Transition to Tailwheel Airplanes (Part Two)


Tailwheel airplanes have an exaggerated tendency to weathervane, or turn into the wind, when operated on the ground in crosswinds. This tendency is greatest when taxing with a direct crosswind, a factor that makes maintaining directional control more difficult, sometimes requiring use of the brakes when tailwheel steering alone proves inadequate to counteract the weathervane effect.



In the normal nose-high attitude, the engine cowling may be high enough to restrict the pilot’s vision of the area directly ahead of the airplane while on the ground. Consequently, objects directly ahead are difficult, if not impossible, to see. In aircraft that are completely blind ahead, all taxi movements should be started with a small turn to ensure no other plane or ground vehicle has positioned itself directly under the nose while the pilot’s attention was distracted with getting ready to takeoff. In taxiing such an airplane, the pilot should alternately turn the nose from one side to the other (zigzag) or make a series of short S-turns. This should be done slowly, smoothly, positively, and cautiously.

Directional Control

After absorbing all the information presented to this point, the transitioning pilot may conclude that the best approach to maintaining directional control is to limit rudder inputs from fear of overcontrolling. Although intuitive, this is an incorrect assumption: the disadvantages built in to the tailwheel design sometimes require vigorous rudder inputs to maintain or retain directional control. The best approach is to understand the fact that tailwheel aircraft are not damaged from the use of too much rudder, but rather from rudder inputs held for too long.

Normal Takeoff Roll

Wing flaps should be lowered prior to takeoff if recommended by the manufacturer. After taxiing onto the runway, the airplane should be aligned with the intended takeoff direction, and the tailwheel positioned straight or centered. In airplanes equipped with a locking device, the tailwheel should be locked in the centered position. After releasing the brakes, the throttle should be smoothly and continuously advanced to takeoff power. At all times on the takeoff roll, care must be taken to avoid applying brake pressure.

After a brief period of acceleration, positive forward elevator should be applied to smoothly lift the tail. The goal is to achieve a pitch attitude that improves forward visibility and produces a smooth transition to climbing flight as the aircraft continues to accelerate. If the attitude chosen is excessively steep, weight transfers rapidly to the wings, making crosswind control more difficult. If the attitude is too flat, crosswind control is also diminished, a counter-intuitive result that is discussed in the Crosswind section of this category.

It is important to note that nose-down pitch movement produces left yaw, the result of gyroscopic precession created by the propeller. The amount of force created by this precession is directly related to the rate the propeller axis is tilted when the tail is raised, so it is best to avoid an abrupt pitch change. Whether smooth or abrupt, the need to react to this yaw with rudder inputs emphasizes the increased directional demands common to tailwheel airplanes, a demand likely to be unanticipated by pilots transitioning from nosewheel models.

As speed is gained on the runway, the added authority of the elevator naturally continues to pitch the nose forward. During this stage, the pilot should concentrate on maintaining a constant-pitch attitude by gradually reducing elevator deflection. At the same time, directional control must be maintained with smooth, prompt, positive rudder corrections. All this activity emphasizes the point that tailwheel planes start to “fly” long before leaving the runway surface.



When the appropriate pitch attitude is maintained throughout the takeoff roll, liftoff occurs when the AOA and airspeed combine to produce the necessary lift without any additional “rotation” input. The ideal takeoff attitude requires only minimum pitch adjustments shortly after the airplane lifts off to attain the desired climb speed.

All modern tailwheel aircraft can be lifted off in the three-point attitude. That is, the AOA with all three wheels on the ground does not exceed the critical AOA, and the wings will not be stalled. While instructive, this technique results in an unusually high pitch attitude and an AOA excessively close to stall, both inadvisable circumstances when flying only inches from the ground.

As the airplane leaves the ground, the pilot must continue to maintain straight flight and hold the proper pitch attitude. During takeoffs in strong, gusty winds, it is advisable to add an extra margin of speed before the airplane is allowed to leave the ground. A takeoff at the normal takeoff speed may result in a lack of positive control, or a stall, when the airplane encounters a sudden lull in strong, gusty wind or other turbulent air currents. In this case, the pilot should hold the airplane on the ground longer to attain more speed, then make a smooth, positive rotation to leave the ground.

Crosswind Takeoff

It is important to establish and maintain proper crosswind corrections prior to lift-off; that is, application of aileron deflection into the wind to keep the upwind wing from rising and rudder deflection as needed to prevent weathervaning.

Takeoffs made into strong crosswinds are the reason for maintaining a positive AOA (tail-low attitude) while accelerating on the runway. Because the wings are making lift during the takeoff roll, a strong upwind aileron deflection can bank the airplane into the wind and provide positive crosswind correction before the aircraft lifts from the runway. The remainder of the takeoff roll is then made on the upwind main wheel. As the aircraft leaves the runway, the wings can be leveled as appropriate drift correction (crab) is established.

Short-Field Takeoff

With the exception of flap settings and initial climb speed as recommended by the manufacturer, there is little difference between the techniques described above for normal takeoffs. After liftoff, the pitch attitude should be adjusted as required for obstacle clearance.