The Ground Loop

Writing about one’s own stupidity is never easy – especially when that stupidity had government witness. Nonetheless, enough time has passed to assuage the embarrassment and psychic pain, so let me tell you about my ground loop.
First, for those of you who aren’t tailwheel pilots and don’t quite understand the term “ground loop”, let’s describe it.
A ground loop happens when, for any number of reasons, an airplane starts chasing its tail, like a dog with a persistent flea. It occurs because a crosswind has overcome the pilot’s skills and the result, while dramatic to look at, usually doesn’t cause much damage to the airplane. The damage occurs to the poor, pilot’s fragile ego.
You can ground loop an airplane by landing while drifting across the runway, as might happen if you’ve not applied enough aileron into the crossing wind – let’s say the wind is from the left, as it almost always is at Montgomery Field. When you touch down, the airplane (moving to the right from the left wind) will lurch to the right, the tail will start to come around to the right (the nose, of course is going left, into the wind like a weather vane) and, if you’re a tad fast as you ground loop, the right wing tip will dig into the runway.
You can ground loop an airplane even if you have enough aileron into the wind – and we’ll assume another left cross wind. As you near touch down with sufficient left aileron to keep from drifting, but without opposite rudder to keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane straight down the runway, you’ll start heading in the direction the nose is pointed: left (as in a crab, duh, into the wind). If you don’t correct it quickly, physics will continue that left turning until the turn takes on a life of its own: TA-DA, a ground loop.
Because the center of gravity of a tailwheel airplane is behind the main wheels, once a turn starts to happen, the airplane’s aft c/g tends to continue the turn, almost without regard to how hard you’re trying to keep it from so doing. (In a nose wheel [tailwheel pilots call them “training” wheel] airplane, the center of gravity is forward of the main wheels, so physics (or aerodynamics) tries to keep the airplane from turning,
Got it?
Mine was a little different and was caused by my experience, believe it or not, and a recent lack of landing practice. Here goes.

I had taken a friend for a fun flight and returned to Montgomery Field. It was a busy Saturday and, after I called in requesting 28R, I was told to make left traffic and to expect 28R. (I prefer 28R because forward visibility is nil in the Stearman once you start the round out and it’s easier to use peripheral vision to see the borders of the wider runway. 28R is 150′ wide; 28L, 60′.)
In any case, ATC was calling the wind generally westerly (260@11 was the last call I heard). Over the years at MYF, I’ve learned that the tower wind indicator is badly placed and I’ve found the wind to be usually 30 degrees off what the tower is calling.
I was cleared to land on 28R and, after turning final, noticed the midfield windsock was favoring runway 23 at about 10 knots. The windsock atop the Gibbs maintenance building was showing a similar wind direction, perhaps a tad more from the south.
I decided to cut some of the crosswind out of my landing by touching down on the north edge of 28R, angling slightly towards the southwest, landing slightly across the runway. (It’s a technique that you can use if you’ve got a bunch of experience in tailwheel airplanes – so long as you get the airplane stopped before you reach the other side of the runway.) On short final I noticed that the midfield windsock had swung around out of the south and, as I began the round out at around 70 mph (our usual approach speed for the Stearman), I felt a tailwind gust come up from behind the airplane. With the tailwind, the airplane floated and, with the angle I had set up for landing, we approached the center line of the runway.
I kept left aileron in against the crosswind, and had right rudder to keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane straight, but we didn’t touch down until past the runway center line and continued towards the south edge of the runway. The airplane departed the runway onto the grass and started coming farther left. I kept the aileron full aft and left and the rudder to the right, but the airplane began turning quickly into a ground loop.
The airplane tried to stay upright, but the ground drops off from the runway into a depression between 28R and 28L. With the stick still full aft and left, as we turned 180 degrees to the runway, the left main wheel left the grass and the right wing tip dug into the ground. The Stearman came to a stop 270 degrees from its original direction, pointed north.
ATC asked if we needed assistance and I advised that we did not, but that we would be shutting down to examine what I had done to the Stearman. Other than minor damage to the wing tip and aileron, the airplane appeared fine. I restarted the engine, received permission to taxi onto and across both runways, then back to the hangar.

I’ve had lots of time to think about the events just described. Here’s what I should have done. When I felt the tailwind kick up during the round out, I should have applied full power, gone around, and then requested Runway 23. I allowed the circumstances of a busy airport and, probably, a long wait for my desired runway to keep me from doing the right thing. It will not happen again.
Since the incident, I’ve spent dozens of hours with Bob Turner, flying in a J-3 Cub, and in my Super Cub. Since the incident, I’ve only flown the Stearman a few times, with Bob Turner along as instructor. I’m still a tad goosey about flying the Stearman solo. It’s a beautiful airplane and it pained me to cause even minor damage to it. In the coming weeks, Bob and I will spend a lot more time together in the Stearman to get my skills and confidence back up to speed.
But please don’t let this story put you off a desire to fly real (tailwheel) airplanes. They are so much more fun, and require greater landing skills than their training wheeled brothers … (well, maybe not brothers … how ’bout whiny, sniveling little sisters?) If you check around your local airport, the fun older guys (that’s the California sex-inspecific term that includes males, females and anyone in between) who are still flying all the time, and practicing all the time, are the tailwheel pilots. We practice because the skill is hard-earned and can atrophy quickly if not regularly practiced. ‘Tis a disease, an addiction, but it sure is fun. And, after all, we’re pilots and one of the reasons that draws us to the sky is the challenge – tailwheel airplanes are just more of a challenge. But, once you master a tailwheel airplane, you’ll never, ever, not bloody once, land any airplane without sufficient aileron into the prevailing wind, and sufficient opposite rudder pointing the longitudinal axis of the airplane straight down the runway. You’ll become a much better pilot – even if all you ever fly afterwards are training wheeled airplanes.

Posted in Aviation Stories, Training Topics