My friend, Ray, is fond of saying, “ ’Bout the time you start feeling comfortable and think you have everything under control, you suddenly see a bright flash going by the right side of your cockpit. About a second later, you realize what you actually saw was the tail of your airplane flashing past.”
I chuckle every time I hear him tell that tale; for deep in my heart, I know he speaks the truth. I have been that hapless pilot wondering what that thing outside the cockpit window might have been, only to realize it was my tail. As with gear up landings, there is the school of thought that there are those who have and those who will – groundloop a tail-dragging airplane. If you are lucky, as I have been, no damage will result other than to your pride. If you are unlucky, well, the damage can be very costly in terms of repairs.
Many modern day pilots who learned to fly in Cessnas and Pipers with nosewheels have a hard time understanding why taildragger pilots sometimes seem distant and aloof, as if they know a private joke. They do not understand why some tailwheel pilots might ignore the opportunity to fly a twin with a glass cockpit, but will jump at the chance to fly an antique biplane or old Cub with the door open.
Tailwheel airplanes are demanding on takeoff and landing. Because of the inherent instability of the landing gear design, pilots quickly learn to control the forces acting on the cg and how to keep the longitudinal axis always aligned with the runway. The truth of the matter is this: in his or her heart, the tailwheel pilot knows they can fly just about any airplane ever built. On the other hand, nosewheel pilots cannot.
This is where many nosewheel pilots may become a little indignant with tailwheel pilots; there is, however, a corollary truth to the idea of learning to fly in taildraggers and learning to drive with a standard transmission. Take the driver who learned how to drive in a 1969 Volkswagen Bug. The Bug has a standard transmission with four on the floor and a third pedal called a clutch.
It takes a bit of practice to become smooth at driving old Bugs, but once mastered, the Bug driver can drive anything with a standard transmission . . . or with an automatic transmission for that matter. However, the driver who learned how to drive on a late model Chevy with an automatic transmission is pretty well limited only to vehicles with automatic transmissions.
The same holds true of a pilot who learns to fly in taildraggers. Once mastered, the pilot who can deftly handle a taildragger can certainly fly anything with wings, no matter the landing gear arrangement.
Now, if you are one of those pilots who learned in a Cherokee or a 172 and you want to increase your skill level, find someone who teaches in a Champ or Cub. Train for your tailwheel endorsement and afterward, fly that old taildragger for about 50 hours.
Fifty or so hours in an old airplane without radios will make you a far better pilot than you could ever imagine. You will also probably have so much fun you will fly that airplane a lot longer than a mere 50 hours.
Afterward, you too, will be one of those pilots passing up glass for old antiques. I would bet on it.
© 2010 J. Clark