Question of the Month: How do I learn to fly a tailwheel aircraft--and what's involved?

The AOPA Flying Club Initiative team is seeing a resurgence of interest in tailwheel airplanes, and especially in the new Light Sport tailwheel models.  We are also seeing the same level of interest at AOPA HQ, where several staff members are training for their tailwheel endorsement with Flying Clubs Director, Steve Bateman.  Steve also has a couple of primary students (private and light sport) learning from scratch on “conventional gear” aircraft.  So – what’s involved in earning the coveted tailwheel endorsement, and what’s different about learning from scratch in a tailwheel aircraft?

As with all training, the first order of business is to find an instructor who fits with your style of learning.  Clubs that have tailwheel aircraft often have a CFI member or two and they usually know the aircraft inside-out.  These are good people to know, as they’ll give you good background on the aircraft’s systems and characteristics as well as operations.  There are also excellent flight schools that specialize in tailwheel flying – a web search for “Tailwheel Transition” will find quite a few.  As with all things in flight training, find the right person, not just the right price.

Bear in mind that if you are training for the tailwheel endorsement, you are also undergoing transition training.  The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook has chapters on transitioning to different types of aircraft. Chapter 13 of the latest handbook is all about the tailwheel transition.  The AOPA Air Safety Institute (ASI) also has excellent material on transition training – see this month’s Club Connector Safety article.

Let’s start by looking at the regulations regarding the tailwheel endorsement - FAR 61.31(i) is the place to look:

  • (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.


There are a few things to note from this.  Firstly, the endorsement is for additional training – it is implied that you must already hold a certificate in airplanes.  Secondly, the training involves receiving and logging flight training but no mention of ground training.  It is interesting to note that receiving and logging flight and ground instruction is a requirement for the complex and high-performance endorsements, but not so for tailwheel – which is probably the most demanding of the three endorsements from an airmanship perspective. 

Now, most tailwheel instructors won’t let you near the plane until going over details such as what the rudder is for, center of gravity, wind-vaning, and other details, but there’s no harm in also logging the ground instruction received.  Thirdly, the regulation specifies what must be included in the training – and that includes normal landings (three-point landing in tailwheel-speak) and wheel landings - unless the manufacturer has recommended against such landings.  Don’t be short changed here.  Some instructors "don’t like" doing wheel landings, but unless there is a specific reason not to do them, ensure that you become proficient in this really fun way to land a ‘dragger, as they add another arrow to your quiver – especially in crosswind conditions.

In reality, the endorsement will likely also include an aircraft check-out, so expect to do more than just take-offs and landings, although these (along with taxiing), are the main differentiators of tailwheel versus nose wheel operations.  Along with fast feet, you’ll also learn to use the throttle as a flight control – a short burst of power helps with controlling descent rate as well as regaining directional control, as increased slipstream over the tail give more rudder and elevator authority.  By the way - a tip for directional control is to look way, way down the runway or taxiway.  This gives you a better perspective and allows you to predict the need for more or less rudder, rather than react to it. 

On the topic of the rudder, the AOPA ASI team has just released an excellent Safety Tip on its use, and this applies to both nose and tailwheel aircraft - it just happens that nose wheel aircraft are more tolerant and forgiving of poor rudder technique.  Take a look at the video – and practice the “wing-rocks” maneuver which really helps you understand the interplay between aileron and rudder.  Follow this with some side and forward slips, and you’ll start to master the use of rudder needed on the approach and landing.

The other requirement in the regulation is to become proficient on go-around procedures.  As with all airplanes, go-arounds are all to do with energy management – you are probably slow (low kinetic energy) and low (low potential energy), so the first thing to do is to apply power – and lots of it – followed immediately by airspeed control.  Don’t be surprised if you have to pitch well forward to allow the aircraft to accelerate to at least rotation speed before initiating a climb.  This is especially true if you have the airplane trimmed for the descent.  A really good exercise to help you with go-arounds and also wheel landings is to do low passes along the runway (make sure you get cleared for “the option” if you are at a towered field).  Approach as normal with good airspeed control. Stay aligned laterally and longitudinally, with aileron and rudder, respectively. As you get into ground effect, start adding power and pitch forward to stay a few feet above the runway at around Vx.  This gets you used to pitching forward when close to the ground.

Most people who learned to fly in nose wheel airplanes require about 5-10 hours of training for the tail wheel endorsement, with most of that time being spent on drift and directional control, as well as three-point and wheel landings.  Try to do the training in a short period of time.  Tail wheel flying is all about proficiency and not getting lazy on the rudder!

There is another regulation that applies to tailwheel airplanes – and that is FAR 61.57(a)(ii), which is part of the larger “Recent Flight Experience” regulation.  If you want to carry passengers in a tailwheel aircraft, you must have performed at least 3 take-offs and landings within the previous 90 days.  Sounds familiar until you read that “…if the aircraft to be flown is an airplane with a tailwheel, the takeoffs and landings must have been made to a full stop in an airplane with a tailwheel.”  You’ll appreciate the sense in this regulation if you haven’t flown a ‘dragger for a while!

Learning from Scratch in a Tailwheel

What about learning to fly from scratch in a tailwheel aircraft?  In the humble opinion of this author, this is the best way to do it.  You learn to be active on the rudder pedals from the start, which will make you a better nose-wheel pilot if you go that way later.  In the air, both tail and nose wheel aircraft fly using the same physics and aerodynamics, so air work transfers easily and quickly between the two.

Should you do it?  Absolutely, YES!  You’ll have a whole new supply of airplanes at your disposal and will learn to be a more precise pilot at the same time.  One final note – we’ve gone the whole article without mentioning “ground-loop.”  Don’t let this phrase deter you – with proper training and remembering to fly the airplane all the way to shut down, ground loops are most definitely not the inevitable consequence of tail draggers that a lot of people fear.  Fly the airplane, maintain directional control with learned skills, and you’ll have a blast!

If you’d like more information about tail wheel flying, search the AOPA and ASI websites.  Also, feel free to drop Steve an email at [email protected]

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