Nose or tail? Wheel that is

It might not be polite to start with a pet peeve but here goes: “taildragger” is a terrible thing call an airplane. If a person is dragging his tail (ass), that means he is worn out, hardly capable of continuing on. On the other hand, tailwheel airplanes have sparkling and fresh personalities and they stand ready to teach lessons and quickly reward you for good piloting or to stomp on your foot for bad. They are hardly dragging anything except maybe your butt through the weeds if you are a lousy pilot.

As drag pertains to airplanes, the word should be used only in connection with its aerodynamic meaning.

With that out of the way, I want to discuss the general aviation evolution from tailwheels to nosewheels.

Ercoupe in flight

The Ercoupe was the first practical light airplane with a nosewheel.

In the 1930s, the government sponsored some design competitions for airplanes that would be simple to fly. Most entrants had tricycle landing gear as it came to be called. They also had the rudder and ailerons linked so they could be flown with a control wheel only. No rudder pedals. The goal was to make them spin-proof and stall resistant.

As has been true of most government sponsored design competitions, nothing came of this. Instead, someone, Fred Weick, came out of it to design the Ercoupe, the first practical light airplane with a nosewheel instead of a tailwheel. It was a two-control airplane (no rudder controls) and was spin-proof and stall resistant. The Ercoupe first flew in 1937 and went into production a couple of years later. Before World War II caused the curtailment of civil aircraft production, 112 Ercoupes had been built. They built a bunch after the war, the CAA had a special private certificate for it with lower requirements, and they tried to sell them at Macy’s.

After the war most of the other airplanes built were based on pre-war designs, leaving the Ercoupe alone with a nosewheel, but not for long. Two new designs, the highly successful Bonanza and the less-successful Navion had tricycle landing gear. Of the thousands of airplanes built for the war, a substantial percentage had tricycle gear and all airliners on the drawing board were tricycles so it was logical that general aviation would follow suit.

At this point, tailwheel airplanes were referred to as having a conventional landing gear as if that were the norm and a tricycle was not. There was no great demand for tricycles from existing pilots but marketing departments thought the configuration would appeal to more new pilots.

Piper was the first to convert a tailwheel to a nosewheel. They had been building Pacers and in 1952 they came out with the Tri-Pacer. The main gear of the Pacer was turned around and a nosewheel added for what was a simple if not ideal solution.

Where the Pacer had been jaunty in appearance, the Tri-Pacer immediately got an uncomplimentary nickname, the “flying milk stool.” That pretty well describes it and it flew like that, too. Today, all these years later, a lot of owners have made Tri-Pacers back into Pacers. Just scrap the nosewheel, turn the main gear back around, and add a tailwheel.

One advantage to the tricycle was supposed to be ground handling in strong surface winds. I used to own a regular Pacer and flew it in plenty of wind but it could be demanding if the gusts were in excess of 25.

In the beginning, the Tri-Pacer had more upsets in wind than the Pacer ever had. The geometry of the gear wasn’t exactly ideal and if, during a turn away from a strong downwind, the brakes were applied with any force, when the wind was 45-degrees off the tail, the airplane would go over on its back. Once the word got out on what not to do, the trouble subsided.

Cessna was not as eager to go tricycle. It built the 195 with a tailwheel to compete with the Bonanza and Navion and stuck with a tailwheel on the 170 in competition with the Tri-Pacer for three years, until the introduction of the 172 in 1955. Where similar airplanes were built with a choice of landing gear configuration, the tricycle quickly outsold the tailwheel and that version was soon out of production.

50s Cessna 172

Cessna’s nosewheel 172 soon outsold the tailwheel 170.

As the 172 and later the 182 evolved, Cessna did a lot of tinkering with the landing gear. The first version of both airplanes had longer main gear and stood rather tall on the ramp. This was not ideal in strong winds and the gear was soon lowered and widened and these airplanes became nicer to handle in strong winds.

It wasn’t long before tailwheel airplanes became rare except for special uses. The Cessna 180 and 185 lasted for a while and Maules and Decathlon-types still hang in there. Today, Most of the LSA designs are tricycles though the Cub clones are strong sellers.

I was one of many pilots who flew through the transition from tailwheel to nosewheel and at the time most of us saw it as much ado about nothing. We were doing just fine with tailwheels and actually preferred them. I instructed at two places that had Ercoupes and two-seat trainers with conventional gear and, in most places, the Ercoupes didn’t fly until everything else was gone.

I don’t know whether there was a “real men don’t fly Ercoupes” mentality or not. I just didn’t really like instructing in them for several reasons. The lack of rudder control meant there were a lot of things you couldn’t teach. The tricycle meant the students could get away with less precise approaches and sloppy landings. And because the two locations in question were in Arkansas and Alabama, the Ercoupe was bloody hot in the summertime.

I was flying charter trips in both Bonanzas and Cessna 195s and didn’t really have a preference there. You had to work a little harder to fly a 195 well, but I was sitting there without much to do other than work a little harder so that didn’t matter.

My father had given me a couple of lessons in an Ercoupe when I was 13 and the next tricycle I flew after that was a Bonanza, when I was 19. My checkout in the airplane was different.

The FAA (then CAA) was also different at that time. They were actually there to help.

We were all gathered for a pre-air tour celebration for the 1953 Arkansas Air Tour, that would hopscotch around the state for a few days. We would fly during the day and party at night.

The boss inspector from the CAA office in Little Rock took me aside during the party and asked me if I had ever flown a Bonanza. A rather eccentric gentleman with a Bonanza had made quite a scene arriving in Little Rock and when the inspector investigated he found that the pilot had ordained himself. No certificate.

Jack, the inspector, proposed that I fly the man in his Bonanza on the air tour. In return, he would help me on the instructor’s rating (as it was then called) that I was seeking.

Beech Bonanza

Beech quickly adopted the nosewheel for their best-selling Bonanza.

When I reported that I hadn’t flown a Bonanza, he assured me there was nothing to it. Just get it slowed down and at pattern altitude well before entering the pattern and have the approach speed nailed because it would float if too fast and fall if too slow. He added that I shouldn’t reduce prop rpm (with a toggle switch) after takeoff too quickly because sometimes the toggle would stick and run the rpm all the way back. That was not good for the old rate of climb.

It all worked out and by the time we finished I had over six hours of Bonanza time and felt I knew the airplane pretty well.

The instructor’s rating help didn’t work out because Jack died of a heart attack soon after the tour.

All of us eventually made the transition from tailwheels to nosewheels and while a lot of people never wanted to revisit the good old days, I was always up for flying a tailwheel airplane whenever I had the opportunity. The last one I ever flew was a Helio Courier and anybody who has flown one of those beasts will attest to the fact that it will make you work hard enough to sweat, even on a cold day.

One thing about tailwheels that is not true is that you aren’t a “real” pilot until you have mastered a tailwheel. It’s not what you fly but the care and precision with which you fly that makes you a “real” pilot. It can even be done in an Ercoupe or a Tri-Pacer.

Something we will never know is if tailwheels or tricycles are more prone to landing accidents. The groundloop was predominant with tailwheels and sloppy approaches and too-fast landings resulting in busted nosewheels and firewalls cause landing trouble with nosewheels. There are even losses of directional control in tricycles. Many or even most landing events don’t qualify as accidents, though, so they fail to appear in the statistics.

What about you? Would you like to revisit the good old days of tailwheels? Do you think tailwheels are more likely to be involved in landing mishaps?

20 Comments

  1. I learned on a tailwheel Fleet 80 Canuck back in the late ’60s, and most of my hours are in Cessna 172s (though my favourite so far has been the Grumman Cougar). I absolutely believe that learning in a tailwheel aircraft (almost slipped there and called it a taildragger!) teaches you a level of care that even a good attitude can’t in a nose wheel plane.

  2. Stephen Phoenix says:

    Based on looks, I wouldn’t trade my Pacer for two Tri-pacers, but I think a Colt with wheelpants is cute. I would operate the Pacer in any conditions you might take a C182.

    For most, the tailwheel is just more fun because of the extra challenge and thus the satisfaction of meeting that challenge. And really, that describes the basis for a lot of flying activity.

    Tailwheels might be involved in more runway accidents because not all are up to the challenge. But there seems to be a fair number of tricycle pilots not up to that challenge either.

  3. Ira Bourstein says:

    I don’t “have a dog in this fight” either way. I just believe that every plane has it’s own personality, and the more different types you fly, the more you can learn. Learning is good.

  4. Brandon Freeman says:

    I agree with Ira. The Citabria I used for my tailwheel training was an amazing machine to show me proper rudder usage. However, the C-150 I’ve been flying lately has shown that I still have a lot to learn about rudder control.

  5. Gonçalo says:

    I think taildra… sorry, tailwheels are more demanding, but more rewarding. I work flying a tricycle, but on my days off, I rush to airport and fly the RV-6, tailwheel. I say tricycles are for work, tailwheels are for fun.

  6. Steve Ells says:

    Hi Dick;
    I like the history you outlined. I used up my GI Bill getting my Comm, ME,Inst without ever flying a conventional gear airplane. Having spent over 200 hours flying Cessnas with “barn door” flaps, I found out very quickly after buying a 1947 Piper PA 12 Super Cruiser that I knew nothing about how to nail an approach speed. Too fast or too high in a Cessna–hang out the barn doors. Too fast or too high in a long wing Piper–float half way down the runway.
    I had read books about flying conventional gear airplanes so sort of figured it out myself by getting up early on no wind days, and cutting myself plenty of slack by flying on and off a huge ex military runway in south Texas.
    I suppose I could have learned speed control by practicing zero flap landings in a Cessna but I have always remembered my PA 12 time as good time.

  7. Gary Lanthrum says:

    There are a lot of factors that influence how difficult, or easy a plane is to fly. Where the third wheel is located is just one of those factors. I got my tailwheel checkout in a Citabria, and it was relatively forgiving, particularly when taxiing. It did require the pilot to fully understand the role of the rudder, and it inculcated an appreciation for the way primary control for roll can shift from ailerons to rudder as the plane slows down.

    Some planes are far less dependent on accurate rudder use. The Mooney M-20 series is a good example. I saw an M-20 E do a fine landing in a light cross-wind with the gust lock still installed on the rudder.

    The second tail wheel aircraft I flew was a Pitts S2A. That plane was a dream in the air, but landing it could be terrifying. It was a very short coupled airplane and that made it very responsive for aerobatics, but also twitchy when approaching the ground for landing. Add to that the lack of forward visibility in the landing configuration, and your hands could be really full.

    Following my years as a Pitts owner, I flew nose wheel aircraft exclusively for nearly 20 years, mostly a Piper Arrow and a Cessna 182. Both of those plans made me a lazy pilot because they are so forgiving. I recently bought a Maule MX7-180C, and my transition back to tail wheel flying was harder than I had anticipated because of the control accuracy required. I do think the Maule makes me a better pilot because of the level of precision it requires of the pilot, particularly when flying slowly, and especially when landing. I’ve become more engaged with my flying and that has been extraordinarily satisfying. Add to that my move back to flying from a grass strip and the option of visiting very short, back country airports and even unimproved stretches of flat ground has gotten me excited about aviation again, and that is a good thing!

  8. Kayak Jack says:

    Here’s a question. If an advantage of a tail wheeled plane is an ability to land on rougher terrain, and standard nose gears don’t handle rough terrain well, why aren’t more tricycle geared birds equipped with a trailing caster nose gear?

    A nose strut that is raked down and out to the front, will stab the nose wheel right down into a rut or hole on a sod strip. A trailing caster will more easily ride over such irregularities. A simple vector diagram shows the advantage of the design.

    A trailing caster nose gear would provide advantages of a tricycle gear without the disadvantage of it. I must be missing something here, because it isn’t a popular design at all. What are the thoughts of other pilots? (Braced for incoming)

    • Gary Lanthrum says:

      Kayak Jack: One of the challenges with nosewheel aircraft on rough ground is the location of the center of gravity (CG) of the plane. With the CG forward of the mains, the nosewheel design places far more load on the nosewheel regardless of its configuration. That can be accommodated with proper design (like the Cessna 205/206 aircraft that provide bush service), but that means a beefier firewall and other changes to take the significant beating the nosewheel will be subjected to.

      In a tailwheel aircraft, the CG is behind the mains and the tailwheel is located very far aft of the CG. With the longer lever arm available at the tailwheel location, it can bob the fuselage up and down with lower stresses on the tailwheel connection itself. Add to that the ability to raise the tailwheel with propwash while standing on the brakes before beginning the takeoff roll, and the tailwheel configuration is far more forgiving on rough terrain. Check out some of the videos from the backcountry pilots website to see what a tailwheel aircraft is capable of and it is immediately clear that even a castering nosewheel couldn’t handle that kind of terrain. The other extreme is very soft soil where a nosewheel can dig in and prevent safe operations. Here is a link that provides one clear example:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsJwD5Xv4Iw

  9. Mark M says:

    I had done a few lessons in a PA-28 in the 80′s when I was a teenager. A couple of years ago, well into my late 30s, my girlfriend gave me a discovery flight for my birthday. It was in a Citabria and my first reaction was “wow, that’s different”. I was hooked, and with her encouragement I decided to pursue my PPL.

    After doing my research and interviewing CFIs, I actually chose the Citabria over the Piper or Cessna. Several instructors I spoke to all agreed that learning in a TW was a great way to start out.

    It took me a while to get my foot work down. I remember my first few lessons feeling like trying to learn how to ride a bicycle. One of the first challenges I had was trying to learn the feel of raising the tail and using the correct amount right-rudder. On those first few takeoffs my instructor had to take the controls and get us back on the center line!

    Next came pitch attitudes and then wheel landings which required more precision and patience. I can vividly remember lessons where I’d have those ah-ha moments and key concepts would click. Then there came a point where I realized that I wasn’t thinking about it anymore and I was just doing it.

    I can’t even describe the sense of satisfaction I felt after doing my solo x-country flights. Or the feeling of being in the pattern and looking at the windsock and making a decision on whether to use a 3-pt or wheel landing.

    I’m almost ready for my check ride and now, and looking back from where I started I think TW was a great choice for me.

  10. Mike Moore says:

    After 3200 hours of tricycle time I bought a fully restored Cessna 140 and I love her. She makes me work but I enjoy the challenge.

  11. Dave Huprich says:

    I’m of your era, Dick. Took my first instruction ride on October 13, 1953 in a Cessna 140. Got my private ticket in it and a 120. Have flown lots of taildr…er, tailwheel airplanes. Love ‘em. Pat the Classics every year at KOSH. Saw a BE-U-TI-FUL 140A there this year. But I digress. I don’t pine for the good ‘ol days, and I agree that it’s the care and precision with which you fly that counts. But it takes a little more of both to fly an airplane with the third wheel behind you. I think it makes you a better at landing a tricycle gear because you’re geared to a finer edge. Sloppy won’t cut it. And there are usually more eyes watching to see if you really can fly a….. a TAILDRAGGER. Sorry Dick, I can’t help it. They’ve always been taildraggers and they’ll always be taildraggers. There, I’ve said it. I’m a taildragger pilot and proud of it. Send the “tailwheel” police. Guilty as charged. :-)

  12. Duane says:

    I agree with Dick that it’s the piloting not the aircraft that matters. I’ve never flown a “conventional gear” aircraft, while I own and fly a Cherokee 180. The Cherokee is a relatively easy and forgiving aircraft to fly and land. But I’m always trying to fly it better, so I don’t feel any less a pilot than the tailwheel pilots I know.

    I used to fly the Cherokee a lot in New Mexico and West Texas where the winds blow hard and virtually all the time, so I learned to take off and land the Cherokee routinely in pretty stiff crosswinds that I doubt many light tailwheel pilots would ever attempt – at up to double the “demonstrated max crosswind” component speed (15 knots) for the type.

    At the same time, I’d like to own and fly a tailwheel aircraft some day – not to brag about becoming a “real pilot”, but because tailwheels make for more practical backcountry aircraft on unimproved airstrips. Until I buy one (a SuperCub, of course), though, I don’t see the benefit of gaining the additional skills from getting the TW endorsement, unless I actually fly one regularly. Flying skills not practiced regularly tend to disappear pretty quickly.

  13. Jim S says:

    Dick, I applaud your ambivalence about where the 3rd wheel is making one a better pilot. But I have to chuckle at the “tail wheel diehards” who comment that flying them is a challenge but instructive of stick and rudder skills.

    Well, if a particular type of airplane proves “challenges” that others don’t…then the others are better airplanes by definition. (Except, of course, for mission-specific attributes).

    Driving a car with bald tires will either make you exceptionally good at recovering from skids…or kill you…begging the question as to whether it is best to learn how to recover from skids never skid in the first place. (-:

    THAT’s the age-old debate re: tail wheel vs. tricycle gear airplanes and it will rage…unsettled…for so long as there are at least 2 pilots left on Earth.

    Best,

    Jim

    PS: I have no time in tail wheel airplanes but would LOVE to some day. I don’t think that doing so would teach me a single thing about better handling a tricycle airplane but I would LOVE the challange while recognizing that the challenges themselves would be proof positive of the superiority of tricycle gear (except for mission-specific uses).

  14. Jim S says:

    As my above post proves, I should proof read before I submit…although an edit function on this forum would be nece…I mean nice.
    (-:

    Jim

    • Dick Collins says:

      We have an edit function. You.

      • Jim S says:

        Great! I love “kickin’ in old school.”

        By the way Mr. Collins, I was the author of a Letter to the Editor in the Flying Magazine issue that announced your retirement.

        I stated that my letter was just “a snowflake in an avalance of praise” for you and that phrase was adopted as the Headline of the reader letters page.

        (-:

        My point was that your articles/books etc. went WAY beyond interesting and instructive reading and WITHOUT QUESTION have saved countless lives based on your unswerving dedication to aviation safety.

        THANKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        Jim

        PS: I would be utterly honored if you would sign my copy of that issue. It would become my most tresured aviation publication. Could you e-mail me with instructions as to how I could get my copy to you?

        (-:

  15. Mort Mason says:

    The term “taildragger” was correct in the days before that little wheel was added back here. The tail WHEEL was the next evolution, and the term taildragger remained primarily out of habit. To those of us who have logged many hours of tail wheel flight to our pilot logs, the term is still used almost exclusively. A misnomer, perhaps, but one surely hard to break. I doubt that it will ever disappear from Alaska, where I have logged many thousands of hours in them, primarily in Mr. Piper’s Super Cub, C-180s and C-185s.

  16. John LeBlanc says:

    I learned in tricycle gear aircraft but was taught full stall landings and cautioned to keep things very straight. I think that made my transition to tailwheel aircraft a much easier job for my instructor. After 25 years of very inactive flying, I did the Cub thing and then the Stearman thing for my last flight before the endorsement. I fell in love with biplanes and tailwheel airplanes and now frequently fly a 36 Waco Cabin and sometimes tow gliders in a Pawnee. It really rekindled my interest in flying. I much prefer a tailwheel airplane, but attempt to land a tricycle gear aircraft with just as much care as any tailwheel airplane, much to the admiration (and sometimes amazement) of the owners who provide them. The main thing I don’t like about trigear airplanes is the laziness they can breed in instructors when they settle for teaching flat and fast Cessna landings using most of a 6000 foot runway. Some of these instructors claim they are only teaching these guys to fly jets, but I think that should wait until they’re in a jet… These instructors do a disservice to these students when they find themselves facing a 2500 foot runway and have no alternative–something that should be a no-brainer in a 172. Though I prefer tailwheel airplanes in general, some trigear airplanes are really nice, such as an SF-260 and a B-25 and a Lancair and…

  17. John Swallow says:

    Dick:

    As mentioned by others, there will be discussion on the subject as long as there are two pilots left to debate same. While applying to get added to the insurance policy on a friend’s Cessna 180, I noted that my one thousand hours of piston time was all of the conventional third-wheel-on-the-right-end-of-the-aircraft variety. To my mind, there is no doubt that tricycle-geared aircraft are safer vis-a-vis landing problems; however, the very things to which tail-wheel aircraft are prone will add immeasurably to one’s skill set.

    John

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