The Tailwheel Transition

Tailwheel Follies

April 1, 1995

Tips for getting it on the ground

Training for the tailwheel logbook signoff is, in business lingo, cost- effective for the nosewheel pilot. No other training provides as much skill for the buck. In return for about $500, you'll improve your crosswind technique — not to mention your confidence — in any aircraft you fly, make smoother landings, and develop the ability to nail the centerline more often than not. Most important, though, is the fact that taildragger pilots have more fun — especially when landing on grass. You may need to remind yourself of that at first, however, as you swerve down the runway like Bronco Billy after a night in the saloon.

Tailwheel airplanes would rather take off and land tail first, as though they had a pernicious mind of their own. The problem is the location of the center of gravity (behind the main wheels) and the greater fuselage side area behind the main gear on which the wind can act. There should be a logbook column for "Sideways Takeoffs/Landings." Screeching tires become a source of directional information to the novice tailwheel pilot, even in calm winds. The ground loop is the loudest screech of all. The good news is that you can expect to overcome ham-footedness in three or four hours; no kidding.

You'll also gain a sharpened judgment of descent rate. "I hear tailwheel pilots know when they are inches above the runway," said one nosewheel pilot enviously. You bet they do. If they don't, a botched landing could result. There should be another logbook column for "Ground Bounces."

Tailwheel aircraft are most likely to bite the novice pilot during taxi, when landing in crosswinds, or when hand propping an aircraft with no starter. Once in the air it is just another airplane, although most still require remedial training for the rudder-challenged. Here are some tips for preventing taildragger bites.

Hand propping

Your tailwheel trainer may not have an electrical system or starter. Most nosewheel pilots would rather work weight-and-balance problems for eight hours straight than hand-prop an aircraft. Those are the smart ones who understand the danger involved. I experienced those dangers up close one day.

Already grumbling because someone else had booked "my" rental Piper Cub, I began to preflight an Aeronca Champ parked to the Cub's right. The Cub pilot, preflighting at the same time, was ready to start. His preflight activities included advancing the throttle to the full-open position and chocking only the right wheel. Hearing the roar of the engine, I looked up to see the Cub chasing the pilot through a 90-degree turn; it stopped aimed at the Champ, and the pilot was able to enter the cockpit and turn off the engine. The FAA circulated a training film many years ago showing a similar mishap, only the tailwheel aircraft pivoted about one wheel continuously with the pilot's girlfriend inside. Once the aircraft was safely stopped, the girlfriend had to be treated for shock.

Mike Forster of Bay Bridge Aviation in Stevensville, Maryland, has a better idea. He carries a tail tiedown rope and two sets of chocks, one for each main wheel, for use when hand propping alone. He puts the tailwheel directly over a tiedown ring, then ties the rope. There is no slack. Then he primes the engine, but afterward turns the fuel valve off; he knows there is 20 seconds of fuel in the engine with the valve off. If there is a mishap, the problem won't last any longer than 20 seconds. Once the engine starts, he walks around the right wing to the cockpit, turns the fuel on, and adjusts the throttle to idle; there's plenty of time. No need to run. Then he unties the tail rope. The left main chocks are removed next; if the airplane tries to run away, he can hold the left wing strut and replace the chocks. If it doesn't, he next removes the right main chocks while again hanging onto the wing strut. (He can easily reach into the cockpit from that position and turn off the engine if necessary.) Then he gets into the Cub and taxis away, safely.

If there are two pilots available, one sits in the cockpit and holds the brakes. Accident reports show that asking non-pilot passengers — especially children — to sit in the aircraft and hold the brakes does not work.

Taxi

Even the taxi to the runway is exciting in a crosswind. The Cub that turned 90 degrees in its parking spot was later destroyed during a crosswind taxi. The pilot decided to show off by taxiing off the runway while holding the tail up with forward stick pressure. He used no aileron input to counteract the crosswind. When the aircraft — which had flown safely since January 1941 — was fully broadside to the wind, it flipped over. The insurance company listed it as a total loss. Most nosewheel pilots regard rather casually the proper placement of flight controls during taxi in a crosswind; in a tailwheel aircraft, it is a necessity.

Taking off

My first Cub instructor suggested waiting, with the stick full back, until the aircraft had traveled two lengths of its fuselage before raising the tail on takeoff. Ever try estimating distance behind you while looking ahead to keep the aircraft on the center line? Impossible. A better approach is to wait until you have enough airspeed for the controls to be effective. That can be as little as 20 knots indicated.

If you are taking off from soft or rough terrain, don't think in terms of raising the tail; neutralize the stick, and the tail will come up slightly on its own. Continue the takeoff run, and lift off from that tail-low position. There is less chance of nosing over if the wheels should sink into a rut.

Crosswinds

When you get right down to it, the crosswind landing is the biggest challenge facing pilots of conventional gear aircraft (if not to tri-gear pilots as well). The experts suggest you "get your mind right" before attempting such a landing: That is, be more willing to go around than to land.

The tricycle gear pilot can plop the nosewheel on the runway, crabbed or not, and trust the outcome of the landing to the engineers who designed the gear. The tailwheel pilot doesn't have that sort of latitude.

"Don't even think about landing until all sideways drift has been stopped," says Decathlon instructor Carl Austin of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Once the drift is stopped, he uses a two-point touchdown technique. Austin touches down on the upwind wheel first, then settles on the tailwheel before allowing the downwind main wheel to touch. By that time, the stick is all the way into the wind. Austin says he landed safely in a 25-knot crosswind one day by using the technique. It took three go-arounds, but the landing was a safe one.

The wheelie landing

The greatest satisfaction in taildragger transition training comes from learning to do a "wheelie," a landing on the main gear, preferably in calm air. The touchdown must be extremely smooth to avoid bouncing and requires careful control of the descent rate. Once my tailwheel transition training was completed in 1992, I flew to a grass airport 20 miles north of my home airport to do wheelies on the grass. Turns out that was not a good idea. Forster points out that the smaller wheels of the Piper J-3 could easily get caught in a rut, causing the aircraft to nose over. Grass runways, therefore, call for three-point, full-stall landings. Save the wheelies for hard-surface runways. Oversize tires, of course, are less likely to get caught.

Once trained on old-fashioned tailwheel aircraft, many pilots enjoy them so much they rarely return to the nosewheel world. Maybe it's time to try something new by doing something old.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.