Tailwheel Flying

When a Trike Turns Tail and Runs

February 1, 1991

I should have quit after the first one. A few feet above the runway, I gently pulled the nose up until all I could see through the little Cessna 152's windshield was the steel gray winter sky. The instructor beside me confidently advised, "Just hold that attitude right there, and try to fly it clear to the other end of the runway." A few seconds later, he dryly continued, "I don't know what you need me here for."

"Are we down?" I asked. He nodded. "Oh." I hadn't even felt the two mains or the tailwheel touch. Though probably half of all my landings have been in Cessna 150s or 152s, this one was different. The nosewheel on this 152 Aerobat had been swapped for a tailwheel in a modification called the "Texas Taildragger" conversion. Those who think they've learned all they can in a 150/152 trainer should find one with a tailwheel conversion and see how wrong they can be.

Once airborne, the converted Cessnas handle much like their stock brethren, but on the ground, you must, as the tailwheel veterans say, fly it all the way to the chocks.

Like many pilots trained in the last couple of decades, I droned around the skies for seemingly countless hours in 150s and 152s enroute to my private certificate. I'd heard about the tailwheel conversions and was curious as to how these trusty little airplanes handled when you move the mains forward, chop off the nosewheel, and tip the fuselage back onto a softball-size tailwheel. To find out, I looked up N761CX, the T/A 152 featured in an _AOPA Pilot_ story back in May 1987 ("Alternatives") about Cessna 150s and 152s and the modifications available. The T in the unofficial designation stands for tailwheel, and the A is for Aerobat, Cessna's moniker for those in the series beefed up and equipped to handle basic aerobatics.

Aircraft Conversion Technologies of Lincoln, California, owns the Texas Taildragger STC. Another company, Bush Conversions of Udall, Kansas, also has a kit for converting the two-seat Cessnas to taildraggers.

In the Texas Taildragger modification, the main gear is moved forward about 30 inches, where it is attached to a new carry-through box located almost under the wing strut. The tail section is beefed up to handle the additional loads. The existing gear struts, leaf spring or tube, can be used, but ACT recommends the leaf-spring gear. For those with tube gear, ACT suggests switching to its specially shaped leaf-spring gear. Those with leaf- spring gear can have theirs reshaped to the ACT configuration. The new shape causes the airplane to sit higher, increasing propeller clearance and providing a better three-point takeoff attitude and a shorter takeoff roll, according to a company spokesman. The price of the kit varies between $2,200 and $2,400, depending on the type of gear used. Installation takes 45 to 50 hours. ACT charges $2,200 for installation at their shop. If you later decide you're tired of tailwheels, the ACT mod can be reversed. Incidentally, a kit to convert 172s to "conventional" gear also is available.

ACT says the center of gravity on its 150/152 conversion is shifted rearward about three quarters of an inch, but there is no change in the envelope. Gross weight does not change because the tailwheel, springs, and steering cables weigh about as much as the departed nose-gear strut. Climb is improved by 100 feet per minute and cruise speed increases by about 7 knots compared to a regular 150 or 152. Takeoff roll decreases by 200 feet.

N761CX now belongs to Tracy A. Beer of Potomac, Maryland. Beer says his airplane does climb slightly faster than a stock 152 but cruises only marginally faster. There is a noticeable takeoff improvement. He bought the airplane when he was learning to fly because he wanted something that was different than the cookie-cutter 150/152s Cessna put out at the rate of more than a dozen a day throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Beer enjoys the physics of flying, and the 152's tailwheel added the mental and physical challenges he sought in his primary training. And while he's now comfortable in a tailwheel airplane, he insisted I fly with his instructor, Walter Rutherford, a CFII who regularly flies his 180 from his home on the Chesapeake Bay to Baja California, Mexico. "I can keep myself out of trouble, but I'm not sure I could rescue someone else," Beer confided.

So with Rutherford strapped in beside me, we taxied out to the runway at Montgomery County Airpark, just north of Washington, D.C. Though it had been years since I'd visited a 152, I felt right at home in the cozy cockpit. By sitting up ramrod straight, I could almost peek over the nose. Only gentle S-turns were needed to see the taxiway before me. The steering — especially without using brakes — is less responsive than with a nosewheel, and I found it necessary to quickly compensate when the airplane headed for the taxiway lights. A touch of brake, though, will cause it to swing around in a hurry.

On the runway, Rutherford advised I line the airplane up straight before gently bringing in the power and adding some right rudder. It seemed we'd hardly started rolling when he suggested a little push on the yoke to bring the tail up and then a tug on the yoke because Charlie X-ray was ready to fly. Just before rotation, he assisted on the rudder as the airplane headed left, while I sat there feeling like a beginning student, feet on the floor.

At a safe altitude north of the airport, he suggested we try some slow flight at about 60 knots. At one point, he told me to hold the attitude as he pulled the power off. "That," he said, "is the attitude you'll want to see right over the runway. Remember it. Let's head back for some landings."

After Rutherford verbally coached me through that first landing and Charlie X-ray slid gently onto the runway and rolled down the centerline, I was beginning to think all this talk about tailwheel airplanes perennially trying to swap ends was a lot of hype. This airplane was as easy to land as a regular old 150. Where's the bite?

I answered my own question on several subsequent landings. I hit slightly tailwheel first on one and got close-up views of the runway lights before Rutherford helped out on the rudder pedals. Another time, the mains hit first, and we bounced down the tarmac. Again I was yards behind the airplane. "Is this the tame Cessna I know?" I wondered.

By the fourth time around, though, I had learned its tricks. The touchdown was fine, but it again headed left. I countered with a quick jab on the right rudder pedal. Just as it started right, I punched left, and down the centerline we went. The airplane and I were friends again. I was in charge, and it was happy to oblige.

Those used to flying regular 150s will insist that part of the tailwheel installation is to cut the rudder in half. Where it seems few rudder inputs are needed to fly the nosewheel model, the tailwheel version demands constant rudder attention on and near the runway.

Just as it is with a nosewheel out front, the 150/152 with a tailwheel is a forgiving, yet mildly formidable trainer. It bites enough to get your attention but is willing and able to put up with the mistakes of students — students of all experience levels.