We tailwheel pilots are a curious lot. We chose the path less travelled, a path filled with potential pitfalls all because we prefer our steering wheel in the back, where it belongs, instead of the front where, we firmly believe, it does not.
An airplane with a nose wheel is a modern invention. In the early days of flight, nearly all airplanes had tailwheels or tail skids. (From whence came the term “taildraggers” because the skid was a source of drag on the ground, with no wheel to facilitate its movement.) In the early days, airports weren’t big, paved lots with concrete runways and asphalt taxiways – they were circles of grass, or dirt, or cinders or gravel, with a windsock which told you the direction of the wind … into which you always landed. Life was simpler then. (That convention of the circular airport continues to this day as you look on any aviation chart and find, in most cases, a circle indicating an airport.)
You flew to an airport, you circled overhead to find which way the wind was blowing, then you landed into the wind. (And, no, you didn’t call a tower for permission because the first tower with a radio didn’t exist until 1930 at Cleveland, Ohio.)
Landing a tailwheel airplane on a runway often involves making allowances for the wind which is usually cross: either crabbing into the wind and kicking the crab out over the numbers and hoping you touch down quickly (very bad idea) or flying a side slip, the wing down method, which involves lowering the upwind wing into the wind and then applying a corresponding amount of opposite rudder to keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane aligned with the runway (the correct way). With the advent of runways, aircraft manufacturers found that airplanes with nose wheels, once on the ground, tended to stay on the ground and remain in the general direction the runway pointed resulting in far fewer “ground loops” which usually damaged airplanes.
Nose wheel airplanes are usually thought to be easier to land. You still have to account for the wind, but, once the nose wheel is on the ground much of your work is done. With a taildragger, once you’re on the ground, your workload increases dramatically. Like I said, er … wrote, we are a curious lot.
If you choose the path less traveled, ‘twill be a rewarding one. When you can control your airplane in any kind of crosswind, you’ve become a pilot with superior skills. Crosswinds scare the bloody bejesus outta most pilots because they’re nervous about cross controlling the airplane; nervous about knowing exactly how much aileron needs to be added into the wind, how much rudder needs to be applied in the opposite direction of the aileron applied; nervous because, as the airplane lands and begins to slow (assuming the crosswind is a constant) the more and more control needs to be applied because the control surfaces become less and less effective.
My tailwheel curriculum is a simple one. First, you buy the book called “The Compleat Taildragger Pilot” by Harvey Plourde. Then you read it. (The chapter on the physics involved in tailwheel takeoffs, alone, is worth the price of the book.)
The first lesson begins with some taxi practice because tailwheel airplanes don’t turn as quickly as nose wheel airplanes. Most tailwheel airplanes have cables that attach the rudder pedals to the rudder. Push left, the rudder turns left; right and it turns right. Attached to the bottom of the rudder is a horn-like affair that connects to the tailwheel by means of springs. So, as you apply, say, left rudder pedal, the left rudder moves, and shortly thereafter the spring attached to the left side of the horn starts to move the tailwheel. On the ground, then, you learn to lead your turns earlier than you would in an airplane with a nose wheel (we taildragger folks call them “training wheels”), and then you start applying opposite rudder well in advance to stop the turn. It’s fun once you get the hang of it – kind of like the thrill you got when you were a kid and graduated from your tricycle to a real bicycle without the training wheels.
Once you get the hang of taxiing (perhaps after 10 minutes), you’ll do the basic airplane checkout – slow flight, stalls, steep turns, engine out maneuver – because you always wanna know how any new airplane FLIES before you start trying to figure out how she LANDS. Then, you go to an airport with a longer runway to start learning the basic 3-point, or full stall, landing.
The second lesson involves perfecting your 3-point landing technique and it may involve a third lesson, just because, as a nose wheel pilot, you never really understood what your feet were for until now.
The next lesson will make you crazy. This is when we introduce the dreaded “wheel landing”. Wheel landings are an abomination. They are against God’s plan. They completely contradict everything you’ve ever learned about landing an airplane – oh, and they’re hard. In a wheel landing, you fly the airplane as close to the runway as you can without touching the ground.
You usually approach the runway anywhere from 5 to 10 kts faster than a 3-point landing and, sometimes, you carry a touch of power to give your rudder and elevator a tad more control. Then, you wait for the airplane to try to land. And, while you wait, you do your best to keep her from landing by applying a touch of back elevator. Then, when she touches the ground all on her own, you do the worst thing any pilot could do in any landing – you push the bloody stick FORWARD. “OMG,” you think to yourself, “I’m going to die.” If that ain’t against God’s plan, nothing is.
Once you push the stick forward (not too far, mind you, else you’ll stick the prop into the runway and cause all kinds of other problems), you do your best to keep the airplane in that “level flight” attitude and, as she slows, you apply more and more forward stick to maintain that attitude until you can’t maintain it any longer, and then you slowly bring the stick back to lower the tail and complete the landing. Oh, and all the while that you’re keeping the stick forward, you’re also applying whatever controls you need to correct for any crosswind that you might be experiencing. Whooeeee, is it fun.
Once you master wheel landings (another lesson or two or three or four – sometimes folks just can’t get next to the idea of pushing the stick forward in the landing on the runway), you’ll get to try to find some crosswinds. The more wind you learn to handle with your instructor, the better prepared you’ll be to handle real crosswinds when you’re alone. Here under SoCal Skies, we’re oftentimes blessed with Santa Ana conditions, when desert winds come whistling in from the northeast. You’ll learn to love Santa Ana winds and, the weather gods willing, we’ll get to practice in them at places like Ramona or even Brown Field. The more wind you can find with your instructor, the happier you’ll be when you find them by yourself. And once you get your tailwheel endorsement, you’ll never, ever, not bloody once, land any airplane with side load (caused by crosswinds) and the owners of every airplane you’ll ever fly will bless you and be happy that you fly their airplanes.
So, yes, we taildragger folk are a curious lot. Wanna come join in the fun?