How to Look Less Worse When Tailwheel Flying

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We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all pilots should take their primary training in tailwheel airplanes, preferably without radios, and all should learn how to wheel land a taildragger, meaning touching on the main gear wheels before the tailwheel. By contrast, less flashy full-stall landings occur when all three wheels (mains and tailwheel) touch roughly together.

Additionally, all primary instructors should be geezers (male or female), half-deaf from 40 years flying such machines. Full confession: I learned to fly in a Cessna 150 and delayed the transition to tailwheel until eight years later. By then, I’d ingrained poor landing habits deep into my marrow, relying upon the CG being forward of the main landing gear to keep the airplane running straight on the ground. Decades later, I’m nearly deaf and mostly fly and teach in tailwheel or what’s properly known as conventional landing gear.

There in the regs,  61.31(i), it says in part, that you need a one-time tailwheel endorsement from an “authorized” tailwheel CFI before acting as PIC of a tailwheel airplane. Not so in 1982 when I had zero tailwheel PIC time and bought my 1946 Aeronca Champ. Back then, I just needed $5000 for the purchase, but nothing for training. After paying, I took off between the runway lights, cleared the hangars and turned on course for home. It was easy, but, then, takeoffs usually are. It’s getting the tangle of tubing, cloth and wheels to meet the runway at exactly the right pitch and track that takes some skill. Not much, just enough.

The seller, a non-CFI, advised me to “always full-stall land,” meaning close the throttle and pull back on the stick until my investment dropped to the pavement like Sydney Greenstreet falling off a bar stool. He was wrong. The Champ and most small tailwheel airplanes wheel land just fine; check the POH or local pilot’s lounge experts for details.

Many tailwheel airplanes have control yokes, but we’ll use the control stick for pitch and roll discussion here. For days, I proudly flew my 37-year-old two-seater around the pattern, slamming full-stall onto the runway, until Ed, a real CFI who had taught in Navy SNJs (advanced taildraggers) during World War II, stopped me on the taxiway. Expecting praise of my newfound skills, I was surprised when he said, “I can’t stand it anymore. I gotta teach ya how to land this thing.” And he did. Mostly. He also told me not to call them “taildraggers” unless they had tail skids instead of tail wheels.  

Wheel landing techniques vary among types, but the basics run like this: Establish your final approach and pick your landing spot plus which wheel (mains only) will touch that spot first. Look outside at the wheel. Imagine that wheel is your foot, and you want your heel to ever so carefully touch the runway without breaking all your bones.

Picture your wheel landing approach on short final being slightly flatter than the full-stall approach. You may need to carry power. Not always. With a left crosswind plan to touch the left main wheel first, opposite for right crosswind. Point the airplane’s nose down the runway and keep it straight with rudder. How much? Whatever it takes, and it will vary throughout the landing. Point the control stick into the wind, bringing the upwind wing down. How much? Whatever it takes to keep from drifting, but not so much that you turn or scrape the ADS-B antenna off the wingtip.  Keeping this cross-controlled slip going, begin increasing the pitch as you might for a full-stall landing. Then, hesitate.

This is where the wheel landing is all art and no academics.

Timing is key. Anticipate the upwind wheel (one beneath the lowered wing, where the control stick is pointing) skimming the runway, just enough so it begins to spin. As it does, gently—but firmly—reduce pitch to transfer weight from wing to wheel. Move the stick forward to keep the single wheel on the ground, while momentarily holding the downwind wheel and tailwheel off. Without a crosswind you can land on both mains simultaneously.

As speed decreases (and it does so quickly, especially on tall grass) allow the opposite main wheel to drop. Gently. Now, you have two choices: Hold the stick forward and let the speed deteriorate until the tail drops onto the ground or, gently, pull back on the stick—without ballooning—to bring the tail down. Once all three wheels are on the ground, keep the stick back, with increasing crosswind aileron correction as you slow, and you can log the landing after coming to a full stop.  Can’t count the landing for currency unless it’s to a full stop, but if no one’s looking, we won’t tell.

Damned if you do or don’t mistakes: 1) Rushing the wheel landing by trying to stick the main wheel on too soon. Do this, and you’ll drive the wheel on and bounce. 2) Delaying the wheel landing by moving the stick forward well after the wheels have touched. Do this, and the airplane skips like a flat stone thrown across a pond’s surface. Finding that tiny window in which you press forward on the stick to hold the mains on the ground takes practice. Or luck. We’ll accept either, provided you recognize it and accept good fortune with humility and grace, because next time you might not be so lucky.

In the existential struggle over wheel landings vs. full-stall landings, much ink has been spilled with families torn apart. It’s madness. Can’t we all just get along? I mean, some say wheel landings are better for strong crosswinds, while others say that wheel landings simply delay the inevitable. Planting one wheel down first, then prancing down the runway is adorable, but eventually, ya gotta get the other two wheels on the ground.

I’ll leave it to you to decide but consider these truths: We fly because it’s cool. We fly tailwheel airplanes to look even cooler. Utility is rarely in play, so if you’re going for cool, think wheel landing whenever the crowd is watching. Just don’t wave to your admirers too soon, or you’ll become another ground-looped statistic, like the thousands who made the FAA sigh, “We can’t stand this, anymore. Get some instruction!”

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Silly controversy, really. The more tools in your box, the better. A good tailwheel pilot should be proficient with both types of maneuvers. Same goes for crab vs slip arguments to my way of thinking. Just sayin.

  2. This is from the wrong perspective; flight schools have lower insurance rates and better graduation rates with BETTER stability on their aircraft. Flight schools these days also harp on stabilized approaches instead of flying an because they are 100% risk adverse.

    The job of primary training is NOT to make great pilots, it’s to give people the basics without accidents. It’s the job of the newly minted pilot to continue learning from that point forward.

  3. I got a tailwheel endorsement in the 1080’s in a Champ, and as I recall, the instructor told me, “You land a conventional gear exactly like a tricycle gear. Just keep the damn thing straight – which you ought to be doing anyway.”

    I’ve never changed a thing. Landings are a non-event, and the only difference between wheel and stall landing is that with the full-stall landing, you try your very hardest to keep it from touching the runway, and with the wheel landing, you carry a few knots extra speed, fly it onto the runway, and then nudge the stick forward a little to hold it in the same attitude, adding more forward stick to keep it there as the speed bleeds off. Eventually you CAN’T KEEP the tailwheel from dropping. Don’t be fiddling around trying to convert it to a full-stall landing or something like that, or you will balloon and run out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas, as they say.

    I built a Kitfox in the ‘nineties, and it was a handful on landing. Scary at times. Then I noticed I could taxi it better on one wheel than I could on two or three. A quick call to the factory revealed that they had inadvertently sent out some main gears that were warped toed-in. I checked it per their instructions, and My God! I didn’t bother getting new ones or bending the old; I had coveted a Grove spring gear for a while; the wider gear, not toed-in, with goodly spring travel, and it was like having Autoland.

    Don’t fear the conventional gear. Just stay alert and don’t let the tail start around, and you’ll be fine.

  4. Ha ha, my primary instructor was a geezer (to me then), with requisite gray crew-cut hair, as he taught me to fly the 7AC Champ. All three-point landings until well after solo, then wheel landings to be used in strong gusty winds. Much Champ and Cessna 120-140 (which I also sometimes wheel landed) time during my first 200 hours. That said, all tricycle after that for me, and gladly so.

  5. I did most of my training for my private in Aeroncas (pre-solo was in a Cessna 140). This was 1957. The policy of the school at that time was three-point landings only until consistently proficient. Then, some additional dual time was required to be signed off for wheel landings.

    No doubt, both of these options should be in the pilot’s “tail dragger” tool box.

    And, yes, most of our air knockers didn’t have radios (no electrical system either). But, we had two 90 HP versions that did have electric systems and radios. Those two were used for the solo x-country into a towered airport. (we received dual at a towered airport before the solo x-country. This was in the days when two-way radios weren’t mandatory for take-off or landing at a towered airport.)

  6. To Mark F. – But flight schools typically don’t have taildraggers. We’ve dumbed down the learning to fly process. Just an hour in a taildragger to teach students how to really use a rudder would make better pilots.

  7. Great subject.
    Back in ’58 when I bought a T-Craft, my instructor said that you “NEVER land an
    airplane when it still has flying speed”.
    Also, he said “People who make wheel landings lack the skill to 3 point”
    When getting checked out in a DC3 for an airline, my first 2 landings were 3 point
    which worked out well considering the force req’d to hold the wheel all the way back before TD.
    The instructor said “we wheel these in the airline”, so the next one was a wheel ldg (as I cringed) – I was then checked out.

    BTW – ALL MY students were full stall landers & never had problems.

  8. You mean we can debate something else other than MCAS? Really? Two for one debate package…tricycle gear ease for sissies, vs tail-wheel for real men plus…. wheel landings vs full stall among the real men allowing for super-hero pilot status for those so well accomplished.

    Great article, fun comments.

    Airplanes landed straight, on speed for the current conditions, weight, and environment, is and always will be the litmus test for safe landings. How we come to understand, accept, an apply those laws of physics come in a variety of flavors and colors. Some of those varieties and flavors are more or less accommodating of errors performed in the learning curve of understanding, accepting, and applying those physical laws. Which is better? OOOPs…another debate started.

    Now…how about those who are not ADS-B compliant, hearing impaired old geezers who cannot afford a Bose headset vs Lightspeed vs ANR vs passive, and which pilot app is better.

  9. I have no real preference on whether to 3 point (full stall) or to wheel land a taildragger. I rarely wheel landed until I flew skydivers in a C185. The owner wanted me to wheel land since he felt it minimized the wear and tear on the tail wheel assembly. As long as I kept the speed where it belonged on final, touching down firmly on mains would not result in a bounce. If you were too fast then the C185 would bounce. As far as any lessons learned by learning to fly tailwheel it does teach you to fly the airplane until you actually stop on landing. Keeps your feet and hands moving during rollout. One high performance plane that benefits from tailwheel knowledge is the Piaggio P180 twin turboprop. It has a quirky nose wheel steering setup that requires I feel the same skill that you would learn flying tailwheel planes. If you treated the Piaggio like a Cherokee on the ground it would bite and did several times to pilots with directional control issues with the nose wheel steering. I no longer have access to a tailwheel airplane and I do miss it.

    • What is the hardest is to have the confidence to convert at the last second from 3 point to wheels as on a very short strip with old 180 or 185 wheel dents or if a sudden need to have vis over the nose. Many though the easier way to land the types was to sit on a high cushion. I mostly kept the seat low for the panel and prefered the pack above my shoulder as to the seat or back pack. Totaly agree about saving the torque tube the better replacment was field mod 188 tube. Cheers

  10. If I ever flew with anyone who ever had inconsistent landings in conventional or trikes then, after flight briefing would include. Please use more peripheral vision after the flare . I can see you are trying to grow a longer neck instead of a slight turn or using a slight swivel of the eyeball. Most think it is the pilots job to do the perfect 10 greaser landing. No it is not . It is the pilots job to maintain control whilst flying parallel to the surface for as long as possible at a good height. When this is done the aircraft lands its self.
    I was taught well . Trained with club that used Champs 1st type after PPL C180. Much later night landings with no a/c lighting . The most important parts of body equipment are the feet. Try x-wind or multi without beautiful feet. I understand that most will never fly tail wheel but their reflexes will replace their beautiful feet and that is OK.. My other frustration when things are a little rough is patter (please put your brain into gear before your hands and FEET )

  11. Last tail wheel checkout I did was in a 7AC. Wind was a steady 10 kts right down the runway. I told the student keep flaring until the runway stops moving and then it will land. We didn’t actually stop in the air of course, but we sure were not going very fast when we touched down.

  12. I tend to 3 point the little taildraggers and wheel land the bigger ones, like a Beech 18. C185 is the cross over, it 3 points just fine except you need to give a mighty heave on the yoke to get the last bit of up elevator in even with a bit of nose up trim on final so it is less work to wheel it on but harder to avoid the spring gear crow hop on touchdown on most landings

  13. The Champ does beautiful three point landings. It will do decent wheel landings but you have to be careful because of the long stroke of the gear, you can dive it down on the landing gear causing all kinds of fun. I towed gliders on the weekends for many years. We would do 30 to 50 landings a day in conventional gear aircraft. I found myself gravitating to three point landings, rarely would do a wheel landing even in cross winds. Never felt the need to. The only accidents I saw when towing were people who had done a wheel landing. The additional speed into a short field and pilots not understanding what was going on. But as others have said you should be proficient in both types of landings.