If you’ve ever been to Leadville, CO, you know it’s a small town, with a small airport, surrounded by Pike National Forest in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. What you may not know, however, is that the airport is North America’s highest (public) airport. We’re starting at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, KBJC, at 5,673 feet, and flying 70 nm southwest to Leadville’s Lake County Airport (KLXV) at 9,927 ft., in a Maule Orion.
The question isn’t can the Maule power us up almost 5,000 feet in 70 miles. The real question is can it climb over (or around) the 12,000 foot mountains in those 70 miles? This is our next adventure.
I used SkyVector for my chart. This was a simple flight on paper – a straight shot – but navigating around mountains is tricky. I set NAV1 for an outbound course on the 222 radial of the JEFFCO (BJC) VOR. The weather was good so Metro tower gave us 29R for departure.
I wanted to do a power-takeoff, near-zero-length takeoff, but the takeoff roll was longer than I thought – that’s a bad sign. As I rolled on to the 222 radial and headed for the mountains it become clear that this Maule wasn’t going to top the 12,000 foot peaks in front of me. It struggled to climb to 10,000 feet.
I had to make some tough decisions – which mountain passes do I take. The VFR sectional isn’t crystal clear where the box canyons are or how the passes are shaped. Throw in Flight Simulator’s variable terrain generator and it becomes a guessing game.
There were a couple times I got boxed in and had to turn around. Luckily it’s only 70 miles. I drifted from one valley to another until I was almost on top of Leadville. I made a gliding decent while calling position to local traffic. Soon enough I was on the ground in Leadville wondering what’s next and how am I getting out of here.
Now for a little fun in a Mooney Bravo. The Mooney has a ceiling of about 25,000 feet and we’ll need something with a little kick to get into the Rockies. I decided to fly to a little airport west of Denver called Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, KBJC.
I departed Lubbock (KLBB) VFR to the north and followed V81 from Plainview VOR (PVW) to Jeffco VOR (BJC). The route was PVW PNH DHT TBE PUB BRK BJC. I used SkyVector.com for my charts. Flying at 12,500 feet the clouds were thin and the winds were bearable.
Over Pueblo VOR (PUB) I could see the Rocky Mountains on the horizon so I knew it wasn’t too much further to Denver class B airspace.
The Denver sectional shows that KBJC lies just west of the class B airspace but within class E. I needed to transition class B to get there because I was on V81 from the south and descending from 12,500 feet. There’s actually several layers to the class B “inverted wedding cake” on that corner of the Denver TAC.
I got the transition clearance and started descending to 10,500 feet. Off to the right I could see the city of Denver. I started looking for my airport. Metro sits at an elevation of 5,673 feet, and there are 3 runways with different direction patterns. I was hoping I got the pattern right because there is 10,00 foot peaks less than 10 miles west of the airport.
When I contacted Metro tower I was instructed to make left traffic for 29L. I complied and went missed. When I came back around on the downwind I requested 29R and got it. I floated over 29R for what seemed like eternity and finally put her down in time to turn off at the B taxiway.
I pulled up to the tower and powered down.
Some navigation, some technical flying within Class B airspace, some patterns, and good weather made this a pretty good flight.
For this adventure I chose to depart College Station, Texas, Easterwood Field Airport (KCLL) and head northwest to Lubbock, Texas, Preston Smith International Airport (KLBB) in a Cessna 172. The terrain starts out flat and fairly low then midway it climbs to a plateau. Skies were clear, wind was calm, so I estimated this trip would take about 3.5 hours at a top speed of 100 knots.
I was flying offline and using Flight Simulator’s ATC. I used SkyVector.com for my charts. My flight plan route was CLL CWK LLO SJT BGS LBB.
Easterwood Tower gave me VFR straight-out from runway 34. I taxied out, did final checks, and away I went.
It was smooth sailing all the way, and the ETE was almost spot on. It took 3.5 hours to reach 20 DME from LBB VOR; approach’s airspace.
The Lubbock Class C airspace is 20nm wide and isolated on the high plains of West Texas. The last leg, BGS-LBB, was on V563 which took me through the Lancer MOA, but ATC cleared me through.
The first time I heard the ATIS, winds favored RWY 26, but when I arrived at LBB VOR, winds had shifted to the south and Lubbock Tower gave me a right downwind to 17R.
On the downwind winds were all over the place. When I lined up on final for 17R I was at about 4900 feet. I tried to coast in for the touch-and-go, but I was too high and too fast; Tower never acknowledge my go around. I re-entered the pattern – fought the downwind winds – and made my way around for 17R again.
On the second try for 17R I was at about 4600 feet and 90 knots. I touched down and Tower acknowledged my go around. Tower gave me 17R again, but I requested and got right traffic 17L. Why not make it a challenge! Runway 17L is only 2891 feet long, and it sits in the middle of hangers and lots of non-movement areas.
After Tower gave me right traffic 17L, off I went on the bumpy downwind. I lined up on 17L at about 4200 feet and 80 knots, but I was at least 6 miles out so I had plenty of time to float down. I brought it in on a gentle slope and touched down just past the threshold.
I taxied to fuel – I had about 25% fuel left in both tanks – and parked it in front of the FBO.
Total trip time was about 3:45 – not bad. This wasn’t a terribly technical flight, but I’m not done with the trip. I think I’ll continue northward.
For this adventure I chose to do some technical flying around the Tampa Bay area. Under VFR conditions we can use basic NDB equipment to navigate between Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida. I chose a Cessna 172 because it’s slow enough that I can see the sights without worrying about the instruments, but this adventure can be done in any small, NDB equipped aircraft.
I used SkyVector.com for charts. I recommend using the Tampa TAC chart plus plates for KSPG, KCLW and KTPF.
Depart Peter O. Knight Airport (KTPF) to the south. Exit Hillsborough Bay and fly in a generally western direction around the southern end of the Tampa peninsula. You should see a golf course and MacDill AFB on the tip of the peninsula.
After MacDill (PICNY NDB 388) cross Tampa Bay and head south along the shore of the Clearwater/St. Petersburg peninsula. You should see Albert Whitted Airport (KSPG) before you round the southern point of St. Petersburg.
After rounding Pinellas Point fly north along the beaches until reaching PIE R290 (116.40). Turn east and look for Clearwater Air Park (KCLW). It is approximately 11 DME on the PIE R315.
At this point you can land at the untowered KCLW, or fly to Whitted Airport via the VOR RWY18 approach, or return to Knight Airport via either the NDB RWY3 or the NDB A. I landed at KCLW because I grew up about 500 yards south of RWY 34. It’s good to be back home.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Get the right landing attitude by flying level above the runway.
Ease the joystick back, flaring just before the airplane touches down.
Continue applying back pressure to the joystick to keep the tail down.
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
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.
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.
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.
Continue applying and increasing forward stick until the tail drops on its own.
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.