Tailwheel Technique

Tips from the pros guaranteed to improve your stick and rudder skills.

The warm wind through the steel brace wires generated a distinct whistle over the rumble of the Stearman's big radial engine as we followed our shadow up and over the rolling green hills. The prop churned the summer air and flung it across the open cockpit, beating it against my head in a steady, rhythmic thrumming on my leather flying helmet and goggles. This is what flying is really all about, I thought with satisfaction as the biplane cut effortlessly across the sky — the opportunity that lovely old airplanes like this one give us to leave our earthbound cares behind and waltz, gracefully, among the clouds.

I banked left and let the nose drop to find the grass strip below. It was the same sleepy airfield where I learned to fly more than 25 years ago. From the looks of things little had changed in the intervening years.

I can still remember at the end of each flying lesson the J-3 Cub's 65-horsepower Continental engine sputtering to a stop, the sweet smells of gasoline and hot oil lingering in the quiet cockpit. My flight instructor, Pete Billow, would turn in the front seat and always ask the same thing: "Any questions?"

I was barely 15 years old when I started flying the Cub at Trinca Airport in northern New Jersey. During and after each lesson my mind would race to process everything I was learning. It was all so new, the experience of flight so enthralling for a kid who'd dreamed of doing nothing else, that the best I could manage was to simply let the experience wash over me and hopefully sink in.

As amazing as it might sound, never once did I ask my instructor a question at the end of a lesson. I would try to think of something but would always respond the same way: "No, I don't think so."

In his time Pete was one of the most knowledgeable Cub instructors in the country. He started teaching people to fly at Trinca in a 1946 Piper J-3 in 1950, when that airplane was just about brand-new. And he understood more about taildragger technique than anyone I've ever met.

Sadly Pete died in 2005, taking with him all of that precious knowledge and experience. What I wouldn't give to be able to ask him the scores of questions about taildragger flying that I should have as an awkward teenager just trying to comprehend the mysterious nuances of flight.

Although tailwheel flying is something of a lost art these days, there are still plenty of excellent flight instructors all across the country with vast repertoires of knowledge just waiting to be tapped. I might have missed my chance to learn everything I possibly could from the instructor who taught me to fly, but that wouldn't stop me from seeking out advice on tailwheel technique from other great teachers.

The special mystique of biplanes with open cockpits and radial engines ensures they'll be with us for years to come.|

Taildragger Mystique

Part of that education was flying the Stearman with Damian DelGaizo, the owner and founder of Andover Flight Academy, a renowned bush flying school at New Jersey's Andover-Aeroflex Airport, where pilots like Harrison Ford and countless others have gone to train.

There are plenty of good books and instructional videos on tailwheel flying — some of the most informative DVDs are the ones Damian created — but, alas, you can't ask a book or a video questions. I found that the more questions I asked of knowledgeable instructors, the more I learned and the more excited about tailwheel flying I became. It was like rekindling an old love affair, in my case one that started with my first flying lesson in the Cub in the summer of 1987.

Airplanes like the Legend Cub provide great training platforms, not to mention fun flying.|

I've flown some big taildraggers, including the North American T-6 and even the turbine-powered Thrush 510G agplane, but never a Stearman.

"It's just like flying the Cub," Damian assured me, smiling. "Only more so." I wasn't quite sure what he meant, but I found out soon enough.

The Stearman has that same special control harmony and balance that are so beloved among Cub enthusiasts. Both can be unforgiving in the hands of a beginner, but the Stearman, really, is a baby carriage with wings when flown the way God and Lloyd Stearman intended — and I have to believe that means under a warm summer sun on grass.

Even if you've never flown a taildragger, you're probably aware that a major difference between an airplane with a "conventional" landing gear (i.e., a tailwheel) and one with a tricycle gear is proper and judicious use of rudder, especially on the ground. A lot of tailwheel instructors describe it as "tap-dancing" on the rudder. But I don't think that's quite right, because, although your feet never stop moving during takeoff and landing, they don't tap the rudder pedals.

Instead they apply slight pressures, preferably at the ankles, as Damian counseled, and perform a kind of quick massage of the pedals back and forth, as another legendary taildragger instructor I interviewed, Joy Bowden with Texas Taildraggers at Houston Southwest Airport, put it.

During my introduction to the Stearman, which involved a number of fast taxis down the runway, I made the mistake of assuming a bigger airplane meant bigger rudder inputs. That was wrong, and it took me about 10 seconds of lurching back and forth on the runway to realize it. Damian suggested imagining the rudder pedals had no more than 3 inches of travel in either direction. The tip worked as our subsequent runs down the runway became straighter and more assured.

Students new to tailwheel flying spend considerable time honing their rudder skills during takeoff and landing.|

The next major difference in tailwheel flying is in the sight picture out the front of most taildraggers during takeoff and landing. With the nose sitting up high right in your forward field of view, you've got no choice in the majority of taildraggers but to land blind, using your peripheral vision to pick out the runway edges left and right. The Stearman's nose sits very high and it's soloed from the back seat. Not only is there no forward view on landing, but the scene out the sides is surprisngly lacking as well.

The final differentiator between flying a taildragger and a tri-gear airplane (notwithstanding the dozens of subtle nuances in technique, some of which we'll touch on later) centers on the amount of backstick you'll apply in the flare. To make a three-point landing in a typical taildragger, you'll use all of the available travel of the stick to touch down smoothly, with the thought process being you want to try to land on the tail — a technique that should put you on all three wheels simultaneously.

That's a big difference from how you might have been taught to land a tricycle gear trainer, in which flaring off just enough of the descent rate on short final can lead to acceptable landings. In tailwheel airplanes like the Cub and Stearman all three-point landings are full-stall affairs.

Breaking Old Habits

Before we get too far into a discussion of tailwheel technique, it's important to note that every airplane is different. No single technique or set of tips will apply universally to all tailwheel airplanes. For the sake of argument we'll stick with what generally works in the Cub and Stearman. If you're learning in a Champ, Citabria or Van's RV, the methods will differ.

Not all taildraggers are created equal. What works in one, such as this Great Lakes biplane, won't always translate to others.|

That said, some specific tailwheel techniques are applicable to most models. On the ground, for instance, students new to tailwheel flying need to totally rethink their approach to maintaining control to accommodate for an airplane with a center of gravity that's behind the pivot — i.e., aft of the main landing gear. Because of this fundamental difference, how we treat the rudder on the ground is totally different, noted Steve Krog, an expert tailwheel flight instructor at the Cub Air Flight School at Miles Field in Hartford, Wisconsin.

"On landing, a tri-gear airplane is self-correcting," he said. "A taildragger isn't. I get a lot of students transitioning from tricycle airplanes to the Cub and it usually takes two to three hours just to teach them to use the rudder properly, both on the runway and in the air." One thing is certain, though: "When they're finished with the training, they can fly a taildragger, and they're better all-around pilots," Krog said.

You can't really blame the student who's never flown a taildragger for not being able to do it well right away, of course. After all, if you touch down slightly crooked in a Cessna Skyhawk, it naturally wants to straighten itself out because its CG is ahead of the main wheels. In a tailwheel airplane, with the weight of the airplane behind the mains, if it starts to get sideways the effect is akin to a ball and chain, with the ball being the rear of the airplane that suddenly wants to swap ends, setting up the conditions for the dreaded groundloop, a worry that hangs in the back of the mind of all experienced tailwheel pilots.

"The vast majority of time when flying with a student who's new to me I can tell on the first turn they make if they know how to use the rudder or not," said Steve Smith, a lead instructor and co-owner at Chandler Air Service, an aerobatics and tailwheel specialist flight school in Chandler, Arizona, that stresses a mastery of the rudder.

Flying the Stearman

Tailwheel airplanes also leave pilots less margin for error in the flare. Where you start your round-out in a Skyhawk isn't that critical because you can level off a foot or two above the runway and arrest your descent with a pop of back pressure on the yoke. If you try that in a taildragger you're probably going to hit the runway and balloon back into the air as the excess speed you didn't allow to dissipate causes you trouble.

This fact of taildragger life means the point where you start your glide break on short final is much more important than in a tricycle-gear airplane. The idea is to start the round-out high enough so you can get the airplane to stall the instant it kisses the runway. In a Cub the proper height to round out is about 6 feet at the spinner; in the Stearman, it's 6 feet at the bottom of the lower wing.

My first landing in the Stearman at Trinca was a good one. Damian suggested we try again to make sure it wasn't beginner's luck. Each landing I made was surprisingly good, something I think can be attributed more to the instructor and airplane than the student. But boy was it fun.

The procedure I used in the Stearman involved entering the pattern and throttling back to 1,850 rpm with the lower wingtip about three finger lengths from the runway edge. As I reached the threshold I'd apply carb heat, pull the throttle to idle, rotate the trim knob back to the 10 o'clock position and pitch for 70 mph. When I'd gone about two wing lengths beyond the runway end, I would start a constant, descending turn, throttling up periodically to clear the cylinders and adjusting my arc to arrive over the runway at the proper height and airspeed.

I quickly learned that the Stearman sinks faster than most airplanes I've flown, and that meant flying a steeper approach. That was just fine with me since it allowed for a better view over the nose until I was rolling out on final. The runway would then disappear and I was glancing left and right to pick up the runway edges. When the bottom wing was the height of a person from the ground I'd be rounding out, letting the speed bleed off as I steadily added back pressure — never letting the stick come forward — to land on the tail. The results were gentle three-point touchdowns that brought big smiles to my face and words of praise from Damian.

All of my Stearman landings were three-pointers. The technique would have been different if the goal had been to make a wheel landing or to land tail low but not three-point the landing. For a wheel landing you want to carry a little extra speed into the flare. Here again, the techniques you'll use are airplane specific. For example, in taildraggers with flaps, if you need to wheel-land because you're setting down on a rough strip but then you want to get the tail down quickly because you've also got a gusty crosswind, you can use a favorite trick of Super Cub pilots, which is to raise the flaps when the mains touch. This requires training and lots of practice, obviously, since you'll be reaching for the flap handle during one of the most critical phases of flight.

Andover Flight Academy in New Jersey provides tailwheel instruction in a Stearman, Super Cub and this 85 hp J-3.|

Advanced Techniques

Speaking of gusty winds, another technique of advanced taildragger pilots is to let the tail come up on the takeoff roll and then give it a little extra forward stick to put a slight negative angle on the wing. This will keep you hugging the ground longer, with the dual benefit of ensuring that a sudden wind gust won't catapult you into the air prematurely while also providing extra airspeed on climb-out to handle any potential wind shear.

It can also be beneficial to land flat with the tail off the ground on a gusty day, which lets you touch down carrying a little power at zero angle of attack to prevent a swirl of wind from causing the airplane to balloon back into the air. In this technique you'll use power to nullify the sink rate rather than backstick, with the obvious trade-off being that you'll land slightly faster. To land in a shorter distance, the same technique can be adjusted to land slightly tail low, using power to your benefit to cushion the arrival while adding a touch of forward stick when the mains hit.

Of course, your landing is won or lost on downwind. It's like dominoes. Every time you knock one domino over it knocks the next over and so on. How well you fly your downwind in a tailwheel airplane is going to determine how well you fly your base leg. How well you fly your base is going to affect your final approach. Your final approach is certainly going to have an impact on the rest of your landing.

"With new tailwheel students I typically see very inconsistent pattern work," Krog said. "One time they're 100 feet low; the next time they're 200 feet high; then they're close to the runway, and then too far away."

Flying a proper pattern is all about visualizing the path you want to cut through the sky. The worst place you can be in a high-drag airplane like a Stearman is flat and low on the approach, Damian said, and the reasons should be obvious: You can't see ahead, your speed is bleeding off, and now, instead of letting gravity work for you, you're working against gravity and have to add power. If the engine quits or you encounter wind shear, it's going to ruin your whole day.

No matter what you fly, getting a tailwheel endorsement from a good instructor will make you a better all-around pilot.|

The Dreaded Groundloop

No discussion about tailwheel technique would be complete without touching on groundloops. A groundloop is a violent, uncontrolled loss of directional control that pilots have been fighting to avoid since taildraggers were invented. The way to keep from groundlooping a taildragger is to maintain a straight track on the ground during rollout. How you recover from an imminent groundloop could make for a separate article all its own. But the recovery techniques — most of them anyway — are totally counterintuitive.

In fact, other than the pilot's initial control input — which is to immediately step on the rudder opposite the direction of the turn — every other input is contradictory to what seems natural.

If the groundloop continues to progress after you've stepped on the rudder, your next action should be to add brake on the side opposite the direction of the turn. The reason this is counterintuitive to taildragger pilots is because they are taught to stay off the brakes on the runway. Next you'll want to move the stick into the swerve to prevent the wing from scraping the ground.

Finally you can add power to arrest the groundloop, although as you might guess this can present risks of its own. If you don't add enough power it won't do anything to help you; if you add too much power it can make a bad situation worse.

Thankfully my rudder footwork was good enough, the wind was light and the Stearman tracked straight. After the flight there wasn't much more to say. It was an incredible experience, and one that makes me envy pilots who get to fly airplanes like the Stearman every day.

As we were wrapping up, Damian asked the question I should have known was coming.

"Any questions?"

I didn't have to think for even a second before answering.

"Yeah," I said, grinning ear to ear. "When can we do that again?"

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