable. But not recommended. Not that I haven’t deferred a thing or two myself. I think I could have gotten another annual inspection and six months out of that $330 right tire, but I replaced it anyway ahead of the annual. I’m deferring replacing the motor mounts and repainting the bracket because I’ll have to remove the engine to do that. That’s easy in a Cub, but removing and scaling the mount is a day’s work I’ll save for winter. Assuming the brakes still work and I haven’t piled the thing into a hangar.

A Note on Survey Privacy

For the current survey we’re running on ELTs, I got two e-mails raising the issue of privacy. Readers are rightly suspicious when anyone asks for personal information. So am I.

We do it in surveys because we occasionally contact readers for additional information and if I’m going to use a quote from someone, I want to know who it is, even if we don’t publish the name. In my experience, total anonymity sometimes promotes a wild-eyed nastiness better suited to the old news groups. This is why we ask for actual names in the comment field on blogs and news stories.

I occasionally use a quote without a name, but not if I don’t know the person who provided it. In the press these days, we get bashed for unnamed sources. I get that, too. So I try to minimize its use.

As far as our promise not to use this data for other than the survey, I ask that you trust us. If you’re a subscriber, we already have your personal information and we neither sell it nor spam you. We don’t intend to break that promise.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. With the Luscombe’s tall narrow stiff gear and Goodyear mechanical disc brakes [far less effective than pull brakes on a Schwinn with wet rims], I learned that if you have the guts to make full use of that relatively enormous round rudder and short-coupled fuselage, a BIG burst of 65HP power in a swerve could save the day BETTER than the brakes…or let you 180 within a tiedown on arrival using that burst to break loose and full swivel the Lang tailwheel.

  2. Brakes? What brakes. I learnt to fly on a DH-82 Tiger Moth tail dragger bi plane which did not have any brakes at all. Instead of a tail wheel it had a metal tail skid which was fairly effective at slowing you down and eventually stopping the aircraft. I learnt to fly in the 1950s when I was 17 at high school in Australia, but thousands of WW2 pilots learnt to fly on this aircraft. There was no problem in landing and pulling up in a short distance. The normal method was to do a wheeler landing , lowering the tail as the speed decreased. However for a precautionary landing this was done as a three pointer, and as the aircraft has automatic slats on the upper wings the approach speed was about 35 kts, and a three point landing with a small headwind would need only about 50 m. It was Aerobatic including spins and great fun to fly.

    • Bet you that Bruce was taking off and landing into the wind pretty much all of the time, on turf. Can’t keep a taildragger straight without brakes in a nice crosswind. Flown everything from Auster to the big C-46 and I wholeheartedly agree with Paul.

      • Joe J – no bet! It was an allover grass airfield and most operations were into wind although some instruction was done with a very mild crosswind. Taxiing in strong winds was a bit of a battle. I flew some Austers too and never liked crosswinds in those aircraft even with brakes.

    • My mentor learned to fly powered airplanes in a Waco with a skid. When he transitioned to a tailwheel airplane (and a paved runway) he found it to be much, much different. After a number of bug-eye hard-swallowing moments, he got a handle on this new-fangled handling. It was true, a pilot HAD to get better when followed by a tail that was steerable and actually rolled instead of a skid scraping along adding its own… some might say “stability”… to ground ops.

  3. The only ones who should really earn bragging rights about not using brakes are seaplane pilots. Those guys need to have a real plan in mind before they start the engine.

    • My guess is most qualified to ‘brake’ in water came from boating, slamming into docks and unintended beaching during their early years. Transitioning to seaplanes may be just learning to steer with pedals connected to rudders on floats or using engine power. After a few dings into docks and beachings, dents pulled and painted, seaplane pilots are no different to land pilots with occasional oopsies.

  4. Reminds me of transition training in a Lake Amphibian. Water taxing and mashing on the brakes. I’m sure the calipers were squeezing the brake disc on the retracted landing gear very well . . . just didn’t seem to slow the airplane even a little bit.

  5. Paul, as hilarious as ever. You and the other Paul are constant sources of amusement and knowledge. Cheers!

  6. In my ’46 Chief with the Goodyear mechanicals, I keep those bad boys adjusted just as far down as the pedal will go before bottoming out. I then have enough hold to maybe prevent creep during runup. Those Chief brake pedals are in a horrible location for being so easily activated while you feet are occasionally busy doing a little fancy rudder action. Also, if I need those non linear kinda grabby brakes to control the plane in a crosswind, then I really shouldn’t be messing with that crosswind. In their day, taildraggers were built to actually takeoff and land into the wind. Hence big open field airports, land in any direction, or the triangle runway alignment airports.

  7. Whats wrong with only one brake that works? We sailplane folks usually land on one wheel and sometimes even have a nose skid. Some of the old vintage gliders start with a wheel but drop it just after takeoff too. We still manage to stop where planned mostly, spot landing contests usually have a winner decided by a few inches. C B Umphlette

    • Ok, if you’re gonna go there…….. I’ve never heard of or seen brakes when acquiring my ppl in rotorcraft. The little ones have skids and only used when the engine decides to stop running for a skid on landing. Normal landings requires transition from forward flight (most fixed wingers seem to know this) to a hover then taxi floating a few feet off the ground to a spot to plop down – no brakes (all engine/two hands/two feet on rudder pedals). The high end rotor heads have wheels with brakes. Sophistication. Despite all my preflights, I’ve yet to find wheels or brakes on helicopters I’m checked out on.

  8. Please take my pacer and do a few landings on the hard surface in shifting wind conditions or crosswinds at my home airport without touching the brakes, just leave the replacement cost in an escrow to buy it when you ding it up.

  9. Clearly braking doesn’t rely on ‘hot air’ despite the cries of the Ancient Professors.
    In my days long ago in the RAF we had a saying, still relevant, that:- “B** S** baffles Brains”.

    If you have brakes, ensure they work & teach yourself how to use them.
    My tail dragger is circa year 2000, a modern classic of American design by genius Randy Schltter & with brakes. Knowing how to use them and how hard you may press improves one’s all round skills and widens one’s ability to wisely use the a/c.

  10. Your comment about letting maintenance slide on a barely functional brake rang true with me – not on a taildragger, but one of those “sissie” tricycle jobs. Turns out their brakes are pretty important. In my old Sundowner, I had some pretty thin brake pucks, but put off replacing them. One day, I landed at Meacham field in Fort Worth, but the left brake puck ran out of travel just as I tried to turn off the runway to the taxiway. So, the only way to exit was to do a right 360 and rely on the steerable nose wheel to hit the right spot. The controllers probably had a heart attack, but they casually asked if I needed some assistance. That taught me that deferring maintenance was not a good idea.

    With regard to tail wheel planes, it seems that they work best on a wide, round grass field that allows you to land into the wind regardless of direction. And, when tail wheels replaced tail skids, brakes became much more important. Great article for those “muggles” among us who eschew tail draggers.

  11. Thank you Paul for a nice read. I like everything maintained and in working order even brakes.

  12. Most of my tailwheel time is in flying skydivers in a C185. You had to be careful using brakes on that plane as the owner told me it is easy to put a C185 on its nose if not careful during heavy braking. I remember several times using quick stabs of one brake or the other to help maintain directional control when out of rudder trying to maintain directional control. Most of the time I did not need any braking or very little after landings. The owner was always good about keeping up with maintenance on the brakes. Averaging 3-4 landings per flight hour you get tailwheel proficient real quick since most take-offs are at max weight. If winds were excessive then most skydivers would not jump so very little flying was done in high wind conditions. Later in my career my experience with tailwheel flying was a benefit in ground handling the Piaggio. The Piaggio, if handled during landing rollout like a Cherokee would bite, as it did to several pilots I knew at Avantair.

  13. Learned my lesson 30 years ago teaching a guy tail dragging in an old t-cart. He was concerned as the old expander tube brakes hardly worked.
    Real tail dragged pilots don’t need no stinking brakes, I scoffed.
    On the first flight it started on the first swing and I hopped in. All I had to do was taxi around the hangar and by 6 airplanes. All was going swimmingly until there was a sudden big gust of wind. The airplane weather vaned right towards a brand new Bonanza. A frantic blast of power and rudder stopped the swing just as the wind gust died. Now I am heading right for the hangar wall. Another frantic blast of power and opposite rudder and now I am heading for the worlds nicest Cessna 170 and it’s 75 year old owner. Somehow we escaped without hitting anything.
    The owner turned to me and in a meek voice asked if he was expected to drive out like that…….

    • You forgot to mention that real taildragger pilots know how to exit minor wreckage with a style and grace non-real pilots will never know.

  14. I pose that there is no type of pilot more annoying than the ones who let bravado and nostalgia get in the way of common sense.

  15. In the 1960s, flew my Cessna 120 for 3 years–never knowing if the brakes would work or not. My flight instructor taught “Don’t assume you HAVE brakes–handle the aircraft as if you didn’t.” Spent a lot of money having them looked at. They would work for a while, then when really needed, I’d find the pedal went to the floor.

    The “breaking point” (“braking point”?) came when during a long taxi at a towered airport. I couldn’t keep it from weathervaning on the taxiway due to a strong crosswind, had to do 360 degree turns to keep it on the pavement and miss the taxiway lights. Ground Control let me pull off on an intersection to allow following traffic to pass–I finally was able to take off. Returning home, I invested nearly an entire month’s income in modern brakes. 57 years later, I still fly the airplane–and don’t have to wonder if the brakes will hold this time.

    The old dysfunctional system taught me well–I fly seaplanes–airplanes with no nosewheel steering that steer by brakes–ultralights, gliders, and brakeless antiques–and haven’t dinged any of them.

  16. Bob B

    Yes I was the young and not very bright “instructor” that day.

    After that fiasco we got the brakes set up so they provided a low but useful stopping force.

    We also pushed the airplane around the corner of the hangar on subsequent flights so we could just taxi straight out.

    The good news was while my personal bucket of luck got emptier that day, my bucket of experience got a little fuller.

  17. I looked up that flight in my old logbook. It was 35 years ago tomorrow. It is scary how time flies……..