You may have heard that flying a tailwheel airplane will make you a better pilot. You may have even heard this in less generous terms from an older pilot, something to the effect of, “you’re not a real pilot until you can fly a taildragger.” While that’s nothing more than bravado, there are some important lessons you can learn from flying an airplane with the third wheel on the back of the fuselage.
I know when I checked out in a Citabria about 15 years ago, it changed how I thought about the landing process and it recalibrated my “seat of your pants” flight instrument (that we all have). My landings weren’t always pretty, but the experience taught me to focus on three things in particular.
How to use the rudder. You can fly a tricycle gear airplane (like a Skyhawk) without ever touching the rudder pedals. I certainly don’t recommend it (for one, it won’t be a smooth flight), but the airplane wants to stay aligned. That’s because the pivot point is in front of the main gear – if the airplane gets slightly sideways, physics will pull the airplane straight again. In a taildragger, the exact opposite is true: if the tailwheel starts to move out to the side, it will continue to do so. If unchecked, the result will be a ground loop, with the tail and the nose swapping ends. This is rarely fatal, but it’s embarrassing and often expensive.
Because of this tendency, tailwheel pilots develop an innate sense for the airplane’s track and longitudinal axis. After a few lessons, you’ll feel the tail getting slightly out of alignment and react with rudder. Moving the stick (ailerons) will only make things worse, so those rudder pedals quickly become your best friend. And on most landings, those pedals are constantly moving. A smooth tailwheel pilot rarely makes big movements, just varying degrees of pressure on the pedals. Brakes are to be used sparingly, too, often only for parking the airplane. A quick jab on the brakes is often enough to start a ground loop.
This comfort with the rudder pedals, awareness of the airplane’s position, and reluctance to use brakes are all good habits in a nosewheel airplane too. They will make your next landing in Cherokee smoother and your mechanic happier.
Energy management. As a student pilot, I heard some flight instructors talk about potential and kinetic energy, but I really had no idea what it meant until I flew a taildragger. Like many older airplanes, the Citabria has no flaps so making a landing on the numbers is all about managing energy – in the form of altitude and airspeed. High and fast? You’ve got a lot of both types of energy. Time to get rid of one, then the other, and extend your pattern to give yourself time to do so.
I didn’t appreciate this initially, so my first few approaches were either way too high or way too fast. Those big flaps on the Cessna 172 I trained in had apparently been covering up a lot of mistakes in my approaches. Without that option, I was forced to plan ahead and fly more precisely. The key is to slow down to the right approach speed, then start your descent. Once you have everything established, your work isn’t done – you need to maintain the proper airspeed all the way down. If you approach the threshold 10 knots fast without flaps, you will float a long way down the runway.
I also learned how to use the forward slip to lose altitude, something I was unsure of in the Cessna. Once I really got a feel for this maneuver, I noticed my side slips (like you use in a crosswind landing) got better too.
More than anything, flying the taildragger gave me a new appreciation for precise pitch control on landing. The lightbulb moment for me was when I made a perfect three-point landing in the Citabria after setting the proper pitch attitude and then waiting. Until then, I had been impatient, constantly moving the elevator to “feel for the runway.” With no flaps and a partially-obscured view, the only effective method is to fly the right attitude – and not over-flare. This really paid off when I got back in the 172.
Crosswind control. I can’t explain why, but flying a taildragger was the first time I really mastered crosswind landings. I had made hundreds of them by the time I got in that Citabria, and many of them were good, but I never felt like I was completely in control.
In a taildragger, you quickly become more assertive, willing to do whatever it takes to correct for even the smallest amounts of drift. You’re also used to moving the rudder pedals, so it’s more natural to kick on the crab and transition to a side slip. I can remember one lesson where I made crosswind landing after crosswind landing, and the goal was to keep on the upwind wheel on the runway for a long as possible.
The final lesson in crosswind control happens after the landing, when you realize that the old cliche is true: the flight isn’t over until the airplane is tied down. In a tricycle gear airplane, it’s a good habit to hold proper control inputs during taxi but probably not essential; in a taildragger it may be the difference between an uneventful flight and wrecking the airplane. You have to fly it all the way to the chocks, and that’s a good reminder for any airplane.
Do try this at home
Let’s get one thing straight: taildraggers are not wild beasts that can only be tamed by “real pilots.” Flying any airplane takes skill, practice, and focus – not magic powers. While taildraggers can be unforgiving, that’s only true for the last five feet on landing. The rest of the time, the airplane flies exactly the same.
In fact, you can learn almost all of these lessons in a Cessna 172 or a Piper Warrior; you just have to pay close attention to the airplane. For example, go up to altitude and practice making large rudder inputs. Most student pilots rarely push the pedals more than an inch and are uncomfortable putting the airplane exactly where they want it. There’s no reason for that reluctance.
Next, make some crosswind landings but focus relentlessly on tracking the centerline while keeping the airplane straight. It sounds simple, but really concentrate on working the rudder pedals and ailerons; you’ll find a whole new level of aircraft control. One tip: try to do this on a day with a steady crosswind of 5-10 knots. Gusty winds make it harder to sense the change in aircraft position. You also might consider using a video camera, so you can review your performance after the flight (were you really on the centerline?).
Energy management is also easy to practice in a nosewheel airplane. No-flap landings are a great way to improve your skills, but are rarely practiced outside of checkride prep. Power-off, 180-degree spot landings are also excellent for experimenting with different combinations of altitude, airspeed, and aircraft configuration. Practice these until you can reliably predict where the airplane is going to touch down, under control and on speed. The taildragger may be more unforgiving here, but the same good technique will pay off in any airplane.
If you get the chance to check out in a Cub, Citabria, or other tailwheel airplane, you should absolutely do it – you’ll most likely find it both fun and rewarding. But don’t wait for that sign-off to improve your flying skills.