by Rick Durden
To put it bluntly, operating a tailwheel airplane while in contact with the planet is best described as challenging. Nevertheless, it does not require a super-pilots ability; some pretty awful airplane drivers out there operate tailwheel airplanes regularly and dont turn them into landfill. How do they get away with it? One way to find out is to strip away as much macho posturing and old wives tales about airplanes with the steering wheel on the aft end as possible, and look at the subject as objectively as we can.
According to the annual AOPA Air Safety Foundation Nall Report and NTSB data, landing accidents are less likely to result in fatalities than those occurring during the takeoff, en route or approach phases of flight, but are at or near the top in the overall frequency-of-accident sweepstakes. They provide plenty of mangled airframes and certainly lead to more than enough injuries and deaths, especially when tailwheel airplanes are involved. One reason is because most tailwheel airplanes are, well, old. While modern tailwheel airplanes are still being manufactured, the vast majority of those in the fleet are older, built with little consideration to crashworthiness and fire protection (a huge proportion have fuel tanks right behind the engine, leading to a horrible post-crash fire rate). The good news is that, once in the air, their pilots seem to do the same sorts of foolish things as those operating nosewheel airplanes do, and at about the same rate. They carry on VFR into IFR conditions to the point of impact, fly foolishly low and they stall and spin from distressingly low altitude about as frequently as their nosewheel-equipped brethren. Where the data differs impressively is on takeoff and landing; tailwheel airplanes generate insurance claims so often that their owners must pay higher premiums to insure their little-wheel-on-the back steeds.
Is there anything pilots can do to reduce the tailwheel airplanes accident rate? Yes, indeed. Stop flying them. No exceptions. Park every single tailwheel airplane and well significantly improve the general aviation accident rate. Huh? Thats not an option? All right, lets talk with those sentimental folks who desire to fly an airplane rather than drive it; who want to commune with the sky in a thoroughbred rather than a spam can, and who are willing to intelligently manage the risk of a groundloop. Believe it or not, there is a magic bullet that has been shown to cut down the risk of an accident when handling a tailwheel airplane on the ground. The prescription may be horribly distasteful to some, and its not sexy, but it works: a solid checkout and frequent practice and recurrent training. With that in mind, where do we start?
The CG Is Aft
Well before getting near the airplane, even before sitting down with the instructor for the first time, probably the most important knowledge to lodge deep into ones psyche regarding operation when the wheels are on the ground is that the airplanes center of gravity (CG) is behind-yes, aft of-the main landing gear. Big deal, you say? You bet it is; its hugely significant. It means that once the airplane begins to turn, for any reason whatsoever, it will continue to turn, often at an ever-increasing rate due to the awesome power of inertia, until the pilot in command-thats you-takes some action to stop the turn. Any turn. All turns. The sidebar at right explains this effect on a tailwheel airplane in detail.
I have a vivid memory of watching a gorgeous 1934 Cessna Airmaster, on one of its first flights after complete restoration, follow the mindless herd of airplanes landing in a quartering tailwind at a fly-in. Early in the rollout the airplane started to swerve into the wind, the pilot caught it and turned back, obviously intending to point it back down the runway, but did not take the needed assertive action to stop the correction, and the airplane started a vicious ground loop, dropping the outside wing to the turf, tearing the gear off sideways and shredding the fuselage through the barbed wire fence adjacent to the runway, undoing years of work.
Many times when the pilot takes action to stop a swerve, he or she correctly analyzes the situation and applies rudder to the stop, perhaps a little brake and some power to get more airflow over the rudder. Once the swerve is stopped, the rudder input is not relaxed soon enough and the corrective turn toward the initial heading proceeds at a far faster rate than the initial swerve. The pilot does not act to slow down the corrective turn until the nose passes through the original heading. By that time, the inertia of that center of gravity behind the main gear is so great that full rudder in the opposite direction, as well as brake and power, wont stop the turn and a certain embarrassment results.
The need to take action to stop all turns simply cannot be over emphasized. As the nose is swinging toward the desired heading, its a good idea to begin to reduce the rate of turn early and never, ever wait until the nose has actually gotten to the desired heading before applying the needed control forces to stop the turn. It will be too late and, at best, youll find yourself weaving along, passing through the desired heading in what may deteriorate into ever more-aggressive swerves.
A major part of the process of operating a tailwheel airplane on the ground is to make an early decision on where you want to go and then go there. For every inch the airplane moves while on the ground, at no matter what speed, be thinking well ahead of the airplane and have decided on a definite route that you intend to follow. Yes, its okay to change the route; good pilots are always willing to change their plans and be flexible as conditions change. What is unacceptable is to simply let the airplane wander along in some general direction. That habit pattern is virtually certain to become expensive.
If you want to go down a runway or taxiway centerline, accept no deviation. None. If you need to do S turns to see ahead while taxiing, have a plan for the path you will follow and correct any deviations from it.Immediately. During takeoff, landing and rollout, pick a reference point as far ahead as possible and aim at it; if the nose deviates so much as a fraction of a degree to the left or right of the point, correct it immediately. Once the airplane starts to turn, inertia builds rapidly and is not your friend.
Use the Controls
Flight-control effectiveness at low speeds varies widely on tailwheel airplanes. Very old ones often have very poor control response, partially because they were built to take off and land into the wind on big, open fields. When flying them, the rudder will lose effectiveness just when you need it most: decelerating through about 25 knots on rollout. Modern tailwheel airplanes-those built after about 1940-were made for runways and often have rudders that remain effective to very low speeds. The reality is that part of a thorough checkout in a tailwheel airplane involves determining how effective the flight controls are at different speeds and learning that there will be times when it is absolutely necessary to put one or more of the controls all the way to its stop to get the airplane to go where you want.For nosewheel pilots, that can be uncomfortable, but it has to become ingrained. As a part of that learning process, one has to accept that when the airplane is going where you want it to go, do not mess with it; dont apply rudder deflection that isnt needed. Fanning the rudder on rollout can lead to a very fast swerve, especially on a gusty day where control authority is changing from moment to moment.
Wind In Your Soul
Because tailwheel airplanes are so affected by wind when on the ground, its important to be constantly aware of the wind direction, to the point that it becomes second nature and you automatically position the ailerons appropriately. The stuff you learned once upon a time about aileron deflection when taxiing honestly matters in a tailwheel airplane. There will be times that correct aileron deflection will determine whether you can control the airplane when taxiing, taking off or landing. To see just how effective the ailerons are in a tailwheel airplane, taxi into the wind in an open area, put your feet on the floor and apply full right aileron. The airplane will gently turn left. Reverse the procedure and the airplane will turn right. Because of the three-point attitude of the airplane, adverse aileron yaw, the drag of the lowered aileron, is that powerful. Those ailerons are a big asset during ground operations. It also means that after touchdown in a crosswind, you will be smoothly going to full aileron deflection into the wind to help keep the airplane going straight.
Directional control is of the essence. When I am doing tailwheel checkouts, Im not too terribly concerned about how smoothly the pilot touches down.Instead, what cements my attention is whether the airplane is pointed precisely in the appropriate direction. Its a lot easier to recover from a bounced landing than from a massive swerve induced because the airplane touched down while drifting one way or the other.
On many tailwheel airplanes, visibility over the nose is questionable in the three-point attitude. That means its probably a good idea to spend some time sitting in the airplane and learning just what you can see, what visual cues are available, where the blind areas are and how youre going to compensate for them on takeoff and landing.
Tailwheel airplanes are generally less forgiving of imprecision on the part of the pilot. While that primarily means steely-eyed determination to keep the airplane pointed in the correct direction, it also means holding the appropriate speed on final. Nosewheel airplanes may forgive an extra 10 or 20 knots tacked on to the final-approach speed and the resulting float and loss of directional control prior to touchdown: The airplane will jerk back to runway heading, by and large.
But that excess airspeed can be the kiss of death for a tailwheel machine.As you bleed off that excess speed, the airplane starts to drift with a crosswind. If you dont keep the fuselage aligned with the direction of flight, a crabbed touchdown is likely to occur, followed almost instantly by a big-league swerve, then sounds of a locked tire sliding and finally the painful crunch of airplane structure crumbling.
Excess speed on landing is excess energy, a squared function that must be managed once on the ground. Its simply harder to do in a tailwheel airplane.So, come down final at 1.3 Vso and half the gust factor, and no more, so that the time spent decelerating to touchdown speed in the flare is not measured in days and the touchdown will be at the lowest energy level possible. That is generally true for three-point or wheel landings. There is usually no need to come down final faster for a wheel landing than for a three-point affair, despite the old wives tales that circulate so persistently on the subject.
A discussion of whether a three-point or wheel landing is better is beyond the scope of this piece; suffice it to say that what is better may very well be airplane-specific. A rough rule of thumb is that a three-point landing is generally-generally-going to be safer than a wheel landing because ground contact is made at a lower speed.
Wheel landings are not necessarily harder than a three-point landing, theyre just different, and involve managing more energy during the rollout.Speed on final is generally the same; the difference occurs in the flare.Instead of raising the nose to the three-point ground attitude and touching down at or near the airplanes stall speed, the nose is raised only slightly, to arrest the descent rate. Touchdown occurs on the main gear and backpressure on the controls is immediately relaxed, to allow the nose to drop slightly to reduce the angle of attack, causing the airplane to remain on the ground.
A practice that can lead to loss of control is to attempt to pin the airplane on the ground with forward movement of the controls. If not timed perfectly, the airplane may bounce back into the air and pitch up. The pilot can get out of synch, pushing on the controls at the wrong time, creating a pilot-induced oscillation that too often results in a broken airplane. The safer procedure is to carry a little extra nose down trim on final, so that when the mains touch and backpressure is released, there is no need to push on the controls at all, the nose will go down a bit on its own and the airplane will stay on the ground. The pilot may push forward on the controls as speed bleeds off, as he or she decides when to lower the tail to the ground.
Practicing wheel landings also present an excellent opportunity to practice your go-around procedures. When there is any doubt about the continued success of a landing attempt, go around. While there are no statistics, Im willing to bet that good tailwheel pilots make more go-arounds than good nosewheel pilots, simply because they are aware that when things start going wrong on a tailwheel landing, Murphys Law kicks right in and will cause the deterioration to accelerate geometrically. If you bounce a wheel-landing attempt twice, the rule of thumb is to go around before you bend something.If a swerve is not responding immediately to full rudder and brake, full power may be necessary to get enough airflow over the tail to make it effective enough to salvage things. At that point, a go-around may be the better part of valor, despite the fact you are already on the ground.
When trying to get the airplane set up for landing, be patient. Be willing to go around repeatedly until things look and feel right. Its okay. Be assertive. If there is more crosswind than you care to wrestle with, and there is a taxiway into the wind that is clear of people, vehicles, airplanes, nuclear weapons and airport managers, land on it. There is nothing in the FARs that prohibits landing on a taxiway. Your responsibility to yourself and your passengers is to land the airplane in as near a normal operation as possible given the variables you face. Instead of the taxiway, another airport with a different runway configuration may be the perfect solution. Its your job to assure the safe operation of the airplane.
A thorough tailwheel checkout takes between five and 10 hours to get exposure to most of the sorts of things that can go wrong and to develop the judgment and skills to recognize and avoid such negative excitement. Also, its wise to keep in mind that skills deteriorate alarmingly fast and its tough to accurately judge where they are, so, especially in a tailwheel airplane its important to operate conservatively and to practice as often as possible. The best part is that the practice is a heck of a lot of fun.
-Rick Durden is a practicing aviation attorney and flight instructor with an ATP and a DC-3 type rating.