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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Taildraggers can Teach us Something, Even if We don’t Fly One
By John Lorenz

Most of the early pusher-type Wright and Curtiss aircraft had tricycle landing gear, but the weight and complexity of a steerable nose wheel duct-taped somehow to the engine mount became undesirable once the more practical tractor configuration became common. “Conventional” tailwheel landing gear was therefore the norm for general aviation from before World War I until the user-friendly, tricycle-gear Piper Tri-Pacer and Cessna 172 and their successors were introduced in the late 1950’s.

Pilots apparently flew these general aviation taildraggers safely enough during that time: I don’t know of any statistics showing that accident rates were higher then than they are now due to differences in landing gear configurations. So why does it now typically take as long to transition pilots to a tailwheel aircraft as it would to solo them in a taildragger from the start? Why do insurance companies charge higher premiums for aircraft with conventional gear, suggesting that they believe these aircraft now pose higher risks? Although flying taildraggers is often thought of in terms of significantly different techniques (“wheel landings,” “three-point landings,” etc.), in essence these are only the same techniques needed to fly tricycle-gear aircraft with precision. Ahhhh, maybe that’s a key to the answer: “precision.”

Take the airborne turn: you’d think it would be hard to screw up what seems to be a relatively simple maneuver, but never underestimate a pilot. Airplanes develop adverse yaw when initiating a turn since the down aileron on the raised wing drags more heavily than its companion on the other wing, yawing the raised wing backwards and opposite to the desired direction of turn. Adverse yaw has been minimized in newer designs by the use of aileron-rudder interconnections and differential aileron deflection, so yaw isn’t as apparent in these aircraft as it is in less sophisticated designs, but it is still present and should be corrected with the rudder. However, because yaw is minimized in the newer designs, we can, and therefore we regularly do, make aileron-only turns, our feet either barely or not at all moving on the rudder pedals, or, equally common, moving but out of synch with the ailerons. The only penalty is an uncoordinated turn, safe enough except at low airspeeds but not a sign of finesse. Because it’s do-able, and because it’s not usually dangerous, there is little incentive for the pilot to develop better technique with the rudder. In contrast, turns without proper rudder input in the older designs of most taildraggers are so obviously squirrelly that passengers object strenuously and the pilot quickly develops decent turn coordination if only in self defense.

Then consider a more demanding maneuver: landing. No matter which type of airplane is being flown, a pilot should eliminate all sideways drift and all crab before landing. But there is little consequence in a tricycle-gear aircraft if the touchdown isn’t perfect because of the self-aligning tendency of that configuration. If the touchdown is imprecise, the pilot usually isn’t even aware of the sideways tug in the seat of the pants or of having to hit a bit of rudder to steer the aircraft back along the centerline. Because the consequences are minimal, these clues that indicate uncorrected minor drift and/or slight misalignment are below the pilot’s threshold of awareness.

A tailwheel aircraft, however, demands precision in correction for both lateral drift and alignment at touchdown because otherwise contact with the runway sets the pilot up for an uncomfortable and probably destructive ground loop. A lateral tug in the seat of the pants and a need to tap the rudder at touchdown are not to be ignored: the consequences are immediate and severe. Rather, the sweaty-palmed pilot eagerly learns how to prevent these because that is so much less exciting than correcting them.

Moreover, the better landings in tricycle gear aircraft for most conditions are full-stall landings, touching mainwheels first and only letting the weaker nose wheel touch gently afterwards, which is essentially the same as a three-point landing in a taildragger. Although landing flat in a tri-gear airplane (touching all three wheels at once) lacks finesse, it is usually do-able, whereas landing flat in a taildragger can produce some very unpleasant porpoising if not done exactly right as a wheel landing.

The apparent lack of higher accident rates back when most aircraft had tailwheels may be because pilots had both a heightened awareness and greater precision in their mundane, daily flight operations. The aircraft were demanding, yes, but the pilot skill levels were commensurately higher. However, a tailwheel skill level can be learned and practiced in our tricycle-gear aircraft: we should not let ourselves be as sloppy as the equipment allows. Keep the ball centered rolling into, during, and recovering from turns; touch down with the stall warning buzzing or blinking; maintain exact alignment with the runway centerline throughout the landing. Precision flying is rewarding: it’s safer, easier on the aircraft, and gentler on passengers.
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