Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Landing a tailwheel

In crosswind, are wheel landings always best?

Videos on the internet are great for aviation. A lot of them are accurate and informative, but occasionally I run across one that I disagree with. Recently I watched a video produced by a famous, better-looking-than-me pilot that produced both pause and disagreement. The sticking point with me was the pilot’s recommendation that tailwheel pilots use a wheel landing in a crosswind.

Tailwheel landing

In the era before flight manuals (see “Tailwheel History”), crosswind landings were done in the three-point landing attitude with one main wheel down with the tailwheel. As the airplane decelerated the other main was placed down. Many videos these days have advised to use the wheel landing in such cases. I began flying tailwheels in the 1970s and performed wheel landings for strong gusty headwinds. It wasn’t until the late 2000s when I got back into GA flying after my military and airline careers, that I even heard of crosswind wheel landings.

The theory behind wheel landing in crosswinds is that you fly faster, making the crosswind a lesser percentage of your overall speed, perhaps giving your rudder and aileron more control. Here’s the thing: When you do a wheel landing in a crosswind you are only putting one wheel on the runway. The drag created causes a lot of flight control actions at that point and if not done precisely that wheel becomes a pivot point. Any number of issues can cause unexpected control issues such as gyroscopic effect, P-factor, torque, and wind gusts. There are videos on the internet of at least two ground loops in the past two years using this technique. Landing in the three-point attitude allows better directional control with at least two wheels on the runway.

Another consideration with the wheel landing technique is energy. Specifically, the more energy at touchdown the more you will need to lose to complete the landing. Even more troubling, you will have more energy if a ground loop results which will cause even more damage. Often tailwheel pilots attempt to lose the energy with the use of wheel brakes on landing. There is only one thing in aviation that I as an instructor cannot fix: the application of brakes by a client on the runway. I do not use brakes on the runway with tailwheel aircraft. It takes a small error in the application of brakes to put the tailwheel outside the mains which will cause a ground loop every time. General aviation has five ground loops a week on average over the past 20 years, according to Aviation Safety magazine.

Some tailwheel aircraft have as the tailwheel unlock mechanism, a push forward on the stick. Recently a P–51 pilot attempted a crosswind landing and with one wheel down the pilot pushed forward like many Cessnas and other GA tailwheel aircraft do in a wheel landing to plant both wheels on the runway. The problem was he unlocked the tailwheel to swivel and when he did touch the tail down, he destroyed a perfectly fine aircraft in a hair-raising ground loop.

I teach wheel landings, but only for strong and gusty headwinds on landing. I also acknowledge that in some aircraft like the DC-3, three-point landings are not recommended because if a mistake is made the pilot could break the tail. In this case, tail-low wheel landings are the norm. Here is a summary of my thoughts on most tailwheel aircraft and crosswinds:

First, evaluate the wind. If the direct crosswind component is more than 20 percent of your landing configuration stall speed, find another place to land into the wind. When planning a cross-country always plan to airports with a cross runway of more than 45 degrees or with a close alternate with a runway at least 45 degrees from your destination runway direction.

Once again, I use the three-point attitude, with wing low into the wind, I strive to touch down the upwind main gear and tail wheel together. Now with two wheels on the ground the airplane is less susceptible to drift, the tailwheel helps with directional control, and there isn’t any of the gyroscopic, torque, and P-factor turning tendencies the wheel landing encounters. It is also in a much lower energy state than a wheel landing. As the airplane slows, I can lower the downwind wing to the runway.

My dad learned on J–3 Cubs in the late 1940s. He shared this with me in the 1970s. For 50 years it has worked for me flying J–3 Cubs, Super Cubs, Fairchild 24s, Cessnas, Great Lakes, Citabrias, Stinsons, Stearmans, and the T–6. I have more than 24,000 hours with more than 100 hours in each of the mentioned aircraft. But what do I know, I’m not famous. Or at least, I hope not.

Tom Rogers is a NAFI Master CFI.

Related Articles