To dazzle or not to dazzle—that’s this month’s “Dogfight” topic. AOPA ePublishing Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller and Editor at Large Dave Hirschman debate the merits of the wheel landing.
By Alyssa J. Miller
A wheel landing might dazzle airport onlookers—for show, some pilots keep the tail up until the airplane comes to a stop—but why needlessly increase your risk of nosing over or ground looping? A three-point landing takes as much skill, timing, and finesse to grease as a wheel landing. And, I guarantee your smile will be just as big whether you hear two or three wheels roll on, because you know you’ve mastered directional control, drift, and rate of descent.
What’s the fascination with keeping the tail up for landing, anyway? During any other ground operation, we want the tail on the grass, dirt, gravel, or pavement, period. During startup, we hold the stick back to keep the tail down. During taxi, we position the controls for the wind conditions to ensure the tail stays down. On takeoff, we let the tail come up as the aircraft accelerates instead of forcing it up prematurely. It’s basic, but we do it every time. As we learned from our tailwheel training and the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook, keeping the tail on the ground improves steerability, gives us better directional control, and keeps the airplane from nosing over. So don’t buck convention. The touchdown is a ground operation (it’s the approach that’s an air operation); use what always works on the ground.
The goal for landing a tailwheel, just like a nosewheel, should be to touch down at full stall. And, the more points of contact we have with the ground, the better the control. Landing in the three-point attitude also removes the dicey transition of letting the tail down after a wheel landing. As airflow decreases over the tail to allow it to come down, your rudder authority will decay, making directional control more difficult. Yet, the airplane is still traveling faster than if had touched down at full stall. When I’m on the ground, I want to be slow and in control to minimize errors and decrease the chances of causing damage to the aircraft if something does go wrong.
A wheel landing will preserve forward visibility, but unless you are landing with some kind of obstacle right in front of you—in which case you might want to reconsider the landing—the forward visibility shouldn’t matter.
Are there times when a wheel landing is appropriate? Sure. Wind conditions, the type of operation, and pilot preference play a factor. That’s why it pays to be proficient with both types of landings. But don’t pass up the three-point for the riskier wheel landing just because it looks and feels cool. Otherwise, you could be setting up a show that you’ll pay for later, and nobody wants to see that.
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By Dave Hirschman
Thomas Jefferson has been quoted as saying he had “nothing but contempt for anyone who could spell a word only one way,” and that pretty much sums up the way I feel about tailwheel landings.
Pilots ought to do what’s appropriate for any given set of conditions.
If it’s a short or rough airfield, or the airplane has minimal prop clearance, make a three-point landing. If it’s a narrow runway, or you’re part of a formation that requires preserving forward visibility, make a wheel landing. Be proficient at both so you can make the right choice without worry or bias.
If you only have a hammer in your tool bag, every situation looks like a nail—and that’s a sad and colorless way to go through a life of flying.
Some of the best, most precise pilots I’ve ever seen are crop dusters, and watching them fly is educational. They tend to defy both windsocks and conventional wisdom by landing toward the loading truck, and then turning around and taking off away from the loading truck. So unless it’s dead calm, or there’s a direct crosswind, one of those two is going to take place down wind.
On a blustery March day during fertilizer season, I watched the skilled pilots at Stokes Flying Service make scores of landings on a narrow dirt runway in the Mississippi Delta, and there was almost no variation. Each was a tail-low wheel landing. This technique offered the best of all worlds: A low approach speed with minimal energy to dissipate on the ground, and excellent forward visibility so they could avoid running over the loading truck.
Another wheel landing benefit is for the tailwheel assembly itself. There’s less impact and tire wear, and a reduced risk of destructive shimmying.
Three-point-landing zealots, and aviation insurance adjusters, make some good points when they talk about the inherent hazards of wheel landings. Many airplanes (and pilot egos) have been bruised by botched attempts involving excessive airspeed, multiple bounces, and elephant-footed braking. (Search YouTube for “ground loop” to see many nightmarish video examples.)
Pilots tend to be optimists, however, and that’s particularly true of those of us who fly tailwheel airplanes. We like challenges and seek them out. Our reward is the satisfying chirp of a well-executed wheel landing. And I’ll take that sweet sound over the sorrowful moans of the three-point-only crowd every time.
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