Tailwheel Checkout Part 3: The First Lesson

Barry had endured quite a bit of lecture to help prepare him for his tailwheel checkout — eventually, though, we had to actually get into the airplane. How should we approach his critical first lesson in a tailwheel airplane?

Although Barry is a licensed pilot, he was obviously new to the airplane type, in this case a Bellanca 7GCBC Citabria (“airbatic” spelled backwards — the design is aerobatics-capable). We reviewed the engine and its operation (“pretty much the same as an older Cessna 172”), the fuel system, and a basic preflight inspection. Gotcha items for the Citabria include the:

  • rear-seat seat beltAlways buckle it if you’re flying solo (it may tangle in the rear set of controls);
  • baggage compartment — Make sure no hats, paper towels, or anything else can get jammed between the exposed control cables and the sidewalls;
  • egress latching system — Check the wide door and the window on the opposite, left side;
  • rear seater’s (instructor’s) rudder pedals — Be sure your seat belt doesn’t wrap around when buckling into the front “pit.” (You can get away with vernacular like that when you fly a taildragger!)
  • steerable tailwheel — Pay special attention to the cables and springs connected to the tailwheel.

Otherwise, the preflight inspection is amazingly easy, because the Citabria is a basic design. Just check fabric, engine, controls, tires and cables.

Next we took a look at some of the differences between a tailwheel and a tricycle gear design. I pointed out that the tailwheel was steerable through roughly 10 degrees of movement either side of centered. Within that range, the pilot has direct control over the steering of the tailwheel.

Then I pushed on the tail perpendicular to the fuselage. The tailwheel turned slightly at first, then “broke” out of the steering range and castored freely, completely around. This showed how the pilot could maneuver in a very tight space on the ground, often turning completely around in a spot not much wider than the airplane’s wingspan. In free-castor, though, the pilot must use airflow over the rudder, differential braking, bursts of power, and sometimes the wind itself to turn the airplane — there is no tailwheel steering once the tailwheel has “broken” away.

Lesson — BreakOut: This can contribute to aground loopaccident — if the pilot lets the tailwheel turn far enough that it castors freely, then he/she has much less directional control.

A taildragger’s nose-high ground stance makes it a good demonstrator of the need for right rudder during takeoff, climb and power application… in an airplane with an American-built engine, anyway. (Most non-U.S. engines and propellers rotate in the opposite direction, creating a need for left rudder in similar flight regimes.) To illustrate the point, I found a broom in the hangar and laid its handle flat against the back side of the left (relative to the seated pilot) and ascending blade while the prop was horizontal. We looked at the angle it made relative to the ground. Then we laid the broom handle against the back of the right, descending blade — the far greater angle of attack of the descending blade was immediately apparent. A taildragger is always ‘climbing‘ whenever it’s moving on the ground.

Next I went to the tail of the airplane while my student stayed “up front.” I lifted the tail off the ground and he looked at the way the pitch of the propeller blades changed relative to the ground and one another. I told him that changes in the rotational plane of the propeller seemed to be pronounced in light, tailwheel designs.

Lesson — Dancing 101: It takes a change of rudder to maintain directional control when lifting the tail off the ground on takeoff, and when allowing the tail to settle during a wheel landing. It also takes LEFT rudder to maintain coordination during a descent and feels like it does during sharp throttle reductions on the ground. In the latter case, the rudder only needs to be neutralized, but unless your foot acts simultaneously with the reduction of power, you’ll need left rudder to maintain your track.

The relative ease with which I raised the tail brought up another point — it’s not too difficult to “nose-over” a tailwheel design if you apply the brakes too suddenly, or gun the throttle too much.

Lesson — No Curtsies: Keep the stick back ALL THE WAY when maneuvering on the ground (unless taxiing with a strong tailwind, which we’d cover in the future) — ESPECIALLY anytime you’re using the brakes, or when you’ve advanced the throttle beyond idle (such as during an engine run-up).

The biggest difference in flying a taildragger (as opposed to a tricycle-gear design) is, of course, ground handling. The majority of our first lesson, then, would take place not in the air, but on the ramp and runway.

Unlike a nosedragging airplane, the taildragger’s ground stance is the final approach flare, three-point landing attitude. I had Barry sit in the pilot’s seat for a few minutes before we started the engine, just to get used to the visual cues he could expect in the flare and at touchdown.

Lesson — Posture: Spend time learning this critical attitude before beginning your tailwheel familiarization.

The free-castoring tailwheel lets you turn the airplane around sharply, but the groundlooping tendency makes it want to continue a turn once it’s started. Rudder control on the ground, then, consists not of pressing and holding the rudder pedal, but instead is a matter of “jabbing” the rudder to initiate a turn. After the movement starts, application of roughly equal (sometimes even greater) amount of opposite rudder is necessary — and soon — to stop the turn on the desired ‘heading‘. We found a big, open spot on the ramp and practiced turns-to-headings (or more correctly, pointing at some object near the ramp) until Barry had the technique down. Then we practiced tighter turns, using a little braking and “goosing” the throttle to break the tailwheel out into free-castor.

Lesson — Dancing 201: Stay light on the brakes, keep the rudder moving, and hold the stick all the way back to prevent nosing over.

Turning mastered, we took to the runway. But instead of getting airborne right away, we made half a dozen high-speed taxi runs. First, I demonstrated the takeoff roll, using only enough throttle to get the tail off the ground, then reducing power to settle back into a “landing.” Next I gave Barry command of the rudders while I worked stick and throttle, so he could practice the changing rudder requirements during takeoff and rollout. Progressively I handed over stick and lastly throttle control, until I was sure my student could maintain control in calm winds, with lots of concentration. Only then were we ready to fly.

Lesson — Dancing 301: Keep your eyes outside and your feet moving during taxi, takeoff and landing. Also, when lining up for takeoff, let the airplane roll forward a few inches — enough to get the tailwheel aligned with the direction of travel — for maximum control at the low-speed start of the takeoff run.

We took off and flew around at about 1000 feet, letting Barry get a feel for the controls, practice rudder coordination, and enjoy the spectacular view afforded lucky pilots of the Citabria. Then we gained altitude and practiced a few stalls, turns and “slow flight,” preparing my student for practice landings. Soon we were back in the pattern, where smiling-Barry logged the first three of what we hope will be 50 takeoffs and landings during his 10 hours of “dual” required by his insurer (and preferred by me) leading to his tailwheel endorsement.

COMING UP: Crosswinds.