Proficient Pilot

Three-point pilot

March 1, 2003

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff has logged more than 26,000 hours in 275 types of aircraft.

When taildragger pilots gather at their local watering hole for post-flight imbibing, they occasionally engage in that ageless debate about whether the wheel landing is superior to the three-point, or vice versa.

A wheel landing involves touching down on the main gear tires with the tail high and the airplane in an approximately level attitude. A three-point landing, of course, is made in a nose-high attitude with all three tires touching simultaneously.

Some refer to a three-point landing as a full-stall landing, but this is a misnomer. One cannot fully stall a lightplane. Much of the wing continues to develop lift throughout a conventional 1-G stall. In many tailwheel airplanes, an attempt to fully stall the airplane before touchdown often results in landing tailwheel first with the main wheels quickly following (usually with a thump). This only approximates a three-point landing.

Proponents of the wheel landing like that it offers more control of the airplane during the landing process because touchdown occurs at a relatively high airspeed. This also makes it easier to go around in case of a botched landing. They also like that you can more easily touch down at any given point along the runway. Accurate landings are easier.

Those favoring the three-point landing argue that landing slower is kinder to the tires and the rest of the airframe unless, of course, the pilot misjudges and allows the airplane to plop ignominiously onto the ground (what used to be called a pancake landing). Advocates of this technique also like that a three-point landing results in a shorter landing roll because of the lower touchdown speed. It is the landing of choice when operating from unimproved surfaces because it keeps the propeller so much higher above the pebbles.

One cannot deny that wheel landings look racier and have more machismo. They remind us of World War II fighters returning to base. Rarely did they make three-point landings, which is why some believe that real pilots make wheel landings and wimps land with their tails dragging.

The notion that a taildragger can be landed with more control when making a wheel landing is somewhat fallacious. After all, there comes a point after touchdown when the tail must be lowered to the ground and the aircraft placed in a three-point attitude. It is during this transition at reduced airspeed that there is a reduction in the effectiveness of flight controls that is similar to that of a taildragger being flared for a three-point touchdown.

In fact, the tail can be held off the ground longer (at a lower airspeed) during a wheel landing than during a three-point landing. If this were not the case, it would not be possible to raise the tail during the takeoff roll so much before reaching liftoff speed. (Although prop wash during the takeoff roll is helpful in lifting the tail, holding the tail off the ground while below stall speed during a landing rollout proves that the tail can fly more slowly than the airplane, no matter the effect of the prop.) This means that a pilot lowering the tail following a wheel landing often has less rudder and elevator effectiveness than when making a three-point landing.

It is the reduced pitch and yaw effectiveness while lowering the tail following a wheel landing that leads some taildragger pilots to develop an unwarranted concern about making a three-point landing. They have an aversion to a three-pointer because of a false and misleading perception that they might lose too much controllability. In reality, the three-point landing assures better overall control effectiveness than does the wheel landing (especially needed when gusty winds prevail).

There is an exception: landing with strong crosswinds. This is when the wheel landing offers an advantage. The side load on the upwind tire (touchdown is made on only one wheel) combines with the lowered upwind wing to better prevent sideways drift while the tail is airborne. As airspeed wanes during rollout, the downwind wheel touches and contributes additional side load to further combat drift as the wings level.

Stiff crosswinds notwithstanding, I prefer three-point landings in my Citabria and all other tailwheel airplanes I have flown. I recall being cautioned against three-point landings in a Douglas DC-3. But after becoming proficient with wheel landings in the Gooney Bird, I decided to give three-pointers a try anyway. No problem. Most recently I checked out in a 1927 Sikorsky S-38, a remarkable twin-engine amphibian. Then, too, it was suggested that I stick to wheel landings. But three-point landings, I discovered, were delightful.

It's not that I consider myself a great pilot. It's just that three-point landings, I believe, are easier. You simply flare for almost as long as possible while inches above the runway. The airplane reconnects with the Earth when it is ready. Be careful, however, about allowing touchdown with a significant sink rate while the tail is still in the air. With the center of gravity aft of the main gear, momentum forces the tail down. This forces an increase in the wing's angle of attack and causes a bounce. When making wheel landings, you need to know exactly where the bottoms of the tires are. The idea is to roll them onto the turf with virtually no sink rate. This, I think, requires more familiarity with a given airplane than does a three-point landing.

Keeping your feet active after any taildragger landing is essential. A ground loop makes this discussion moot.

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