Taking on the Tailwheel

By Kris Lichter and Glenn Daly

Kris: One of the things you learn about pilots as you become one yourself is that there are different strokes for different folks. Some people live to fly high and fast, others love cruising low and slow. Some live to punch through clouds, and some get giddy over pulling Gs. But most pilots are the same: we want to do it all, or at least as much as our bank accounts and life commitments allow.

Personally, I just want to be the best pilot I can be, and that means constantly learning and being challenged. When I set out five years ago to get my private ticket, I wrote down a list of ratings and endorsements that would help me grow. High on that list was getting my tailwheel stripe.

Why did flying taildragger or ‘conventional’ aircraft matter so much to me? Four words: stick and rudder skills. There really are few better ways to significantly improve your ability to control any aircraft than being able to fly (or more accurately, land) a tailwheel airplane. You simply can’t get away with being sloppy managing wind conditions, p-factor or approach speeds the way you sometimes can in a nose wheel airplane.

But there was another reason I wanted to learn the art of the taildragger: it looked like a ton of fun. I could also see how much it opened the door to a whole range of backcountry activities that were right up my alley. So when it was time to start this next chapter in my logbook, I found the ideal partner in crime, CFII (and professional mischief-maker) Glenn Daly.

Glenn: So I get an email from Kris inquiring about tailwheel instruction. I’m always delighted when a club member decides that he or she is done struggling with crosswinds and wants to become a real pilot – and tailwheel training will do that in spades.

Through ensuing conversations, I discover that Kris is a tad cocky, having been trained by a good instructor who put a fine point on knowing your stuff. Now a cocky tailwheel trainee can be a problem. I mean, you’ve gotta be a little cocky to take on the tailwheel challenges, but too cocky and you might believe that your skills are better than what they are – and when you bring that to tailwheel training, you can be quickly humbled.

So I accepted Kris, with a slight mental reservation, and gave him a précis of how the training would go. I was delighted to learn that he had already read the best book ever written about tailwheel flying (The Compleat Taildragger Pilot by Harvey Plourde) and would be happy to revisit the important points.

A good attitude is critical in a new tailwheel candidate and, despite my initial concern over his cockiness, I thought that the training would go well.

Kris: Cocky?! I’d suggest I was attempting to convey ‘proactive aviation enthusiast’. In any case, off we went on our tailwheel training. If I was cocky in any way, Glenn quickly disabused me of that as he had me taxi in Champ 23E all over the godforsaken KMYF tarmac. You see, taxiing is actually something you have to pay attention to in a tailwheel. By the time we lined up at 28R for our first takeoff, my legs were shaking from overuse. And that was before the flying. We flew to Brown where Glenn used its long runway and the Champ’s just-above-a-crawl speed to demonstrate three-point landings and then let me ‘attempt’ them. To say they were ‘attempts’ is being kind. But I was hooked.

Glenn: The first tailwheel flight is always interesting. You learn how to taxi, first, which may take five or ten minutes of practice around unsuspecting transient airplanes on the ramp. Then you learn how the airplane flies. A tailwheel airplane flies just like any other airplane, and you always want to learn how a new airplane flies before you learn how it lands. So you practice steep turns, slow flight, power off an on stalls and then simulate an engine out to see how she glides … then, and only then, can you start figuring out how she lands.

With Kris, he took to the training quickly. The taxi practice was easy for him, no matter what he says. Learning how to make coordinated turns took longer because the Champ isn’t the most responsive of airplanes and the rudder is enormous – so it was easy to skid the airplane, and skidding is not how you want to turn.

Once he figured out how she flew, he quickly figured out how to make a 3-point landing – his third was completely unassisted, and that’s remarkably ahead of the normal learning curve. On the first lesson, I allow a student to make three landings and then we return to MYF. Kris did seven, each better than the one before – and he wanted to do lots more. Learning new skills takes a lot out of you and figuring out tailwheel landings can be exhausting. I didn’t want Kris to burn out – or start thinking that “This tailwheel thing is easier than I thought.”

Unfortunately, Kris’ business kept him from flying again for over a month. Tailwheel training works quickest when the learning sessions happen only a few days apart – even a week apart. More than a month makes it tougher – as he quickly learned.

Kris: Over the coming weeks and months, we did dozens of takeoffs and landings, and I learned several important lessons. First, I was very glad to have a patient, competent instructor who was deeply experienced in tailwheel airplanes. As Glenn said, you can bend the airplane and yourself fairly quickly if you’re not on your game (and I often wasn’t). Takeoffs require you really pay attention to p-factor, prop wash over the control surfaces, and of course (always), wind direction. Did I mention wind direction was important?

I really got a kick out of learning to raise the tail during the initial roll and keeping it in the right spot as we built up rotation speed. After that, flying the Champ is somewhat like every other piston airplane – once you get the hang of how it handles, it’s not particularly any more challenging to fly than another. That’s until the landing. That’s where it gets fun, depending on your definition of ‘fun’.

Glenn: It was that next flight, (eight weeks later actually) when Kris started to understand how complicated a tailwheel landing can be. The wind was a tad more challenging and his first few 3-point attempts were “interesting”. He’d try to land it too high and … CLANG … drop it in; or he’d forget to get the stick back as soon as he landed so we’d go boing-boing-boinging down the runway in the tailwheel porpoise, known as a “crow hop”. But after the sixth or seventh 3-point, he started to regain the form that he’d shown on his first session.

His next session happened a month later and, after getting comfy at MYF with some 3-points, we started working on wheel landings or “wheelies” as we taildragger weenies call them. If you believe in a god, wheel landings are against that god’s plan. All of your flight training has taught you to land the airplane on the main wheels and, once on the ground, to use that aerodynamic braking to slow the airplane down. If you ever tried to push the yolk (or stick) forward whilst attempting to land, your instructor would shriek. And in wheelies, as soon as your main wheels touch down, YOU PUSH THE STICK FORWARD. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH … I’M GONNA DIE.”

Well, you don’t die. You learn how to control the airplane in the wheelie, just as you learned to control the airplane when you first learned to solo. It just takes practice, a certain amount of finesse, and a whole lotta skill.

Kris took to wheelies quicker than most. The Champ has what Aeronca called its “No Bounce” landing gear. The main wheels are connected to the landing gear by means of oleo struts that compress when the weight of an airplane is applied. So your wheels touch down on the runway, and then the “no bounce” gear kind of oozes the rest of the weight of the airplane about an inch lower. Most tailwheel landing gear is “spring steel”. Drop an airplane onto the runway with spring steel gear and the ensuing bounce will be quite impressive – Superman wishes he could bounce so high.

Kris: Wind direction and correction. From the time you’re downwind until the time you’re ‘master-switch off’ at the hangar, tailwheel flying demands your constant attention to the wind and how to correct for it. Ignore it at your peril. Across our sessions, Glenn really helped improve my knowledge of how the wind was affecting our approach, my choice of landing (three-point or wheel) and the rollout, all while making sure we didn’t find ourselves enjoying the panoramic view that comes from a ground loop. He did this with the kind of sarcastic sense of humor only the best of us appreciates. Instead of being tired after a dozen touch-and-goes, I enjoyed myself so much that I was always sad it was over, and ready for more.  Oh, and wheelie landings are something to be experienced – I dug ‘em!

Glenn: After two more sessions – one of which showed a nasty southwesterly crosswind – I signed Kris’ tailwheel endorsement. It helped that the two sessions occurred on ensuing days and the muscle memory and sight pictures were fresh in his mind.

He took the training seriously and in the training discovered the joy that all his tailwheel sisters and brothers experience. People are drawn to flight for different reasons, but in the thirty-nine years since I first took flight a recurring theme is evident. Those of us who fly are different. John King thanks people when they tell him that he’s not “normal”. No pilot is normal – we’re a select few and one of the things we all have in common is a desire to excel at a craft that requires a great deal of skill and practice. Most of us love to fly because it requires hard work to develop those skills – and when you apply yourself to hard work, the results are evident in the skills you acquire.

Tailwheel training is difficult – but if I can teach it, absolutely anyone can learn it. It requires hard work, practice, patience and desire. But when you make your first unassisted tailwheel landing the joy you experience is indescribable. And … when you make your first unassisted wheelie, you’re on top of the world. You may want to give it a try.

Kris did, and now he’s a real pilot – and he’s practicing that hard-earned skill to hone it. Was it worth it? Ask him.

Kris: Absolutely worth it. Tailwheel training was as challenging as I’d thought, but I actually wasn’t prepared for how much fun it really was. As with many things in life, such satisfaction comes from taking on a challenge that isn’t for everybody. Like passing a check ride, getting Glenn’s endorsement meant a lot because the training wasn’t a cakewalk. You can bet I’ll apply the insights and skills I gained from this experience to all my flying. And I’m thankful to Glenn for his guidance and friendship, and looking forward to picking up more wisdom from him and the other taildragger pilots that frequent the legendary Stearman Ale House on the field. After all, tailwheel training has its privileges. So go give it a shot!

Posted in Training Topics