How To Fly a Taildragger: 101
I have taught dozens of pilots how to fly taildraggers and in this article, I summarize how it’s done.
Note: This information should not be used in lieu of actual flight instruction. Also the terms taildraggers, tail wheel and conventional gear are all synonymous.
Everyone should learn to fly a tail wheel airplane; it makes you a better pilot period!
Why Fly a Conventional Gear Aircraft:
– Did I mention, “because it makes you a better pilot?”
– You gain access to a big group of really neat airplanes!
– Because not everyone can do it – lost art!
Taildraggers have the main gear in front of the center of gravity (CG) whereas a tricycle gear airplane has the main gear behind the CG. This is all the theory you need to know, but you need to burn it into you brain because this is the key reason the two airplanes behave differently.
There are some airplanes that due to their physical design it accentuates this difference. Examples include the T-6 pictured here. It is a high-mass airplane that not only has its CG behind the main gear, but the CG is up high off the pavement (friction point) and it has relatively narrow landing gear. Another airplane that has people’s attention is the Pitts Special. It’s not high-mass, but it has narrow gear and it’s short so the rudder/tailwheel has less arm and the landing speeds are relatively high. Most tailwheels are pretty docile if flown properly, but you should be aware they are not all the same.
Flying a tailwheel is muscle memory, identification of visual cues, and kinesthetic sense all leveraged for one goal – keeping the airplane straight.
It’s simple, but not really. You can’t learn it from a book or a flight simulator. Straight means the longitudinal axis has to be parallel to the track of the aircraft.
Keeping an airplane straight sounds easy, but you have to learn to harness “the force” – meaning the force of gravity. Each time you let the airplane get slightly crooked that CG issue I mentioned earlier conspires to make to airplane swerve further off track. If left unchecked a ground loop will ensue. If you are lucky only your ego will be bruised, if you are unlucky the airplanes will be bent. Ground loops are where the tail swaps ends with the nose and you make a 360 circle. Wing tip and gear damage are common depending on the speed at which this occurs.
It takes finesse to ‘stab’ the rudder pedals smoothly to maintain directional control; those dead feet have to wake up (muscle memory).
Like anything, the more you do it the easier it is.
The sight picture you build coupled with your seat of the pants sense of swerving, help in early detection so you can make small corrections. Small corrections are key. If you are club-footed you will find yourself diverging further and further as you try to correct.
Beginning students don’t have these skills so it takes practice and coaching to build up the muscle memory, sight picture, and to trust you butt. The instructor’s job is to let you go as far as they can before taking over so the airplane can be reused.
When you fly in crosswinds it really forces great technique. You cannot swerve or drift, so its wing down into the wind and opposite rudder to keep the airplane straight.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Next installment we get into three-point and wheel landings and discuss grass versus pavement.
Do you have a taildragger experience or thought you’d like to share? Post it below.
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