Learning how aircraft are meant to be flown
Every student pilot has a moment -- usually when learning to land -- when aerodynamic concepts finally click and the proverbial light bulb flickers on. It'll pop on during instrument training, a checkout in a complex aircraft, a switch from high-wing to low-wing, or transitioning from tricycle-gear aircraft to tailwheel.
The moment I completely understand why you must keep the airplane pointing straight down the runway with rudder before touchdown comes just after I've plowed a 1946 Aeronca Champ on rollout into the 18-inch-high grass on the right side of the turf runway. A Cessna Skyhawk taxis by in time to witness my ah-ha moment.
Want to drag your tail?
You can't be pilot in command of a taildragger unless you've received an endorsement to do so, or you happen to be a student pilot who is soloing in a taildragger. (There's a grandfather clause in the federal aviation regulations for pilots who obtained tailwheel PIC time before April 1991.) A tailwheel endorsement is not a rating; there is no knowledge test or practical test to complete.
Once you find a qualified flight instructor, you'll fly several hours with him or her, learning takeoffs, landings, and maneuvers. Once you've achieved a certain level of proficiency, your instructor will sign an endorsement in the back of your logbook. A tailwheel endorsement by itself does not satisfy the regulatory requirements for a flight review, but it can part of a flight review (and you'll get two endorsements in your logbook).
The unplanned runway excursion happens on a golden September afternoon in Cushing, Oklahoma, three days into a four-day odyssey of tailwheel training. I'm at Cushing Regional Airport to learn stick-and-rudder skills.
My tour guide and flight instructor is Earl Downs, an occasional contributor to AOPA Flight Training magazine. He's been a flight instructor since 1961, and the Champ that just ran off the runway is his -- was his; he's selling it to another tailwheel convert. He has trained at least 20 people, including his wife, from the backseat of the Champ's tandem cockpit.
Technically retired, Downs has a pretty full schedule -- he edits a monthly newspaper, The Oklahoma Aviator, and writes a bimonthly column for Sport Pilot magazine. He's enthusiastic about the sport pilot and light-sport aircraft rules and believes the new certificate will help to draw more people into aviation. These days, as he observes a growing interest in existing production aircraft -- like the Champ -- that meet the light-sport qualifications, Downs is bent on dispelling the "mystique" that he says taints tailwheel flying. The mystique, of course, is that taildraggers are more difficult to learn to fly than nosewheel aircraft. We've all heard the talk: Tailwheel training will make a real pilot out of you. Taildraggers are the great equalizers.
"If I had two [primary] students really equal in ability, I could take one student in a Champ, the other in a [Cessna] 152, and their solo and progression times would be within an hour of each other," Downs says. He detests the phrase "taming the taildragger" and declares, "You never hear somebody say you have to tame a Bonanza."
OK, then why the bad rap?
A pilot who has flown only nosewheel aircraft can expect to encounter some bumps in tailwheel training, says Downs, because that pilot is unlearning old skills to apply new ones. It's easier to go from tailwheel to nosewheel than vice versa, in the same way that it's easier for a driver who first learned to operate a manual transmission to learn how to drive an automatic, he says.
The Aeronca Champ
A little airplane that can
In 2003, AOPA leased a gleaming new American Champion Citabria 7CGAA (see "Memories of an Adventure," April 2004 AOPA Pilot) for a few months, so that staff pilots could obtain some tailwheel experience. (A professionally restored tailwheel Waco UPF-7 open-cockpit biplane was the grand prize in AOPA's Centennial of Flight membership sweepstakes.) Problem was, only three staff pilots were checked out to give tailwheel instruction, and each one had a waiting list. My time with the Adventure consisted of an hour of taxi practice with the Pilot Information Center's Craig Brown and a ride in the back seat with Alton K. Marsh, an AOPA Pilot senior editor. Then we bid goodbye to the Adventure.
It was sweetly fitting, then, that I got my real introduction to tailwheel training in the Adventure's grandfather -- a 1946 Aeronca Champion 7AC. The Citabria is a variation of the Model 7 series airplanes first manufactured by Aeronautical Corporation of America (Aeronca).
The Model 7 series was meant to give William T. Piper's Cub some real competition in the then-booming general aviation market of postwar America. Its design offered a wider fuselage than the Cub's, extremely forgiving spring/oleo landing gear, and better visibility over the nose (meaning you don't have to S-taxi a Champ to keep from running into things). In fact, forward visibility is so good that on landing, some pilots, ahem, find themselves craning to look over the nose rather than to the side for proper visual cues.
The Champ flown for this article sported a 65-hp Continental engine, cruised at 85 mph (a metal McCauley prop provided better performance), and had a stall speed of 37 mph. Compare those stats to the Adventure's 160-hp Lycoming, 134-mph (116-kt) cruise at 75-percent power, and 52-mph (45-kt) stall speed, and you might think the Champ is stodgy in comparison. Slower, perhaps, but never stodgy. The Champ handles crisply, responding to rudder and aileron inputs almost before you've made them.
Aviation historian Paul R. Matt wrote that both Charles A. Lindbergh and Howard Hughes were Champ fans, and as this article was being written, an advertisement for a Champ "flown by Lindbergh" popped up briefly in Trade-a-Plane. The Champ may be enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the fact that it, along with 20 or so other Aeronca variants, may be flown under the new sport pilot rules. (See the Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft Guide on AOPA Online for more information.) Take that, Adventure, you young whippersnapper!
We talk about this and a lot more on day one, during a ground session focusing on the differences between the two configurations. Tricycle-gear airplanes sport a nosewheel in front. The main landing gear is situated beneath the pilot, and the aircraft's center of gravity (CG) is in front of the main gear. On the ground, the airplane's steerable nosewheel is what responds when you press the rudder pedals to turn in one direction or another. Tailwheel aircraft, also known as conventional-gear airplanes, have the main gear up front and a small tailwheel in the rear (the earliest aircraft had a tail skid in place of the tailwheel, hence the moniker taildragger). The CG is behind the main gear, magnifying any tendency of the aircraft to pivot around that gear. This difference accounts for why taildraggers handle so differently on the ground.
As the morning draws to a close, my introduction to taildragging begins in earnest. I work up a sweat learning to taxi the Champ, an airplane that has an exceptionally long fuselage, low wing loading, and huge ailerons. "The wing is always ready to fly," Downs says as he reminds me for the umpteenth time to be cognizant of the wind direction and position the flight controls accordingly.
Next comes a familiarization flight that includes straight and level, steep turns, and stall recovery, all while getting the hang of a joystick instead of a yoke. In and out of the pattern, I am impressed by the almost-unlimited view through the Champ's front and side windows, and charmed by its simplistic panel with instruments that don't beg for my attention. I am flying by outside references, as all pilots should.
I notice, too, that the Champ wants proper attention paid to coordination. Ham-footed pilots will feel the effects of adverse yaw, so your feet have to get busy on the rudders.
In the afternoon, the yeoman's work begins. First comes the brutally effective teaching tool known as high-speed taxi practice -- in which we simulate a takeoff but prevent the airplane from flying. It's meant to show the importance of keeping the airplane on a straight track, and that it does. More than once when I'm not fast enough on the rudders, the Champ careens toward the edge of the runway and has to be reined in by Downs. The CG's aft position means the tail wants to move to the front when the airplane is on the ground, especially if the ground track is not parallel to the airplane's longitudinal axis. If you don't prevent this, a ground loop is a strong possibility. I'm accustomed to flying a late-model Piper Archer (and before that, a Socata TB9 Tampico), both of which are known to be "forgiving" trainers.
Next comes the standard two-point takeoff. Full power, stick back to keep the tailwheel firmly on the ground until you have directional control. Bring the stick to a neutral position so the tail can come up. Then, ease the stick back to rotate. If done correctly, "it feels as if you're levitating," says Downs.
I start to relax and begin to enjoy myself, noticing how the afternoon sun lights up the golden stubble of Cushing Regional's three turf runways. The takeoffs are coming together. On the upwind leg of each departure, I catch glimpses of a pipeline pilot in a Cessna doing a series of low-level turns over the forest of oil tanks that sits just off of the departure end of Runway 2. ("See and avoid" takes on special meaning near an oil refinery/transfer facility, because those pilots are scanning for pipelines -- not necessarily you and your airplane.)
Bobbing and weaving in the pattern on day two amid the conventional traffic at Cushing, I realize how much unadulterated fun this airplane is, and briefly envision a generation of pilots who might choose a Champ, an Aeronca Chief, a Piper Cub, or a Luscombe as their steed of choice to earn a sport pilot or private pilot certificate.
Then it's back to reality -- and landings.
The three-point landing is in three phases: glide; kill the glide while letting the airplane settle; then continue to ease the stick back to lower the tail so that all three wheels touch down at the same time in a full stall. It's actually more like six phases, Downs admits: glide; straighten the airplane; settle; flare; lower the nose if too high; flare.
Then comes the wheel landing, in which you plant the main wheels first and hold the tailwheel off. These are flown faster and with power kept in until touchdown, holding the nose forward until the tail won't remain up any longer, then helping it down and keeping it there. Wheel landings are said to be better for crosswinds because they afford the pilot greater control. They create a certain amount of heartburn in nosewheel pilots, who are generally convinced that pushing the airplane's nose forward at a point when you normally would be pulling it back will cause a prop strike. Won't happen, says Downs, at least not in a Champ.
On day three, a hot morning with clear skies but just enough of a crosswind to be irksome, the three-point landings are eating my lunch. Everything seems to be unraveling. I'm slamming the tail down without letting the airplane settle because I am trying to look over the nose rather than out the side for a sight picture. I'm not operating ailerons and rudders independently. Downs has a bagful of exercises to help, such as instructing me to fly two or three low passes 100 feet over the runway, sideslipping left to right while keeping the nose straight. A common problem of new tailwheel pilots, he says, is that they get preoccupied with rudder control during the landing and forget to keep working the ailerons -- or, worse, they drop the stick altogether, and the tailwheel pops back up.
The asphalt runway is compounding problems -- or so I think -- and I ask to go back to the turf runway. That's when I run off into the grass. Downs is philosophical about it: "A controlled diversion off the runway is much better than an uncontrolled diversion," he says. When we hangar the Champ for the evening, I wince as I pick a couple of two-foot pieces of grass from her struts.
So, it wasn't my finest hour in the cockpit, but at least I didn't wrap her around a light pole. The lessons learned in the Champ's front seat stay with me all the way home, back to the rented Archer (which feels like a tank the next time I take it around the pattern). I make a point to execute coordinated turns and don't play catch-up with the ball in the inclinometer. Best of all, my landings show a big improvement -- not even one slam-dunk -- because I no longer look over the nose to judge the aircraft's height above ground, a bad habit indeed. Now if only the Archer had a stick. And a tailwheel. And high wings. Oh, wait -- that's a Cub.
Jill W. Tallman is assistant editor of AOPA Flight Training magazine. A private pilot since 2001, she has approximately 300 hours.
Want to know more?Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.