Flying Tailwheel: The Checkout

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Transitioning to tailwheel airplanes means learning a new way of thinking when taking off, landing and taxiing. Here's what you should expect in your tailwheel checkout.

Last July I wrote an introduction to tailwheel flying as an AVweb Feature. It went into those hot-button items a fledgling tailwheel pilot needs to keep in the forefront of consciousness when coming down final in a tailwheel airplane. Let’s consider it “Tailwheels, Part I.” With this article, I’ll go through what you should expect to learn and master in the course of a tailwheel checkout.

Next month, I’ll put together a Part III to the series and explore whether a three-point or wheel landing is better from an operational safety standpoint. What follows below is a cross between a syllabus and lesson plans. I'm going to refer to the pilot being checked out as the "student," simply as a verbal shorthand, and in reflection that, no matter how experienced that pilot is, she or he is a student in a learning situation.

Changing a Way of Thinking

A tailwheel checkout is more than just stepping into and flying a different type of airplane. It's more than merely figuring out what hand-foot-eye coordination is involved in operating an airplane that has the wheel that steers located behind the aircraft's center of gravity, in the hope of not rolling the thing up into a ball. It is the development of a different mindset with regard to planning and judgment, and a refusal to tolerate sloppiness well beyond any level needed in the more forgiving nosewheel airplanes. In my experience and in talking with other, more experienced tailwheel instructors, that kind of learning takes time to become ingrained in one's psyche. While the syllabus below only shows three "lessons," the number of hours required to complete all three to acceptable tolerances will be different for each student and training situation. Three hours is a bare minimum — it will more likely be about seven — and 10 hours certainly wouldn't be surprising in some airplanes, especially if the training is being done at a busy, controlled field. Ten hours happens to also be the number required by most insurance companies for a checkout to get coverage.

I am of the firm opinion that, before the first flight, there has to be suitable time for the instructor and student to talk, because this is a checkout that requires the student to change his or her way of thinking about flying and allow for what may be major differences in handling and systems operation.

Please keep in mind, the following speaks in generalities and is aimed at instructors (but as a student, it helped me to read the instructor's manuals). Of necessity, it glosses over some items that are airplane-specific. For example, in a Luscombe Sedan (the only four-place Luscombe) and an unmodified Globe/Temco Swift, three-point landings are not going to be taught until near the end of the checkout, if at all. The Sedan has limited up-elevator travel due to stall/spin issues and cannot be three pointed and the Swift behaves unpredictably in such a landing. Finally, after extensive discussions with instructors, I recommend teaching three-point landings first, as they are easier to learn in most airplanes, and it was agreed by all of those instructors that students learn much better and faster when their confidence level is kept up by mastering increasingly difficult tasks, rather than being immediately frustrated by a very complex activity. Trying to introduce wheel landings too early can wreck that confidence, slowing down the entire process of the checkout significantly. (Wheel landings aren't necessarily hard, they are just "different," so it helps to have some feel for the airplane and how long the landing gear is before trying them.)

Lesson 1 — Ground Discussion

Because it is likely the aircraft type is also new to the student (unless it is a tailwheel conversion of a nosewheel airplane), the usual new-aircraft type-checkout items have to be covered in detail: airspeeds, systems (including fuel), landing gear, brakes, propeller, electrical, and hydraulics, with an emphasis on emergency procedures. A "v-speed" card that can be clipped to the yoke or a kneeboard may prove handy.

Operational discussion: You should include an in-depth conversation, with visual aids as available, on what occurs when the steering takes place behind the center of gravity; how that means that the airplane tends to stay in a turn or swerve rather than straightening out, and that the student must not only start, but stop each turn or correction. It should also include some very basic information on the use of rudder pedals, including not "pushing" on them, but applying pressure as needed to get the airplane to go where the student desires. Students who trained in airplanes that do not require much rudder in flight or on the ground, such as Cherokees, will need a great deal of work in this area, and patience on the part of the instructor.

Emphasize the use of ailerons on the ground and the constant awareness of the wind direction relative to the airplane.

Explain that the risk of loss of control during rollout in a crosswind is much higher than in a nosewheel airplane, so that landing as closely into the wind as possible is important. Discuss landing at an angle across a runway (it doesn’t help a lot, but it may make a difference) and landing into the wind on a part of the airport other than a runway. The FARs do not prohibit landing on taxiways. In a strong crosswind, landing on a taxiway into the wind—with appropriate precautions for traffic—may be safer than trying to land on a runway.

Discuss the operational guidance provided by the POH/Owner’s Manual/AFM. That includes flap settings for takeoff and landing and crosswind technique. For example, the Aviat Husky AFM calls for all crosswind landings to be made with full flaps and to touch down tailwheel first, no wheel landings in crosswinds.

Visibility: Discuss the expected visibility over the nose, where to look for visual cues, and the considerations for taxiing, takeoff, and landing. For some airplanes, this means a curving approach or an approach in a forward slip, with virtually no wings-level time on final. Discussion of visibility (or lack of it) in flight, and what to do about it, is appropriate for a number of types of airplanes.

Taxi: Introduce the concept of absolute intolerance for heading deviation and excursion during taxi; the student should not allow drift from the direction the student desires the airplane to go. On a very basic level, the student must always have a firm idea of where he or she wants the airplane to go (a huge proportion do not), not some foggy notion that this taxi exercise will terminate with the airplane on the runup pad; the student must decide the precise route to be taken and where the airplane will be pointed all of the time, including during S-turns for visibility. If the nose moves so much as one degree off of the desired heading when taxiing, taking off, or landing, such deviation should be more than enough to trigger immediate action on the student's part to bring the nose back to the desired heading.

Discuss the stick position when taxiing. Generally, it is all the way aft with appropriate aileron deflection. If taxiing downwind with a wind of over about 15 knots, the stick may be pushed forward to the neutral position, as, no matter which way the wind is flowing over the elevators, it is not going to cause the tail to come up. (This may be airplane specific.)

Encourage minimal use of brakes due to a number of considerations, including the difficulty applying them when needed (heel brakes), lack of reliability (older airplanes), and concern with nosing over.

Takeoff-roll discussion: Pinning the tailwheel down helps directional control, and directional control will become more challenging as the tail comes up. Also remind the student of the effect of p-factor; and how the expected gyroscopic effect of the tail coming up (turning the airplane left) will magnify the need for rudder to overcome the loss of directional control that had been provided by the rolling tailwheel.

Three-point landing discussion: Define the three-point landing as a generic term for a landing where either all three wheels touch down at once (except in a crosswind when it’s the tailwheel and one main gear) or the tailwheel touches down first. Depending on the airplane, it may or may not be stalled at touch down, but it will be near the stall and touchdown will be at minimal speed and energy. Advise the student to pull the stick/yoke all the way aft prior to touchdown (on most aircraft), with the ailerons positioned as needed for a crosswind, and with the student poised to go to full-aileron deflection almost immediately after touchdown. If the airplane starts to hop or bound, make sure the stick is held full aft to stop it.

If the airplane has flaps, all should be used, as the desire is to touch down with minimum energy. Even in a stiff crosswind, there should be more than enough control authority to keep it straight during flare and touchdown with full flaps. Because directional control is more challenging once on the ground than it was in the air, minimum speed at touchdown will help keep things under control during the rollout.

Crosswind-control discussion: Emphasize that the elevator and aileron controls will be moved to their limits in any crosswind landing (something few nosewheel pilots have done or are comfortable with); the elevator gets to that position prior to touchdown (if three-point), and ailerons get to their limit at or shortly after touchdown. Touching down on the tailwheel and one main gear in a crosswind is normal and will not result in loss of control, it just looks strange when demonstrated using a model airplane during a discussion. Then, both controls are held at those travel limits through rollout: The stick will stay fully aft, with the ailerons either neutral or at travel limit for wind correction, while taxiing.

Emphasize and explain why the cliché "The airplane isn't done flying until it is tied down" is absolutely true.

Globe Swift

"If you don't like something, go around." Discuss why, unlike a nosewheel airplane, it is not unusual to perform a go-around after touchdown (during the rollout itself) if directional control becomes an issue. One way to recover from a swerve is to apply full power to get the maximum rudder effectiveness and simply take off, rather than risk further loss of control during the rollout. Point out that this is a judgment call, because if there is any risk of hitting something, it's better to be going slowly, and a go-around attempt under those conditions is inappropriate.

Lesson 1 — Flight

Preflight — Items to Consider

Fuel system: Discuss the fuel drains and the effect of the nose-up attitude (while parked) on the fuel system, and on the ability to identify and remove contamination from the system as well as on quantity indication. On some specific types, there are fuel tanks that will drain fuel into other fuel tanks while in three-point attitude, so it may be necessary to shut off some fuel selectors on the ground (e.g., Aeronca Chief). Fuel selectors and gauging systems on older airplanes may be unconventional, there may be multiple tanks, the selector "pointer" may be counterintuitive, and it may be necessary to take some action to read the fuel quantity of a given tank.

Demonstrate inspection of the tailwheel, its springs and cables, and the connection to the rudder (if any).

Show how the three-point attitude allows the "down" aileron to generate a great deal of drag, and again discuss the benefits of the ailerons for steering control while on the ground.

Taxiing

Remind the student to always be thinking of the the stick/yoke position.

Have the student experiment with the steering, making wide-radius turns and tight turns, to determine what can be done without the brakes and what requires them. Let the student sort out the position of the brakes, especially heel brakes, and let the student see what is involved with starting and stopping turns and dealing with increasingly dramatic swerves.

Show the effect of ailerons when taxiing: On a light-wind day, have the student steer the airplane on the ground with "opposite" aileron, and discuss how the drag of the down aileron helps with directional control in a crosswind.

In Flight

Expected flight time: one to three hours.

If possible, do the first few takeoffs and landings on grass, for greater directional control.

Takeoff: Directional control — teach the student to use all available visual cues; if there is good visibility over the nose, select a point well beyond the far end of the runway for a directional reference. Require the student to allow no nose deviation from desired direction; notice effectiveness of tailwheel and rudder during acceleration, the effect of raising the tail, balancing the aircraft on the mains for optimum acceleration, and breaking ground and establishing climb at the appropriate airspeed plus or minus 5 knots.

Turns: to explore coordination.

Steep turns and turns with rapid roll-in and roll-out are used to get the feel for the responsiveness of the controls and appropriate rudder coordination at differing speeds and roll rates. Expect to take a while to learn rudder-aileron coordination in airplanes with high adverse aileron yaw.

Slow flight: The student needs to become as comfortable as possible flying the airplane precisely at not more than five knots above stall speed for the particular configuration; use gentle turns and coordinated rudder. Push for altitude plus or minus 100 feet and airspeed plus or minus five knots.

Power-off and power-on stalls: These are performed through the break or full aft movement of the stick/yoke, whichever comes first, to explore effectiveness of ailerons and rudder at stall speed and to detect any signs of aileron reversal. Some older airplanes may exhibit aileron reversal near stall speed, which necessitates that roll and yaw corrections be performed with the rudders. Many low-powered airplanes require a greater amount of nose-down pitch-change to recover from the stall than the student is used to in higher-powered airplanes, due to the difficulty of accelerating away from the high-drag condition of the stall.

Three-point landings to a full stop (if appropriate for the airplane): The goal is to fly the approach speed plus or minus 5 knots, aircraft aligned with the runway at touchdown (unless the aircraft has crosswind gear), and no drift; roll out to a stop with the student using available visual cues for directional control and assertively taking corrective action any time the airplane is not headed in the desired direction; encourage minimal braking initially, so the student can experience the changes in control authority during deceleration. Then teach heavy brake use, as appropriate for the airplane, so the student knows where to draw the line if there is a risk of nosing over.

Crosswinds: Introduce crosswind landings after several successful landings into the wind, in which the student demonstrates touchdown at minimum speed and good directional control on rollout.

Bounced and main-gear-first landings: Recover by smoothly bringing the stick all the way aft.

Go-arounds: Initiate when well into the flare, and also during rollout.

Forward slip in a Pitts Special

Satisfactory completion of Lesson 1 occurs when the student holds selected altitudes within plus or minus 100 feet, headings within 10 degrees, and airspeed within five knots of target. On takeoff and landing, the main gear remain straddling the runway centerline, which is, of course, a judgment call on grass. Depending on the type of airplane, touchdown occurs when the yoke/stick is at full-aft travel. Full aileron-deflection into the wind is smoothly and appropriately applied at or shortly after the upwind main landing gear touches the ground. Again, depending on the type of airplane, the tailwheel may touch down first, or the tailwheel and one main (or both if no crosswind) will touch down simultaneously. The main gear does not touch down prior to the tailwheel. The student must also demonstrate appropriate aileron use any time the airplane is on the ground; until that is consistently demonstrated to the point it becomes second nature, the lesson is not complete. The student recovers from a bounced landing smoothly and uses appropriate judgment as to when to go around, either prior to or after touchdown.

Lesson 2 — Ground Discussion

Review three-point landings, and go-arounds; introduce aborted takeoffs and wheel landings.

Aborted takeoffs: An abort should be considered any time the student is distracted or directional control is questionable for reasons that don't make sense. Because force of impact increases with the square of the speed, if there is some difficulty with directional control during the takeoff roll, aborting the takeoff is probably the better procedure: If you're going to hit something, the slower the better. Further, a distraction, such as a door opening, can lead to a swerve on takeoff that cannot be corrected, so resolve to either abort or go, and don't try to "fix" something during the takeoff roll. While this may sound inconsistent with a go-around during the landing rollout, it is because the matter is a judgment call and should, therefore, be discussed prior to flight.

Discussion of wheel landings: The approach is flown at the same speed as a full stall landing, no faster. This must be fully understood. Extra speed on approach in a tailwheel airplane is generally not a pilot’s friend. An increase of just 10% in approach speed increases the landing distance over 20%; do not tack on any extra speed for a wheel landing. While there are advanced techniques for wheel landings that are airplane-specific (such as holding a constant pitch-attitude and using power to regulate the entire landing, including flare, and then using brakes immediately on touchdown), the general approach is fly a normal approach with a little extra nose down trim, close the throttle prior to or during flare; then flare to a slightly tail-low touchdown. As the mains touch, the back-pressure is relaxed and the trim lowers the nose about a half a degree, which is all that is necessary to get the airplane to stay firmly on the ground. Directional control is critical: Brakes are not used for the initial training, and the tail is held up with forward pressure until the student makes the decision to lower it.

Full flaps are normally used for all wheel landings, to take advantage of the reduced stall speed and drag; the idea is to touch down without excess energy. Most tailwheel airplanes have such effective aerodynamic controls that a high-energy touchdown is simply not needed and adds to the risk during the rollout. In a crosswind, the upwind main touches down well before the downwind main, and full aileron travel is reached, and held, prior to touchdown of the downwind main. The tail is lowered at the student's discretion.

If the airplane bounces, the student should not try to drive it back on or "pin" it to the runway, but should flare again and make a tail-low touchdown on the mains, then relax the back pressure to keep the tail up. If the airplane bounces a second time, the landing should be converted to a three-point landing or a go-around, depending on the student's judgment. Two bounces should be considered the limit—after that the risk of PIO and a prop strike, or worse, goes up radically. If there is any question of directional control or if there are any pitch oscillations after a bounce, a go-around should be performed.

Lesson 2 — Flight

Expected flight time: One to four hours.

Review recovery from swerves while taxiing, three-point landings, and go-arounds; introduce aborted takeoffs and wheel landings.

With warning to the student the first few times, close the throttle during the takeoff roll or initial climb, with sufficient runway remaining to land and stop. Directional control, maintenance of adequate glide speed, and aileron usage for crosswind are the essential items.

Wheel landings to a full stop: Show that the airplane does not have to be driven onto the ground, and that such action is counter-productive in many types. Show how and when to lower the tail, keeping aileron control in for crosswinds.

Go-arounds: Incorporate from wheel landings, including bounced landings.

Convert bounced-wheel landings into three-point landings.

Satisfactory completion of Lesson 2 occurs when the student consistently performs an aborted takeoff, makes wheel landings demonstrating directional control in crosswinds with the main gear straddling the runway centerline at all times, and responds appropriately to a bounced landing.

Lesson 3 — Ground Discussion

Review wheel landings; introduce all emergency procedures not previously covered; introduce short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings.

Review emergency procedures per the POH/Owner's Manual for the airplane.

Soft-field takeoffs: These are made with the tail low, just barely clear of the ground to avoid nose-over (may be airplane specific — some are made with the tailwheel in contact with the ground throughout the takeoff roll).

Soft-field landings: These are three-point or tailwheel first at a minimum descent rate, with some power while the student evaluates the surface and is prepared to go to full power and take off if it is too soft.

Short-field takeoffs: These are made with the minimum drag, which means raising the tail so as to achieve maximum acceleration, and are airplane specific. If the POH calls for use of flaps, deployment may be delayed until just prior to unstick speed to aid acceleration.

Bech 18 wheel landing.

Short-field landings: These landings are airplane specific. Initially, an approach at something less than 1.3 Vso is flown, using power as needed to break the descent/flare, then the throttle is closed and a three-point landing is made with maximum braking, while the flaps are raised to put weight on the mains. More advanced techniques are airplane- and pilot-specific, and involve a wheel landing with maximum braking, with the tail up to put maximum weight on the main wheels, while being aware that it can lead to a nose-over if done improperly. This short-field wheel landing and maximum-braking technique is not a part of a normal checkout for most airplanes unless it is specifically discussed in the POH; otherwise, it is a very advanced procedure for a pilot who knows the airplane extremely well and is going to be landing on extremely short strips.

Lesson 3 — Flight

Estimated flight time: one to two hours.

Review aborted takeoffs, emergencies, wheel landings, crosswinds, and go-arounds; introduce short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings.

Emergency procedures: Practice these, including simulated engine failure (with the throttle to idle) at an altitude of at least 3000 AGL, with a glide to touchdown on a suitable runway.

Soft- and short-field takeoffs and landings: Show how speed control within five knots of target and power control for desired touchdown gives the optimal landing technique.

Satisfactory completion of Lesson 3 and the tailwheel checkout occurs when the instructor is satisfied the student can hold airspeed tolerances within five knots of target, consistently straddles the centerline (or other selected reference) on takeoff and landing, performs emergency procedures as specified, demonstrates retention of memory items, shows appropriate use of checklist follow-up items, invariably holds appropriate aileron deflection while on the ground, and demonstrates suitable judgment in handling swerves, go-arounds, bounces on landing, and unexpected or abnormal developments.

Next month, we'll explore which is better and safer: wheel landings or three-point. Let’s just say that’s a question that generates some strong opinions among tailwheel pilots.

Rick Durden is a CFII and ATP who has been giving tailwheel checkouts for over 40 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 and 2which has been described as the definitive guide to flying tailwheel airplanes.