How To Save a Botched Landing in a Tailwheel

Dan and I were working to get him current in the club Citabria, 901T, on Monday, 22July2019. Immediately below you’ll find Dan’s recounting of the incident, and then you’ll get to read why it was all my fault

“After about 1 hr of pattern work on 28R at MYF, attempting a wheel landing the airplane bounced slightly. In an effort to salvage the landing I pushed the stick forward as the plane was still slightly in the air. The nose pitched down and struck the runway for a brief second. I immediately closed the throttle and the engine continued to run; the plane settled on the runway. It didn’t seem to run rough we continued to taxi clear of 28R but were asked to hold short of 28L. I know it wasn’t long but felt like we sat there for a while, Tower cleared us over 28L. We contacted ground and were cleared to taxi back to Gibbs.
I learned to fly in a Citabria with Dave Derby beginning of 2012. I flew that plane exclusively up until I joined Plus One. A quick check in the log book I have over 600 tailwheel landings. I am proud to say never a scratch.
I understand and had been taught there is no saving a bad tailwheel landing, wheel or three point. There were in that hour probably two others that didn’t look right to me and I did go around. I made a mistake to think that I could salvage this one. I should have gone around and will have no doubt in the future. The lesson learned is for me to use and trust my training. It has never failed me before.”

The reason that this was not Dan’s fault, but mine, is simple: I was the instructor. Dan had flown with two wonderful tailwheel pilots and instructors. He had achieved his private pilot certificate in Dave Derby’s Citabria some years ago. After Dave passed away, Dan wanted to fly the club’s Citabria and started flying with the best pilot at Montgomery, Bob. Bob got busy and passed Dan on to me.

As an instructor with over 9,000 hours of instruction given, and over 3,200 hours in tailwheel airplanes, I know that I should have had a discussion with Dan about how we’d complete his club Citabria check out: the do’s and don’ts, and things about which I feel strongly. I didn’t tell him, for instance (as he knew, and wrote, above), that we never, ever try to save a botched wheel landing. Shame on me. I just assumed that with all the good instruction he’d already had, he’d already know that – and he did, it’s just that we didn’t discuss it and I didn’t emphasize it.

Dan also wrote that “there is no saving a bad tailwheel landing, wheel or three point.” That is true. Have I ever saved bad wheel or three point landings? Yes. Sometimes, with some students who struggle more than others, I’ve gotta save a bad landing or else we’re off into the bushes inspecting the flora and fauna of Montgomery Field – never a happy time. Dan was not one of those students.

The other thing that caused a problem was the number of landings. In general, after fifteen tailwheel landings, pilots get tired. I’ve known this for twenty-one years of teaching tailwheel. It’s exhausting when you’re trying to keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane straight down the runway, no matter what that blasted crosswind is trying to do to you. Now we only flew a total of 1.1 hours on the Hobbs that afternoon – the Montgomery controller working 28R gave us numerous early turnouts and short approaches. But nineteen landings are just too many, and I should have stopped after the fifteenth.

Dan struggled a bit because he was flying an airplane new to him – he only had a couple of hours with Turner in 901T, at an airport where he rarely, if ever, flew. He was also flying with an instructor he didn’t know. I should have made a point to discuss our plan of action with him a whole lot longer before we started flying together.

Nevertheless, we started working the pattern. ATIS Kilo at 19:53Zulu had told us that the wind was 210°@9kts. Now any tailwheel pilot who knows anything will tell you that the Montgomery Tower wind indicator is usually about 30° off from the actual wind on the runway, so Dan was probably dealing with a nearly direct crosswind of 9 knots, and as the hour progressed, it was sometimes blowing 13 or 14 knots.

His 3-point landings were okay, but he was nervous and may have had a bit of a death grip on the stick. (If I were flying an airplane new to me, and had ME sitting behind me, I would have had a death grip on the stick and been nervous too. You never know what a new instructor’s going to do.)
We proceeded to wheel landings and, again, he struggled a bit (new instructor, new airplane, new airport). But he completed two really good wheel landings and I wanted him to experience just one more really good landing before we called it a day – and came back on another day to finish up. That landing was number nineteen.

The set-up was fine and there was nothing wrong with his flare. But the airplane bounced off the runway and probably 5 feet into the air. Before I could correct, Dan shoved the stick forward, the main wheels touched the runway, and I heard a sound I’d never before heard: “Tick, tick,” said the propeller. It wasn’t loud, there was no shuddering of the prop or the engine but it was different. Dan says that he pulled back on the stick – and that may well have been so – but I was pulling the airplane back into the three-point attitude and making sure that the throttle was off. We made an uneventful three-point landing and taxied off 28R at Taxiway Mike.

We taxied back to the parking spot. I did everything one is supposed to do when one damages an airplane in the flying club. I called the owner and left him a message. I called the mechanic and told him what I had done, the damage, and asked him to “maintenance out” the airplane in Schedule Master. I called the Director of Safety and left a message. I called the President of the club because we had a flight scheduled the next day. Then I tried to make Dan more comfortable because he had never damaged an airplane in his life.

Why is it my fault? Duh. It’s always the instructor’s fault. I had only one other experience with a student shoving the stick that far forward and I was able to save that one – I wasn’t quick enough to save this one. Shame on me.

It was my fault because we never had that discussion: “There is no saving a bad tailwheel landing. Just give it power and go around.”

What have I learned? Besides a bunch of humility, I’ve learned that no matter the circumstances, as an instructor you must always have a thorough discussion with a new student about all that is expected, about all we’ll intend to accomplish, about what to do in any situation that may occur during the lesson. “Hey. Let’s get this airplane checkout completed. We’ll stay in the pattern at Montgomery,” ain’t good enough.

So, I hope that all of you Citabria pilots will accept my apology for putting 901T into the shop for at least six weeks. I’ve already apologized to the airplane’s owners. I’m almost done damaging my liver, after damaging an airplane that I love. Never assume anything. Never try to save a botched tailwheel landing – you can’t do it.

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