Transition to Tailwheel Airplanes Part 1

Introduction


Due to their design and structure, tailwheel airplanes (tailwheels) exhibit operational and handling characteristics different from those of tricycle-gear airplanes (nosewheels). [Figure 1] In general, tailwheels are less forgiving of pilot error while in contact with the ground than are nosewheels. This article focuses on the operational differences that occur during ground operations, takeoffs, and landings.

Figure 1. The Piper Super Cub on the left is a popular tailwheel airplane. The airplane on the right is a Mooney M20, which is a nosewheel (tricycle gear) airplane

Although still termed “conventional-gear airplanes,” tailwheel designs are most likely to be encountered today by pilots who have first learned in nosewheels. Therefore, tailwheel operations are approached as they appear to a pilot making a transition from nosewheel designs.

Landing Gear

The main landing gear forms the principal support of the airplane on the ground. The tailwheel also supports the airplane, but steering and directional control are its primary functions. With the tailwheel-type airplane, the two main struts are attached to the airplane slightly ahead of the airplane’s center of gravity (CG), so that the plane naturally rests in a nose-high attitude on the triangle created by the main gear and the tailwheel. This arrangement is responsible for the three major handling differences between nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes. They center on directional instability, angle of attack (AOA), and crosswind weathervaning tendencies.

Proper usage of the rudder pedals is crucial for directional control while taxiing. Steering with the pedals may be accomplished through the forces of airflow or propeller slipstream acting on the rudder surface or through a mechanical linkage acting through springs to communicate steering inputs to the tailwheel. Initially, the pilot should taxi with the heels of the feet resting on the floor and the balls of the feet on the bottom of the rudder pedals. The feet should be slid up onto the brake pedals only when it is necessary to depress the brakes. This permits the simultaneous application of rudder and brake whenever needed. Some models of tailwheel airplanes are equipped with heel brakes rather than toe brakes. As in nosewheel airplanes, brakes are used to slow and stop the aircraft and to increase turning authority when tailwheel steering inputs prove insufficient. Whenever used, brakes should be applied smoothly and evenly.

Instability


Because of the relative placement of the main gear and the CG, tailwheel aircraft are inherently unstable on the ground. As taxi turns are started, the aircraft begins to pivot on one or the other of the main wheels. From that point, with the CG aft of that pivot point, the forward momentum of the plane acts to continue and even tighten the turn without further steering inputs. In consequence, removal of rudder pressure does not stop a turn that has been started, and it is necessary to apply an opposite input (opposite rudder) to bring the aircraft back to straight-line travel.

If the initial rudder input is maintained after a turn has been started, the turn continues to tighten, an unexpected result for pilots accustomed to a nosewheel. In consequence, it is common for pilots making the transition between the two types to experience difficulty in early taxi attempts. As long as taxi speeds are kept low, however, no serious problems result, and pilots typically adjust quickly to the technique of using rudder pressure to start a turn, then neutralizing the pedals as the turn continues, and finally using an opposite pedal input to stop the turn and regain straight line travel.

Because of this inbuilt instability, the most important lesson that can be taught in tailwheel airplanes is to taxi and make turns at slow speeds.

Angle of Attack


A second strong contrast to nosewheel airplanes, tailwheel aircraft make lift while on the ground any time there is a relative headwind. The amount of lift obviously depends on the wind speed, but even at slow taxi speeds, the wings and ailerons are doing their best to aid in liftoff. This phenomenon requires care and management, especially during the takeoff and landing rolls, and is again unexpected by nosewheel pilots making the transition.

Taxiing

On most tailwheel-type airplanes, directional control while taxiing is facilitated by the use of a steerable tailwheel, which operates along with the rudder. The tailwheel steering mechanism remains engaged when the tailwheel is operated through an arc of about 30° each side of center. Beyond that limit, the tailwheel breaks free and becomes full swiveling. In full swivel mode, the airplane can be pivoted within its own length, if desired. While taxiing, the steerable tailwheel should be used for making normal turns and the pilot’s feet kept off the brake pedals to avoid unnecessary wear on the brakes.

When beginning to taxi, the brakes should be tested immediately for proper operation. This is done by first applying power to start the airplane moving slowly forward, then retarding the throttle and simultaneously applying pressure smoothly to both brakes. If braking action is unsatisfactory, the engine should be shut down immediately.

To turn the airplane on the ground, the pilot should apply rudder in the desired direction of turn and use whatever power or brake necessary to control the taxi speed. At very low taxi speeds, directional response is sluggish as surface friction acting on the tailwheel inhibits inputs trough the steering springs. At normal taxi speeds, rudder inputs alone should be sufficient to start and stop most turns. During taxi, the AOA built in to the structure gives control placement added importance when compared to nosewheel models.

When taxiing in a quartering headwind, the upwind wing can easily be lifted by gusting or strong winds unless ailerons are positioned to “kill” lift on that side (stick held into the wind). At the same time, elevator should be held full back to add downward pressure to the tailwheel assembly and improve tailwheel steering response. This is standard control positioning for both nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes, so the difference lies only in the added tailwheel vulnerability created by the fuselage pitch attitude.

When taxiing with a quartering tailwind, this fuselage angle reduces the tendency of the wind to lift either wing. Nevertheless, the basic vulnerability to surface winds common to all tailwheel airplanes makes it essential to be aware of wind direction at all times, so holding the stick away from the cross wind is good practice (left aileron in a right quartering tailwind).

Elevator positioning in tailwinds is a bit more complex. Standard teaching tends to recommend full forward stick in any degree of tailwind, arguing that a tailwind striking the elevator when it is deflected full down increases downward pressure on the tailwheel assembly and increases directional control. Equally important, if the elevator were to remain deflected up, a strong tailwind can get under the control surface and lift the tail with unfortunate consequences for the propeller and engine.

While stick-forward positioning is essential in strong tailwinds, it is not likely to be an appropriate response when winds are light. The propeller wash in even lightly-powered airplanes is usually strong enough to overcome the effects of light tailwinds, producing a net headwind over the tail. This in turn suggests that back stick, not forward, does the most to help with directional control. If in doubt, it is best to sample the wind as you taxi and position the elevator where it will do the most good.

Weathervaning


Tailwheel airplanes have an exaggerated tendency to weathervane, or turn into the wind, when operated on the ground in crosswinds. This tendency is greatest when taxing with a direct crosswind, a factor that makes maintaining directional control more difficult, sometimes requiring use of the brakes when tailwheel steering alone proves inadequate to counteract the weathervane effect.

Visibility


In the normal nose-high attitude, the engine cowling may be high enough to restrict the pilot’s vision of the area directly ahead of the airplane while on the ground. Consequently, objects directly ahead are difficult, if not impossible, to see. In aircraft that are completely blind ahead, all taxi movements should be started with a small turn to ensure no other plane or ground vehicle has positioned itself directly under the nose while the pilot’s attention was distracted with getting ready to takeoff. In taxiing such an airplane, the pilot should alternately turn the nose from one side to the other (zigzag) or make a series of short S-turns. This should be done slowly, smoothly, positively, and cautiously.

Directional Control


After absorbing all the information presented to this point, the transitioning pilot may conclude that the best approach to maintaining directional control is to limit rudder inputs from fear of overcontrolling. Although intuitive, this is an incorrect assumption: the disadvantages built in to the tailwheel design sometimes require vigorous rudder inputs to maintain or retain directional control. The best approach is to understand the fact that tailwheel aircraft are not damaged from the use of too much rudder, but rather from rudder inputs held for too long.

Normal Takeoff Roll

Wing flaps should be lowered prior to takeoff if recommended by the manufacturer. After taxiing onto the runway, the airplane should be aligned with the intended takeoff direction, and the tailwheel positioned straight or centered. In airplanes equipped with a locking device, the tailwheel should be locked in the centered position. After releasing the brakes, the throttle should be smoothly and continuously advanced to takeoff power. At all times on the takeoff roll, care must be taken to avoid applying brake pressure.

After a brief period of acceleration, positive forward elevator should be applied to smoothly lift the tail. The goal is to achieve a pitch attitude that improves forward visibility and produces a smooth transition to climbing flight as the aircraft continues to accelerate. If the attitude chosen is excessively steep, weight transfers rapidly to the wings, making crosswind control more difficult. If the attitude is too flat, crosswind control is also diminished, a counter-intuitive result that is discussed in the Crosswind section of this page.

It is important to note that nose-down pitch movement produces left yaw, the result of gyroscopic precession created by the propeller. The amount of force created by this precession is directly related to the rate the propeller axis is tilted when the tail is raised, so it is best to avoid an abrupt pitch change. Whether smooth or abrupt, the need to react to this yaw with rudder inputs emphasizes the increased directional demands common to tailwheel airplanes, a demand likely to be unanticipated by pilots transitioning from nosewheel models.

As speed is gained on the runway, the added authority of the elevator naturally continues to pitch the nose forward. During this stage, the pilot should concentrate on maintaining a constant-pitch attitude by gradually reducing elevator deflection. At the same time, directional control must be maintained with smooth, prompt, positive rudder corrections. All this activity emphasizes the point that tailwheel planes start to “fly” long before leaving the runway surface.

Liftoff

When the appropriate pitch attitude is maintained throughout the takeoff roll, liftoff occurs when the AOA and airspeed combine to produce the necessary lift without any additional “rotation” input. The ideal takeoff attitude requires only minimum pitch adjustments shortly after the airplane lifts off to attain the desired climb speed.

All modern tailwheel aircraft can be lifted off in the three-point attitude. That is, the AOA with all three wheels on the ground does not exceed the critical AOA, and the wings will not be stalled. While instructive, this technique results in an unusually high pitch attitude and an AOA excessively close to stall, both inadvisable circumstances when flying only inches from the ground.

As the airplane leaves the ground, the pilot must continue to maintain straight flight and hold the proper pitch attitude. During takeoffs in strong, gusty winds, it is advisable to add an extra margin of speed before the airplane is allowed to leave the ground. A takeoff at the normal takeoff speed may result in a lack of positive control, or a stall, when the airplane encounters a sudden lull in strong, gusty wind or other turbulent air currents. In this case, the pilot should hold the airplane on the ground longer to attain more speed, then make a smooth, positive rotation to leave the ground.

Crosswind Takeoff


It is important to establish and maintain proper crosswind corrections prior to lift-off; that is, application of aileron deflection into the wind to keep the upwind wing from rising and rudder deflection as needed to prevent weathervaning.

Takeoffs made into strong crosswinds are the reason for maintaining a positive AOA (tail-low attitude) while accelerating on the runway. Because the wings are making lift during the takeoff roll, a strong upwind aileron deflection can bank the airplane into the wind and provide positive crosswind correction before the aircraft lifts from the runway. The remainder of the takeoff roll is then made on the upwind main wheel. As the aircraft leaves the runway, the wings can be leveled as appropriate drift correction (crab) is established.

Short-Field Takeoff


With the exception of flap settings and initial climb speed as recommended by the manufacturer, there is little difference between the techniques described above for normal takeoffs. After liftoff, the pitch attitude should be adjusted as required for obstacle clearance.

Soft-Field Takeoff

Wing flaps may be lowered prior to starting the takeoff (if recommended by the manufacturer) to provide additional lift and transfer the airplane’s weight from the wheels to the wings as early as possible. The airplane should be taxied onto the takeoff surface without stopping on a soft surface. Stopping on a soft surface, such as mud or snow, might bog the airplane down. The airplane should be kept in continuous motion with sufficient power while lining up for the takeoff roll.

As the airplane is aligned with the proposed takeoff path, takeoff power is applied smoothly and as rapidly as the powerplant will accept without faltering. The tail should be kept very low to maintain the inherent positive AOA and to avoid any tendency of the airplane to nose over as a result of soft spots, tall grass, or deep snow.

When the airplane is held at a nose-high attitude throughout the takeoff run, the wings progressively relieve the wheels of more and more of the airplane’s weight, thereby minimizing the drag caused by surface irregularities or adhesion. Once airborne, the airplane should be allowed to accelerate to climb speed in ground effect.

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