Tailwheel Checkout #4: Crosswinds, The True Test

Barry, friend and student who is working toward his tailwheel endorsement and the 10 hours of flight instruction required by insurance to fly as pilot-in-command of the Bellanca Citabria, took to rudder control and thinking ahead of the airplane pretty quickly… in calm wind conditions. Even the lightest crosswinds, though, introduce the need for additional thought and action to keep the airplane under control.

Sometimes the hardest part of flying in windy conditions isn’t the takeoff or landing, but the taxi to and from the active runway — especially on paved taxi strips that offer little resistance to free-wheeling tailwheels. Control surfaces have little effect at taxi speed so even full deflections leave you with reduced control authority — especially if the tail begins to swing.

It’s even more difficult with a tailwind, and most notably with a left quartering tailwind. The tail catches the breeze and the groundlooping tendency makes the ‘plane want to “swap ends” and spin around. Consider that by definition most taxiing is with a tailwind (to the point where you’ll begin your upwind takeoff, and away at the end of a landing into the wind), and you’ll see this is a common problem.

Groundlooping to advantage: Sometimes the breeze is so strong you don’t have the control authority to turn away from the wind (which requires swinging the fuselage and tail into the wind). With some airplane models this can happen even when winds down the runway are light enough to safely fly. You may have to replace a 90-degree turn to the right with a 270-degree turn to the left (and the momentum it generates) to point the airplane the direction you want it to go. (Just make sure you’ve got enough room to maneuver without hitting something or going off into too-soft ground.) When you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll use this about-face time to scan the traffic pattern if you’re about to enter an active runway.

Remember “climb into the wind, dive away from the wind?” This mnemonic about control surface position during ground operations is even more important in tailwheel airplanes, which are usually quite light (more likely to be tossed about by the wind), and prone to nose over if hit from behind by a gust of wind.

Don’t try to take off with a tailwind. Oh, maybe the Air Commandos did it in their Stinson L-5s in Burma during WWII, but we’re not under that kind of pressure here — and most tailwheel pilots don’t have the luxury of maintaining proficiency by flying almost every day. If you want to fly in anything besides the calmest of weather, though, you do need to know how to take off in a crosswind. Line up with the runway and roll forward a few inches to get the tailwheel straight. Apply full aileron into the wind and move the throttle forward. Don’t forget to keep the stick back enough to prevent nosing over. Be light but active on the rudder pedals to maintain alignment; you may even need to gingerly tap the downwind brake now and again to keep the nose pointed down the runway. As you accelerate and the controls become more effective, gradually reduce the aileron deflection enough to make the transition from fast-taxiing to slow-flying. Once airborne (it’ll happen fast in any wind to speak of!) the landing gear configuration ceases to have significance, so fly like it was any other airplane that (typically) has a lot of adverse yaw and needs active rudder input.

Liner Notes: Takeoff is fairly easy — you’ve been on the ground, so you have some first-hand idea of the wind strength and direction. It’s simple and obvious to have the plane precisely aligned with the runway before adding power. You’re accelerating, so the controls are becoming more and more effective at compensating for the wind during the takeoff roll. Most taildraggers have excellent short-field ability, so you won’t be on the ground very long. Everything that happens is diverging away from the high wind effectiveness/low control authority start of your takeoff roll.

On landing, though, you depend on outside sources (radio, visual observation) to get a rough idea of wind conditions. You trust less-obvious cues to determine if the landing gear is precisely aligned with the runway. Your controls become less and less effective as you roll out from landing. All conditions are converging toward that high-wind-effect/low-control-authority condition.

Don’t even think about landing a taildragger with a tailwind unless you’re a highly experienced, proficient and current tailwheel pilot… and persons meeting these criteria will likely tell you to avoid tailwind landings as well. You’re much too likely to groundloop or nose over landing with a tailwind. Landing in a crosswind, however, takes all your concentration and finesse.

There are two schools of thought on crosswind compensation on final approach. Many pilots like to “crab” the airplane into the wind, to fly it wings-level at an angle that provides a ground track directly down the runway. This requires you “kick out the crab,” — i.e., change the airplane alignment — at the last moment so you’ll touch down aligned precisely with the runway. The “kick out” takes practice and precise timing, or else you’ll touch down at an angle from which it’s hard to recover in a taildragger in the wind.

Others like the so-called “wing low” or ‘slipping‘ method, where you bank to create a turn into the wind, but hold opposite rudder to keep the airplane aligned with the runway centerline. This technique lets you determine ahead of time if you have enough control force to maintain runway alignment in the flare, and avoids the tricky last-minute kick-out required by the crabbing method.

Whichever technique you like best, you’ll need to land on the upwind wheel first to compensate for the wind, lowering the other main tire as you lose flying speed. In perfect form you’ll touch down in a two-point stance — that’s the upwind main wheel and the tailwheel hitting the ground at the same time. As you slow down you’ll need to progressively add aileron into the wind to keep from blowing over, and keep dancing on the rudder pedals (with very light taps of the brakes if needed) for runway alignment. You can even turn with adverse yaw by applying aileron in the direction opposite you want to turn… so long as you keep the upwind wing down! Don’t forget to keep the stick back to keep the tail on the ground, especially in gusty winds!

Insider’s Tip: Whether taxiing, taking off or landing, there’s no such thing as a little crosswind when flying a tailwheel airplane.

The FARs tell us that pilots seeking the tailwheel endorsement must master three point landings and wheel landings. Three-pointers generally allow a shorter landing roll by placing the airplane in a slow speed/high angle of attack/high drag state at touchdown. Wheel landings, though, provide something else…

To perform a wheel landing, the pilot flies the airplane to a point a few inches above the runway in a flat descent, with the tail up as if in cruise. The technique calls for touching the main wheels onto the runway and immediately (and VERY carefully!) applying forward pressure on the elevator controls to “plant” the mains on the ground. As the airplane decelerates it’ll take progressively more forward stick pressure to keep the tail off the ground (effectively balancing on the main wheels) until you finally slow to the point where full down elevator isn’t enough to keep the tail off the ground.

The idea of a wheel landing is to touch down with a little extra speed (some pilots like to keep a little extra power in a wheel landing also, but I do them at full idle) so the rudder is more effective during landing. One theory is that more rudder effectiveness means the ability to land in a stronger crosswind. Think about it, though, and it’s obvious that a wheel landing will eventually devolve into a three-pointer (when the elevator loses effectiveness).

Important: If you don’t have enough control force against the wind for a three-point landing, you won’t have it at the end of a wheel landing, either.

However, wheel landings are fun, and they’re required for the endorsement. Some airplanes wheel land better than others, and a truly masterful wheel landing is a demonstration of your obviously superior piloting skills… if you’re lucky enough to pull one off with an audience!

BOTTOM LINE: My friend Barry is picking up a lot of experience from his tailwheel checkout that is directly applicable to flying tricycle gear airplanes as well. You can, too. Taildraggers force you to master taxiing control positions, crosswind compensation, and rudder control precisely because they’re not as forgiving as the “nosedraggers” that have largely replaced them. Flying tailwheel airplanes is FUN… and it’ll make you a better pilot in any type of airplane.