Learning to Fly the Tail Wheel

stinson and waco

Pictured: Me in my 1941 Stinson 10A taxiing at KLEX.  In background, my father in his 1934 Waco YKC

I have seen it argued by people who have never flown conventional gear aircraft (tail wheel) that there is no difference flying a tail wheel aircraft and flying a tricycle gear aircraft.  He made it a point that the only difference in flying a conventional gear was when you landed it and therefore it wasn’t flying, it was taxiing.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  I learned to fly in a rental piper Cherokee, one of the best trainers in the world, and yet when I got my license and began training in a 1941 Stinson Voyager there was a huge difference. Why was this? Surely just putting a wheel in the back of the airplane couldn’t make that much difference right? Wrong. With a tail wheel, the airplane has several different characteristics that I noticed immediately. For starters, yes, it did taxi differently. In a Cherokee and many tricycle gear aircraft, the rudder pedals feel heavy because they are connected to the nose wheel, which increases directional control on the ground. This allows the pilot to steer on the ground without having to use brake. While the rudder cable is also connected to the tail wheel, it is much less bulky and the airplane is not nearly as heavy in the tail section as it is at the nose, so when I used the rudder for the first time I was surprised to find that it was very light. I also could not steer the aircraft without applying some brake.

Taking off in the Stinson for the first time was like taking off for the first time ever. It is a very awkward feeling to have the tail come up during the take off roll, and when it came time to rotate, I tried to pull it off the ground rather than “milk” it off as my instructor put it. In the air the plane felt squirrely, always needing a dose of right rudder to keep it tracking straight. Not only that but the rudder is very sensitive. You can, and I have, flown the airplane with nothing but the rudder. In the Cherokee, I could, and I did, fly the plane with no rudder at all and hardly lose any stability. To do this in the Stinson would mean fighting with the airplane to keep it straight.

Landing, like taking off, is part of flying and is generally where student pilots spend the most time training. Landing a tricycle gear aircraft is difficult to do for the first time, landing a conventional gear aircraft is difficult to do even after 50 hours of total flight time. I soloed the Cherokee with six total hours of mixed lessons, and I soloed the Stinson after eight hours even though I already had a pilot’s license. This is because landing was so different. With a wheel at the tail, the main gear has to be shifted in front of the center of gravity, which means the airplane has a tendency to try and roll down the runway backwards after landing; This is called ground looping. Some planes are easier to ground loop than others, and in tricycle gear airplanes it is darn near impossible. So far I have over 150 hours in the Stinson alone and even though it hardly has any instruments in it and goes a top cruising speed of 110 mph, it has taught me so much about being a pilot. I like to compare flying a tail dragger to driving a stick shift car. Someone who can drive manual can drive anything, but someone who can drive an automatic and never a manual, would have a very hard time starting off. The same goes for tail draggers; someone who flies one can fly a tricycle gear with little trouble but not vice versa.

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