Taming the Taildragger - My Way

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In the early summer I had some spare time. It was several months since my instrument checkride, and although I was flying quite a bit I was feeling a definite need to do something a bit more challenging than cross-country flying. I thought about getting a seaplane rating, but it was too short notice. I called one of my local flying clubs, that has several Citabrias, and found someone who could start to give me some tailwheel lessons. I also started aerobatic training the same weekend, but that's mostly another story - although the two do connect, as you'll see later. My logbook shows my first Citabria flight on 15th June 2003. I own a Skylane (TR182), and I've flown quite a few types, but the Citabria is something completely different. The first thing you discover is that it is almost impossible to get in - and even harder to get out. Even with practice it never gets easy, involving various handholds on the stucture of the plane to inject yourself into the front seat and around the stick and the seat itself (and it gets even harder when you wear a parachute). Of course the Citabria has a stick, not a yoke. I did have one previous experience with a stick, in a Robin in France, but only for one short flight. I'd read quite a bit about flying taildraggers, so I knew in theory what to expect, but as with everything in flying, it's only when you actually do something that you find out what it's like. So the first thing is taxiing. Unlike many bigger taildraggers, the Citabria gives you a decent view over the nose. There's no need to zigzag along the taxiways. But everything feels a lot more sensitive. Also, the "driving position" in the Citabria is very different from anything I'd experienced before. I've never driven a bulldozer but I imagine it is very similar. Your legs are spread wide and held up high on the pedals. You have to remember to keep the stick back in your lap, or else your instructor yells at you.

We made it to the end of the runway before that first flight. The first takeoff roll is a real eye-opener. First, it's really true that the plane wants to go everywhere. At first, it's impossible to avoid over-controlling, giving loads of right welly as the plane heads off to the left, then a jab of left foot as it heads for the runway lights on the other side. Then comes the "tail up" bit. After a while it becomes routine, but the first few times I was sure that I within an inch of dinging the prop. Especially with the Citabria's low nose, the view is terrifying. It doesn't last for long, because at around 55 mph it's ready to lift off and it takes only a gentle pull on the stick to get it off the ground. For some reason Citabrias (and Decathlons) work in MPH rather than knots, I have no idea why. Even the new ones (like 383AC, the background to this page, which was brand new in 2003 and had less than 50 hours on the tach when I first flew her) are like this. My first instructor was anything but a "by the numbers" pilot, and had me just take off when it felt ready. This works fine, and I think at least part of her reason is that when you start, you can't afford to look down at the airspeed while fighting to keep the plane going at least approximately down the center-line.

Once off the ground, I discovered what a primitive plane this was. Most of my early time was in a 1978 airplane, N53823. The ventilation arrangements consist of a pair of large holes at knee level, with thingummies that you can twirl around to direct a stronger or weaker blast of cold air around your legs. Sundry other leaks ensure a strong connection with the environment. There seemed to be oil and grease everywhere; since this was the summer, I was wearing light-colored trousers. I don't think any of them managed to avoid at least one unremoveable grease stain. The ailerons are of the very simplest kind, unlike the Frieze ailerons fitted to Cessnas, which means that you discover what adverse yaw means. This seems to be particularly true of the older ones - 383AC has much less adverse yaw so they must have changed something over the years. But with 53823, you need lots of right rudder just to keep flying straight, and a right climbing turn (the normal traffic pattern at my local airport is to the right) needs loads. Of course you get used to it, but at first my legs just sort of refused to believe this was possible and wouldn't cooperate unless I kept a very close eye on the ball.

For the first couple of flights we went away from the airport and did airwork to get used to the feel of the plane - stalls, steep turns, all the usual stuff. My instructor introduced me to the falling leaf, or at least what she called a falling leaf - everyone seems to have their own definition. To her, it meant stalling, and holding the stick back while trying to keep the wings level with the rudder pedals. I found this very hard in the Citabria, over-controlling so that within a few sideways lurches we would reach an extreme bank, the beginnings of an incipient spin, and I would release the stick to recover. Later I tried this in various other planes, starting with the Grob I was used for my acro training, and then the 172 and my own TR182, and I found that in these you could easily fly fully stalled, for as long as your altitude would let you, even making turns at quite decent bank angles. And later still I discovered that as long as you are very delicate on the pedals, it's just as easy in the Citabria. But at first it seemed impossible. My instructor was someone who clearly believes literally in "seat of the pants flying". This is clearly one of those things that you either get or you don't. I don't. I can't tell whether I'm coordinated (unless I'm really way off) without looking at the ball. She kept uncoordinating the plane, taking the ball just outside the lines, and saying, "You can feel that, can't you?". Well, no, I couldn't.

Once that was done, we started to work on landings. Of course there are two ways to land a taildragger. The easier is a three-point landing, in which the plane doesn't touch the runway until it is fully stalled. In a perfect three-pointer, the tailwheel touches at the same time as the mains, or even a bit before. If you land on the mains first, then gravity pulls the plane into a higher angle of attack, which means a bounce. Nothing bad happens if you bounce a little, you just skip down the runway feeling foolish. Of course if you bounce a lot you can come crashing down again and break something. In that case you just shove the power in and go around, at least at first until you learn to control things. I never had much trouble with three-pointers. The other type is the wheel landing. The theory is that these are what you need if there's a cross-wind, especially a gusty one. I'm fairly certain that the truth is they are just a special torture for student pilots, designed to make them feel incompetent and useless. Everyone seems to have a slightly different explanation of why these are helpful in a cross-wind. The one that seems most plausible to me is that once you have the wheels (or one wheel anyway) on the ground, friction is keeping the plane going down the runway in more-or-less the right direction. Whereas if you get tail-low and about to touch down on the tailwheel, and there's a sudden gust of wind, you have practically no control authority and on a narrow runway or strip, you could easily get blown off the side.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here. The first few tailwheel landings are truly horrifying. Once the wheels are down, the tail develops a desperate urge to overtake the nose. All it takes is a tiny correction, but you haven't figured that out yet, so once again you over-control and the planes yaws wildly from side to side as it careens down the runway. Then you taxi back (at Palo Alto with its 2400 foot runway, we didn't do touch-and-goes at first), trying to keep the plane on the taxiway. It does get easier after a while. It was my seventh lesson before we started on wheel landings, by which time I was getting pretty frustrated since my three-points had been fine for a while. It didn't help that my instructor was only around for one week every month, so I would have long periods without flying the Citabria, and the first few takeoffs and landings were spent getting back to where I'd been the month before. She taught me to fly wheel landings with a very low, high-power approach, which is quite unnerving, and just to let the descent continue down on to the runway. In the Citabria this technique is hopeless. It has super-bouncy spring gear, which means that if your vertical speed is more than about one foot per fortnight [note to non-British readers: one fortnight equals two weeks] then you bounce straight back up again. Just letting the plane drift onto the runway like this just about guarantees a huge bounce, from which the only recovery is to apply full power and go around, or else turn it into a very messy three-pointer. It is possible, but it requires perfect timing to "stick" the plane, pushing the stick forward hard, at absolutely exactly the right moment. A tenth of a second too soon just makes the bounce even worse, and a tenth of a second too late is, well, too late. I could get about one wheel landing in ten to work like this. It was very, very demoralising. I would spend an hour flying round the pattern, in more-or-less certainty that the next landing would be a failure, and sure enough, I'd touch the runway, mistime the stick by a fraction of a second, bounce, and off we'd go, full power and a go-around. It was hopeless, and clearly not a recipe for success.

The last straw came at the very end of a lesson. Remember that I'd been taught to carry a lot of power through the approach and touchdown, only pulling the throttle back on rollout. The lesson had been awful, I'd managed just one successful wheel landing out of ten or more. I was determined to get it right on the last one. The approach was nice, a steady speed, and I was sure it was going to work. Then six feet off the ground she said "pull the throttle back". It takes a lot more flying experience than I have to deliberately disregard what an instructor says on the spur of the moment. So I closed the throttle. Utterly predictably, the plane dropped like a brick, whacked down onto the tarmac in a level attitude, and bounced ten feet back into the air. Since I was completely fed up with the whole thing, I pulled back on the stick and turned it into a reasonable three-pointer, but then I realised that my instructor had grabbed the controls. This is something that drives me nuts. Of course you want the instructor to take the controls if you're about to do something really stupid, and sometimes he or she needs to show you something and you do a disciplined handover, but anything in between doesn't serve any useful purpose. In all the time I spent with my excellent primary instructor, on my private and my instrument rating, he only grabbed the controls once, when a strong cross-wind gust caught us on an early lesson just as we crossed the threshold. That of course was fully justified. As we sat doing the usual post-flight stuff I would cheerfully have grabbed her by the throat and strangled her. Clearly this is not the basis for a successful instructor-student relationship, and it was time to find another solution.

My wife kept asking me why I was bothering, since I clearly wasn't enjoying it any more. I made something up, but honestly I wasn't sure. Mainly I think it's just a stubborn refusal to give up on anything. It's also true that there are a lot of fun planes (Waco, Extra, Piper Cub) that you can't fly if you don't know how to treat a tailwheel. And it's certainly good basic stick-and-rudder stuff. Every flight in my 182 seems just so easy after the Citabria. Whatever, I wanted to get that tailwheel endorsement. As I mentioned earlier, I was also doing aerobatic training. In fact it was pretty hard to juggle the two things together, especially since acro, even more than other flying, just doesn't work if you keep interrupting it, so that wasn't going as well as I wanted either. My acro instructor, Rich at Attitude Aviation, is someone who I really enjoy flying with. He has something like 10,000 hours of Air Force flying, including all kinds of exotic stuff, and was an Instructor Pilot before retiring from the military. His school has a wonderful collection of aircraft, including a Waco, an Extra, a Pitts, a Piper Cub, as well as more mundane stuff like Cessnas, Citabrias and a Decathlon. I mentioned my problem to him. His answer was kind of obvious, so a few days later I found myself in Attitude's brand-new Citabria with Rich. You'd think that one Citabria would be pretty much like another. Not so. The new one feels like a proper airplane. There are no drafts, no bits that fall off (I did one flight in 53823 with the window held shut with duct tape, after the catch fell off), no oil and grease in the cabin, and to my complete surprise it feels quite different to fly. For one thing it takes a lot less rudder.

It took just three lessons with Rich to get from "this is hopeless, I'll never be able to do wheel landings" to a straight run of ten good ones. He spent the whole first lesson deconstructing my technique. Except the first one, all my landings were "good" in that the actual touchdown was smooth, practically a greaser every time. He called them all miracles. That wasn't a compliment. What he meant was that my approaches weren't well controlled, so I managed at the last instant to turn a potential disaster into a good landing. Obviously it's useful to be able to do that, but it isn't the way it's meant to be. We practised approaches until they were as they should be, a constant speed all the way down final, and no messing with the throttle (luckily there was no wind that day). On the second lesson, we did wheel-not-landings. On each approach at 80 mph (the right speed for a Citabria) he had me round out then hold the plane less than a foot off the runway and fly the whole length, stabilised. Once or twice the wheels would touch but I wasn't prepared for it so just drifted up again and carried on. On my third lesson with Rich, Livermore was hopelessly busy (I think we were number six to land) so we buzzed off over to Byron, an uncontrolled field a few miles away. There was no other traffic the whole time we were there. By cutting the pattern fairly short, we made I think eleven landings in well under an hour. After a first three-pointer, I did my 80 mph approach, rounded out six inches above the tarmac, drifted down gently and... perfect, stick forward a couple of inches. What a feeling, to get it right first time after all the disastrous time spent before. The rollout after a wheel landing is a real pleasure, the stick gently moving forward to keep the nose level until eventually the tail runs out of lift and drops gently to the ground. Or of course you can force the tail down when things start to get mushy. From there I went on to do another nine perfect wheel landings. After a while, since we were making short approaches, I started to do them without power. Three flying hours earlier I would never have thought this possible, using the "drag it in" technique from my first instructor. That lesson was a real triumph (and Rich clearly thought so too, since he wrote the word "triumph" in my logbook).

I asked what I needed to get my endorsement. He said he wanted to see some crosswind experience first. But there was nothing else left to do as far as the basics were concerned. So next time we flew, we took the Decathlon and did some acro. Up until then all my acro training was in the Grob. The Grob is a fine plane, but it is a bit underpowered and you spend a long time diving for speed, then climbing for altitude. The Decathlon was something else. After a few minutes doing acclimatisation stuff (stalls, steep turns and so on) we went on to do some acro. It was terrific. Not only did we go straight from one manoeuvre to another without needing to dive for speed, but we kept climbing through the whole series. Partly this is due to the constant speed prop, which means you don't have to keep reducing power. And partly it is due to the extra power (180 hp instead of 160). In any case it was real fun.

At our next session in the Decathlon, the ceiling was too low for acro so we stayed in the pattern. The Decathlon looks exactly like a Citabria - it is just about impossible to tell the difference without looking very closely - but it flies very differently. Apart from the extra power, it has a symmetrical wing. This means that the lift at low speeds is different. It feels - speaking here as a fairly low-time pilot, not an aerodynamicist - like the lift tapers off slowly from higher speed, rather than staying solid until close to stall speed, then going away all at once. Really I think it's just all about managing the angle of attack, but that means more power as well, so whatever the reason, it feels very different. Approach speeds are about 5 mph higher. More important though, it takes a very aggressive round-out to stop the plane from whacking into tarmac before it reaches the right landing attitude. By the time we finished, I was doing nice three-pointers and had a couple of decent wheel landings too. After that session, I got the endorsement in my logbook, finally. By that time I had over 20 hours of tailwheel time, which is far too much to get the endorsement. I know I'm fairly slow to get the hang of new things in flying, but not that slow. In retrospect, I should have given up with my one-week-per-month instructor a lot sooner. However, it all worked out in the end. A few days later I went for my first solo tailwheel flight, in the Decathlon. The weather kept me in the pattern again (I had to file IFR for the 10-minute flight back to Palo Alto!). The winds were very variable as a weather system moved through the valley. When I started they were pretty much down the runway, but as I was flying they turned into crosswinds, with a 8 mph or so cross-runway component at one point. It's not huge, but it was enough to give me a real feel for why this is hard. I made a few good landings, and none of them were really horrible, although not all of my attempts at wheel landings were successful.

Was it all worth it? Definitely. Now I have the option to fly a whole bunch of interesting planes (obviously with appropriate dual in each one, but at least I'm legal). The Decathlon is a great plane to fly, and even Attitude's new Citabrias are fun. I really like flying with a stick - for some reason I feel much closer to the airplane than with a yoke (or sidestick). As with everything, it makes a huge difference to find an instructor who works well for you.

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