Transition to Tailwheel Airplanes (Part Three)

Soft-Field Takeoff

Wing flaps may be lowered prior to starting the takeoff (if recommended by the manufacturer) to provide additional lift and transfer the airplane’s weight from the wheels to the wings as early as possible. The airplane should be taxied onto the takeoff surface without stopping on a soft surface. Stopping on a soft surface, such as mud or snow, might bog the airplane down. The airplane should be kept in continuous motion with sufficient power while lining up for the takeoff roll.

As the airplane is aligned with the proposed takeoff path, takeoff power is applied smoothly and as rapidly as the powerplant will accept without faltering. The tail should be kept very low to maintain the inherent positive AOA and to avoid any tendency of the airplane to nose over as a result of soft spots, tall grass, or deep snow.

When the airplane is held at a nose-high attitude throughout the takeoff run, the wings progressively relieve the wheels of more and more of the airplane’s weight, thereby minimizing the drag caused by surface irregularities or adhesion. Once airborne, the airplane should be allowed to accelerate to climb speed in ground effect.



The difference between nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes becomes apparent when discussing the touchdown and the period of deceleration to taxi speed. In the nosewheel design, touchdown is followed quite naturally by a reduction in pitch attitude to bring the nosewheel tire into contact with the runway. This pitch change reduces AOA, removes almost all wing lift, and rapidly transfers aircraft weight to the tires.

In tailwheel designs, this reduction of AOA and weight transfer are not practical and, as noted in the section on Takeoffs, it is rare to encounter tailwheel planes designed so that the wings are beyond critical AOA in the three-point attitude. In consequence, the airplane continues to “fly” in the three-point attitude after touchdown, requiring careful attention to heading, roll, and pitch for an extended period.


Tailwheel airplanes are less forgiving of crosswind landing errors than nosewheel models. It is important that touchdown occurs with the airplane’s longitudinal axis parallel to the direction the airplane is moving along the runway. [Figure 13-2] Failure to accomplish this imposes Side loads on the landing gear which leads to directional instability. To avoid side stresses and directional problems, the pilot should not allow the airplane to touch down while in a crab or while drifting.

Figure 13-2. Tailwheel touchdown.

Figure 13-2. Tailwheel touchdown. [click image to enlarge]

There are two significantly different techniques used to manage tailwheel aircraft touchdowns: three-point and wheel landings. In the first, the airplane is held off the surface of the runway until the attitude needed to remain aloft matches the geometry of the landing gear. When touchdown occurs at this point, the main gear and the tailwheel make contact at the same time. In the second technique (wheel landings), the airplane is allowed to touch down earlier in the process in a lower pitch attitude, so that the main gear touch while the tail remains off the runway.


Three-Point Landing

As with all landings, success begins with an orderly arrival: airspeed, alignment, and configuration well in hand crossing the threshold. Round out (level-off) should be made with the main wheels about one foot off the surface. From that point forward, the technique is essentially the same that is used in nosewheels: a gentle increase in AOA to maintain flight while slowing. In a tailwheel aircraft, however, the goal is to attain a much steeper fuselage angle than that commonly used in nosewheel models; one that touches the tailwheels at the same time as the mainwheels.

With the tailwheel on the surface, a further increase in pitch attitude is impossible, so the plane remains on the runway, albeit tenuously. With deceleration, weight shifts increasingly from wings to wheels, with the final result that the plane once again becomes a ground vehicle after shedding most of its speed.

There are two potential errors in attempting a three-point landing. In the first, the mainwheels are allowed to make runway contact a little early with the tail still in the air. With the CG aft of the mainwheels, the tail naturally drops when the mainwheels touch, AOA increases, and the plane becomes airborne again. This “skip” is easily managed by re-flaring and again trying to hold the plane off until reaching the three-point attitude.

In the second error, the plane is held off the ground a bit too long so that the in-flight pitch attitude is steeper than the three-point attitude. When touchdown is made in this attitude, the tail makes contact first. Provided this happens from no more than a foot off the surface, the result is undramatic: the tail touches, the plane pitches forward slightly onto the mainwheels, and rollout proceeds normally.

In every case, once the tailwheel makes contact, the elevator control should be eased fully back to press the tailwheel on the runway. Without this elevator input, the AOA of the horizontal stabilizer develops enough lift to lighten pressure on the tailwheel and render it useless as a directional control with possibly unwelcome consequences. This after-landing elevator input is quite foreign to nosewheel pilots and must be stressed during transition training.

NOTE: Before the tailwheel is on the ground, application of full back elevator during the flare lowers the tail, increases the AOA, and quite naturally puts the plane in climbing flight.


Wheel Landing

In some wind conditions, the need to retain control authority may make it desirable to make contact with the runway at a higher airspeed than that associated with the three-point attitude. This necessitates landing in a flatter pitch attitude on the mainwheels only, with the tailwheel still off the surface. [Figure 13-3] As noted, if the tail is off the ground, it tends to drop and put the plane airborne, so a soft touchdown and a slight relaxation of back elevator just after the wheels touch are key ingredients to a successful wheel landing.

Figure 13-3. Wheel landing.

Figure 13-3. Wheel landing. [click image to enlarge]

If the touchdown is made at too high a rate of descent, the tail is forced down by its own weight, resulting in a sudden increase in lift. If the pilot now pushes forward in an attempt to again make contact with the surface, a potentially dangerous pilotinduced oscillation may develop. It is far better to respond to a bounced wheel landing attempt by initiating a go-around or converting to a three-point landing if conditions permit.

Once the mainwheels are on the surface, the tail should be permitted to drop on its own accord until it too makes ground contact. At this point, the elevator should be brought to the full aft position and deceleration should be allowed to proceed as in a three-point landing.

NOTE: The only difference between three-point and wheel landings is the timing of the touchdown (early and later). There is no difference between the approach angles and airspeeds in the two techniques.


As noted, it is highly desirable to eliminate crab and drift at touchdown. By far the best approach to crosswind management is a side-slip or wing-low touchdown. Landing in this attitude, only one mainwheel makes initial contact, either in concert with the tailwheel in three-point landings or by itself in wheel landings.