It is such an interesting thing to be in a group of pilots and bring up the word “Tailwheel” and then watch the response. It is interesting because it always elicits a different response. Some pilots drawback in distaste because of the things they have heard about how difficult they are to manage. I have one friend who refuses to ever fly one because of his experience years ago (long before he became a pilot) when the pilot he was flying with made it out to appear to be the most difficult airplane to fly on the planet. They were flying a Cessna 180. Yet other responses will include grins, a glimmer in the eye, and sometimes even pure laughter in remembering a past experience. How is it that such a simple airplane design can conjure up so many different responses in the aviation community? And what is the real story behind this mysterious bird? The list of questions can go on and on but the real question is, is there a benefit to flying a tailwheel airplane? I mean, why, if almost all new aircraft are tricycle gear, would you ever want to learn how to fly one of those old, often fabric, tailwheels?
There are many reasons to take on any type of additional flight training; every time you dedicate yourself to learning a new aviation skill you are improving your piloting abilities, your understanding of flight and increasing your confidence. You become a safer pilot with each additional training experience you take. So you might wonder, what does a tailwheel have to offer that other aircraft types may not?
Tailwheel aircraft hone stick-and-rudder skills.
This is because you experience the aerodynamics much more so than you do in tricycle gear aircraft, both when you’re on the ground and in the air. While learning how to manage your MFD’s and PFD’s, autopilots and anti-icing systems, stick-and-rudder skills are often under developed in today’s modern general aviation aircraft. This doesn’t mean that these aircraft are not great aircraft, it just means that as pilots we need to be sure to do our part to round-out our skills so we become the most well-rounded and safe pilots we can be.
2. Tailwheel aircraft teach focus and vigilance.
Tailwheels aren’t tough to fly, they just require more “work” than your common general aviation aircraft. But, really, what is “work”? Work means paying attention. Work means focusing on what the airplane is doing, understanding why it is doing it and being cognizant of how to manage it appropriately. Work is the effort the pilot provides during the flight to safely control the aircraft in the most precise manner possible. Tailwheel aircraft are fun to fly and often make pilots feel more like a pilot than they ever have before, but that is because they don’t let you get away with sloppy technique or lack of attention during take-off’s and landings. They do exactly what you tell them to do, nothing more, nothing less. These traits allow them to teach aviators precision, focus, and amazing airmanship.
3. Tailwheel aircraft offer a variety of missions often not available in common tricycle gear aircraft.
If you are one of those aviation enthusiasts that have watched every unique flight video on YouTube then you know that these aircraft offer an amazing array of missions and opportunities. From a 65hp J-3 Cub just like the ones that WWII aviators started out in to a Pitts aerobatic biplane or from an Aviat Husky on 29” Tundra Tires landing on riverbeds to a DC-3 delivering mail around Alaska – tailwheel aircraft can pretty much do it all.
4. Tailwheel aircraft connects today’s pilots with yesterday’s aviators.
If you take a non-pilot and put them in front of two aircraft, a Cessna 152 or a Piper J3 Cub, which one do you think they will pick to go for a ride in? Of course this could lead to a debate but from experience I can tell you that given the opportunity people often flock to tailwheels. I believe this is very much due to the fact that all of us have seen old photos and videos of the Red Barron, the aces of WWII and prominent aviators and aviatrixes like Lindburgh and Earhart all flying tailwheels. There’s a connection to the excitement, adventure and heroism of the past that is forever linked to these aircraft, even if it is an aircraft that was built this year!
I may be a bit biased because I am a tailwheel enthusiast with the best of them, but I would throw out the challenge to any pilot looking to sharpen their airmanship while becoming a safer and more confident pilot to look into a tailwheel endorsement. Not only is the knowledge applicable to every other airplane you will fly in, but it is sure to be a fun and exciting adventure to add to your logbook!
Looking for tailwheel instruction in your area? Check out the EAA’s website, IAC’s website, or contact your local flight school. If you’re in California and looking to try your hand at it contact JATO Aviation to find out more about how you can learn to fly tailwheels in their 2010 Super Decathlon with Chelsea Stein Engberg.