Landing the airplane
OK! Here we go! Yet another treatise on the vaunted (cue the brass band flourish) Wheel Landing!
Over the years I have read, and listened to, all the methodology surrounding the wheel landing with a range of reactions from “really?” to “c’mon” to “oh well”. Given my advanced age (85) I’ve finally come to the point that I need to speak out. I’ve seen too many of our treasured classics wrecked! So let’s start at the beginning.
Landing, reduced to basics, is a maneuver intended to transition an airplane from a “flying” machine to a “ground” machine. That’s its primary goal. None other! There are a number of glitches involved, but let’s start with some basic physics.
In order to make the conversion from flight to taxi, the airplane has to pass through stall speed. In other words, it has to stall! Flight controls work quite well at cruise and maneuvering speeds, but their effectiveness decreases as stall speed draws near. And, of course, below stall they don’t work at all. Then it’s a “ground machine”. You are taxiing!
OK! So what’s the problem with the Wheel Landing? Sorry to say, the problems are numerous. I usually start by saying: “There is NO aerodynamic advantage to the Wheel Landing, and there are NUMEROUS disadvantages”.
- Airspeed above stall is required. So…the wings have lift and are still flying! Since they still have lift (airspeed) they are very easily upset by an errant gust resulting in a…ground loop?, wingtip drag?, cartwheel?, all of the above? Further…
- As generally taught, once the mains touch, the stick/wheel is pushed forward to keep them on the runway. The CG is now teetering near, if not directly over, the main axles. So…
- The slightest brake tap or bump on the runway can easily put the airplane on its nose.
- The prop tips are at or near critical clearance from the runway.
- The primary ground steering device (the tailwheel) is two or three feet in the air and cannot accomplish its mission.
- The critical component of ANY landing is the transition time between touchdown and becoming a “taxi” machine. The wheel landing increases this time and distance dramatically. Result? Way more risk exposure.
- Airspeed control is a casualty. More is better, in general wheel landing practice…for visibility and control, right? There is a dis-incentive to slow the airplane to near stall speed. And…
- They use a substantial amount of runway.
In my work I have opportunity to see numerous damaged classic taildraggers, mostly Wacos and Stearmans. The typical cause is a landing problem. It is easy to see the excess airspeed in the damage equation. It takes the momentum of 80 to 90 mph to cause the presented destruction. A stark illustration of airspeed control dis-incentive.
So…let’s discuss airspeed control.
An accepted rule of thumb for “over-the-fence” airspeed is 125% of stall. This works, no matter the size or weight of the airplane. Take the classic Waco UPF-7 for instance: The factory’s published stall speed (they called it “landing” speed, by the way) was 48 mph. 125% of 48 is 60. OK, so 60 is a bit slow (maybe!). 70 on downwind and base is a good target, but with the airspeed in a decreasing mode…tending towards slowing. Then, over the fence, as the throttle is slowly closed, the excess (read lifting) airspeed continues to diminish…not accelerate. A flare at 60 or less for landing is assured.
The classic method for landing a taildragger…flare, stall, touchdown…can (and should) be used, no matter the wind component. Even in a crosswind, nearing touchdown, the upwind wing can be lowered and the nose swung straight with the rudder. The wheels then contact the runway and…they are firmly planted by the weight of the airplane! No lift, no excess momentum.
The toughest crosswind landings of my life in taildraggers have been done successfully in this way. The “whump” of the wheels on the runway were most re-assuring, and the problems were over. Judicious braking was possible, and the only remaining issue was control position for taxi.
Side bar: One old friend, a lifelong instructor, puts it this way: With a wheel landing, once you touch down your problems are just beginning. With a 3-point, once you touch down your problems are over!!
Another side bar: One day recently I was asked…”You started flying in the fifties?”
Caller: “Back then did you guys 3-point?”
My answer: “Yes, but we just called it “landing”.
I hear and read pilots’ rationale in favor of the wheel landing, such as “I feel more comfortable doing a wheel landing” or “I can see better”. After asking a few questions and analyzing, I have come to the conclusion that the “sight” issue, either consciously or unknowingly, is the primary issue.
Nearly all the newcomers to the taildragger world today are already pilots, and have spent their flying lives looking straight ahead over the nose to the runway. In contrast, the first thing to be learned in a taildragger is to focus on the edges of the runway on either side of the airplane, and to maintain runway alignment using that perspective. Actually in the older taildraggers, mostly biplanes, straight ahead visibility is impossible!
So how did we get here? Actually, the FAA helped us! You know the story…”I’m from the Gummint and here to he’p you!”
About 1991 the new paragraph “h” was added to part 61 regulation governing Type Ratings and the “Tailwheel Endorsement” came into being. Although the pilot population had been either learning in tailwheel airplanes or passing to them by checkout for decades, now tailwheel proficiency was removed from the domain of the CFI and elevated to the level of a type rating or high performance aircraft. OMG!! And the worst part is that it elevated the Wheel Landing to the status of an actual, required maneuver!
Flashback to 1966: It was a nice July day in Wisconsin. I was in the right seat of a Cessna 140 on my CFI check ride with an FAA Examiner. Ride completed, I was on short final for landing. The examiner broke the silence and said “Show me a wheel landing”. I thought…Really?? In a spring steel gear airplane?? I’d never done one in my 14 years of flying. Besides, it was not on any syllabus I’d studied. I’d heard a about them and knew what they were…kinda, sorta. Oh well, I thought, here we go.
He had made the request nearing the threshold, so I didn’t have much time to ponder. I rolled it on and it was a fair enough, no bounce landing. As the tail came down he said, “Let me show you one”. He pushed the throttle in and we were airborne again.
The ensuing landing was best described as “boing, boing, boing”. As he got it under control he said, with a smile, “That’s about enough for today!” We went in and he signed my new CFI ticket.
Consider: I had been flying for 14 years and the Wheel Landing was a curiosity!
Flash forward 26 years to 1992. I was attending a CFI renewal seminar. The speaker was a senior gentleman from the Washington area. He was making some comments about the then new Tailwheel Endorsement and tailwheel flying that I thought worthy of question.
During a break I struck up a personal conversation with him. I asked him if he had T/W time. “Yes”, he responded. “I just got my type rating in a DC-3”, he answered. That was his tailwheel experience!
He went on to explain that he had been on an FAA advisory board for the new part 61 standards for the T/W endorsement, and that he had been instrumental in their development. So…The wheel landing requirement in line (ii) sprung from DC-3 standards! So let’s talk about the DC-3 for a moment…
Everyone knows that the DC-3 is always wheel landed. My DC-3 time is limited (quite) to some right seat time. I’ve been told, however, by real old-time DC-3 pros, that the reason for this is the DC-3’s stall attributes. At stall, there is a serious, sharp wing drop tendency. Keeping the airspeed above stall until the big mains are on is the accepted landing method. However…
Applying this standard to ALL T/W airplanes violates logic. But that’s where 61.31(h)(2)(i) brings us.
This regulation also places a T/W airplane at the complexity level of an airplane that requires a type-rating, a high performance airplane, a pressurized airplane, and effectively removes it from the CFI checkout and signoff realm.
The standards in 61.31(h)(2)(i) do not include an amount of logged instruction time, and only identifies the instructor as “authorized”. There are no minimum time or experience standards. In other words, the door is open for a minimum tailwheel time instructor to teach and sign off a minimum time student. Result? The blind leading the blind!
Time for another flashback.
Back in the day (1950s) when we all flew in T/W aircraft, we started steering and flying the airplane using the rudders from first taxi & flying lesson. Some time in the first 10-15 hours, our reactions on the rudder pedals began to become instinctive. Some took a bit longer, say 20+ hours, some less. But in most cases, by the time the 40 hour private check ride time came around, the rudder coordination was reflexive and involuntary.
Flash forward to the present.
Today it is common for a T/W endorsement to be issued after five hours of dual, sometimes even less! In my experience, it is just not possible for the student/candidate to acquire adequate rudder coordination in this amount of time. And the fact that the student may have extensive experience going in makes no difference…it usually makes it tougher!
An experienced candidate may bring hundreds or even thousands of hours to the tailwheel training experience, and it is ALL nosewheel time! The passive steering responses are deep-seated and well planted. Getting to the necessary reflexive and involuntary level may be very difficult….sometimes even impossible.
The new student is the easiest, starting training from scratch in a T/W airplane. No passive nosewheel steering habits to overcome.
So where do we go from here? Beware! This may be startling!
First, and foremost, relegate the Wheel Landing to the dustbin of history! It is an unneeded, unnecessary, dangerous maneuver.
61.31 (h)(2)(i) needs a re-write:
- Identify and set standards for an “authorized instructor”.
- Remove the maneuvers requiring training:
(i) Normal and crosswind takeoffs and landings
(ii) Wheel landings
(iii) Go-around procedures.
Remove “wheel landings”? Yes. Of course! This removes the regulatory imprimatur for a useless and dangerous maneuver.
We got along just fine for 40+ years with CFI checkout and training when changing types. This sufficed for the 46 years of postwar flying until 1991. Why then?
It’s time to return control and judgment of tailwheel proficiency to the CFI.
Dedicated taildragger pilot 1952-2017
(i) Additional training required for operating tailwheel airplanes. (1) Except as provided in paragraph (i)(2) of this section, no person may act as pilot in command of a tailwheel airplane unless that person has received and logged flight training from an authorized instructor in a tailwheel airplane and received an endorsement in the person’s logbook from an authorized instructor who found the person proficient in the operation of a tailwheel airplane. The flight training must include at least the following maneuvers and procedures:
(i) Normal and crosswind takeoffs and landings;
(ii) Wheel landings (unless the manufacturer has recommended against such landings); and
(iii) Go-around procedures.
(2) The training and endorsement required by paragraph (i)(1) of this section is not required if the person logged pilot-in-command time in a tailwheel airplane before April 15, 1991.