My tailwheel transition story, so far

I’m a recently-minted private pilot with about 70 hours, and a little over 3 hours into tailwheel endorsement training. Interestingly enough, the tailwheel endorsement has been my big goal, perhaps even more so than the PPL! But there is an order to things, and these days the PPL checkride is mostly tailored to the Cessna 172. There are exceptions, but this seems to be the general rule.

Cub flying over lake
Old school? Perhaps. But a whole lot of fun too.

Thus, I worked through my private pilot training mostly in a 172 (with some 152 time thrown in for good measure). Meanwhile, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on related to mastery of a tailwheel aircraft. There are numerous online resources, most of which are very good. There are books, including the bible of tailwheel flying, Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder. I own it, and read it cover to cover.

The analysis of tailwheel aircraft physics and techniques contained within these tomes is wonderful, thorough information. However, after enough reading of the materials I realized that I had actually developed an apprehension about mastering the complexity of the system. Anxiety had crept in, and I wondered whether it was even worth the effort to learn the management of a seemingly fickle and obsolete design.

Enter actual tailwheel flying. I took and passed my private pilot checkride, and the very next week began tailwheel transition training. With no offense intended toward all of the excellent writing on the subject, the actual operation of a tailwheel plane is simple:  keep the small wheel between the two mains. Or, put differently, keep the nose pointed straight. It requires coordination of the rudders and the ailerons, but reading about it won’t grant you mastery of it. You have to develop muscle memory and instincts to keep the plane pointed in the right direction, and this is done by actually spending time in the plane. Despite the complex physics involved, I haven’t found it to be complex at all.  It simply requires more care than a nosewheel plane.

In my limited experience, I have noticed that pilots have different interests. Some pilots, many in fact, gravitate toward technology. Glass panels, carbon fiber, and “slippery” airframes are the name of the game. My interests seem to be regressive. I am getting the most fun I have had flying out of a drafty, wooden spar, fabric-covered taildragger, with a modicum of antiquated steam instruments. Most tandem-seated taildraggers, like the one I fly, are designs of a bygone era, with the glide envelope of an anvil and enough adverse yaw to mandate authoritative rudder inputs… if you don’t intend to fly in a straight line until out of gas.

If you’re a regressive pilot like me, who really wants to have the experience of aviating (and not merely piloting), I would encourage you to pursue the tailwheel endorsement. Find a good instructor, like the one I have, and start spending time in the air. By all means read the books as well, but remember that there is no substitute for the real thing. I think you will find, like I have, that tailwheel flying is actually one of the simplest, purest forms of the craft.

6 Comments

  • Nathan, Thank you for writing this and confirming I’m not the only crazy person that feels this way. I am about two steps behind you and cannot wait to begin my tailwheel transition into something older/slower/more difficult to fly. I thought I was all alone in this thinking.

  • Your story makes me think of my own experiences with helicopters. As you can imagine they are aerodynamically complex machines and simply reading about them can be quite intimidating. While I would not go so far as to say they are easy to fly there is no reason to be intimidated by the complexity of the reading material.

    That being said I do think that the better we understand the working principles behind our machines the better we can predict how they will react and the more precisely we can control them. Thanks for sharing your story, I’m hoping to get a fixed wing certificate and tailwheel endorsement myself someday.

  • Hi Nathan
    What a super story. I am about renew my licence here in the u.k. and I think you have convinced me to do it all on a Cub from a grass strip in southern England.

  • “Regressive” is the word I’ve been using to describe my flying goals! As you note, everyone pilot flies for a different reason: speed, competition, technical gizmos, adrenaline, business, impress the girls or boys, and many others. My reason to fly is to enjoy views of the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, study the changes in the seasons, and ponder the magic that ever got us up here in the air in the first place. My ‘new’ J3 is perfect for that. May the new year hold many happy taildragger hours for you!

  • Good for you Nathan. I did exactly the same path long ago, and have since been grateful to an outstanding gentleman and instructor who taught me to FLY tailwheel in the hours after my tricycle PPL training. I credit my survival to him, and still miss his counsel 25 years after his passing.

    Learning is about opportunity and attitude, with maybe a little aptitude added in some cases. I have about 5 to 1 hours TW vs. nosewheel, so my prejudice is strong, but the debate over which is better is really about experience and personal preference anyway, once you get the basic physics and attentiveness mastered. Enjoy!

  • Multiple high time pro pilots advised me to start in tube-n-fabric taildraggers, off grass. That is exactly what I did. I’m no super pilot, just keep the damned thing straight when you set it down. And fly it all the way to the tiedown. You learn the importance of using the rudder. You master the slip. I actually had a pilot looking at the taildragger I arrived in, tell me how dangerous they were, and that they should all be retired. He had no idea it was my ride, so I gently patted him on the shoulder and said “someday, maybe you’ll become a real pilot”, then walked out, strapped in and left. Taildraggers aren’t difficult to fly, they just demand you pay attention when in proximity to the ground.

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