Keep your head up and your tail down
|What is a Taildragger?|
|Taildragger vs. Tricycle Gear|
|Taildraggers Enhance Flying Skills|
There used to be a time when all aircraft were taildraggers—that is, airplanes with a tail skid or tailwheel. There's no denying that when they are on the ground, taildraggers are more challenging to control than tricycle gear planes, which have nosewheels. In flight, though, there is little difference, so don't be spooked. Taildragger pilots simply possess a number of sharpened skills and special techniques because their aircraft have a low tolerance for pilot error. You can fly a taildragger, too. It's a great way to enjoy older aircraft, build confidence in varying wind conditions, and improve your overall flying technique.
What is a Taildragger?
A taildragger has its main landing gear ahead of its center of gravity and a steerable tailwheel or skid supporting the aft fuselage, so the airplane's tail appears to rest on the ground, hence the name taildragger. Until World War II, taildraggers reigned supreme. Because this landing gear configuration was so common on early aircraft, taildraggers, or tailwheel airplanes, became known as airplanes with conventional gear.
Taildragger vs. Tricycle Gear
Piper J–3 Cub (taildragger)
Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172 (tricycle gear)
The biggest difference between taildraggers and aircraft equipped with tricycle gear is that taildraggers have their center of gravity positioned behind the main landing gear while tricycle gear airplanes have their center of gravity in front of the main gear. This doesn't make much difference in the air, but when the airplane is on the ground, things change.
When taxiing, taking off, and landing, tricycle-gear airplanes are easier to control than taildraggers. If you land a taildragger too hard on the main gear with the tailwheel still off the ground, for example, the aircraft will have the tendency to bounce and want to fly again. This is because the angle of attack increases as the tail drops, thus increasing lift unless the plane is moving slower than its stall speed. The opposite is true for nosewheel planes. Because their center of gravity is situated in front of the main gear, after the main gear touches down, the nosewheel wants to touch down, too. This lessens the angle of attack on the wings, and the plane ceases to fly. So, landing a taildragger takes some extra care.
Also, because most of a taildragger's weight is behind the main gear, the aircraft is more difficult to control or steer on the ground. If the taildragger begins to swerve, it can get out of control as its tail (where most of the plane's weight is) wants to overtake its nose. This happens. It's called a groundloop. In addition to spooking the pilot, ground loops can possibly damage or even wreck the airplane. The worst kind of ground loop is when the gear shears because of the side load, causing the propeller, wing, and fuselage to strike the ground.
And because most of an airplane's surface area is located behind the main landing gear, wind also has a pronounced effect on taildraggers, coaxing them to pivot into the wind and making them difficult to taxi. Moreover, when you taxi in some taildraggers, you must use the side windows to see because the nose is pointed toward the sky, blocking your view.
Despite all of these pitfalls, flying a taildragger can be fun as well as challenging. Here are some tips and techniques to get you into—and safely back from—the sky.
Most of the specialized skills needed to fly a taildragger take place on or near the ground. Tricycle gear airplanes and taildraggers handle similarly in the air, but when the ground is involved—when taxiing, taking off, and touching down—the taildragger pilot must learn to control the plane with the same—or better—dexterity and skill than when the plane is airborne.
Cockpit view from a Piper J–3 Cub
Cockpit view from a Skyhawk SP
With the aircraft's nose in the air, it's hard to see the taxiway and runway ahead. As a result, taildragger pilots often look out of the side windows to see ahead, which requires turning the airplane or slightly swerving down the taxiway. Plus, crosswinds are always a factor.
Taildragger Taxiing Tips
Keeping the aircraft straight is the major task. Many of the techniques discussed with landings and crosswinds, also apply to taking off. In general, apply a bit of back pressure to the joystick while picking up speed. This will keep the tail down and can help reduce weather vaning or the tail from rising if a bump is encountered. Then, when approaching takeoff speed, relax the aft pressure on the joystick. Once the tail rises, use the rudder to "steer" until you're fully airborne. Pull the joystick back slightly to ease the plane into the air, and let the aircraft climb out initially in slightly less than a three-point attitude. Then continue to climb at whatever speed is necessary for the conditions. Again, once the wheels are off of the runway, the aircraft flies the same as tricycle-gear aircraft.
Taildraggers require skill and judgment to land safely. A slow landing speed and proper pitch attitude control are the keys. Once the tailwheel is on the ground, hold the joystick back to bring down the tail—and keep it there. This helps to prevent the tail from rising if you hit a bump. If you land with too much airspeed, however, the plane may want to bounce into the air and fly again, as the wing is still producing enough lift to carry the airplane back into the air.
A three-point landing is a beautiful sight where all three wheels (the two main gear and the tailwheel) touch the runway surface at exactly the same time. But it takes some practice to achieve. This feat requires that the aircraft be in a nose-high attitude at touchdown, which takes getting used to if you've only flown tricycle-gear airplanes.
The nose-high attitude for landing a taildragger three-point landing is exactly the same as the attitude when the taildragger is sitting on the taxiway or runway at rest. Memorize this view, or "sight picture." This sight picture is what you will establish in the landing flare to perform perfect three-point landings.
The key to successful taildragger landings—and perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of landing a taildragger—is to keep the aircraft's speed as slow as possible. If you attempt a three-point landing with too much airspeed or touch down too hard, the increased angle of attack of the nose-high attitude (and thus increased lifting force generated by the wings) can cause the airplane to bounce back into the air. Close to stall speed, this can be dangerous. If a bounce occurs, apply full throttle and then gently drop the plane back onto the runway.
To make a three-point landing
A pilot performs a wheel landing when the touchdown occurs on the aircraft's main gear at a level or nearly level attitude, so the tail remains in the air during the first and fastest part of the landing rollout. As the aircraft slows, the tail drops until the tailwheel touches the ground. The wheel landing may at first sound easy—level attitude, just land the plane then slow it down—but there's more to it.
To make a wheel landing
Note: On large taildraggers, wheel landings are the way to go. Because the aircraft touches down at a fairly level attitude, the angle of attack is reduced and the aircraft is less likely to bounce back into the air—a dangerous situation for any aircraft, especially larger ones. You can also apply brakes on the main gear on touchdown, but this requires skill so as not to flip the airplane on its nose by braking too strongly. Gently pump the brakes. For experienced taildragger pilots, this is an effective way to slow the aircraft.
Wheel landing advantages: With the aircraft level on touchdown, the pilot has much greater visibility over the nose of the aircraft and down the runway. And because the wheel landing allows less-precise attention to landing speed than any of the three-point landing techniques, keeping the aircraft's tail in the air can allow directional control via the rudder and elevator until the aircraft's speed is slow enough to better control the plane with the tailwheel. When it's difficult to judge the runway, such as at night or in poor visibility situations, wheel landings are more forgiving. Wheel landings are preferred for gusty wind and crosswind conditions as well.
Wheel landing disadvantages: The extra speed that comes with a wheel landing requires that the pilot have plenty of runway and sharpened skills to deal with maneuvering the aircraft while the tail is still in the air. If too much forward elevator along with braking is added during touchdown and the tail gets too high, the propeller could strike the ground.
Full-Stall, Three-Point Landings
Most taildraggers stall at the three-point attitude with the power off and elevator fully deflected upward. A special technique to keep the aircraft on the ground is to actually stall the plane just above the runway while holding the three-point attitude. This is called a three-point full-stall landing.
To make a full-stall, three-point landing
Tail-First, Full-Stall, Three-Point Landings
The tail-first, three-point, full-stall landing is a less-often-seen variation on the full-stall, three-point landing described above; it helps force the nose down. This type of tail-first landing is only performed by experienced tailwheel pilots and usually only done in tough bush planes and only in situations requiring an extremely short landing roll. If done incorrectly, the tail-first, full-stall, three-point landing runs a high risk of damaging the aircraft.
To make a tail-first, full-stall, three-point landing
Note: Because this technique requires an even greater angle of attack than a full-stall, three-point landing, the landing speed is even slower, and is often the choice for short runways. However, tail-first landings can damage the tailwheel gear if the touchdown is too hard. Touching down too hard can also result in the aircraft hopping from tailwheel to main gear, back to tailwheel and so forth, which makes the aircraft difficult to control on the ground.
Recovering from a Taildragger Landing Bounce
As with much of flying, the answer to how to recover from a bounce depends on several variables, namely altitude, airspeed, and your ability to make quick decisions.
To recover from a taildragger landing bounce
Which Landing to Choose?
Choose the landing that's right for your conditions. Deciding factors include the aircraft you're flying, runway length and surface type, wind direction, and velocity. Very few taildragger pilots use the same landing technique for every situation.
Choose either a wheel landing or one of the three-point landings if you're flying one of the smaller taildraggers. With a three-point landing, your landing speed will be slower than a wheel landing. In some aircraft, crosswinds may be easier to handle with a three-point landing because the aircraft's tail will be down, and that means you—the pilot—can focus on keeping the airplane under control on the ground. Other pilots prefer wheel landings for gusty wind and crosswind conditions, counteracting the force of the wind with opposing rudder while the tail is in the air.
A wheel landing is preferred for large taildraggers because the large mass of the airplane might damage or even sheer the tailwheel, especially if the aircraft's longitudinal axis is slightly angled to its direction of travel when it touches down. The resulting sideload imposed on both the main and tail wheel landing gear can damage them.
It's best to opt for a three-point landing on soft or short airfields. On soft fields, wheel landings can be perilous because the main gear can catch and flip the plane over on its nose. Also, you will most likely be able to land in a shorter distance using the three-point landing technique.
Taildraggers prior to 1940 often flew from airfields without distinct runways, so every takeoff and landing could be aligned into the wind. But today, because the open airfield has typically been narrowed to a runway or two, pilots must master crosswind landings.
A crosswind blows at an angle to your flight path. Pilots must correct for crosswinds by pointing the nose of the aircraft at an angle to the wind in order to maintain the desired course across the ground. This is called crabbing. When coming in for a landing with a crosswind, you'll have to achieve a crab angle in the air that will line you up with the runway; you'll be flying at an angle to the runway. The slower your airspeed, the more of a crab angle you'll need to maintain your course. This can get tricky, since you want to land with the slowest airspeed possible. So, get ready with the rudder.
A quick maneuver is required when just above the runway. When ready to touch down, kick in the rudder direction that will straighten the plane, add aileron to place the upwind wing in a slightly wing-low (but not too low) bank angle to prevent drift, and set the plane down on the runway, holding this rudder position while on the ground. Keep applying aileron into the wind; this will keep the windward wing down and reduce chances of the aircraft flipping. When the tail sets down, get ready to steer rather than rudder. It takes some practice, but you can see how as a taildragger pilot, you'll be paying a lot more attention to wind conditions and the controls.
Crosswind takeoffs are also a challenge. As with crosswind landings, crosswind takeoffs require dexterity of steering and rudder. Basically, the same technique is used. During the takeoff roll, keep the aircraft straight by using opposing rudder to counteract the wind along with a bit of reverse aileron. You're essentially performing a slip. When you lift off, you'll have to rudder into a crab angle that will keep you going on a straight flight path.
Multiengine aircraft have another technique for crosswind conditions: using differential thrust. Differential thrust is simply applying power unevenly to counteract the effects of a crosswind. Applying more power to the upwind engine counteracts the force of the wind on the aft fuselage, which helps keep the aircraft straight. (See Commercial Pilot Solo Flight: Crosswind Landing in Flying Lessons on the left side of the screen for more information on crosswind landings.)
So, why fly taildraggers when it's more challenging than flying tricycle-gear planes? A few reasons: Taildraggers perform better on some landing surfaces—soft and rough airfields, dirt roads, and open fields—than nosewheel planes. That's because the tailwheel is less likely to be damaged than a nosewheel, which is prone to digging in and buckling under high impact. Being at the end of the fuselage, the tailwheel typically has less weight acting on it than a nosewheel. Also, because the wheel is smaller and suspended from shock, hard impacts have less effect on it. There's also far more clearance between the ground and propeller on tailwheel aircraft.
The main gear is also often times stronger on taildraggers. With only two major wheels positioned on fixed gear taildraggers, there is less wind resistance during flight than on a nosewheel aircraft as the nosewheel is beefed up to handle the additional aircraft weight. And due to the increased angle of attack when taking off and landing, taildraggers can access shorter airstrips than nosewheel planes. Finally, learning to fly a taildragger opens you up to the realm of flying historic aircraft—which originally had to contend with exactly these rough airfield conditions—and bush flying, of which the same is often true.
Taildraggers Enhance Flying Skills
In summary, taildragger flying enhances flying skills for all aircraft, because you must continuously practice certain skills, such as judging the wind direction and velocity, honing the landing attitude, and using the rudder constantly. Remember, taildraggers are much more sensitive to pilot error than tricycle gear aircraft. Because a taildragger pilot flies with heightened awareness of conditions and develops the skills to react to them, by learning to fly a taildragger, you're on the way to being a better pilot—no matter which aircraft you fly!
When you increase or decrease the throttle using your joystick or keyboard, both throttles are synchronized by default. The same is true when you change the mixture and propeller controls. You can also use the mouse to control engines independently.
To control the engines independently for differential thrust