Most pilots find tailwheel airplanes more difficult to land than those with tricycle gear, but that’s hardly the whole story; taildraggers are trickier just to taxi. The FAA has recognized this by requiring a specific endorsement from an instructor to act as pilot in command of a tailwheel airplane. (The amount of training required is left to the instructor’s discretion; curiously enough, the CFI need not have any specialized training beyond a tailwheel endorsement of his or her own, itself only implicitly required by the need to act as PIC while giving that tailwheel instruction.)
Of course, once upon a time everyone trained in taildraggers because that’s all there were. Tricycle-gear airplanes didn’t enter the general aviation market in quantity until after World War II and remained uncommon until at least the late 1950s. With less to learn about airspace, radio communications, and electronic navigation, it wasn’t unusual for pre-war student pilots to solo in their first 10 hours. (It also helped that in those days most small airfields were just that: open fields without defined runways, allowing pilots to take off and land into the wind with no worries about runway alignment or crosswind components.)
So clearly new students can learn to fly in taildraggers, and some still do. The Air Safety Institute’s review of instructional accidents over the past 10 years found that just under 10 percent of all primary fixed-wing training accidents (126 of the 1,306 total) were in fixed-gear singles with tailwheels. No individual model dominated, although the usual suspects—Champs, various flavors of Cubs, and Cessna singles—all showed up in double digits.
Anyone around for last issue’s installment may recall that we introduced a new benchmark to gauge an airplane’s friendliness to beginners: the ratio of the number of accidents on student solos to those during dual instruction. The thinking was that instructors should know how to fly the airplanes they teach in, so accidents on dual flights represent the irreducible risk posed by the fact that sometimes things just happen (and the eternal uncertainty over how long to let a student thrash around before taking the controls). Like some of the more inventive baseball statistics, it’s easier to compute than to prove it actually means anything. Still, it offers some interesting comparisons, and with no data on training time by make and model, it’s about as good as we’ve got.
Last issue’s readers saw that fixed-gear Cherokees suffered 1.67 solo accidents for every one during dual. In Cessna 150s and 152s, the ratio was a little more than two, and in 172s it was more than three. In that context, the results for taildraggers come as something of a surprise: Those 126 accidents break down as 56 during dual instruction versus 70 on student solos, a ratio of just 1.25. That’s the lowest of any group of training aircraft we’ve examined, almost 45 percent below the combined ratio of 2.20 for all tricycle fixed-gear singles.
Of course, there are at least two ways of getting there. Students could be having fewer accidents, or their instructors might be having more. Looking specifically at bad landings, forever the bane of student pilots, suggests that we may be seeing some of both. Landings accounted for about 30 percent of all dual accidents in tricycle-gear airplanes, ranging from 13 percent in the Cessna 150 to 35 percent in the 172. They made up 41 percent in tailwheel models, suggesting that even CFIs may find those airplanes harder to handle. On student solos, on the other hand, the proportion of accidents that occurred during landings was almost constant: 64 percent of the total in all tricycle-gear models, 63 percent in taildraggers. The solo-to-dual ratio for landing accidents was nearly 60 percent lower in tailwheel airplanes, just 1.91 compared to 4.63 with tricycle gear.
And those figures mask another interesting distinction. More than 80 percent of the accident tricycle-gear aircraft were high-wing models (as were essentially all of the taildraggers, 123 of 126). It turns out that the share of student accidents during landings was 15 points higher in the high-wing than the low-wing designs (67 percent versus 52), and at 5.82 the corresponding solo-to-dual ratio was two and a half times the 2.35 observed in low-wing airplanes. Of course, that figure is still 20 percent higher than in the tailwheel models, so we’re left to wonder: Do tailwheel instructors require their students to demonstrate greater proficiency before they’ll sign them off to solo? Or when it’s all new anyway, is it just as easy to learn to use the rudder from Lesson One? Are the students who seek out conventional gear—or the instructors who teach it—a different breed, or is this another example of insurance requirements ruling the world?
Or might the industry’s safety record improve if we went back to starting all new students in taildraggers?