Wheelie or Three?

Landing a taildragger can mean two different kinds of landings, but sometimes the choice is made for you


Some tailwheel pilots believe there are two kinds of landings: wheel and three-point (also called full-stall landing, even though most pilots make them above stalling speed). But just as you dont see airshow pilots wheeling their high-performance mounts onto the runway, you dont see Ford Trimotors touching down on all three simultaneously.

For some taildraggers, theres only one kind of landing. Unfortunately, which kind of landing that is depends on both the pilot and the airplane, but more on the airplane.

The key to understanding tailwheel dynamics is to recall that the center of the airplanes gravity resides behind the main landing gear. This means that when the aircraft is decelerating, the CG is constantly trying to get ahead of the main gear. The pilot is essentially trying to ride a bicycle backwards.

Small deviations from straight ahead need to be corrected very, very quickly before they get out of hand and the aircraft turns sideways or backwards or even inverted. Directional control at low speeds resides usually (but not always) in a steerable tailwheel or in differential braking. At flying speeds, the rudder becomes effective and the tail is kept off the ground.

The essential problem is the transition between tailwheel control and rudder control, and the fact that the farther from the centerline the CG travels, the harder it is to get it back behind the mains.

When it comes to picking a landing strategy, each airplane has its own peccadilloes. Generalizations are dangerous, but most pilots agree that, for most airplanes, the wheel landing is most useful when faced with a stiff crosswind or gusts.

This is because the aircraft is planted on the ground in the presence of flying speed. To balk the landing, simply add power and up elevator and youre out of there. Approach is usually made at a speed just below Vy, with whatever flaps are required to keep the pitch attitude relatively flat.

At round out, the airplane is held off the ground and allowed to settle only very slowly. In some airplanes a spot of power is added to arrest the descent rate. The instant the wheels touch, a rapid increment of down elevator is added. This decreases angle of attack and reduces lift, planting the mains on the ground.

The tail is maintained off the ground until airspeed decays enough to plant the tail wheel firmly and transfer directional control from the rudder to the tailwheel.

The three-point landing is just that. The airplane is held off the ground until angle of attack becomes high enough so that the tailwheel touches just a moment before the mains, or all three wheels touch simultaneously.

These landings work because the airplane is put on the ground just as it runs out of energy to stay in the air. The ground speed and runway requirements are much less than with a wheel landing, which is why theyre used in most bush plane and STOL operations.

Even for normal operations on a long paved runway, the three-point reduces the amount of kinetic energy you take with you to the ground, which can be a good thing if things dont work out right.

The shortcomings of the three-point landing are that the airplane has more limited control authority because of its slower airspeed. And a go-around is a more difficult proposition.

Generalization: Dont Generalize
However, no two tailwheel aircraft types land alike. I own a Cessna 140. It is equally happy in three-point landings at airspeeds that dont even register and wheel landings with between 70 and 80 mph indicated. When the wing unloads, theres plenty of warning.

But this is less so with the Beech Staggerwing, as an example. When it unloads, it goes. The large radial engine pretty much obstructs the runway view in a three-point landing. Peripheral vision and leaning over to the side to look around is a must.

This is an airplane that few pilots like to land in a three-point. Because that big radial engine weighs a lot, the airplane is pretty much going wherever that engine mass is pointed. Dont get behind on the rudder pedals with this one.

One-sided application of the brakes may be the only thing available to save the bacon once it starts turning, but if your feet dont react quickly enough even that will simply seal your fate. Takeoff or landing, the torque and P-factor has the airplane hunting for the weeds unless the pilot is sharp. Theres one Staggerwing at a base nearby that comes back in a crate from Europe about every four years for a rebuild after a groundloop.

These are much lesser issues in low-powered aircraft like Piper Cubs, Pacers, Cessna 120/140 and the Citabrias. There simply isnt 300 horsepower up there playing with your brain. The Cessna 185 can be easily three-pointed because it has predictable, consistent stall characteristics, but forward visibility is so poor at the three-point landing attitude that wheel landings are usually the norm.

Complicating the Picture
Warbirds are another story altogether. Most have a semi-elliptical wing planform, which is very efficient but tends to unload all at once. After all, the designers were not looking for benign characteristics. They wanted payload, range and airspeed.

I have never seen a Spitfire driver treat a guest to a three-point landing. Wheel landings, please. Three-point landings are not unreasonable in the T-6 but, as we say in our professions, errors of judgment in this area of operations tend to be quite expensive and are generally avoided.

DC-3 pilots tell me that they can be landed three-point as well, but if the tailwheel touches first, the mains come down quite firmly and can really wake you up. Thus, most DC-3/C-47 landings are wheel landings.

Which then brings us to yet higher complexity: engine management in a multi-engined taildragger. Let me be the first to defer to the few who are blessed with multi-engined taildragger time. Its probably reasonable, as in a nose wheel twin, to bring up power on the upwind engine in a serious crosswind flare, especially if youve run out of rudder authority and the upwind wingtip is perilously close to the ground.

But its much more reasonable to go somewhere else. The bottom line is that there is tremendous incentive to not make errors. The pilot should simply choose the technique most comfortable and reproducible for him in that particular type. Often, but not always, that tilts the equation in favor of wheel landings.

Because the wing attitude is at or near the stall in a three-point landing, the only control surface with any authority is the rudder, so crosswinds and gusts are out of the question. Short fields do penalize the pilot making a higher speed approach and landing, and shift the equation toward the three-point landing.

The wheel landing brings with it higher kinetic energy and more energy to bend airplane parts, but carries with it better control authority, the flyaway option, and the longer runway requirement.

I also add visibility to the equation. At night, at a poorly lighted strip, there must be adequate length for a wheel landing. With its very low sink rate at wheel touch and flyaway ease, its the landing of choice when feeling for the ground. I hate stalling it two feet up.

If the aircraft has a big radial in the front and the runway is narrow, its a wheel landing. If the runway is too short for one, I dont land there. Period.

Wheel landings also require good brakes unless you spend all your time near 8,000-foot paved runways. Therefore, the main landing gear brakes must be in good condition for safe wheel landings.

Two summers ago in Gustavas, Alaska, a mechanic flying a Cessna 180 noted his right wheel brake was inoperative. As Gustavas has no Federal Express service and no road to the mainland, he made the 28-mile flight to Juneau to buy the necessary parts.

He made a successful wheel landing on Juneaus enormous runway. On his return to GUS the pilot set up a right cross wind final, planning to use the functioning left brake to keep the aircraft from weathervaning. Experience had taught him that the runway length was more than adequate. This would have worked well except for the last-minute wind shift.

The brakes are also killers if they lock due to frozen slush or heat. Many people witnessed a noseover at Sun-n-Fun a few years ago when locked brakes caused a noseover, pinning and killing the air show pilot.

Successfully operating a tailwheel airplane, whether a vintage warbird or a recent Super Cub, requires a bit of practice and the wisdom of a good instructor. However, a generation of CFIs has now been trained that have never flown tailwheel aircraft, or who have a taildragger endorsement but little practical experience.

It is absolutely critical that transition to a tailwheel aircraft occur under the tutelage of someone with lots of experience, preferably in make and model, though this is sometimes not possible. You can also learn a lot with any experienced pilot acting as pilot in command and you following along on the controls.

Its not loggable time, but what matters is learning to gauge the attitudes and use the rudder. Watch the next time a tailwheel pilot lands on or departs your runway. The rudder is constantly moving. Its an art, but one you can learn to master.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “One Bump or Two?”
Click here to view “Why Tailwheels?”

-by Bruce Chien

Bruce Chien is a CFII-MEI and AME who owns a Cessna 140 and a Piper Seneca II.


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