Foot position and taxi techniques
In part one (“Tailwheel Fundamentals.” November 2015), I discussed the importance of proper placement of a pilot’s feet on the rudder pedals as the first step in mastering the tailwheel airplane.
Proper foot placement (in most low horsepower single-engine tailwheel airplanes) involves resting your heels on the floor so that the upper ball portion of your foot makes contact with the rudder pedals. This will allow smooth rudder inputs by pivoting at your ankle rather than having to move your entire leg each time rudder input is required.
Also discussed in part one, the proper and safest method when taxiing is to perform shallow “S” turns while in motion. As you begin moving away from the hangar proceeding to the runway, make gentle “S” turns, turning approximately 10 to 20 degrees.
While turning left, lean to the right and look beyond the engine cowling and down the taxiway assuring there are no obstructions in front of your airplane. Repeat this movement left and right every 10 to 15 seconds until arriving at the departure end of the runway.
Taxi speed is also important. The basic rule of thumb is to never taxi faster than the pace of a brisk walk. Any speed faster than this is an open invitation to causing an incident leading to aircraft damage or worse.
After learning to properly use the rudder pedals, then taxiing safely and correctly to the runway, it is time to perform a correct takeoff.
Correct takeoff procedures
The first thing a transition student usually notices in a tailwheel aircraft is the restricted (okay, nonexistent) forward visibility. Usually I’ll hear something like, “I can’t see where I’m going!” and “How do I get to the runway and take off without running into something?” I’ll explain how.
First, taxi into position straddling the runway centerline (or the approximate center of the turf runway, if that is what you are using) and come to a stop. Note once again that your forward visibility is nonexistent.
Now turn your head about 30 degrees to either the left or right and look forward. On a normal 70- to 100-foot wide runway, this line of sight will intersect the edge of the runway approximately two to three runway lights forward of your aircraft.
Referred to as a “diagonal line of sight,” you will now see the side of the engine cowling with your peripheral vision while your forward view is focused on the edge of the runway. Continue to maintain this diagonal line of sight while smoothly adding power.
Under non-crosswind conditions, the aircraft nose will want to drift to the left due to engine torque and P-factor. Peripheral vision will immediately detect this movement. Tapping the right rudder once or twice will correct the leftward drift. Never tap and hold the rudder. Rather, tap it and release it. Repeat the tap if more correction is needed.
As groundspeed increases, ease the control stick or yoke forward allowing the tail to come off the ground. As the tail rises, the torque and P-factor are again prevalent and a tap or two on the right rudder will be needed to offset the leftward movement of the nose.
When flying in normal wind conditions, keep the tail low, maintaining a positive angle of attack. When the wings are creating enough lift, the airplane will leave the ground without any help from you the pilot. It just gracefully glides into the air.
Once airborne, a tailwheel aircraft flies like most other aircraft requiring coordinated aileron and rudder inputs for performing various maneuvers.
For best results, keep that diagonal line of sight
Throughout the entire time from adding power until the airplane is in the air, your focus will be held in the diagonal line of sight configuration.
Not doing so will significantly increase your chances of doing 90-degree “S” turns on the runway, making the tires squeal and making all of the hangar flyers run to the door to see what is happening.
Runway lights can make funny pinging sounds—which you’ll discover when you knock two or three from their breakaway hold downs.
I’ve even heard stories (I won’t say where) that witnesses might even rush to the runway and pick up the broken lights so that an embarrassed pilot would be unable to find all of the pieces. At a very inopportune time several weeks later, the pilot would be presented with the broken runway light(s) now converted into a table lamp.
Approach, landing and rollout
Old-timers will tell you the landing and rollout is the most difficult part of a tailwheel aircraft flight.
It really isn’t that difficult, but it does require training yourself to move your eyes to use the diagonal line of sight method for tracking straight down the runway. Once this is accomplished, the remainder of the landing generally falls into place after some repetition.
The approach to land is similar to a tricycle gear aircraft until leveling off prior to the flare and touchdown. While applying back pressure to stop the rate of descent and level off the aircraft, transition your sight line from over the nose to approximately 30 degrees left or right of the nose focusing on the runway edge two to three runway lights ahead.
Your forward visibility provides you with depth perception while your peripheral vision tells you if the nose is wandering left or right of the centerline.
Depth perception allows you to control the rate of descent. Applying additional back pressure as the aircraft slows generates lift, slowing the descent; but it also increases drag, slowing the airspeed. This becomes a give-and-take procedure until the aircraft settles smoothly on the runway.
Here is where many transition tailwheel pilots get into trouble. Tricycle pilots will relax back pressure upon touching down to allow the nosewheel to settle on the runway, but a tailwheel aircraft requires continued back pressure on the control stick or yoke to keep the steerable tailwheel in contact with the runway surface.
Relaxing back pressure when landing a tailwheel allows the tail to rise slightly, causing the wing to generate lift. This lift allows the aircraft to begin bouncing causing many flight instructors to see their heart rate jump from 65 to 180 beats per minute.
Final approach reminders
When I teach tailwheel landings, I remind every student to do several things while on final approach.
First, take a deep relaxing breath. This will help relax the tenseness building in your body. You may want to take two or three breaths.
Next, wiggle your fingers and toes to get your extremities to relax. Tense muscles cause jerky movements that are especially noticeable during rudder inputs.
Finally, make your sight transition from over the nose to the diagonal line of sight as the aircraft is leveled during the approach.
An inability to establish depth perception will either cause the aircraft to stall and drop the last foot or two to the ground (called “dropping it in”) or the aircraft will make contact with the ground and bounce—sometimes very high.
Once you’ve made the line of sight transition on the approach to land, the next step is to use your peripheral vision and transfer that information to your feet and the rudder pedals.
If you perceive the nose to be moving slightly left, tap the right rudder pedal to stop the leftward movement. You may have to tap it several times in succession to stop the drift.
Resist the temptation to push and hold the rudder, as this creates overcorrection, causing squealing tires and the beginning of a succession of “S” turns on the runway.
Once one has overcorrected, the natural movement is to stomp hard and hold the opposite rudder causing the aircraft to veer sharply in the opposite direction. You’ll eventually exit the runway—in a cloud of dust and a string of damaged runway lights.
Don’t attempt to get the aircraft back to the runway centerline. Stop the drift and proceed on a straight line forward from the point of correction. Attempting to realign the aircraft with the centerline often triggers the “S” turn actions described above.
And don’t start furiously pumping the rudder pedals from stop to stop during the landing. Some pilots who are a bit unsure of themselves will perform this action while landing hoping the rapid rudder movement will “catch” the left or rightward drift. (It won’t.)
Learning to safely and comfortably handle a tailwheel airplane is a satisfying accomplishment making one a better and more coordinated pilot. Forget about all of those wild hangar-flyer stories and give it a try. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the experience.
This article is for information and is not intended to replace flight instruction with a certified flight instructor.
Steve Krog has been flying since 1969 and instructing since 1973. Recognizing a shortage of tailwheel instructors, Krog began specializing in part-time dual tailwheel instruction in the early 1980s. After a 38-year career in marketing, he opted for early retirement to pursue the dream of owning a small flight school specializing in all types of conventional gear aircraft. Krog has accumulated over 8,000 hours (6,500 in tailwheels) and has taught hundreds of people to fly. Send questions or comments to .