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Learning to fly tailwheel airplanes will keep you on your toes

You may have heard that tailwheel airplanes can bite you. The ground loop, a phenomenon notorious enough to be familiar to nonpilots, is a scary scenario that typically ends in a cloud of dust, broken airplane parts, shattered pride, and possible injury. Tailwheel airplanes are more susceptible than tricycle-gear airplanes to the dreaded ground loop, which is an abrupt and uncontrolled rotation on the yaw axis that may involve one or more complete rotations. However, there those who believe that pilots who shy away from tailwheel airplanes are missing out on a lot, including the development of potentially life-saving skills, improved spatial awareness, and awareness of the actual purpose—and proper use—of rudder pedals.
Unstable on the Ground

Unstable on the ground

It is important not to take anything for granted in a tailwheel airplane. Even in a low-speed taxi, if a gust of wind catches the pilot off guard, and if the proper crosswind corrections are not in place to begin with, the nose and tail can quickly exchange places, with the result very likely to at least be embarrassing, if not injurious.

Flying a tailwheel airplane requires a somewhat different approach to takeoffs and landings, also.

“In every case, once the tailwheel makes contact, the elevator control should be eased fully back to press the tailwheel on the runway,” the Airplane Flying Handbook explains. “Without this elevator input, the [angle of attack] of the horizontal stabilizer develops enough lift to lighten pressure on the tailwheel and render it useless as a directional control with possibly unwelcome consequences. This after-landing elevator input is quite foreign to nosewheel pilots and must be stressed during transition training.” —JM

You may have heard that tailwheel airplanes can bite you. The ground loop, a phenomenon notorious enough to be familiar to nonpilots, is a scary scenario that typically ends in a cloud of dust, broken airplane parts, shattered pride, and possible injury. Tailwheel airplanes are more susceptible than tricycle-gear airplanes to the dreaded ground loop, which is an abrupt and uncontrolled rotation on the yaw axis that may involve one or more complete rotations. However, there those who believe that pilots who shy away from tailwheel airplanes are missing out on a lot, including the development of potentially life-saving skills, improved spatial awareness, and awareness of the actual purpose—and proper use—of rudder pedals.

Paul Santopietro, who teaches during the summer months in an American Champion Citabria based in Rhode Island and makes frequent use of the beautiful grass runway of Katama Airpark on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, is a champion and a purveyor of tailwheel training. He would just as soon see every pilot spend at least a little time in a tailwheel airplane.

“You really develop really good footwork,” Santopietro said. That footwork, he added, is lacking in many pilots who come to him with long experience in tricycle-gear airplanes. “They don’t really learn to use their feet…whereas if you learn in a tailwheel airplane, like a Citabria, you have to use your feet.” If Santopietro were in charge of airman training requirements, they would include three hours of night flying, three hours under the hood, and five hours of tailwheel time.

“You’d eliminate a lot of problems,” said the veteran instructor, with about 18,000 hours total time—roughly half of that dual given. He added, wistfully: “I’m not dumb enough to think that would ever happen.”

Santopietro is a one-man operation, although he has at times over the years worked with programs designed to train pilots for airline service. He said even for students who have no intention of making a habit of flying tailwheel airplanes, a little tailwheel time can go a long way toward helping push past plateaus and sharpen skills. Because tailwheel airplanes are more demanding of precision when it comes to runway alignment and keeping the wheels and propeller pointed in the correct direction, they inspire a keener sense of motion (spatial awareness) and even the pilot’s seat-of-the-pants sensation of aircraft movement. They also instill a discipline and appreciation of consistency that tricycle-gear airplanes may not.

“You can be very low-skilled, very sloppy, and get away with it, and have a great time flying airplanes,” Santopietro said of the nosewheel aircraft that have come to dominate the general aviation fleet. On the other hand, bearing in mind the aviation community’s passion for managing risk, he argues, “the best way to manage risk is to teach people how to fly.”

Tailwheel Instruction

  • Tailwheel Instruction
    Todd Crist of Kansas gives instruction in a clipped-wing Piper Cub.
  • Tailwheel Instruction
    The simplicity of the Cub's design allows students like Cody Crist, shown here with his father, Todd, to focus on stick-and-rudder skill.
  • Tailwheel Instruction
    Although the tailwheel makes it less stable than later nosewheel designs, the Cub is slow and docile.
  • Tailwheel Instruction
    Some say early tandem trainers like this Piper J–3 Cub inspired the tradition of cutting a student’s shirt tail after the student's first solo flight. With no radio on board, the instructor would tug on a student's shirttail to get his attention; when that advice was no longer needed, the student was ready to fly solo.
  • Tailwheel Instruction
    The classic Piper J–3 Cub was used to teach thousands of pilots during World War II. The beloved design has inspired many similar designs, and is still used for training today. Like other tailwheel airplanes, the Cub is in its natural habitat on grass.
  • Tailwheel Instruction
    Santopietro teaches his students to do three things above all: "Keep it straight with your feet, don't let it drift with your hands, and manage your airspeed."

‘Be a good pilot, first’

In both tailwheel and tricycle-gear airplanes, a pilot uses rudder pedals to control the direction of the nose. In the air, rudder use turns the airplane around its vertical axis and can compensate for adverse yaw during maneuvers such as turns and slow flight. On the ground, many rudder pedals turn a steerable nose- or tailwheel, so pilots steer with their feet.

Airplanes with a conventional—or tailwheel—configuration handle differently on the ground than their tricycle-gear cousins. They are, as the FAA notes in a chapter of the Airplane Flying Handbook dedicated to flying tailwheel airplanes, “inherently unstable on the ground.”

Simply put, any aircraft with a center of gravity behind its main wheels will be disinclined to track straight on its wheels. It will demand constant attention and prompt, smooth, and correct rudder inputs to correct unwanted directional deviations at any time the airplane is in motion on the ground. That’s a lot of extra work that other pilots don’t have to do, but it comes with rewards, too. Developing the required vigilance will carry over to other aspects of flying.

Take, for example, a stall at a slow airspeed with a nose-high attitude. “A lot of people, a wing will drop, and instead of using their feet to pick it up, it’s all opposite aileron,” Santopietro said. This tendency throws open the door to dangerous aerodynamics, including an incipient spin. In Santopietro’s experience, pilots who have become accustomed to working with their feet in tailwheel training are more likely to respond appropriately with rudder.

He teaches his students to do three things above all: “Keep it straight with your feet, don’t let it drift with your hands, and manage your airspeed,” he said. Do those three things consistently, and “you’re probably not going to get in real big trouble.”

Rise of the tricycle gear

The first 30 years of powered flight were dominated by tailwheel designs, which is why they became known as “conventional-gear” airplanes, even though tricycle-gear airplanes today vastly outnumber their conventional counterparts.

The years following World War II brought the arrival of mass-produced, tricycle-gear airplanes. These airplanes might be a little slower and a little heavier, but also had the directional stability to endure pilot inattention to detail. Leave the rudder pedals alone, and the nosewheel-equipped airplane is more likely to roll in a more-or-less straight line.

This is the opposite tendency of a taxiing tailwheel airplane. Trading a large wheel up front for a tiny one at the tail makes an airplane prone to changes in direction—and much more difficult to steer in a straight line, particularly if there is uneven ground or any wind at all.

With all of those disadvantages, what are the upsides and advantages that tailwheel airplanes enjoy? Fun, for one.

Airplanes favored by bush pilots for backcountry flying are usually tailwheels, for a couple of reasons. The nose-high attitude of a tailwheel airplane on the ground keeps the propeller farther from potential ground or obstruction contact, and the overall performance—including useful load—improves in the absence of that heavy nosewheel.

Tailwheel airplanes are also favored in other utility applications including banner towing and aerial spraying. Nearly all aerobatic airplanes are taildraggers.

Despite being fun, as well as better-performing and more versatile, tailwheel airplanes can be more difficult to find, particularly for training. Experienced tailwheel instructors like Santopietro can be scarcer still. If nearby flight schools don’t have any tailwheel aircraft on the flight line, you may find an independent instructor in the region. And if you’re willing to travel to see a specialist, you have more options: Most of the best-known and most experienced tailwheel instructors in the country welcome students who visit for intensive training.

Solid foundation

There are advantages to getting your tailwheel training from the start, or ab initio. More than half of Santopietro’s students get their first flight instruction in his Citabria, perhaps as many as two of every three. There is “absolutely” a long-term advantage, Santopietro said, although students may take a little longer to get signed off for solo flight.

There are no hard-and-fast rules in aviation about how long a pilot should fly before soloing, and some can do it much faster than others, regardless of the landing gear configuration. Santopietro said that for a given student, it might take 20 hours in a Citabria instead of 15 in a Cessna Skyhawk. But the extra time spent with an instructor aboard will pay dividends throughout a flying career, in the form of a solid foundation in basic airmanship.

“If you teach that right from day one, that’s all they know,” Santopietro said. “It makes better pilots.…No question about it that you become a better, safer pilot with even just a little bit of tailwheel time.…You see things in an airplane that you otherwise wouldn’t see.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web
Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.

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