I began taking flying lessons in the fall of 1977 using a Cessna 150, a two seater with tricycle landing gear. After earning my license, I slowly progressed as my budget would allow to the larger, four seat, Cessna 172. Over the next thirty seven years I flew numerous kinds of aircraft: high wing, low wing, retractable landing gear, non-retractable and high performance from five different manufacturers. The one thing all these aircraft had in common was that they were all tricycles, with one wheel under the nose, forward of the two main wheels.
I had heard stories from pilots who said, “until you fly a taildragger you really don’t know what the rudder is for!” I just brushed it off as another tall tale associated with hangar flying (when pilots and aviation enthusiasts get together and trade embellished flying stories).
Well, I have come to a junction in the path of my flying career, do I continue flying the same local routes in the same aircraft or do I try something different? I could increase my flying budget (substantially) and get into something sophisticated and complex, like a Cirrus, or perhaps I could go retro and learn to fly a taildragger. I chose the latter for the nostalgia and the challenge. After all, the “Spirit of Saint Louis” (Charles Lindbergh’s aircraft) was a taildragger and so where the Mustang, B-17 bomber, and the classic DC-3!
Lucky for me there is a flight school directly across the field at Livermore that specializes in taildraggers, Attitude Aviation. When I went in to ask about lessons I was told to go home and read the book “The Compleat Taildragger Pilot” by Harvey S. Plourde, then come back and schedule some lessons. What great advice, it saves time and money since the flight instructor doesn’t have to start from scratch with the basics. The book is so well written that sections of it describing what not to do made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and wonder, “What I was thinking in wanting to fly a tail dragger?!”
In a nutshell, the difference between a tricycle and a tail dragger is the placement of the center of gravity (COG). With a tricycle, the COG is in front of the main wheels and with a tail dragger it is behind the mains. This placement makes the tail dragger want to swap ends if there is any lateral drift (sideward motion) upon landing (here is a video to show what I’m talking about). But, I was soon to find out this was only one of the difficulties I would have to overcome in my quest for a taildragger endorsement!
Stay tuned next month for Part 2 of “Taming the Taildragger.”