Flying Taildraggers

Keep your head up and your tail down

There used to be a time when all aircraft were taildraggers—that is, airplanes with a tail skid or tailwheel. There’s no denying that when they are on the ground, taildraggers are more challenging to control than tricycle gear planes, which have nosewheels. In flight, though, there is little difference, so don’t be spooked. Taildragger pilots simply possess a number of sharpened skills and special techniques because their aircraft have a low tolerance for pilot error. You can fly a taildragger, too. It’s a great way to enjoy older aircraft, build confidence in varying wind conditions, and improve your overall flying technique.

What is a Taildragger?

A taildragger has its main landing gear ahead of its center of gravity and a steerable tailwheel or skid supporting the aft fuselage, so the airplane’s tail appears to rest on the ground, hence the name taildragger. Until World War II, taildraggers reigned supreme. Because this landing gear configuration was so common on early aircraft, taildraggers, or tailwheel airplanes, became known as airplanes with conventional gear.

Taildragger vs. Tricycle Gear

Piper J–3 Cub (taildragger)
Piper J–3 Cub (taildragger)
Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172 (tricycle gear)
Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172 (tricycle gear)

The biggest difference between taildraggers and aircraft equipped with tricycle gear is that taildraggers have their center of gravity positioned behind the main landing gear while tricycle gear airplanes have their center of gravity in front of the main gear. This doesn’t make much difference in the air, but when the airplane is on the ground, things change.

When taxiing, taking off, and landing, tricycle-gear airplanes are easier to control than taildraggers. If you land a taildragger too hard on the main gear with the tailwheel still off the ground, for example, the aircraft will have the tendency to bounce and want to fly again. This is because the angle of attack increases as the tail drops, thus increasing lift unless the plane is moving slower than its stall speed. The opposite is true for nosewheel planes. Because their center of gravity is situated in front of the main gear, after the main gear touches down, the nosewheel wants to touch down, too. This lessens the angle of attack on the wings, and the plane ceases to fly. So, landing a taildragger takes some extra care.

Also, because most of a taildragger’s weight is behind the main gear, the aircraft is more difficult to control or steer on the ground. If the taildragger begins to swerve, it can get out of control as its tail (where most of the plane’s weight is) wants to overtake its nose. This happens. It’s called a groundloop. In addition to spooking the pilot, ground loops can possibly damage or even wreck the airplane. The worst kind of ground loop is when the gear shears because of the side load, causing the propeller, wing, and fuselage to strike the ground.

And because most of an airplane’s surface area is located behind the main landing gear, wind also has a pronounced effect on taildraggers, coaxing them to pivot into the wind and making them difficult to taxi. Moreover, when you taxi in some taildraggers, you must use the side windows to see because the nose is pointed toward the sky, blocking your view.

Despite all of these pitfalls, flying a taildragger can be fun as well as challenging. Here are some tips and techniques to get you into—and safely back from—the sky.

Taildragger Techniques

Most of the specialized skills needed to fly a taildragger take place on or near the ground. Tricycle gear airplanes and taildraggers handle similarly in the air, but when the ground is involved—when taxiing, taking off, and touching down—the taildragger pilot must learn to control the plane with the same—or better—dexterity and skill than when the plane is airborne.

Taxiing

Cockpit view from a Piper J–3 Cub
Cockpit view from a Piper J–3 Cub
Cockpit view from a Skyhawk SP
Cockpit view from a Skyhawk SP

With the aircraft’s nose in the air, it’s hard to see the taxiway and runway ahead. As a result, taildragger pilots often look out of the side windows to see ahead, which requires turning the airplane or slightly swerving down the taxiway. Plus, crosswinds are always a factor.

Taildragger Taxiing Tips

  • Taxi with bursts of throttle, using the rudder and tailwheel to steer. (Tailwheel gear uses the same control as the rudder.)
  • Differential braking (F11 for left brake; F12 for right brake) is a good way to turn while taxiing, too. A light touch on just the right brake, for instance, causes the plane to turn to the right. To stop when you’ve got forward visibility from the side window, simply apply both brakes to stop, or release the right brake, throttle ahead with a short burst, and then apply the left brake and look out of the opposite window.
  • You can also achieve a swerving taxi path by using differential power on a multiengine aircraft. This technique is simply using the unequal engine power to turn the plane, again creating a swerving path to see the taxiway ahead.
  • Combine these techniques as needed. Crosswind conditions may especially necessitate using several techniques at once.
  • Some aircraft, such as the Douglas DC–3, have a free-swiveling tailwheel. Directional control is made by pressing the left or right brake. The DC–3 also is equipped with a tailwheel lock to fix the tailwheel in the straight-ahead position. Perform takeoffs and landings with the tailwheel locked. You can also lock the tailwheel on the ground to assist taxiing straight ahead. To lock or unlock the tailwheel, press SHIFT+G.

Taking Off

Keeping the aircraft straight is the major task. Many of the techniques discussed with landings and crosswinds, also apply to taking off. In general, apply a bit of back pressure to the joystick while picking up speed. This will keep the tail down and can help reduce weather vaning or the tail from rising if a bump is encountered. Then, when approaching takeoff speed, relax the aft pressure on the joystick. Once the tail rises, use the rudder to “steer” until you’re fully airborne. Pull the joystick back slightly to ease the plane into the air, and let the aircraft climb out initially in slightly less than a three-point attitude. Then continue to climb at whatever speed is necessary for the conditions. Again, once the wheels are off of the runway, the aircraft flies the same as tricycle-gear aircraft.

Landing

Taildraggers require skill and judgment to land safely. A slow landing speed and proper pitch attitude control are the keys. Once the tailwheel is on the ground, hold the joystick back to bring down the tail—and keep it there. This helps to prevent the tail from rising if you hit a bump. If you land with too much airspeed, however, the plane may want to bounce into the air and fly again, as the wing is still producing enough lift to carry the airplane back into the air.

A three-point landing is a beautiful sight where all three wheels (the two main gear and the tailwheel) touch the runway surface at exactly the same time. But it takes some practice to achieve. This feat requires that the aircraft be in a nose-high attitude at touchdown, which takes getting used to if you’ve only flown tricycle-gear airplanes.

The nose-high attitude for landing a taildragger three-point landing is exactly the same as the attitude when the taildragger is sitting on the taxiway or runway at rest. Memorize this view, or “sight picture.” This sight picture is what you will establish in the landing flare to perform perfect three-point landings.

The key to successful taildragger landings—and perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of landing a taildragger—is to keep the aircraft’s speed as slow as possible. If you attempt a three-point landing with too much airspeed or touch down too hard, the increased angle of attack of the nose-high attitude (and thus increased lifting force generated by the wings) can cause the airplane to bounce back into the air. Close to stall speed, this can be dangerous. If a bounce occurs, apply full throttle and then gently drop the plane back onto the runway.

To make a three-point landing

  1. Get the right landing attitude by flying level above the runway.
  2. Ease the joystick back, flaring just before the airplane touches down.
  3. Continue applying back pressure to the joystick to keep the tail down.
  4. If you bounce, it may be best to apply full throttle and go around for another attempt. (See Recovering from a Taildragger Landing Bounce in this article.)

A pilot performs a wheel landing when the touchdown occurs on the aircraft’s main gear at a level or nearly level attitude, so the tail remains in the air during the first and fastest part of the landing rollout. As the aircraft slows, the tail drops until the tailwheel touches the ground. The wheel landing may at first sound easy—level attitude, just land the plane then slow it down—but there’s more to it.

To make a wheel landing

  1. While airspeed is not as delicate a concern during wheel landings, vertical speed is, and the touchdown on the main gear must be gentle. In light taildraggers, adding a burst of throttle (100 rpm or so) after roundout will smooth the touchdown by arresting vertical speed.
  2. Just after touchdown, add a little forward stick to reduce the angle of attack and to keep the airplane from bouncing back into the air. This is called “sticking” the mains. Don’t be afraid of adding a little forward pressure. On most aircraft it takes a large amount of force to get the propeller close enough to the runway to result in a prop strike.
  3. If there’s a crosswind, then the wind pushing against the aft fuselage of the aircraft tries to pivot the airplane into the wind. Counteract this with some opposing rudder and aileron into the wind.
  4. Continue applying and increasing forward stick until the tail drops on its own.
  5. Once the tail is on the ground, apply full back pressure to keep it there.

Note: On large taildraggers, wheel landings are the way to go. Because the aircraft touches down at a fairly level attitude, the angle of attack is reduced and the aircraft is less likely to bounce back into the air—a dangerous situation for any aircraft, especially larger ones. You can also apply brakes on the main gear on touchdown, but this requires skill so as not to flip the airplane on its nose by braking too strongly. Gently pump the brakes. For experienced taildragger pilots, this is an effective way to slow the aircraft.

Leave a Reply