Tips for Full-Circle Pilots

If youre getting back into taildraggers to do LSA, thats what you are. Forget flying by the numbers and think attitude, instinct, hand-eye coordination and...the rudder pedals.


Its inevitable. Youll be standing on the ramp, clutching an avgas receipt rivaling Greeces national debt. Your chest throbs. You cant breathe, and ripping off your bolo tie, you scream, “Enough! I cant take this anymore!”

Heart attack? Time to kiss 30 years of flying good-bye? Perhaps, but in this scenario, no. Instead, as you wander off toward your car, its first-love rekindled as you spot an old flame lounging in the grass across the field: a 1946 Aeronca


Champ. And as your six-place Twin Turbo-Moneysucker is tugged off to its hangar, you stumble zombie-like toward the little taildragger and stammer to its owner, “I learned to fly in one of these….” She, then, takes your hand, guides you into the front seat and whispers, “Its time. Weve been waiting for you.” When she swings the prop by hand the 65-hp engine barks like a puppy on Christmas morning, and off you fly back to your aviation roots. Your flying life isnt over. Its merely come full circle, thanks to old airplanes that qualify as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA).

Whatever made some of us fall in love with flying still exists. One lap around the pattern in a Cub or Champ gets pilots who havent flown real stick-and-rudder in decades hooked again on the pleasures of raw lift. And with sport pilot privileges available for anyone avoiding medical certificate hassles, what was once old-style tailwheel flying, reserved for antiquers and cheapskates, is now an option when the need for speed has passed. Thats not to say you have to abandon your Mooney for a mid-life fling in a Cub: Your Mooney will understand.

Many pilots find that tailwheel skills enhance their high-performance abilities. And if theres any lingering guilt about ditching your glass panel, all angst will vanish when you realize flying small old airplanes is fun and relatively cheap. Just dont expect to step back in time without a little instruction to avoid humiliating reminders of how much you may have forgotten over the years.

Remind me: Whats LSA?

To qualify as an LSA the airplane (well skip copters, gliders and such) must have fixed landing gear and a fixed-pitch or ground-adjustable propeller, no more than two seats and a maximum takeoff weight of 1320 pounds. Light sport seaplanes top the scales at 1430 pounds and may have repositionable landing gear. Other limitations exist, but those are the basics.

New LSAs appear on the market with encouraging regularity but at prices that make old Champ pilots stutter. With a new LSA-say, a Flight Design CTLS-you get a modern, efficient airplane. With a Champ you get a noisy, fabric-covered, draggy piece of history that will ground loop under the wrong feet. But, when flown properly, itll put a smile on a deserving face with every sunset landing in the grass. Yes, the tri-geared Ercoupe 415C (or CD) qualifies for LSA, but we want to focus on the more challenging taildraggers, particularly the tandem-seating Champs and Cubs. (Taylorcrafts and Luscombes are great LSAs if you enjoy cozy side-by-side seating.) Lets review some of the excitement.


When transitioning back to old taildraggers youll notice the lack of paperwork. The required ARROW documents should be on board but dont expect to find a POH. None needed, because you wont learn to fly an old airplane by reading a book. Tailwheel flying requires a visceral understanding of flight. Memorizing approach power settings and airspeeds is almost irrelevant, since many old airspeed indicators dont work properly, and if you fly from the back seat-such as when soloing a J-3 Cub-you cant see the instrument panel anyhow.

Not that theres much up there. A tachometer is nice, but youll quickly learn to listen to the engine and feel the power setting. Takeoff with full throttle, cruise with it pulled back for less noise and glide at idle to land. Mixture lean of peak? Fuggetaboutit; those old carburetors often dont have a mixture control. Plus, you rarely fly much over 1000 feet agl, or you wouldnt be able to smell the countryside and read the highway signs. GPS is for wimps. Altimeters are often inaccurate, too.

Likewise the compass. I grin when I see a yellowed compass correction card pasted beneath some wet compass that hasnt held fluid since the 1970s. Oil temp and pressure gauges should be in working order, but in cold weather may require frequent tapping to get the needles to move, if theyll move at all. The most important instrument on the panel is the slip-and-skid inclinometer or-as its known to crusty old tailwheel instructors-the hands-feet-butt-and-mind coordination ball. If you cant coordinate your body and mind in Zen-like harmony with the machine, youll never fully appreciate this kind of flying.

Its all about posture

Teaching from the back seat of a tandem taildragger is a great place to evaluate a clients skills. First off, they cant see you grimace as they try to flare at 30 feet. More important, from the back I can judge how well the student relates to the flying machine. Body language tells all. If I notice a pilots head bow too low I know hes trying to manage the airplane rather than fly it, expecting the gauges to reveal something when they have nothing to offer.

Cubs and Champs werent made for long straight-line flights. Theyre meant to maneuver, and that requires good hand/feet coordination. Without that, turns become slipping, skidding unholiness. Since a front-seat student blocks forward visibility, the back-seat instructor, who cant see the coordination ball, learns to sit like a lump of Jell-O, flowing with the forces. In a left-hand turn if my limp body slips to the left, I know that the coordination ball is doing the same thing. “More left rudder,” I call, and the student steps on the ball to rebalance the forces. This same dead-body posture can improve the non-CFIs feel for the machine. Relax, keep a light grip on the stick and throttle with feet hovering gently against the rudder pedals.

Its common for nervous beginners to press both pedals at once, exposing massive indecision. These are light airplanes, and even though some, such as the Champ, have relatively heavy stick forces, they dont require lumberjack inputs. Use as little muscle as possible. The airplane learned to fly 65 years ago; you cant teach it a thing. Old airplanes are like horses that can sense when a pilot is tense, uncentered and rough on the controls. And, yes, airplanes can sense.

The pilots posture should be relaxed, yet upright. An uncentered pilot tends to lean away from the turns, fighting the machine rather than flowing with it. Find the airplanes center. I dont mean where the numbers appear in a weight-and-balance calculation but, rather, where the flying forces come together. The taildraggers CG should be aft of the main landing gear. Think about that force and how it will react as you taxi. Feel how it wants to swing the tail ahead of you if you get too aggressive with taxi speed in a turn.

Many older airplanes have heel brakes instead of toe. Its a minor difference, but when you need brakes right now, finding air above the rudder pedals is an eye-opener. Stomping on brakes while taxiing with a tailwind can put a taildragger on its nose. Luckily, old airplanes tend to have crappy brakes, which somewhat mitigates the threat.

When transitioning to small taildraggers, you must understand where to position the stick and elevator while on the ground. With the wind from behind, point the stick forward and away from the wind. “Dive away from a tailwind” on the ground. When taxiing into the wind, position the stick aft and pointed into the wind. Get sloppy on a gusty day, and youre in for unplanned wingtip repairs. Good control positioning during taxi keeps you thinking ahead of the wind.

The wind is your friend

Old LSAs have small engines. Generally, youll fly behind the venerable Continental 65-hp engine: reliable and economical at four gph but without much power. With the big wings of a Champ or Cub you dont need much. When transitioning down to low-powered flight you need to relearn how to take advantage of the wind-not fight it-and how to fly the wing. Most small taildraggers will glide just fine without power. For that reason, I teach power-off approaches from the start. Plus, you never know when a run-out engine will quit, so deadstick skills are a must.

The airplane flies because air flows across the wing. In any of these old taildraggers, you should be able to reduce power abeam the touchdown point and glide to a safe landing. Each model has its own characteristics, but none are scary if you keep air moving across the wings. With faulty airspeed indicators or flying blind from the rear seat, you learn to fly the angle of attack, feeling how the airplane maintains lift or hints at a stall. If youre used to dragging in approaches with power, unlearn that technique.

Plan your entire power-off approach from downwind to flare with the nose generally pointed down. Turn altitude into energy. Keep the ball centered in the turns to avoid cross-controlled stalls. If youre high on final-as I often am when flying a Taylorcraft that doesnt sink quite like my Aeronca Champ-then its time to slip.

What, no flaps?

These are simple airplanes. They dont have flaps, so when youre high on final, simply convert the fuselage into one big drag chute. Apply aileron to put one wing down, usually the one into the wind. Simultaneously, add opposite rudder. All of it. Get that airplane flying sideways with the power off. Suddenly, that slab-sided fuselage that streamlines so well in flight acts like a billboard in the wind. Down you come.

Make minor adjustments on the controls to adjust the rate of sink and drift. After re-intercepting the proper glide path, release the controls. The airplane will magically coordinate itself. Of course, you cant land that way with any crosswind, so keep the wing down into the wind and use whatever amount of opposite rudder it takes to keep the longitudinal axis pointed straight down the runway. Frankly, thats also how to land a tri-gear in a crosswind, but taildraggers are far less forgiving of poor crosswind technique.

After landing, keep increasing the aileron input. Imagine a left crosswind landing. Think about that lowered aileron on the downwind, right wing. As it produces lift to raise the right wing and lower the left, the down aileron also produces drag, which yaws the airplane to the right and takes some of the work off your right foot. Who said aileron yaw was all adverse? Not tailwheel pilots.

One more fear to overcome-the wheel landing. Mythology abounds about the topic of landing on the mains versus making a full-stall landing on all three. For most tailwheel LSAs it doesnt matter. I generally wheel land the Champ in all conditions. The visibility is great throughout the flare, and theres a sense of positive control picking a wheel-left or right-and rolling it on.

I use full-stall landings on soft fields, touching down with a spritz of power. The wheel landing can be done with or without power. Its pure beauty but requires a honed sense of timing to learn when to transition from a flare pitch attitude (nose slightly high) to bringing the stick forward a millisecond after the main wheel touches.

Any of the airplanes mentioned here will full-stall-land just fine in a crosswind. In fact, sometimes a full stall is the best way to handle a strong crosswind. Youll just have to explore the possibilities for yourself, because no book or article is going to turn anyone into a tailwheel pilot.

Just Do It

The advent of light sport aircraft and sport pilot privileges is one of the best things to come out of the FAA in a long, long time. An increasing number of pilots and aircraft owners-perhaps hoping to recapture their youth-are snapping up so-called “legacy” LSAs and re-learning the joys of aviation after spending many thousands of hours driving a high-performance single or better. Sure; you can go out and buy a brand-new, glass-panel LSA and pay more than your house might be worth, but the legacy LSA-Cubs, Champs and the like-will offer more pure fun, as well as help you hone some long-forgotten skills.

And when the day comes for you to return to your grass-field roots, or take up the art of tailwheelin for the first time, simply cleanse your mind of all high-tech thoughts and discover what true love really is. Its inevitable.


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