Why you must fly a taildragger

Training Squadron (where I teach) is a “stick-and-rudder” school. We teach flying fundamentals–either from scratch for our ab-initio pupils or as “modification of behavior” for our more experienced ones. All our aircraft happen to have tailwheel, a.k.a “conventional gear,” but we are not bigoted against tricycle gear aircraft. Not every aircraft needs to have a tailwheel; in fact it may be preferable to have a nosewheel for many reasons–not the least of which may be increased margin of error for various conditions that may be encountered while flying that aircraft.

I was prompted into writing this article because of two events. One, the crash of the Asiana Boeing 777 at San Francisco airport, which is about 20 minutes flying time from where we are based, and the second was the publication of an article by Budd Davisson in Sport Aerobatics magazine entitled “The Pitts as a (Basic) Trainer.”

The first event brought into sharp focus the need for basic flight skills (airspeed – altitude – flightpath) even in an highly automated and complex airplane like the Boeing 777. The second provocatively posed the question about whether our trainers are too “dumbed” down to be effective.

Basic Flight Skills still needed

Cub on grass

Tailwheel airplanes like the Cub demand an awareness of speed, altitude, energy and flight path.

Landing an aircraft in daylight should be a basic skill, even with the advent of automation. Awareness of speed, altitude, energy and flightpath should be so basic that it should be instinctual. My hypothesis is that conventional training aircraft with tricycle gear do not help a student pilot gain these instincts and taildraggers /tailwheel /conventional gear aircraft do.

Budd Davisson pretty much echoes my hypothesis. Quoting from his article: “…nosedragger trainer really does not care how you put it on the ground… the result is PPL pilots with weak basic skills… The Pitts won’t let you get away with ignoring the basics.”

Easy to fly, hard to fly well

My father was 19 years old and had only ever ridden a bicycle before he was plunged into Air Force flight training in the mid-1950s. The first airplane he flew was the Percival Prentice. The aircraft was very easy to fly and he sailed through basic flight training without a hitch. But according to him, he really learned to be a pilot when he started flying the famous North American T-6 Texan/Harvard “Pilot Maker.” The T-6 was quite a handful–it would swap ends if landed with any drift, would drop a wing on final if the speed got too low and had all kind of torque effects that had to be compensated for. Landings had to be without drift, on speed, with the right amount of crosswind correction and with the right rate of descent or else the poor flight cadet was in for the ride of his life! Elimination loomed large for a number of the cadets. (And then you had to do it all over again at night!)

However, all those who mastered the T-6 found that they had the basics down, and as far as flying airplanes was concerned they could rely on the hard won skills built on the T-6. The Prentice was too easy to fly and too easy to fly well (my father thought they would make good “civilian” aircraft!). The T-6 was easy to fly and was an honest airplane but made you work hard to fly well. The great trainer aircraft were all like that–this was true of the JN-4 Jenny, Stearman, etc.

Modern trainers such as the Cessna 150, Cherokee and Cessna 172 are all too easy to fly and they do not penalize the pilot who does not fly them well. This is mostly due to the “anyone can fly” message that the manufacturer wants to send. The characteristics that make them easy to fly include nosewheel gear, limitation of adverse yaw, offset tails and tilted motor mounts to minimize P-factor and heavier, stable control feel.

Downwind to touchdown showcases all the skills

172 on landing flare

Are modern trainers like the Cessna 172 too easy to fly?

We will concentrate of the skills needed for landing. From downwind to touchdown all the flying skills that you need are compressed in time. Attitude changes, altitude changes, speed control, turns, glides, descents, alignment, power changes, trim, flightpath control, energy management all come into play from downwind to touchdown. The idea is to get the airplane to the touchdown point in the “sweet spot” in ground effect just before the wheels touch. Flying the aircraft well in all phases of flight is important of course, but the proof of the pudding is in the downwind to touchdown phase.

If you fly the downwind to touchdown phase with a few errors, that is not important to a nosewheel airplane. Being slightly off alignment, having a slightly higher rate of descent or not being in a full flare attitude isn’t going to cause one much grief. One might not even notice those, and a solid landing can still be made. This is what inhibits the development of the basic skills needed. According to Budd, “[the lack of basic skills] is not a hyper serious problem, and is generally barely noticed. Until they strap on a Pitts, that is.” I would add, “Until a situation is encountered where those skills are needed.”

I am not advocating that aircraft be difficult to fly, and that modern aerodynamic, human factors and systems improvements not be incorporated into GA aircraft. I am concerned however when I see a lot of people being trained in aircraft like the Cessna 172 and the Cirrus. They are marvelous aircraft for what they are intended to do–but do not make the kind of trainer that teaches basic skills that are a foundation of flying skills.

So assuming that teaching basic skills are important:

  • What are they?
  • What characteristics do trainers need to have to develop the “basic flight skills?”
  • Why are we claiming that taildraggers tend to have traits that tend to develop “basic flight skills” and nosedraggers do not?

I’ll try and answer those questions in the rest of the blog.

What are the basic skills?

The basic skills are:

  1. Angle of attack control
  2. Balanced flight control
  3. Total energy control (including the use of power and drag)
  4. Attitude control
  5. Flightpath control (including trajectory and alignment control)
  6. Control of interactions (between 1-5)

While all pilots need to have at least some level of skill in all aspects of control, a nosedragger will tolerate a lesser degree of control in each and will also take care of some of the interactions automatically. A tailwheel airplane will require a higher degree of control and of the interactions between them.

I will use a concrete type, the Bellanca Decathlon rather than an abstract “tailwheel airplane” for two reasons:

  • Because it’s a lot easier to talk authoritatively about something real rather than in hypothetical terms
  • The Decathlon is the trainer we use for both our starting students and those converting to tailwheels, so we have the most recent experience of the type

Angle of attack control

AoA graphic

Controlling angle of attack is critical for tailwheel pilots.

Controlling the angle of attack of an airplane is vital. There isn’t a dial in the cockpit that tells you what the angle of attack is and a surrogate has to be used–which is airspeed. Airspeed is a good enough indicator for most situations, if it is clearly understood the angle of attack and not airspeed is what makes a airplane fly (after money is factored in!). In a taildragger, landing entails being close to the stalling angle of attack (when doing a three point landing). If the angle of attack varies more than little in a taildragger on touchdown, the aircraft will “bounce.”

A bounce if not corrected for will result in a wild ride! Even if the bounce is benign, the taildragger pilot is aware that the touchdown wasn’t at the right angle of attack. In a nosedragger one can touch down within a wide safe range of angle of attack, and the landing will even feel right. Teaching full flare landings, where the aircraft lands at the slowest possible speed with the nose high is optional in nosedraggers, but essential for taildraggers.

The taildragger pilot also has to be aware of the lift margin available from the wing in order to reduce the rate of sink in the roundout and flare. Since the typical 3 point tailwheel landing demands that the aircraft be stalled or semi-stalled when touchdown occurs, a tailwheel pilot will constantly play with the lift vector from the wing so that at the moment of touchdown the maximum lift is being generated at the slowest speed, while the aircraft is descending a very slow rate. This level of “feel” is not required in a nosedragger and a perfectly acceptable landing can be made with the wing nowhere near its maximum lift and slowest speed.

What this translates to is the fact that tailwheel pilots will develop an acute feel for angle of attack which will not be developed easily in nosewheel pilots.

Balanced flight control

Every control has an effect and then has a further effect. Ailerons are no exception, and with the primary effect of roll they produce yaw. In most nosewheel aircraft the ailerons are engineered to minimize the adverse yaw effect. This means that nosewheel pilots can move their ailerons without needing to worry about using rudders to cancel out the adverse yaw. Since the close association between aileron and rudder is not needed all the time, most nosewheel pilots do not develop the keen awareness of balanced flight that tailwheel pilots do. This means that in some situations where correct use of rudder is called for, such as in climbs or abrupt pitch ups, they tend to let the aircraft wander directionally. This can prove deadly in slow flight near the ground–since a spin can develop from a stall if there is an unbalanced yaw force.

The Bellanca Decathlon has tons of adverse yaw. Most tailwheel airplanes do –since a lot of them were designed or are based on designs in the 1930s/40s or are aerobatic airplanes that do not want to mask the roll/yaw effects. It also will roll very readily with rudder application. To fly it balanced requires close coordination of the stick and rudder. The adverse yaw effect is so pronounced that it cannot be missed. This is even more so during the roundout and flare stages of a touchdown–since the fuselage needs to be aligned with the direction of motion and any drift sideways on touchdown is rewarded with a swerve. If the stick is moved to level the wings, it will produce a sideways motion that will lead to a sideways drifting touchdown–UNLESS the rudder is moved in anticipation of the adverse yaw to keep the drift from developing.

The tailwheel pilot is very sensitive to the ball (and to differential butt pressure!) and will instinctively put in rudder when it is needed. This includes when P-factor is a factor, such as when the tail comes up for the takeoff run and when power is added in the flare. The nosewheel pilot does not need to be as sensitive to the ball, since a little sideways motion will be corrected by the forces on the nosewheel during touchdown in this situation.

Total energy control

Citabria on grass runway

A smooth touchdown in a tailwheel airplane requires an understanding of the airplane’s energy state.

When making landings in a tailwheel aircraft, the pilot has to be very aware of the total energy of the aircraft. Total energy is the sum of kinetic energy (speed) and potential energy (height). A three-point touchdown must be made so that the aircraft touches down in a certain narrow attitude range at a certain narrow speed range within a narrow range of rate of descent. This means that excessive speed and excessive height need to be dissipated while leaving enough energy to flare. The rate of change of angle of attack in the roundout and flare depends on the rate of descent. This means that the tailwheel pilot is always aware of his/her “energy budget.” Any error in estimating the total energy will lead to a “bounce” (excess energy at the moment of touchdown) or a hard landing (a deficit of energy at the moment of touchdown).

In a nosewheel aircraft as long as the aircraft is at a reasonable speed and reasonable rate of descent, the touchdown will be fine and the energy can be dissipated after touchdown. This does not encourage fine-tuned sensing of total energy.

The use of power to control total energy is also fine-tuned in wheel landings in a tailwheel. In a wheel landing, the airplane touches down in a level attitude on just the mainwheels. This is done for multiple reasons, including better visibility, better crosswind control, better braking due to heavier weight on the wheels. In a wheel landing, like in a three point landing, a touchdown must be made so that the aircraft touches down in a certain narrow attitude range at a certain narrow speed range within narrow range of rate of descent. Only now the attitude, speed and rate of descent required to make a good two-point landing are different from the combination required for a three-point landing. This provides even more fine tuning of the feel for total energy.

The Decathlon does not have flaps and most tailwheel trainers do not either (most Citabrias, J-3 Cubs, Champs and Taylorcrafts don’t have them). This means that slipping is a primary maneuver for them! The Decathlon isn’t particularly an easy slipping airplane, I find that it tends to speed up or slow down during a slip. This means I have to be aware of the drag on the aircraft at various speeds, and I find it more effective to slow to 70 mph to come down faster. Using the back side of the drag curve for generating more drag is something that is much more dramatic in the Decathlon. In a typical nosewheel trainer with flaps, the rate of descent can be very easily controlled with flaps and one doesn’t need the fine-tuned “drag” sense.

As an aside, I found the Pitts much easier to bring in for an approach; I would tend to be high throughout the approach and on final pulled the power to idle pretty close in. The high drag of the biplane configuration and the ease with which the Pitts could be confidently slipped meant a high rate of descent towards the threshold, which I could easily modulate without the use of power. The Pitts also have low wing loading and huge excess of lift so that even a very steep descent could be stopped without the use of power and the flare made with attitude alone. Not so with the Decathlon, it is very slippery and doesn’t like to come down very easily. The pattern has to be planned from downwind and precise speeds flown so as not to be too high or too low on approach. A steep rate of descent typically requires the use of a little power to slow down the rate of descent. I think the Decathlon is a better trainer for it since it develops that sense of total energy throughout the pattern!

Attitude control

A taildragger pilot has to be aware of their attitude to a far more critical degree than nosewheel pilots. It starts with the takeoff, which starts with lifting the tail to a precise attitude. Too high or too low on the tail has an impact not only on the total runway used but also the directional stability of the airplane. In the Decathlon being a little tail low (i.e. nose too high on the horizon) will result in a premature liftoff. If the tail is raised too abruptly to the takeoff attitude, then gyroscopic precession will swing the aircraft to the left (for US aircraft with clockwise turning propellers). This is in contrast to a nosewheel aircraft in which the gyroscopic precession when the nose is lifted acts against the left turning tendencies and tends to stabilize the takeoff. So tailwheel pilots need to be aware not just of the attitude but also the rate of change of attitude.

On approach, the attitude is important for maintaining the correct speed on approach. Like most tailwheel trainers, the Decathlon does not have flaps, so to “go down one has to slow down.” The attitude is nose high but the aircraft is descending. This reinforces the difference between attitude and flightpath, something which doesn’t come across so clearly in a Cessna 152/172 or Cherokee.

While landing attitude control is paramount, since in three point landings the “three point attitude” has to be held within a narrow range otherwise the aircraft will either bounce or have a hard landing. This narrow range is even narrower while doing a “wheel landing” in which the taildragger is landed on the front wheels only in a level attitude. The attitude has to be held at a low rate of descent and any excessive rate of descent will result in the aircraft “bouncing” due to the wing being forced into a higher angle of attack (as a result of the CG being aft of the mainwheels). This attitude is held until the aircraft slows down with progressive forward stick. This level of awareness of attitude is not required in a nosewheel aircraft.

Flightpath control

Controlling the flightpath is much more critical for a tailwheel pilot especially at landing. I have already touched upon some the adjustments that need to be made. These include:

  • Steepness of the flightpath–this effects how early the flare starts and how much modulation of the angle of attack will be required before touchdown (either 3 point or 2 point).
  • The flightpath in the flare–keeping the flightpath such that the touchdown is made at a certain attitude at the lowest speed for that attitude. The flightpath will need to be finely modulated from the point of roundout through the flare all the way to touchdown, staying parallel to the ground if the energy is high to dissipate the energy, and adding power or increasing the angle of attack quicker to shallow the descending flightpath when energy is low. Gusts can also change the flightpath and these have to be accounted for while still meeting the conditions of good two point or three point landing.
  • Keep the flightpath direction along the runway without drift using the appropriate amount of aileron and rudder. Even a slight drift that would be corrected on touchdown by the stabilizing action of a nosewheel aircraft can result in a divergent trajectory if not corrected forcefully and accurately.
  • Flightpath control without auxiliary devices such as flaps (that are common in nosewheel training aircraft but not so common in tailwheel training aircraft) requires better planning and a better sense of the drag characteristics of the aircraft.

Control of interactions

It is challenging enough controlling one aspect of control as outlined above, but adding interaction effects makes it a lot more complicated. The interaction effects are also more challenging in a taildragger, because the margins if these effects are ignored are very narrow compared to a nosewheel airplane. Some salient interaction effects are:

  1. Any slip in a Decathlon increases the rate of descent dramatically, which is why even a mild crosswind is challenging. The rate of descent increases when the wing down method is used and rudder is used to side slip the aircraft while keeping the fuselage aligned with the runway. This rate of descent has to be compensated by either adding power or starting the roundout/flare a little early. In a nosewheel airplane the rate of descent is not as critical and for most slip angles only small adjustments need to be made for a decent landing.
  2. Adding power in the a nose high approach attitude and high effective angle of attack (due to lack of flaps) causes a left turning tendency due to P-factor. This has to be immediately corrected in the Decathlon and most tailwheel trainers. Most nosewheel trainers have flaps and their effective angle of attack is lower in the approach (due to the higher camber of the wing, more lift is produced at the same angle of attack)–and adding power doesn’t have the same dramatic effect.
  3. In a gusty crosswind not only must the alignment with the runway be maintained, but a close watch kept of the attitude and the rate of descent within far more narrow margins than in a nosewheel aircraft. Any change in power, side slip conditions, airspeed and attitude results in changes of rate of descent and flightpath and all those interactions have to be compensated for. In most nosewheel aircraft, keeping the aircraft reasonably aligned and keeping the rate of descent and touchdown attitude within a broad range will provide a reasonable landing.


On reading the exposition above if you come to the conclusion that tailwheel aircraft need the same skills needed to fly a nosewheel aircraft, just within narrower margins (which translates to more control by the pilot)–you would be right. Since wonderful inventions make it easy for us to fly modern trainer aircraft, being human, we tend to be lazy. When flying with more control (or within narrower margins) is forced upon us, soon it becomes a habit. That is why it took one of my students only 2 hours to be a safe pilot in a G1000 Cessna 172 (even before soloing our Decathlon) whereas most experienced pilots who come to me for a tailwheel endorsement need 8-10 hours before they can fly a taildragger safely. We need something to keep us honest–and I think a tailwheel trainer fits that bill.


  • Walt Moore says:

    I love reading these articles. Everything instructional helps me build skill.

    • Hans says:

      Having over 1000+ in tri-gears, wondering about buying a P-12 Cub and how it would be (nothing much) different, this article teached me how to fall flat on your nose, without proper tuition.
      My very first phone call tomorrow is to my FBO and ask for taildragger instruction, until my flight instructor and I feel VERY confident….
      Thank you for the incredible quality of this article.

  • Bruce Hopper says:

    One tool that isn’t mentioned in the article is the all important “go-around.” I fly a super cub in the back country in Alaska. It isn’t unusual for pilots landing off-airport to make 7 or 8 approaches to land on new spots, or 3-4 approachs on spots that we may have landed many times before. As mentioned in the article, the tail-dragger has a narrow window of acceptable factors. Each approach allows us to assess the given conditions and try different approach attitudes to make a landing on a gravel bar or a mountain ridge.

    In nose-wheel aircraft, once can usually come in on a less than perfect approach and force the landing; and things will “work out.” With tail draggers, if the approach is less than perfect, add power and go around. A go-around isn’t a sign of incompetence, it is a sign of good judgement.

    • Rick A says:

      Did a couple of those in my TW training including one where my heel got caught while in a max slip to landing. As we headed toward the edge of the runway and a nearby hangar, a go around was easy call. 😉


    • John L. says:

      I had to do a go around on my check ride due to the instructor having had a weird idea of how to land a taildragger in a heavy crosswind. Nearly killed us when he grabbed controls as I did a wheel landing.
      I grabbed the controls back, put on full power, put nose down, even though we were not very high, leveled the wings which were going into a stall, and flew us out of trouble. I almost quit flying that day.

      • D P says:

        What did the instructor say? Did he apologize?

        • John in Texas says:

          He didn’t pass me, so I had to come back in a couple of weeks and do it again, but he passed me with just one landing. My instructor had said a thing or two to him even before I’d arrived home on that first round.

    • Anandeep Pannu says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. I do far more go arounds in tailwheel aircraft than I do in nosewheel aircraft.
      At Gnoss Field in the San Francisco Bay Area, where our school is located, the wind in the afternoon is close to perpendicular to the runway (13-31). In coming in to land I plan for a go around to check for conditions on one end (say 31) and if I feel that we are going to land properly I go ahead with a landing. More often than not, the other runway has better conditions, so I do a go around and after changing direction come in and land on the reciprocal runway.

      • Thor says:

        It’s all nice&dandy to go around if you don’t like things as they are, and I would have loved to go around when that 4-wheeler drove on the runway with high terrain rising from the end of the runway….. (luckily he saw me in the last second) and there was no go around on that road when the engine of my 120 destroyed itself 3 weeks ago. All I’m saying is better be prepared and trained to land when things are not perfect. Yes I have lots of glider time which helped me in many situations flying in the bush.

    • Thor Flender says:

      well, I too fly in the bush and here in the Yukon are many airstrips where a go around is no option! we are trained and drilled to not even think about a go around to be an option.

      • Gary Lanthrum says:

        I fly a Maule, and the trim configuration for landing is SIGNIFICANTLY different than for takeoff or going around. The control pressures can be significant if the decision is made to do a go-around at the last instant. It takes time to re-trim since the trim wheel requires a lot of rotation to get from landing to take-off configuration. Add to that the challenge with lowering flaps since the flap handle requires the pilot to bend over to return the flaps to neutral and a go-around is not an easy maneuver. That said, I have done go-arounds, particularly in cases where a gusty cross wind caught me after a light skip on a challenging landing. You just have to be very ready for some huge changes in control forces until the plane is reconfigured for the new flight regime.

        • Hotprop says:

          I noticed your comment in the other tail wheel article about the Maule you bought, “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.”
          Normally I don’t want to cut up a man’s ride but I gotta give you a heads up on my first experience with the MX7-180C.
          Maule MX7-180C was the first taildragger in which I tried to get my tailwheel endorsement. I couldn’t believe how unpredictable each and every touchdown was. I mean it was vicious. On touchdown, it would dart left or right you never knew which, you just had to be on tip toes ready with gobs of counteracting control input to keep it on the runway. One instructor, who told me,”It’s because I wasn’t doing it right”, proceeded to demonstrate on the next touch and go how close as I believe you can come to performing a ground loop without actually completing one. Smoking and squealing tires and the wing tip that just didn’t quite touch the pavement(we checked to be sure). I remember thinking that this just cannot be right, it can’t be this hard and terrifying and I went so far as to tell the FBO there was probably something wrong with the plane, but he wasn’t interested.
          No one flew it after a while and the FBO sold the MX7-180C. Since then out of curiosity I queried the NTSB accident database to see if my experience was indicative of the model or maybe the FBO had a lemon with a defect of some kind. As it turns out about 80% of the accidents for the MX7-180C are loss of control while Taking Off or Landing, by far mostly landing. Hey, I’m just saying.
          By the way, so you don’t think it’s sour grapes, I have my endorsement and I love, prefer and enjoy landing (most)tailwheel acft.

    • Diana Roberts says:

      I agree with Bruce about the go-around. I started in gliders and the idea of going around was foreign to me. Once I realized it was an option I took advantage of it when ever I felt uncomfortable with my approach. I am learning how to fly power in a Cessna 140.

    • ellis mickey says:

      What you have said is so correct. I received my initial flight instruction in a J-3 in the USAF and have never regretted it once. After my tour in the Air Force, I received my Commercial Glider License and became even more proficient in aviation. I believe that every pilot should be proficient in flying tail-draggers and have some glider experience.

      • Bill Kelley says:

        I am 77, private pilot, have bought, sold, and flew 81 airplanes, 31 experimental, now fly a Pietenpol Aircamper…logged over 3200 hours in taildraggers…taught my 3 children to fly taildraggers..very good article..

  • Rick A says:

    Just got my TW Endorsement flying a Champ and attest to everything written in the article.

    It took about 4-5 hours to get comfortable and another 4-5 to get the endorsement and definitely worth every minute. Total time, mostly all in the pattern and taxi was just about 10 hours. Probably could have been less but no reason to rush things.

  • John L. says:

    I went out and bought a Cessna 140A patrol plane to learn to fly. Took a month or so to even find a flight instructor in our area who could train me. He was a young part-time crop duster and freelance Cessna 180 pilot who flew a cattle buyer around ranches in Oklahoma and Kansas. Then it took some hunting to find a check ride pilot for me who would do it with the limited instruments I had. Was an older guy. I was determined to learn in a taildragger, especially after hearing that if you learned to fly one in windy Oklahoma, you were a real pilot.

  • Brent says:

    Great article Anandeep! Very thorough and thoughtful!

  • Sabu says:

    Great article Anandeep. Having done my entire flying towards obtaining a CPL on a taildragger, I can fully appreciate what you have said. Was also fortunate enough to do instructional flying on them. Really miss them now. Sadly they don’t make airliners with tailwheels now. Hope to come to your school one day to learn all over again.

  • John L. says:

    I re-read article, especially parts on total enery control and wheel landings vs three point landings and it dawned on me that learning to fly in my taildragger REALY helped me convert to sailplanes quite easily even though I was a low time piolot. I thought flying was just flying. Also, funny point, when taking aerobatics at Oklahoma State in a Decathalon, even though all I’d ever flown was a taildragger, they would not let me land it due to insurance purposes. That’s another story topic: aerobatics as a way to improve your normal flying.

  • Anandeep Pannu says:

    Funny, I flew nothing but sailplanes for three years before I got my power license. I know sailplanes helped a lot in my tailwheel flying. A number of the “glass” sailplanes are quite sensitive to landing attitude and of course one had to have a good sense for energy control.

  • Del Schneider says:

    Another factor in tailwheel operation is the torque factor on takeoff. A Stinson aircraft will remind you of this each and everytime

  • Mort Mason says:

    As an Alaska outback pilot with 35-years and 20,000 hours behind me, this article made me realize that most of those hours were in tailwheel aircraft: Super Cubs, C-180s, C-185s and others. During a recent insurance-required check ride at a local Florida airport, my checkride pilot observed that I must have had a wealth of tailwheel time behind me. When I asked why he thought so, he remarked that I was the first pilot he had ever seen that exhibited proper rudder control. There really is a difference . . . . .

    • Houston says:

      I’ve read both of your books and enjoyed them immensely. They were such wonderful reads filled with exciting stories, I bought additional copies for a few close friends. I’d really enjoy meeting you sometime.
      Kind regards,
      Houston Hayward
      Delta 767-400

    • Hans says:

      There you go !! That’s the evidence……….

  • Rusty says:

    he mentions P factor in conjunction with raising the tail on takeoff:

    “If the tail is raised too abruptly to the takeoff attitude, then P-factor will swing the aircraft to the left”


    Raising the tail on takeoff causes left yaw because of gyroscopic precession,not as a result of P factor. Precession is caused by an external force such as raising the tail on takeoff. At least he didn’t lump these 2 forces with spiraling slipstream into the category of “torque”, which is unique to itself

    • Anandeep Pannu says:

      You are right. It is gyroscopic precession that causes the swing to the left, I’ll get that edited into the article. P-factor is only at high power, high angle of attack situations.


      • Ronald Usher says:

        Loved the article, I remember flying my first Tiger Moth with the inverted Gypsy Mjor Motor, what an experience, then some years later I tried to fly a Piper cub tailwheeler, and that really taught me about Left yaw when you apply power and take off at 45 MPH, with not much wind !!!
        I could never feel comfortable in the Piper (a fish spotter)but the experience makes me realise what you guys’ are talking about.
        I moved to a piper cherake 180 D and loved the flying in all weather and mountain country. Just did’nt like eagles dive bombing me at 3000 feet that kept you awake ??.
        For my 80th birthday in 9 months time, I want to feel the wind and listen to the twanging of the guy wires on the wing of the old Tiger Moth when you do an inside loop !!

  • Doyle Frost says:

    Mr. Pannu, thank you. Reminds me of my primary instructor. He constantly challenged me with “rudder control.” Insisted I learn on both tricycle AND tailwheel aircraft, and Never, Ever, get complacent. My D.F.E. commented on my control tactics, in whatever situation he put me in, and I attribute that to my C.F.I. and his insistence on full control, at all times, and be ready for any eventuality. Flying is fun, interesting, and can be challenging if one does not pay attention to all factors.
    Now, this is going to be forwarded to a young man I know very interested in learning to fly. Thank you again.

  • Brent Bunch says:

    With over 6,000 hr, Airforce B52 time, Alaska Bush flying, C140, PA16, Stinson 108 and now a few nosewheel spam cans. I own a flying sports car The Bellanca Viking. It’s roots were tail draggers and it still flys like one. I fly a friends PA16 once or twice a month just to keep me honest. You get real lazy flying nosewheel spam cans. Tail drggers remind you what real flying is. It keep me honest.

  • Stephen Phoenix says:

    Are modern trainers too easy to fly? Should we be interfacing with these computers in machine language because it gives you a better understanding of how computers work?
    I love tailwheel airplanes but difficulty of control is not a redeeming feature; it’s what you put up with for a perky looking airplane and bragging rights.

    • Anandeep Pannu says:

      Training airplanes need to train pilots appropriately. My point was that modern trainers do not facilitate the development of instincts that will come to the fore as part of an instinctive reaction when in trouble, for instance in a late nose high go around in any propeller airplane. The statistics (and my anecdotal evidence) show that far too many pilots are not developing the kind of habits that flying a tailwheel airplane will develop. Those habits are valid for any kind of airplane.
      Having done both machine language and high level language programming, I wouldn’t use them for each other’s purposes. With a 172 and a Cirrus, it is like trying to do machine language with COBOL!

  • Ted O'Connell says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the Author’s point about energy control and attitude control. I fly a Cessna 180J and energy control is a critical aspect of making a decent TW landing. The 180 can be a beast if you are too fast and you’ll feel the shock waves run straight up your spine if you are too slow. Proper set up on the downwind leg will solve most problems and give you time to adjust to the conditions. Give your self an extended downwind if you need the time and a go round is always acceptable as an option if all good planning means you missed some critical aspect of the approach and touch down.

  • John L. says:

    Flying both a powered conventional gear plane and gliders needs an open mind. Open for go arounds in power and knowlege you have one shot at landing in glider. My instructors in both were good but thinking about it now, years later, the pilot needs to be fully aware of the different “laws” and “rules” of each plane type. Also, I learned early on not to trust FBO weather condition reports when going into an uncontrolled Oklahoma airport. Guy had wind direction and intensity all wrong for two of us who found out he gave us wrong runway and we fought a horrible crosswind (windsock straight out at 90 degree angle) and both us went around and took correct runway.

  • Niroop says:

    My entire basic training in India and 200 hours thereafter were on a Pushpak, which is a license built Aeronca Chief.

    I’ve swung, bounced, ballooned and I believe become a better pilot for it. At least I’m very aware of winds and their effect while landing.

  • wjdavid says:

    Nose draggers cover up poor piloting skills, but more importantly, they hide poor instruction. Tail draggers however do the opposite: they expose poor flying skills and instruction skills. You can learn how to fly well in a nose dragger — but I seriously doubt it. You have to fly well in a tail dragger or you will loose control before you know it. It takes the average guy or gal about 10 hours or more instruction to handle our Pietenpol Aircamper if they have never flown a tail dragger. It takes about 3 or 4 touch and goes to go from the Piet to a nose wheel.

  • John in Texas says:

    wjdavide, exactly! My instructor was upset with me for not flying after I sold my taildragger and dragged me into a 150 and taught me to fly it in about three landings. Boring as hell. Never flew another. Bought sailplane.

  • Bill Kelley says:

    most problems in tail wheels…springs on tailwheel are loose….it really makes a difference on handling take offs and landings…

    • Hotprop says:

      It sure does. I did that on a Maule I was having difficulty with on the ground. The springs were drooping quite a bit and I thought tightening them up aught do the trick. Well it helped maneuvering around the parking ramp quite a bit and somewhat more control on the roll out, but the thing was still a beast on touchdown. A sow’s ear was still a sow’s ear.

  • Hotprop says:

    Except for landing, take off and taxiing, flying a taildragger is no different than a nosedragger. The taildraggers are usually older types with more adverse yaw so yes you need to be more lively with the rudder work when turning but other than that. The laws of Physics will take care of the slovenly, the arrogant, the ham fisted regardless where the third wheel is.

  • Jim S says:

    Thanks for a really interesting artice and a MUST for those who choose to fly tailwheel aircraft.

    But with respect, I disagree with nearly all of your points. I haven’t the time or the inclination to discuss each point but your following comment summerizes much of what I would debate.

    “This means that nosewheel pilots can move their ailerons without needing to worry about using rudders to cancel out the adverse yaw.

    First, with 1000 hours in tricycle gear aircraft, the turn coordinator provides irrefutable evidence that the use of rudder is abssolutely required in most SE tricycle airplanes to maintain coordinated flight and that use becomes increasingly necessary as airspeed decays and the AOI increases toward a stall.

    To the extent that LESS rudder is required is merely evidence of the aerodynamic superiority of tricycle gear aircraft. (except for mission-specific uses).

    So again, with respect, I disagree that learning to fly a conventional gear plane makes you a better pilot when you fly a trike…or a better pilot at all. What one accomplishes in learning to fly conventional gear is to learn how to fly conventional gear. Given that MUCH of that learning doesn’t translate to trikes (because that training isn’t necessary) doesn’t mean that conventional gear planes produce better pilots…just pilots with different skill sets required in one type of plane and not the other.

    Similarly, is the pilot who learns how to fly upside down a better pilot than one who learns how to never have to????

    For those interested, below is a link to an interesting AOPA article on nose vs. tailwheel accidents. As is typical, such data can be used to argue pro or con for either type of airplane.

    Most in favor of the tailwheel advocates is the stat that shows nosewheel pilots tend to botch a LOT more landings than do tailwheel drivers. But I, for one, don’t blame that stat on the position of the wheels but rather on the relatively poorer overall training given or absorbed by the pilots.

    I would GUESS that the ratio of CFIs giving tailwheel vs. trike training is 10-1 in favor of the trikes and many of those CFIs are time builders trying to get corporate or airline jobs. (No disrespect intended).

    Therefore, I would further GUESS that there are far more “career” instructors who teach in conventional airplanes than trikes. So, I would blame the higher landing mishap rate for trikes vs. conventional airplanes on instruction mingled with a higher proportion of pilots who want to GO SOMEWHERE vs. those who fly purely for the love of flying and not the position of the wheels.

    The ONE aspect of conventional gear pilots that I readily ADMIT renders them “better than the rest” is their propensity to fly in mountainous “back country” destinations. Are those guys better pilots than the rest of us? NO DOUBT in my mind that they are. But they are not, in my opinion, better pilots because of the position of the tires but rather because their missions DEMAND highly elevated piloting skills to survive. (Having said that, there are a LOT of fat tire 206 drivers who are as good as anyone flying in back country…and maybe better since their airplanes aren’t as SUITED for such missions as are conventional gear airplanes. So who is better…the tailwheel guys whose planes are IDEAL for the missions or the trike pilots who fly their planes with such skill that they don’t need the rear wheel)???

    Bottom line, there just is no reason on Earth why an excellent CFI coupled with a student willing and able to learn(intellectually and ATTITUDINALLY) shouldn’t produce as truly an outstanding airman as a conventional gear student.




  • Logan says:

    Good article. I started on nose wheel aircraft years ago but once I moved to taildraggers I finally started enjoying flying. The only thing I would add is that take off and landing 3 point attitude is massively different between taildraggers. I regularly swap between the Super Decathlon for aeros and the Sport Cub with tundra tyres for sightseeing. Imagine my embarrassment when I was bringing a friend back to the field in the Cub after a beautiful afternoon of sightseeing and adopted the perfect attitude for a Super Decathlon landing.

    No matter the model, nose wheel planes all have pretty much the same attitude on take offs and landings whether they are high wing or low wing or even how big they are or how many engines: flat run to rotation speed and anything but a wheel barrow for landing so long as speed is reasonable. I still fly a couple nose wheelers when I have to and learning tailwheel really has improved my flying in those planes as well.

    Next up, floats 🙂

  • Bill Kelley says:

    I have been asked many times of the 81 planes to fly, most all tail draggers, which was the trickiest, Dave Longs N-15J Midget Mustang, without a doubt….come across the numbers over 90 indicated…always had to have good brakes…..indicated air speed about 180-190…

  • Tim Riffel says:

    Very spot on article. After taking a 17 year plus sabbatical from flying in general, I decided to purchase a Cessna 140, and gain my tailwheel endorsement at the same time. It took me almost 9 hours to get the endorsement, and now I realize that is the type of plane I should have got my private in a long time ago….

  • Joe Wilson says:

    As I read all this it looks increasingly like all you pilots want to make it appear that piloting takes genius with super human skills. It does not. Nearly anyone with average skills can be taught to fly. Every time I get in to one of these aircraft forums it appears that everyone just wants to be right and put their genius on display and may it look like they are the only ones that can fly! Ha! Farmers use to build planes and hop in and teach themselves to fly! I am sure that some of you are darn good! I am not impressed however.

  • Duane says:

    With apologies for commenting on a zombie thread, but since it made the top 10 list of posts and was highlighted this week by John in his 5th anniversary post, let me finally respond.

    I am sure that they must issue very large back pads to enable all those tailwheel pilots to continue slapping themselves so often and so hard on the back to celebrate their superior flying skills. Me, I don’t like to judge anybody’s flying bonafides except my own, thank you.

    Just a couple of points in refutation, though.

    1) The aircraft sales market has spoken. As soon as tricycle gear aircraft were made commercially available to aircraft buyers in large numbers in the early 1950s, virtually all those old “superior” tailwheel guys’n gals couldn’t wait to turn in their tailwheelers for those wimpy trikes. Except for back country bush aircraft, where getting the nose higher is considered an advantage instead of a fault, the trend continues to this day that trikes are simply more popular than taildraggers with most pilot-owners (and their insurance companies).

    2) The insurance industry has spoken. Hull coverage for taildraggers is much more costly than for equivalent tricycle gear aircraft. That is because all those superior tail-dragging pilots still crack up a lot more often than do pilots of tricycle gear aircraft. Isn’t it rather self-defeating that all that superior flight skill still results in a lot more accidents? In a world built on logic instead of pride and tribalism, yes, that would be the natural conclusion.

    Finally, despite all of the bragging and straining to prove that taildragger pilots are better pilots than tricycle gear pilots, I can say that there is nothing that makes me forget that I have rudder pedals on my tricycle gear aircraft.

    And I am thankful that I don’t have to sweat peanut butter from all my pores every time a crosswind more than 10 knots pops up across the runway, like most of those poor dears with their dragging tails do. I can happily land my little ole Cherokee in 20-25 knot crosswinds without breaking a sweat because I DO know how to use my rudder, and my ailerons, and my flaps, and my throttle without bending metal (knock on wood!). I love to fly when all the taildraggers are forced to stay on the ground and have to settle for bragging about their superior piloting skills.

    Maybe there are some Cherokee, Skyhawk, Skylane,and Bonanza drivers out there who can’t fly their airplanes very well, but it’s not because having a nose gear absconded with their brain or their, well, other body parts.

    I admire those who can fly tailwheel aircraft well, just as I admire those who fly whatever they fly with skill. But I don’t admire the self-entitled sense of superiority, and denigration of those who don’t share their love of an anachronistic aircraft design that has only limited utility today beyond rough field operations, that is so evident in this post and thread. This has been a silly argument that has gone on for approximately 60 years with no abatement.

    In my world of flying, I love ALL airplanes, and I respect all who fly them well. We should all do likewise.

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