Technique: All the way to the chocks

The art of mastering crosswind landings—in a tailwheel aircraft

July 1, 2013

Partial flaps with the upwind wing held low help counter a crosswind blowing from left to right on this landing.

The windsock indicated a direct and very strong crosswind as the clipped-wing J–3 Cub touched down on the runway. The pilot, Jimmy Gist, was doing a masterful job of putting the feather-light airplane down on its main wheels and tracking the centerline despite the stiff winter wind.

“Nice landing!” I blurted out from the passenger seat. But Gist, a drawling Texan, former fighter pilot, and air racer, deflected my compliment in a typically understated way. “It ain’t over yet,” he said laconically as his hands and feet worked quickly and decisively to lower the tailwheel to the runway surface, raise the upwind aileron, and track the centerline. “In fact, it’s just getting interesting.”

Gist’s skill, focus, and it’s-not-over-until-it’s-over mindset perfectly illustrate the pilot mantra of flying the airplane “all the way to the chocks.”

There are two strategies for landing a tailwheel airplane in a crosswind, and they are identical to those available to nosewheel pilots: wing-low forward slip or crab and kick. The difference is that, once a tailwheel pilot arrives at the runway, he or she faces the additional choice of making a three-point or main-wheel touchdown.

A wing-low, three-point landing is a bit of a misnomer since there are really only two points of contact with the ground (the upwind main wheel and the tailwheel). But the familiar full-stall landing has the advantages of lower forward speed at touchdown, a shorter ground roll, and greater prop clearance.

A wing-low, main-wheel landing gives the pilot more forward visibility, and slightly higher forward speed enhances rudder authority at touchdown.

(The crab-and-kick method is primarily used for low-wing airplanes—or biplanes—with little wing tip ground clearance, and heavy multiengine aircraft.)

The best technique depends on the type of airplane you’re flying, and the nature of the runway. If the runway is long and narrow, a wheel landing that preserves forward visibility would seem like the way to go. If it’s short or soft, a three-pointer that minimizes ground roll and maximizes prop clearance would be favored. If there’s a combination (short and narrow, or long and soft), use your best judgment.

Your airplane and the way it’s loaded also figure into landing choices. If the airplane’s center of gravity is near the forward limit, or you’re using full flaps, a wheel landing may be in order. If your airplane has a center-section flap (North American T–6 for example) that tends to blank the rudder, a three-pointer would be preferable.

My personal method for landing tailwheel airplanes in crosswinds involves a conscious act of self-deception. I tell myself on final approach that every landing is going to be full stall—even though I know intellectually it may not turn out that way, and here’s why.

I make better main-wheel landings when I’m trying to full stall. And after many years of providing tailwheel instruction in a variety of aircraft, I think most other pilots do, too. In a full-stall landing, we’re actively working the stick aft in ground effect all the way to touchdown, and the rate of descent becomes almost nil—and that’s a perfect setup for a main-wheel landing.

If I’m in ground effect and the main gear happens to roll on, I recognize that the Sky Gods have just given me the gift of a tail-low wheel landing, and my best course of action is to graciously accept. Forward stick pins the main gear on, and then I “fly” the tailwheel to the ground. (Remember, the tail hasn’t stalled yet. Bring it down too fast and the wing angle of attack increases, and you’re likely to become airborne again.)

Once the tailwheel touches, lock it on with full aft stick. Angle of attack can’t increase anymore, so there’s no need to be shy. Full back stick puts weight on the tailwheel and enhances steering. As the airplane decelerates, hold down the upwind wing with aileron. At the end of the landing roll, the stick should be in the rear corner: full aft, and full up-aileron (on the upwind side).

If while attempting a three-point landing I actually touch down in a three-point attitude, great. That’s what I intended all along, right? Keep the stick full aft, hold the upwind wing down with aileron, and use quick taps of the rudder to keep tracking the centerline.

The most common crosswind errors I see among tailwheel pilots are:

  • Pilots attempting wheel landings wrongly (and usually unconsciously) relax back pressure a moment before touchdown. Their rate of descent increases, the main wheels touch too firmly, the tail drops, angle of attack increases, and they are airborne again. (The stick should be moving aft at the moment the main wheels touch.)
  • Pilots overestimate crosswinds, touch down with too much correction, and tend to depart on the downwind side of the runway. (Anticipate that crosswinds may diminish close to the surface.)
  • Pilots carry excessive speed and fly shallow, powered approaches in a mistaken belief that they must touch down in a level attitude for successful wheel landings. (What they actually need is a rate of descent near zero at the moment of touchdown, and a tail-low attitude is optimal.)
  • Pilots intentionally touch down on the downwind side of the runway knowing that a loss of directional control could cause them to weathervane into the wind, and more distance from the upwind edge of the runway gives them a wider margin for error. (Straddle the centerline, correct deviations immediately, and never surrender directional control.)

The final piece of the puzzle is recognizing that, even with perfect technique, crosswinds may exceed aircraft limitations. If full aileron can’t keep the upwind wing down, or full rudder deflection can’t keep the nose tracking the centerline, solve the problem with your throttle hand. Your supple wrist should be spring-loaded to go to full power at the first sign of trouble, even if the trouble begins on rollout when all three wheels are on the runway.

Power up and go around. Fly to another airport that has a runway better aligned with the wind.

And when you get there, keep flying all the way to the chocks.


Jay scenario

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