The Tailwheel And The Student, By Budd Davisson
It's interesting to see what's been happening to the tailwheel of late. For one thing, what had been an anachronistic contrivance designed primarily to prevent an airplane from grinding a bare spot on its posterior is now being reevaluated in terms of its teaching value. What can the tailwheel teach a student that a nosewheel can't?
As someone who has been instructing primarily in tailwheels for 35 years, you'd expect that whatever I say would be anything but unbiased. But you're wrong. I'm not going to say that everyone should learn to fly a tailwheel or that you can't learn to fly as well in a nosedragger. I'm not going to say that because I don't believe that. If a person is taught correctly in a Cessna 152, he or she is going to be as good a pilot as someone who was taught in a Piper Cub. Yes, there will be certain differences, such as being blinded by the cowling during the landing flare, but in today's world, is that really necessary?
Now go back to where I said, "If a person is taught correctly in a Cessna 152...." Now, underline the word correctly, and let's define the term.
When interjected into the tailwheel vs. nosewheel controversy, correctly means that the student has been taught to coordinate with the rudder at all times and that he or she totally understands adverse yaw. It means that when landing, the airplane is put gently on the main gear, with the nosewheel clear of the runway, and the airplane tracking the centerline. A crosswind landing will be with zero drift on one main gear. The takeoffs will include gently lifting the nosewheel clear, then letting the airplane run on the mains until it flies itself off. If that's the way you were taught and that's the way you still fly, then the only thing the tailwheel is going to give you is quick feet and an appreciation for being able to see over the nose.
Do all pilots fly that way? Not by a very long shot. Why not? Because an airplane like a Cessna 152 doesn't require that kind of aviating to be a satisfied, if not truly happy, camper. Its adverse yaw is minimal, so the instructor has to work hard to get the student to use his feet in the air because the need for coordination is so subtle. On landing, just get it down and the geometry of the gear will sort it out. Takeoffs can be anything that you want them to be as long as you have the speed. Just drop the hammer and go.
Finesse, coordination, and accuracy have to be forced upon the nosewheel student by a devoted instructor because most nosewheel airplanes don't require those qualities to be flown safely.
And then there are the tailwheel airplanes, the lowly Piper Cubs or Aeronca Champs or Citabrias, etc. Here the instructor has help from the airplane because the student quickly learns that the airplane simply won't go where he wants it to unless he masters things like coordination and attitude control. The skills on which all of aviation is built-coordination, speed control, attitude, and directional control-are absolutely necessary to keep the airplane from becoming a crumpled ball of fabric and tubing on the side of the runway. Getting it up and down isn't really as hard as the horror stories about tailwheels make it sound, but to perform these skills consistently means that you've mastered the basics of aviation. How many pilots can actually say that?
There is the mistaken idea that learning to keep a taildragger straight on landing is the primary benefit of learning to fly a tailwheel airplane. That's not only wrong, it's also miles from the truth. Improved directional control is only a tiny portion of what flying a taildragger will teach you.
Here's an interesting fact: Back when we were working Aeronca Champs alongside Piper Cherokees, it took about eight hours to safely solo most students in either airplane. Today, to transition a medium-time pilot from nosewheel to tailwheel often takes almost the same number of hours because he has to learn the basics all over again.
Let's look first at the tailwheel airplane in the air, where it doesn't make any difference which end the little wheel is on. If the airplane has a tailwheel, it will probably have vintage handling. It will have much more adverse yaw than a modern airplane because the worst of the adverse yaw has been engineered out of modern designs. Push the stick sideways on any tailwheel bird, and the nose very neatly moves the other direction, unless the rudder is being used. It doesn't move a little. It moves a lot, and the student quickly tires of sliding around in his seat and, as a result, gets his feet into the game. Therefore, long before the tailwheel comes into play on the ground, the pilot is learning to coordinate simply because he must.
Hopefully, the instructor will point out how the pilot's butt is telling him exactly what the airplane is doing. The adverse yaw is strong enough that side pressures on the pilot's rear end are noticeable and provide valuable input for proper coordination.
Then there's the landing. Actually, the basics of a proper landing are the same for any airplane, tailwheel or otherwise-it should be as slow as practical; the nose and the tail should be in line with the direction of travel; and the airplane shouldn't be drifting sideways. That's all there is to it. The big difference between nosewheel and tailwheel is that with a nosewheel airplane, any or all of those factors can be a little bit off, and the airplane will probably still wind up going straight. The landing will be successful, if not pretty. Let any one of these factors get out of whack on a tailwheel machine and the landing is going to be an adventure. Count on it!
The geometry of a tailwheel airplane is such that the center of gravity is behind the two main wheels. On a nose-gear machine it is in front of the mains, as on a child's tricycle. If the center of gravity is kept right on the line of travel, either airplane will roll straight (more or less). However, if the tail is sideways or the airplane is drifting, the CG is no longer in line with the line of travel, and inertia makes the CG want to continue going in a straight line. On a nosedragger, that swings the nose back in line. On a taildragger, it tries to bring the tail around so that the CG will assume the most stable position, which would be in front of the main gear. In other words, a taildragger's most stable position is going around and around in a backward circle. Think of a child's tricycle again. Push it forward with the big wheel in front, and it will go more or less straight. Now turn it around and put the two small wheels in front and push. The tail (big wheel) will spin around and around. Not the proper way to end a landing.
It only takes a few trips around the pattern before any pilot figures out that his life is infinitely easier if he plants the airplane on the runway at minimum speed, with all three gear touching (this is a three-point landing; wheel landings are another story), with the tail directly behind the nose, and with no drift. If that's done, practically all tailwheel airplanes will roll straight. If the airplane is set down crooked or drifting, it'll start swerving the instant it touches the runway. Like I said, the airplane, not the instructor, tells you that it's a good idea to do it right.
What happens almost immediately is that the pilot starts to notice little things he never noticed before. For one thing, he'll start seeing what the nose is doing just before touchdown. Small drift angles that he never saw in his nosewheel airplane now assume gargantuan proportions. During the first few hours, the nose will have to move a fair distance sideways after touchdown before he sees it and corrects it. After just a little practice, he'll catch the nose movement the instant it starts. His perception gets much better. He's seeing more of what's happening in the windshield.
Since the severity of swerves on the runway is a function of speed, just a little extra speed on touchdown results in greatly aggravated ground handling. So, the student learns quickly that if he holds it off until it's done flying, he doesn't have to work so hard to keep it straight. He also learns to appreciate a good wind down the runway.
Most, but not all, taildraggers cover the runway with the nose at the moment of touchdown, so the pilot has to get his visual cues from the side of the runway. This makes him more aware not only of what's happening somewhere other than on the centerline, but makes it easier to see the drifting.
Does the taildragger produce a better pilot than a nosewheel airplane, all other things being equal? No, not really, but it is seldom that all other things are equal. It takes enormous effort for a nosewheel instructor to produce a student as good as those who come out of tailwheels. It can be done, but usually isn't.
If a pilot gets comfortable with the tailwheel, he will have raised virtually every part of his flying skills several notches without even realizing it. Then, when he gets into a nosewheel airplane, he'll be surprised at how much better he is because he is aware of so much more of what is going on around him.
Oh yeah, there is one other advantage to being able to fly taildraggers. Many of the most interesting and historic airplanes have a tailwheel, and who wants to be excluded from flying them just because the little wheel is on the other end?
Flying a taildragger isn't hard. It's just different. And it'll make you a better pilot in spite of yourself.
For more information, visit the author's Web site (www.airbum.com).