Taking Wing: Taildraggers Suck!

It was a typical spring day in Minnesota, warm and clear at last, but with a brisk south wind blowing across the runway. I'd just driven 45 minutes to fly the Cub for the first time since November, and I thought that the wind was still within the plane's capability. Once I broke ground and was promptly churning sideways through the maelstrom, though, it didn't seem like such a great idea after all. I climbed above the bumps and did a bunch of stalls, slow flight and steep turns, reacquainting myself with the old bird's handling and psyching myself up for the dismount. Back at Airlake Airport, I surprised myself with an artful crosswind landing and was feeling pretty good as I taxied off the runway. Then a mighty gust caught the little J-3, it weathervaned to the right, and my frantic jabs at the left heel brake had little effect.

A large and sturdy-looking taxiway light appeared in the path of my spinning propeller. In desperation I threw in a bootful of right rudder, looping the tail around and avoiding an expensive prop strike. I sheepishly gunned the power to clear the runway for the following airplane, whose occupants no doubt witnessed my low-speed escapade. To my surprise, it was a Flight Design CTLS, an airplane that is nearly as light as the Cub. Naturally, the pilot made a textbook crosswind landing and taxied to the ramp with military crispness.

Such is life as a taildragger pilot. You'll generally survive, but you'll also embarrass yourself on a semiregular basis — sometimes in dramatic public fashion, sometimes when only you know how close you came to the edge of control. Every landing is a challenge when you fly an airplane with fundamentally unstable ground handling. This is due to the simple fact that the center of gravity is behind the main landing gear, whereas it is forward of the mains on a tricycle-gear airplane. Once a swerve develops in a taildragger, it has a tendency to worsen until the plane rotates rapidly around its pivot point — a "groundloop."

Doing this at any speed greater than a fast taxi usually results in significant damage. Thus the tailwheel pilot has two primary concerns during takeoff and landing: keeping the airplane tracking straight at all times, and correcting any developing swerves in a quick, smooth and precise manner. A crosswind increases the challenge, especially if it's gusty. Most taildraggers have large control surfaces with more than enough authority to maintain positive control at landing speed. It is in the later stages of the landing roll, as the controls lose effectiveness, that most groundloops occur.

Some taildraggers are known to be more demanding than others, particularly those with stiff, narrow main gear and a short-coupled fuselage. The Luscombe 8 series has a reputation for sporty ground handling; the similar Cessna 120/140 featured improved landing gear and is more docile. Piper Cubs have a long fuselage and forgiving bungee shocks, making them among the gentlest of teachers, though their light weight and limited visibility present their own challenges. The Pitts biplane is infamous for being a handful on landing, though many other aerobatic aircraft share its lightweight construction, naturally unstable aerodynamics and compact, short-coupled landing gear.

When I bought my Piper Pacer last December, I knew of its squirrelly reputation and was a bit intimidated. I now have 66 hours in the plane and have actually found it pretty well-behaved. It's certainly short-coupled, but exhibits no tendency to head for the weeds on its own. Its heavier weight and higher wing loading make it steadier in a crosswind than the Cub. It does, however, sport a large, extremely effective rudder — mostly a good thing but easy to overuse, especially under the influence of a sudden shot of adrenaline. It took some getting used to after flying the Cub for several years, and I still remind myself "small corrections!" before every landing.

Ironically, my airplane spent its first 30 years as a Tri-Pacer, an easy-handling, tricycle-gear design borne of the Pacer's twitchy reputation. By the year my plane was built, 1953, the Tri-Pacer outsold the Pacer 7-to-1 despite the notably awkward appearance that earned it the "flying milk stool" moniker. Tri-Pacer sales even bested the Cessna 170 despite the latter airplane's metal construction, more spacious cabin, graceful art deco styling and gentlemanly manners. Cessna finally admitted defeat and slapped a nosewheel on the 170 in 1956, thus creating the world's most popular airplane: the C-172.

It's worth noting that the old-timers who lined up en masse to buy Tri-Pacers and early 172s were nearly all experienced taildragger pilots; the only previous light trikes of note were the Ercoupe and the Beech Bonanza. Most aviators of the day had learned to fly in Cubs, Champs or similar conventional-gear trainers. These folks were intimately familiar with taildraggers' charms, quirks and demands — and they apparently couldn't wait to ditch them for more modern, better-behaved airplanes. By 1960 the vast majority of light airplanes being produced were equipped with tricycle landing gear. The market demanded it.

How, then, does one account for taildraggers' continued relevance more than half a century later, much less their recent resurgence in popularity? Who would've expected that one of the hottest airplanes of 2015 would be a lightened, reimagined ­Super Cub (CubCrafters' Carbon Cub) that competes with no fewer than four other Cub-like designs? How do you explain the time and money my airplane's previous owner spent converting his docile Tri-Pacer into a cantankerous old Pacer, or the fact that such conversions nearly outnumber original Pacers?

Some of the taildragger mystique is undoubtedly aesthetic (almost certainly the reason so many ungainly "milk stools" have been relieved of their third leg). They just look right poised for flight with nose pointed skyward. Some of it is likely nostalgia for a simpler time with simpler airplanes. Practically speaking, taildraggers are better suited to short- and rough-field operations. Then there's the fact that so many of the most affordable small airplanes — especially in the LSA segment — just happen to be vintage taildraggers. It helps that these old birds are ridiculously fun machines that, while short on cross-country capability, are perfect for puttering around and terrorizing the local grass strips. The Cessna 150 is a fine airplane, but it will never, ever be a Cub.

Honestly, though, I think that a big part of these airplanes' continuing appeal is their demanding nature. Tailwheel pilots are essentially members of a self-selecting masochists' club and take a certain sort of pride in their machines' anachronistic faults. There's an elitist dynamic at work: You can watch only so many 172s being artlessly driven onto the ground without wanting to set yourself apart. Flying taildraggers gives you instant street cred, a presumption of competence that opens up new opportunities. As a Luscombe-owning acquaintance says, "I get handed the keys to people's nosedragger airplanes all the time, but the reverse never happens."

The reality is that taildraggers don't fly or land that much differently from a well-flown tricycle-gear aircraft. Full-stall landings are identical, though in a taildragger you touch down on all three wheels simultaneously ("a three-pointer"). Basic crosswind control is the same: Use rudder to keep the airplane aligned with the runway and ailerons to cancel out drift and keep the upwind wing pinned. In crosswinds many pilots use the "wheel landing" method in which each tire is landed independently: the upwind main, then the downwind main and, once speed has decayed, the tailwheel. This is similar to proper crosswind technique in most tricycle-gear airplanes. The real difference is that tricycle gear can tolerate and mask a great deal of sloppiness, whereas most taildraggers make even a small amount of imprecision abundantly clear. They are the equivalent of a perfectionist CFI riding with you on every flight, relentlessly critiquing your landings.

This enforced precision does wonders to strengthen stick-and-rudder skills. At work, I actually notice a difference in the quality of my landings in 160,000-pound McDonnell-­Douglas airliners based on whether I've flown the Pacer or Cub lately. Taildraggers teach you to use peripheral vision and pay attention to the seat of your pants. They make you "fly it till you park it." They reward watchfulness, discourage complacency and prime you to go around (usually the only correct response to a botched touchdown). Most of all, taildraggers enforce humility, because even the best pilots are regularly faced with clear evidence of their fallibility.

Which brings me to my confession of a dark and terrible secret: The week after my low-speed taxi-loop, I groundlooped the Cub for real with a good friend in the front seat. It didn't take much, just a moment of inattention and an inopportune gust as the tailwheel was coming down. I got lucky and the plane wasn't damaged, but it was violent and shocking and embarrassing, one of the worst days of my flying career. Just then taildraggers really did suck, and I understood why the old-timers deserted them in droves. Ultimately, though, it was a valuable lesson learned at a cheap price. The fun and challenge of tailwheel flying makes it worth the extra risk to wallet and ego. You just have to keep your wits about you at all times, and in aviation that's hardly a bad thing.

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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