Transition to Tailwheel Airplanes Part 2


The difference between nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes becomes apparent when discussing the touchdown and the period of deceleration to taxi speed. In the nosewheel design, touchdown is followed quite naturally by a reduction in pitch attitude to bring the nosewheel tire into contact with the runway. This pitch change reduces AOA, removes almost all wing lift, and rapidly transfers aircraft weight to the tires.

In tailwheel designs, this reduction of AOA and weight transfer are not practical and, as noted in the section on Takeoffs, it is rare to encounter tailwheel planes designed so that the wings are beyond critical AOA in the three-point attitude. In consequence, the airplane continues to “fly” in the three-point attitude after touchdown, requiring careful attention to heading, roll, and pitch for an extended period.


Tailwheel airplanes are less forgiving of crosswind landing errors than nosewheel models. It is important that touchdown occurs with the airplane’s longitudinal axis parallel to the direction the airplane is moving along the runway. [Figure 1] Failure to accomplish this imposes Side loads on the landing gear which leads to directional instability. To avoid side stresses and directional problems, the pilot should not allow the airplane to touch down while in a crab or while drifting.

Figure 1. Tailwheel touchdown

There are two significantly different techniques used to manage tailwheel aircraft touchdowns: three-point and wheel landings. In the first, the airplane is held off the surface of the runway until the attitude needed to remain aloft matches the geometry of the landing gear. When touchdown occurs at this point, the main gear and the tailwheel make contact at the same time. In the second technique (wheel landings), the airplane is allowed to touch down earlier in the process in a lower pitch attitude, so that the main gear touch while the tail remains off the runway.

Three-Point Landing

As with all landings, success begins with an orderly arrival: airspeed, alignment, and configuration well in hand crossing the threshold. Round out (level-off) should be made with the main wheels about one foot off the surface. From that point forward, the technique is essentially the same that is used in nosewheels: a gentle increase in AOA to maintain flight while slowing. In a tailwheel aircraft, however, the goal is to attain a much steeper fuselage angle than that commonly used in nosewheel models; one that touches the tailwheels at the same time as the mainwheels.

With the tailwheel on the surface, a further increase in pitch attitude is impossible, so the plane remains on the runway, albeit tenuously. With deceleration, weight shifts increasingly from wings to wheels, with the final result that the plane once again becomes a ground vehicle after shedding most of its speed.

There are two potential errors in attempting a three-point landing. In the first, the mainwheels are allowed to make runway contact a little early with the tail still in the air. With the CG aft of the mainwheels, the tail naturally drops when the mainwheels touch, AOA increases, and the plane becomes airborne again. This “skip” is easily managed by re-flaring and again trying to hold the plane off until reaching the three-point attitude.

In the second error, the plane is held off the ground a bit too long so that the in-flight pitch attitude is steeper than the three-point attitude. When touchdown is made in this attitude, the tail makes contact first. Provided this happens from no more than a foot off the surface, the result is undramatic: the tail touches, the plane pitches forward slightly onto the mainwheels, and rollout proceeds normally.

In every case, once the tailwheel makes contact, the elevator control should be eased fully back to press the tailwheel on the runway. Without this elevator input, the AOA of the horizontal stabilizer develops enough lift to lighten pressure on the tailwheel and render it useless as a directional control with possibly unwelcome consequences. This after-landing elevator input is quite foreign to nosewheel pilots and must be stressed during transition training.

NOTE: Before the tailwheel is on the ground, application of full back elevator during the flare lowers the tail, increases the AOA, and quite naturally puts the plane in climbing flight.

Wheel Landing

In some wind conditions, the need to retain control authority may make it desirable to make contact with the runway at a higher airspeed than that associated with the three-point attitude. This necessitates landing in a flatter pitch attitude on the mainwheels only, with the tailwheel still off the surface. [Figure 2] As noted, if the tail is off the ground, it tends to drop and put the plane airborne, so a soft touchdown and a slight relaxation of back elevator just after the wheels touch are key ingredients to a successful wheel landing.

Figure 2. Wheel landing

If the touchdown is made at too high a rate of descent, the tail is forced down by its own weight, resulting in a sudden increase in lift. If the pilot now pushes forward in an attempt to again make contact with the surface, a potentially dangerous pilot-induced oscillation may develop. It is far better to respond to a bounced wheel landing attempt by initiating a go-around or converting to a three-point landing if conditions permit.

Once the mainwheels are on the surface, the tail should be permitted to drop on its own accord until it too makes ground contact. At this point, the elevator should be brought to the full aft position and deceleration should be allowed to proceed as in a three-point landing.

NOTE: The only difference between three-point and wheel landings is the timing of the touchdown (early and later). There is no difference between the approach angles and airspeeds in the two techniques.


As noted, it is highly desirable to eliminate crab and drift at touchdown. By far the best approach to crosswind management is a side-slip or wing-low touchdown. Landing in this attitude, only one mainwheel makes initial contact, either in concert with the tailwheel in three-point landings or by itself in wheel landings.

After-Landing Roll

The landing process must never be considered complete until the airplane decelerates to the normal taxi speed during the landing roll or has been brought to a complete stop when clear of the landing area. The pilot must be alert for directional control difficulties immediately upon and after touchdown, and the elevator control should be held back as far as possible and as firmly as possible until the airplane stops. This provides more positive control with tailwheel steering, tends to shorten the after-landing roll, and prevents bouncing and skipping.

Any difference between the direction the airplane is traveling and the direction it is headed (drift or crab) produces a moment about the pivot point of the wheels, and the airplane tends to swerve. Loss of directional control may lead to an aggravated, uncontrolled, tight turn on the ground, or a ground loop. The combination of inertia acting on the CG and ground friction of the main wheels during the ground loop may cause the airplane to tip enough for the outside wingtip to contact the ground and may even impose a sideward force that could collapse one landing gear leg. [Figure 3] In general, this combination of events is eliminated by landing straight and avoiding turns at higher than normal running speed.

Figure 3. Effect of CG on directional control

To use the brakes, the pilot should slide the toes or feet up from the rudder pedals to the brake pedals (or apply heel pressure in airplanes equipped with heel brakes). If rudder pressure is being held at the time braking action is needed, that pressure should not be released as the feet or toes are being slid up to the brake pedals because control may be lost before brakes can be applied. During the ground roll, the airplane’s direction of movement may be changed by carefully applying pressure on one brake or uneven pressures on each brake in the desired direction. Caution must be exercised when applying brakes to avoid overcontrolling.

If a wing starts to rise, aileron control should be applied toward that wing to lower it. The amount required depends on speed because as the forward speed of the airplane decreases, the ailerons become less effective.

If available runway permits, the speed of the airplane should be allowed to dissipate in a normal manner by the friction and drag of the wheels on the ground. Brakes may be used if needed to help slow the airplane. After the airplane has been slowed sufficiently and has been turned onto a taxiway or clear of the landing area, it should be brought to a complete stop. Only after this is done should the pilot retract the flaps and perform other checklist items.

Crosswind After-Landing Roll

Particularly during the after-landing roll, special attention must be given to maintaining directional control by the use of rudder and tailwheel steering while keeping the upwind wing from rising by the use of aileron. Characteristically, an airplane has a greater profile or side area behind the main landing gear than forward of it. With the main wheels acting as a pivot point and the greater surface area exposed to the crosswind behind that pivot point, the airplane tends to turn or weathervane into the wind. [Figure 4] This weathervaning tendency is more prevalent in the tailwheel-type because the airplane’s surface area behind the main landing gear is greater than in nosewheel-type airplanes.

Figure 4. Weathervaning tendency

Pilots should be familiar with the crosswind component of each airplane they fly and avoid operations in wind conditions that exceed the capability of the airplane, as well as their own limitations. While the airplane is decelerating during the after-landing roll, more aileron must be applied to keep the upwind wing from rising. Since the airplane is slowing down, there is less airflow around the ailerons and they become less effective. At the same time, the relative wind is becoming more of a crosswind and exerting a greater lifting force on the upwind wing. Consequently, when the airplane is coming to a stop, the aileron control must be held fully toward the wind.

Short-Field Landing

Upon touchdown, the airplane should be firmly held in a three-point attitude. This provides aerodynamic braking by the wings. Immediately upon touchdown and closing the throttle, the brakes should be applied evenly and firmly to minimize the after-landing roll. The airplane should be stopped within the shortest possible distance consistent with safety.

Soft-Field Landing

The tailwheel should touchdown simultaneously with or just before the main wheels and should then be held down by maintaining firm back-elevator pressure throughout the landing roll. This minimizes any tendency for the airplane to nose over and provides aerodynamic braking. The use of brakes on a soft field is not needed because the soft or rough surface itself provides sufficient reduction in the airplane’s forward speed. Often, it is found that upon landing on a very soft field, the pilot needs to increase power to keep the airplane moving and from becoming stuck in the soft surface.

Ground Loop

A ground loop is an uncontrolled turn during ground operations that may occur during taxi, takeoff, or during the after-landing roll. Ground loops start with a swerve that is allowed to continue for too long. The swerve may be the result of side-load on landing, a taxi turn started with too much groundspeed, overcorrection, or even an uneven ground surface or a soft spot that retards one main wheel of the airplane.

Due to the inbuilt instability of the tailwheel design, the forces that lead to a ground loop accumulate as the angle between the fuselage and inertia, acting from the CG, increase. If allowed to develop, these forces may become great enough to tip the airplane to the outside of the turn until one wing strikes the ground.

To counteract the possibility of an uncontrolled turn, the pilot should counter any swerve with firm rudder input. In stronger swerves, differential braking is essential as tailwheel steering proves inadequate. It is important to note, however, that as corrections begin to become apparent, rudder and braking inputs need to be removed promptly to avoid starting yet another departure in the opposite direction.