Airplanes fly because of the curvature of the wing(s). Air traveling over the top of the wing goes further than air passing under the wing. The more extreme the curve the greater the lift. The plane in the photo is a 1946 Champ (the pilot is a 1942 Bert Carson). The wing curvature on the Champ is extreme; hence the plane generates a lot of lift at relatively slow speed.

There are two basic types of landing gears on light planes. The Champ is a taildragger. Look at the photo above and you’ll see why it’s called a taildragger. The other, and far more common type of landing gear, is the tricycle configuration. See the photo of the Cessna 150 below.

The tricycle landing gear is the most popular because it’s the easiest to land. There are pilots who will disagree with that statement, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. You can land a Cessna 150 (photo above) while drifting (moving forward and sideways at the same time) or crabbing (moving forward but not aligned with the center stripe on the runway) or worst of all, drifting and crabbing at the same time, and you will probably only suffer ridicule from other pilots who see the landing. As soon as any of the three wheels of a tricycle equipped light plane, touches the runway, the other two wheels will slam down and the plane will straighten itself and continue along the runway as if you’d planned to land that way.

That isn’t the way it works with taildraggers. Taildraggers only know how to fly, and they are flying from the time you start the engine until you shut it down. In fact, if the wind is above twenty knots, they are flying while they are tied down awaiting your arrival at the airport.

I once assisted in the takeoff of a Piper Cub into a steady 40 mph wind. The pilot started the engine while the plane was tied down. Then, with two of us holding each wingtip and two pressing the tail down, the tie downs were released. We slowly walked the plane to the runway, faced it into the wind, which was blowing at a perfect right angle across the runway, and when the pilot increased the engine revs, we all stepped away. Without rolling more than two feet the little Cub was airborne, just like a kite released on a windy day.

Landing a taildragger is completely different from landing tricycle landing gear plane. The first words my instructor, and the owner of the Champ, said to me, after he agreed to qualify me in the Champ were, “When the wheels touch the ground it doesn’t mean a damn thing to the Champ. All it knows is flying, and it will keep on flying until you shut it down and tie it down. If you forget that you’re a ground loop waiting to happen.”

And that’s just the beginning. If you land going any way except straight and in perfect alignment with the runway, you will ground loop. In addition, if you land any way except level, with all three wheels touching at the same instant, you’ll put on a show for the crowd that’s always standing outside the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) Office when a taildragger lands.

All the instructions for flying a taildragger can be boiled down to this: From the time you start the engine until you tie it down be in the moment with it. That advice can be applied with equal success to everything that we do – EVERYTHING. When we get out of the moment with what we are doing, we are heading for trouble.





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3 Responses to Taildraggers

  1. Bert says:

    No one better describes why the moment than you with such grand analogies. Keep on my dear man. It’s so important.

  2. Caleb Pirtle

    I once had an pilot explain flying to me this way: “Flying is thousands and thousands of hours of monotony, interrupted by moments of stark terror.”

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