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CFI to CFI

Rudder is the key

Teaching the tailwheel transition

Have you turned base over the same grain silo so many times that you can tell by the length of its shadow how close it is to milking time? Think you could probably land that Piper Warrior in a crosswind, at night, in the rain, with one eye closed? Getting a little bored doing turns about a point? Perhaps a twist in your CFI duties would brighten your day. Have you considered tackling taildraggers, formerly known as conventional gear aircraft, the ones with the third wheel in the rear?

Back when the world was new, taildraggers ruled the tarmac. Landing gear remained relatively unchanged for a few decades until the late 1930s when Ercoupe designed the first production tricycle-gear airplane. William T. Piper of J-3 Cub fame followed on in the early 1950s with the Piper Tri-Pacer; Cessna got on board with tricycle-gear versions of the Cessna 140 and 170 (the Cessna 150 and 172).

More than a half-century later, one need only scan the pages of an aviation magazine or walk across any GA airport ramp to see that the taildragger is alive and well. A handful of start-up aircraft manufacturers are producing new taildraggers, and a few old-line manufacturers have continued or restarted production of classic models. Several entrants in the burgeoning Light Sport aircraft market are tailwheel-equipped, and some of the most popular amateur-built designs today have tailwheels.

Training Trends

A few things have changed over the years. Since most modern pilots are familiar only with nosewheel airplanes, the potential for accidents in taildraggers became worrisome to the insurance industry and the FAA. Nearly 15 years ago, the regulations were changed to require that pilots get specific training and an endorsement before operating a tailwheel-equipped airplane. It wasn't that taildraggers were inherently dangerous or difficult to fly, but they have decidedly different handling characteristics than tricycle gear aircraft, particularly on landing. Pilots who had logged pilot-in-command time in taildraggers before April 15, 1991, were exempt from this endorsement.

As a new generation of pilots looks back to the roots of aviation, there is a resurgence of desire to experience the romance of taildragging first hand. As a blossoming market, it's custom-made for any CFI who is current and proficient in conventional gear aircraft and is ready for a change of pace in instruction.

The skills learned in mastering taildraggers, particularly proper use of the rudder, are invaluable tools that transfer to all other facets of flying. It is often said that a pilot truly doesn't know what his feet are for until mastering the skill of landing a tailwheel-equipped airplane.

A competent, well-trained tricycle-gear pilot should have no trouble transitioning into a taildragger in fewer than 10 hours. Expect 40 to 70 landings for most pilots to really acquire the skill to operate safely on their own. Insurance requirements for a new taildragger pilot vary, but generally, a pilot is insurable in a lower-performance taildragger with 10 hours of dual instruction logged and insurable for carrying passengers with 25 hours of total tailwheel time.

The tailwheel transition is an excellent time to teach other aviation basics that may have been overlooked in previous training or forgotten. These could include: control positioning while taxiing, proper use of brakes, tie-down technique, ground handling, hand propping, and pilotage.

Just climbing into a taildragger can be an alien experience for the uninitiated pilot. A stick instead of a yoke can be confounding at first, as can using the left hand on the throttle instead of the right hand. Heel brakes are usually a mystery to the novice taildragger pilot as well. Many older taildraggers lack electrical systems, so a review of the federal aviation regulations and the Aeronautical Information Manual regarding airspace requirements for non-radio aircraft could be in order unless a handheld transceiver is used.

Build on the blocks of learning that are already in place. A taildragger landing in a three-point stance has an approach, flare, and touchdown profile virtually identical to that of a tricycle-gear aircraft. Perhaps more than for any other type of instruction, a toy or model airplane is a very important prop when explaining takeoff and landing technique.

While you might allow your tricycle-gear students to touch down in a crab with no adverse result other than a loud screech and a jerking motion, allowing them to do the same thing in a the taildragger can be much more dramatic. The longitudinal axis of the airplane must always be lined up with the centerline of the runway to produce a desirable landing.

If you're in need of a brush-up on tailwheel technique yourself, don't be afraid to branch out and seek alternative resources. The finest taildragger pilot on our field holds nothing higher than a private pilot certificate. However, his thousands of landings in dozens of different types of taildraggers qualify him as an expert on the topic. Pilots seeking expert tailwheel instruction regularly seek him out. Although he cannot endorse a logbook since he is not a CFI, many local pilots have learned the proper technique of handling tailwheel aircraft from him.

A taildragger is no trickier to fly than a tricycle-gear airplane, but it is definitely less forgiving of poor piloting technique. And our job as instructors is all about improving piloting technique.

Practical tips for taildragger instruction

  • Establish strict wind limits for yourself and for your students. If there is no published data regarding maximum demonstrated crosswind component, check with others who own the same type.
  • If the wind does not favor the runway of intended landing, don't be afraid to use another runway or even another airport.
  • Until a taildragger is securely tied down or hangared, it is far more susceptible to being "managed" by the wind than its tricycle-gear counterpart. Teach students from the beginning to "keep flying until reaching the ramp."
  • Be sure to conduct a thorough briefing on basic taildragger aerodynamics before the first lesson. It's not complicated to explain why a taildragger behaves like it does and the student learns easier knowing the underlying basics.
  • Don't feel bad about taking over from a student at an earlier point than you might in a tricycle-gear airplane. Proper rudder control is paramount and must be stressed from the beginning. The student will learn how far is too far from your overriding rudder input.
  • Don't assume all taildraggers are flown alike. Three-point landings are the rule with some types, wheel landings with others. Be sure you know the manufacturer's requirements and recommendations.

Mastering taildraggers is a deeply satisfying personal experience, but teaching the fine art of taildragging can revitalize a jaded CFI's outlook on life. Psychologist Abraham Maslow termed it "self-actualization," but experienced tailwheel CFIs express the deep contentment of tailwheel mastery differently, often through an open cockpit door or window on takeoff. They pronounce it "Wahoo!"

J.J. Greenway is chief flight instructor for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Formerly a widebody captain and check airman with American Airlines, he has been an active CFI since 1980 and has 13,300 hours.

By J.J. Greenway

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