I, Taildragger Bigot


To paraphrase and mangle the famous Robert Oppenheimer quote, “I have become a taildragger bigot, maker of dreams.” There is simply no other way to describe the somewhat out-of-body reply I sent to a polite reader asking for guidance in picking the best of three light sport airplanes.

The candidates: The Vashon Ranger, The Flight Design CTLS and the newer Texas Aircraft Colt. These are worthy, well-designed airplanes and the reader was merely asking me which I would choose. In no order, the CTLS is the best flyer of the bunch, even though to look at its snub nose and waspish tail, you wouldn’t think so. It also has a Rotax engine which, even though I don’t like the exhaust note, exactly, I do like the engine for its modern ethos.

The Colt flies more like a bigger airplane. In fact, it flies and feels a lot like a Cessna 150. Spacious, although a shallow sill when getting in. It does have the Rotax engine, but the wrong one—the carbureted 912 ULS, not the fuel injected 912 iS. It’s 2020. My three motorcycles have fuel injection, so do my car and truck. I want fuel injection. Period.

The Ranger is a nice piece of work, but it has a Continental O-200-D. Again, carbureted, not to mention old school. If it had the IO-240, I’d pick it in a heartbeat. But that engine is 79 pounds heavier and in a world governed by the it’s-as-silly-as-it-ever-was 1320-pound LSA limit, it’s a non-starter. Some day soon, that weight limit will go away, but it hasn’t yet. When it does, some already great airplanes like the Ranger will be greater yet.

So where does that leave me? The CTLS flies the best and has the engine I want, so that’s my first pick. But given my choice of anything, I wouldn’t pick any of these three because they aren’t tailwheel airplanes. Now that sentence kind of surprises me as much as it might you. So after I emailed the reader, I popped open a beer and pondered what I have become: a taildragger bigot.

This is an odd turn of events because I don’t believe—and have never believed—that only real men (or women) fly taildraggers or that they are somehow better pilots. They’re just tailwheel pilots. Nor do I believe that people who have flown gliders have somehow been visited with steely eyed skills mere mortals could barely imagine and that blesses them with the ability to land on the Hudson River and walk on water. They’re just glider pilots. However, say this for taildragger pilots: Many will have had their characters stiffened and cauterized by enduring gales of laughter after hearing, “You want to insure who in a Super Cub?”

What it is about taildraggers is this: They’re just more interesting. Interesting to look at, interesting to fly, interesting to tell people about and they somehow just look right squatting on the ramp in a way that few nosegear airplanes do. I’m not a vintage airplane expert nor even an aficionado, so when I see a Funk or an Interstate or some damn thing, I have to get up close to identify it. My friend Berge has actually flown a Funk, so he has no such limitations. He also owns two taildraggers, a Champ and a Citabria for high-speed dashes to the Illinois state line.

The other thing about taildraggers is their uniqueness for having two discrete species of landings: the three-point and the wheelie. And as you stooge around the pattern, you get to decide which it will be. Within these two are numerous subspecies, such as the water-filled ditch tour, the runway light clip over, basic, intermediate and advanced groundloops, the crosswind right/left wheel hop and the brake-induced noseover to name just a few.

Nosegear pilots mostly careen down and occasionally off the runway, but that third wheel up there tends to muscle things back into line before the pilot has a chance to do anything if, indeed, he has any idea what can be done, other than to revisit why he wanted to become a pilot anyway. In a taildragger, by contrast, you get to do a whole lot of stick and pedal pushing and throttle jockeying before coming to rest tail first in the ditch after watching the windsock spin by three times. It’s altogether a more satisfying process and, well, not just everyone can do it. These kids today, they don’t want to do it.

There’s a tendency to want to strut a little when dismounting a taildragger, but between lumbago and arthritic knees, getting out of one appears little different than crawling out of a pile of wreckage and the hoped-for bad ass power walk across the ramp becomes a shambolic crab-wise limp to the café bathroom which is, inevitably, out of order.  

Am I gonna give all this up for a Cirrus? I don’t think so. At this juncture, the airplane I would want, by the way, is CubCrafters’ X-Cub, the best sorted out taildragger it is possible to imagine—except maybe it needs fuel injection. Did I mention that I like injection because I prefer ice in my Coke Zero, not my (carburetor) throat? If I didn’t, you can imagine I’ll get around to it.

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  1. As you say, being a taildragger or glider pilot doesn’t by definition make you a better pilot overall. But I do believe getting some glider (which I have) and taildragger (which I haven’t – there really aren’t many of them to train in in my local area) training will help. It’s not necessarily so much the type of training you do, so long as you get training in a type of aircraft you have little-to-no experience in, because more unique training, I think, makes you a better pilot (or at least better appreciate the type of flying you do do). For that matter, helicopter training will make you a better fixed-wing pilot too (I found it actually made me much more comfortable with short-field takeoffs in fixed-wing planes).

    In a perfect world, I would also pick a fuel injected aircraft over a carbureted one. And for a while, I vowed if I were to ever own my own plane (or a share in one) again, it would be fuel injected. But after flying carbureted piston helicopters and getting used to always being mindful of the carb temp gauge (which I now feel is mandatory in any carbureted aircraft, or at least a carb ice detector) and the temp/dew point spread, it doesn’t bother me as much now.

  2. Thanks a lot! Reading this, I roared SO loud that I woke my wife up early. Now I’ll have to pay the price all day long. Oh well … maybe I’ll just run away to my hangar.

    THIS writing is your best yet!

    In the early days of Light Sport, a friend and I purposely went to Sebring because both of us were seriously thinking of popping for one. We flew two candidate machines and resolved that we wouldn’t reveal which one we liked best until we had each flown them. The winner was a Legend Cub. We were about ready to try to wrangle a deal on two UNTIL we each phoned our insurance company. In my case, I first heard a gasp, then laughter and then the sound of a cash register going, Ka Ching. Even with advanced ratings and a long term perfect flying record, the annual cost was not acceptable. So much for that idea.

    Just today, I worked a problem on a Legend Cub for a friend and reminded myself how pretty the thing is. I really like those two doors … that option makes rapid egress after the ground loop easier. He just spent $20K to have his hangar floor epoxied and new LED lighting installed. The sight of that yellow airplane sitting there in that pristine environment took my breath away.

    I’m with you on the 912iS, as well. A few years later when the RV-12 became available, I again went to Sebring to sample it but then asked why Dick didn’t put in an iS engine. He ranted that he wasn’t going to redesign the front of the airplane so I walked away from it. Now, it no longer matters. I don’t have enough years left actuating the stick to justify buying a different airplane. If MOSAIC ever comes to pass and the LSA weight limit goes up, those iS engines will seal the deal for a lot of people, however.

  3. “What it is about taildraggers is this: They’re just more interesting. Interesting to look at, interesting to fly, interesting to tell people about and they somehow just look right squatting on the ramp in a way that few nosegear airplanes do.”

    From a fellow taildragger bigot, you got that right Paul. If what I want is a small local runabout which can also fly cross country now and then, why would I buy something with a nosewheel? That would be like kissing one’s sister.

    • I don’t have a problem with you kissing my sister, as long as it’s the 76-year-old one. Either of the young ones (in their late sixties), you gotta pay the Piper!

  4. Paul, I agree, the little wheel should be at the back but I do prefer a radial engine up front.

  5. Tailwheels are cool… 🙂
    And you don’t have to be a “super pilot” to operate one.
    I personally consider myself a halfway mediocre pilot.
    And I fly singles, multis, floats, helicopters, gliders, hangliders, skydive, a total airhead…
    Each kind has brought up some skill that is transferable to the other kind.
    And so I survive…
    Nowadays I own a Bellanca 14-19-2. The only complex, retractable, high
    performance, tailwheel airplane (that I know of) with a 226 MPH VNE, 160 MPH cruise, 57 MPH bottom of the white arc, and fully operable and controllable at 45 MPH indicated even without flaps.
    I mean 360 deg turns at 30 degrees bank flying below white arc and without flaps.
    Don’t chop the power.
    It has the sink rate of a grand piano at that airspeed.
    Albeit a controllable piano…
    AFAIK, this is the only aircraft that can fly to Alaska next to the Bonanza and land on the river bed next to C-185 when it gets there.
    It doesn’t get more four wheel drive than that… 🙂

  6. I agree that, in general, fuel injection is superior to a carburetor. That said, in a potential back-country taildragger that might potentially require a “Hemingway Start”–i.e., hand propping, as in “A Farewell to Arms”–a carburetor is the way to go. Not that you might not be able to hand-prop a properly (over)primed fuel-injected airplane…but if you left the master on overnight, you have no way to prime it…

    That’s why the 1956 C180 I occasionally fly (not mine, alas) was upgraded, not to an IO-520 like a 185, but a carbureted O-550. And it hand props very nicely.

  7. I have a lot of Taildragger time. I also have a lot of commercial flying under my keel, seeing as it was my primary income for thirty odd years. NOW…a PA-28 Cherokee is a pretty damn good airplane. A J-3 is a pretty damn good airplane. A Luscombe is a pretty damn good airplane too . AND…a Cessna 172 is a pretty damn good airplane also. I really like A Cessna 208 and it’s a pretty damn good airplane along with DC-3’s, DC-10’s, B-727 (100 & 200 series) GET THIS PICTURE…be happy with what you are flying in this short lifetime. Know that aviation is a little more than a century old, and you are are a part of it! NOW…if you are landing a trike any different than you would land a tailldragger then you wouldn’t pass ANY check ride with me…

      • Correct approach speed for conditions, accurate flare attitude and touchdown speed, aligned with the runway (or at least the direction of travel), zero sideways drift are universal components of a good landings. Nose gears will disguise modestly messed-up landings. Tail-draggers won’t. Same thing for good post touchdown control. The goals for both configurations are the same. Tri-gear gives more latitude for sloppy flying or poor conditions. If one chooses the sloppy flying route however, this margin advantage goes away, much like how the introduction of stability control and 4×4 to vehicles caused drivers to increase speeds in winter driving.

  8. Vintage, glorious Bertorelli. I choked on my coffee on the eighth paragraph and had trouble breathing for the remainder of the piece. THANK YOU Paul for a hearty laugh. I part-owned a Maule M5-235 for three years and this brought back memories! 🙂

    • Best I recall t’was about 1966. I’m downwind to base in a J-3 following a Cherokee 140. Looking up I see the Cherokee suddenly stopped on the runway center-line pointed in the opposite direction. A flawless nosie. Hmm . . . perhaps nosies should be added to the list of maneuvers for the commercial rating?

  9. I have only once been in a tail dragger. I liked the flight, but the mounts and dismounts are easier on a spirited horse. A crowd gathered to watch me get into the old cub. Luckily, I flopped out at the destination with no onlookers except the pilot who gave me the lift to pick up my old plane and give me my first, and last, cub experience.

    You guys have fun. I will appreciate the beautiful planes from something more modern.

  10. By far the very best two seat, part 23, taildragger is the American Champion Denali Scout. 210HP FUEL INJECTED IO-390. The Denali out-performs the XCub, is roomier, twice the range, faster, safer, better construction, better fit and finish and probably less money by comparison . The FUEL INJECTED Aviat Husky 200HP is a better aircraft than the XCub. Paul, I am guessing that you have not flown the Denali Scout or you wouldn’t have made the “best” comments about the XCub. Do yourself (and your readers) a favor and fly the Denali Scout.

    God bless.

  11. I didnt realize I was one too till I read this. Aside from bragging rights there is another advantage of 400 hours in tail dragers. When I go looking to buy an airplane, there is a whole ‘nother level of aircraft that I consider as “available” . That level is slowly diminishing. However they are still there. I recently became in the market and was searching ALL types of aircraft, and , coincidentally, found a beautiful Cessna 195 (taildragger). It wasnt to be for reasons other than the aircraft. But the number of Taildraggers out there is still large enough that within a week of loosing that one, I found an excellent Vultee BT-13 that I am now considering.
    It just shows the depth of the market is there for those of us that have the manly skills of avoiding ground loops.

  12. Having spent yrs giving duel (ha) in Champs, 140s, Luscombs, T craft, J3s, PA11s, Howard DGAs, T6, and that list goes on including of course Tri-gears.
    Nobody – but NOBODY will get to solo if the craft still has flying speed at touchdown – y’know, wheel or stick FULL back on TD!
    I had to cringe when I was forced to make wheel ldgs in the West Coast Airlines DC3s! ughh

  13. I have been a taildragger pilot for a long time and a C-185 owner for 20 years. I’m retired, but I specialize in teaching tailwheel and backcountry flying.

    There is just something about that little wheel in the back that makes the flying experience more gratifying. Flying a taildragger is an admirable and rewarding pursuit that is not without threat if you don’t pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of the type. That requirement for awareness makes the flying experience even more satisfying…and then there is the 185’s 1700# useful load and 50 MPH final approach speed. I could easily own a Cub, a Beaver and a turbine Otter, but not without my good friend, the 185.

  14. Good article, Paul, but I must admit I have never seen the allure of tail wheels. My old airplane partner took me up in a Cub once and also a couple rides in his Aeronca Chief. Neither one really grabbed me. Fortunately I was young enough at the time that entry and egress were not major issues. Today that would be quite a different matter. But I do agree on fuel injection. Carburetors are forgivable in last century craft, but why anyone would build a plane with a carburetor today is a mystery. That even extends to Rotax who produces the 912is, but still builds the ULS version. I guess the weight savings for LSA restrictions can justify it, but just barely.

    One thing I will admit to bigotry on is retractable landing gear. To me, a tricycle gear plane with fixed gear just looks like a toy. It reminds me of training wheels on a bicycle – something you outgrow and move on. Even modern planes like a Cirrus or the (now defunct) Cessna TTX just don’t look like a “real” airplane with the wheels welded down, no matter how many fancy wheel pants are used to camouflage the tires. Yeah, I know; only two kinds of RG pilots – those who have and those who will. But gear retraction is what nature intends. You never see a bird or fowl in flight with its feet sticking down. They are tucked up out of the air stream. I will admit that fixed gear on tail wheel airplanes look okay, mainly because there’s no nose wheel sticking down to get in the way. But, serious tail draggers like the WWII fighters would look pretty silly with fixed gear and wheel pants. Just IMHO….

  15. I always admire the ability of Bertorelli to work in obscure but relevant quotes–starting with the very first line–“To paraphrase and mangle the famous Robert Oppenheimer quote, “I have become a taildragger bigot, maker of dreams.” Curious how many people “got it”–and how many people looked up the quote and became smarter for their efforts. Paul’s style of writing encourages us to “hurry and try to keep up.”

    This is my 59th year of flying, and I still have my Cessna 120 that I learned in–but have owned 546 airplanes since then. I don’t find anything “better” about tailwheel airplanes–other than the ability to easily put them on skis. A Cessna 180 and 182 will both operate off from anything that can reasonably be called an airstrip–and both land in about the same landing attitude if you know how to fly–but the allure of the tailwheel disappears with 20 knots of gusting crosswind component.

    In many cases, it isn’t the LANDING that is the issue–my Kitfox is perfectly controllable in strong crosswinds–but since the airplane stalls at 26 mph and is sitting in a takeoff attitude, being able to TAXI it in strong winds here in Minnesota can be a problem, as it is ready to fly. Since it came with provisions for both gear setups, I’ve considered putting it on tri-gear for the summer (GASP!) and “conventional” gear for wheel penetration skis for the winter.

  16. A thought from a non-pilot enthusiast: Tail wheels seem like the “stick shift” of the aviation world.