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Understanding Tailwheel aka Conventional landing gear

Posted by Brendan OMara

Tailwheel, or conventional landing gear, is a term referencing the undercarriage of an aircraft consisting of two wheels positioned forward of the center of gravity.  A small skid or wheel is located at the tail of the aircraft to support the tail. 

The aviation term tail dragger is another common term for tailwheel aircraft, also known as the conventional gear fdconfiguration.  This is considered “conventional” because traditionally aircraft were configured only with tailwheel; tricycle gear had not yet been invented.

HISTORY OF TAILWHEEL

In the earliest of aircraft a metal skid or wood plate was used to support the rear of the aircraft.  Most tailwheel aircraft today you see a pivoting steerable tailwheel, now used in place and the skid.  These wheels are typically attached by chains to the rudder which it allows a steering and input to the wheel.

TAILWHEEL ADVANTAGES

There are many advantages in the tailwheel aircraft that are not seen in tricycle gear configuration.  Thanks to smaller tires, the induced drag on the aircraft is lower for the same power settings.  Most tailwheel aircraft are cheaper to buy and maintain in comparison to nosewheel airplanes.  Tailwheel aircraft are also easy to handle and maneuver on the ground thanks to its lightweight tail which can release and free-caster, allowing 'flat spins', something tricycle gear planes can't do!  With the nose high attitude of a tailwheel airplane, less chips and stone damage occur due to the increased propeller clearance with the ground

DISAVANTAGES

Taildragger aircraft possess a small number of disadvantages compared to nosewheel aircraft.  The tailwheel can drop into holes in the ground, especially on soft fields.  Main tires can also drop in holes, and thus potentially nose over and strike the propeller.  Tailwheel airplanes are also susceptible to what is known as Ground-looping, which occurs when directional control is lost by the pilot and the tail passes outside the center of gravity, spinning the aircraft.  This can cause wingtip strikes, aircraft damage, or maybe just a scared pilot.  This tendency does not occur in nosewheel aircrafts.  That being said, ground loops are completely avoidable through proper practice and training.

Another small disadvantage is that tailwheel aircraft are frequently difficult to see over the nose from the pilots seat position during takeoff and landing.  On takeoff, this is rectified through small S-turns during taxi.  Caution must be taken while taxiing in crosswind conditions or high wind condition through proper configuration of the control stick.  Careful manipulation of the controls will prevent the wing from being lifted by strong gusts.

TAILWHEEL TRAINING

Tailwheel aircraft typically require extensive training for student pilots to master.  This became a notable reason why many manufacturers decided to offer tricycle gear configured aircraft – getting more people flying sooner was a marketing goal in the 1950s.  Modern day pilots now learn in Cessnas and pipers from primary instruction, later transitioning to taildraggers and other tailwheel aircraft.

TAILWHEEL LANDING TECHNIQUES

Two basic landing techniques are utilized by tailwheel pilots – the three-point landing, and the wheel landing.  We will first discuss the three-point landing.  This occurs when the pilot keeps the nose in a nose high attitude touching all three wheels to the ground at the same moment in time, typically at stall speed.  By matching the stall speed to the touchdown, no additional lift can be generated by the wings and the aircraft settles nicely to the ground.  A wheel landing is frequently used in higher wind conditions, allowing for increased visibility for larger heavier aircraft, and less susceptible to the list generated from wind gusts - this is where just the main wheels are touched to the ground first, usually in a flatter attitude configuration - and then power is reduced to lower the tail and plant the tailwheel firmly on the ground using back stick.

HOW DO I LEARN TAILWHEEL?

We hope that this information will be useful to you.  If you are considering transitioning to a tailwheel aircraft, we recommend that you review Tailwheel 101 by Damian DelGaizo, a wonderful introduction to medium level training DVD covering topics relevant to all tailwheel pilots.  If you are a medium to advanced tailwheel pilot, we then recommend Tailwheel 201: Beyond the Basics.  This video produced by Damian covers more complex maneuvers such as turning slips, short field operations, and other advanced techniques.

How about ski flying?  Well Damian also has a DVD out called “Ski Flying 101” which is excellent showing the basic techniques to this amazing artform!

These and other great training dvds are available at www.CRAZEDpilot.com