Tailwheel Teaches Tight Technique

A reflective piece for Startup To Shutdown on the trials and tribs of tailwheel tutorial. Love that slid back COG!

When I was a kid, I inhaled Biggles books. Couldn’t put ‘em down. Written by a fighter pilot who flew in both wars, the descriptives of dogfights and all manner of other manoeuvres were technical to a tee, and detailed! You could almost feel the flying and the effects of the control inputs from your armchair.

When I grew up, I was taught to fly in a tricycle aircraft (as most schools these days are apt to), however, as far as I was concerned, tailwheel was ever the standard configuration. When I finally got into my first one, a beautiful white and navy blue Super Decathlon, I put my Vans on the rudder pedals, and written pages of Capt W. E. Johns flooded my memory. I loved the ‘slid back’ centre of gravity – it felt right, alright. Everything made sense.

To me, airmanship is everything and means always striving to be a better pilot, so I was attracted by the idea that taildraggers, by nature, are less forgiving and trickier to handle. They require more precise speed control and smoother inputs than their nose-wheeled counterparts, both aspects I wanted to hone and perfect. I was determined to master the beast, also viewing tailwheel as an entry to aerobatics, which I craved for defensive technique as much as anything.

I had been flying for two years – about eighty hours by that time – and it took me just under ten (most of them dual) to conquer the dragger. Before even getting in the plane, my CFI had me watch a DVD called ‘Tailwheel 101’, which included an hour and a half of briefings. This meant I built a solid understanding of the taxi and ground handling technique, which is a big part of converting – especially when you’re so used to flying a trike.

I found ‘wheeler’ landings the trickiest thing to tick off. They’re useful for gustier, crosswind conditions, due to the higher speed of air flowing over control surfaces. The trick is to come in a little faster, hold a level attitude just above the runway and then wait for the aircraft to slowly sink, grazing the two front wheels gently onto the ground. It’s a little bit more forward-leaning than you’re used to, ordinarily. I’d reached a point where I’d been trying to master them in circuits for hours. 

Bounce! Go-around. Double bounce! Go-around. The engine roars and I lift away easily (far out, I love this machine).

Another circuit, another go. I was genuinely beginning to wonder if I ever could get used to the feeling of pushing the stick forward with the grass right there, rushing at the windscreen like that. But you have to – to keep the tail up – and it has to be the second those two front wheels kiss the turf.

Bounce! – go around!

A little tear of frustration wells in the corner of my eye. I blink it away and firmly remind myself to remain stoic. And then – suddenly – I do three perfect ones in a row. A couple more, glide approaches this time, and finally, my instructor hops out and closes the door with the engine still running. Ta-da! You can do it.

I’m a bush pilot at heart, and I didn’t realise until later that so few pilots now end up with this endorsement. I always thought it was beautifully unique, an ode to the ‘antiquers’ and how we used to fly. Eventually, I’d like to get a banner towing rating for the same reason – who has one of those, these days? I’m anticipating that tailwheel might help me with my float endorsement down the track, too – similar principles.

At the end of the day, I am proud to include another design feature in my logbook. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than greasing on a wheeler, taxiing in and castoring your tailwheel in a smooth half-loop, pulling it up right at the hangar door. Sure makes it easy to put away!

Originally published on Startup to Shutdown, a haven for student pilots and veterans alike.

📸 Cover image by my mate, Jay (Fat Penguin Media)

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