My Taildragger Training
My reasons for wanting to get checked out in a taildragger were many. Before I had even gotten off the ground with my private pilot training, an uncle who was a pilot from way back had told me, "You should think about getting some taildragger time. It's darn fun and the experience is invaluable." I let the thought kind of drift to the back of my mind as submerged myself in my private training. Soon after I had finished my training, a buddy of mine had finished his experimental airplane, a Kitfox. Talk about great! A rowdy, two-seat taildragger that had fun written all over it. I let the idea of building a kit plane simmer in my mind, never too far from the surface. Then, a few months ago, another friend of mine took a basic "introduction to unusual attitudes" course from a local flight school. She raved on about how fun it was and how much more confident she felt after taking the course. I liked the idea, but the school used T-34 Mentors as their training platform (they also do the "Top Gun for a Day" thing) and I felt that I wanted to train in something closer to what I actually flew, or might own someday. One of our club members is the secretary of the Houston IAC (International Aerobatics Club). She told me that I should take one of the Basic Sport Aerobatics courses from a local aerobatic school. I warmed to the idea immediately and began investigating what types of planes they used. There seemed to be four choices: The Cessna 150 Aerobat, the Citabria, the Decathalon, and the Pitts Special. The Aerobat didn't appeal to me as a very sporty plane, and the Pitts seemed somewhat out of my league, especially price-wise for renting on a sunny Saturday to buzz around the sky. I settled on the Citabria/Decathalon family. Except for the Aerobat, all of these planes where taildraggers. I set my mind on getting checked out in one. When my instrument instructor had to take a few weeks off from our training to get some sim time for his Continental Express job, I decided to fill the gap with taildragger training. The only "real" aerobatic school in Houston is on the southeast side in LaPorte, TX. Harvey & Rihn Aviation. Home of some real "Unlimited Class" aerobatic champs. I decided that my aerobatic training would be done there, but it was too far to drive on a weekly basis, as I live on the northwest side of town. As it turned out, the field I lived by (DWH) had two schools with Decathalons that they used for taildragger instruction. After checking around, I chose one particularly because of the instructor. Ross was a long-time instructor, and at one time had lived and taught aerobatics in Hawaii. He knew taildraggers inside and out, and was recommended to me as "the best in Houston". His aerobatic experience appealed to me as well. Here is my account of learning to fly "the beast".
May 12th, 1997
I called Wings of Houston at DWH to inquire about scheduling some taildragger instruction. A very nice (and knowledgeable) lady answered my questions and told me the requirements. As I had never had any taildragger experience, I would need at least 150 hours total to be signed off to solo in the Decathalon. Their insurance required that I take at least 10 hours of taildragger instruction. The 10 hours would count towards my total. I already had 145 total hours, so that would be no problem. She had the instructor, Ross, contact me to talk about the instruction and to give me a summary of what I would be learning. After talking to Ross, I felt very confident with the quality of instruction I would receive. We scheduled a lesson for the coming Sunday. Ross recommended a book to me, "The Compleat Taildragger Pilot", by Plourde. Turns out I had anticipated needing this book and had purchased and read most of it a few months earlier. (Additionally, I purchased a video called "Taming the Taildragger" by Larry Bartlett. Extremely educational and highly recommended.)
May 18th - Lesson 1
I arrived at Wings at 8:00am on the dot. Our goal was to get some time in before the day heated up, and before any crosswinds started to pick up. I met Ross for the first time. Ross looks about 40-something (I mean that as a compliment, ie. "seasoned pilot" Ross!) and immediately instilled confidence in me about his ability as a pilot and instructor. We sat down at the whiteboard to talk about taildraggers in general, and to get a sense of what my knowledge level was on the topic. I had watched my video again the previous day, as well as brushing up on the textbook over the previous week. He was convinced after we had reviewed a few things that I was up to speed on the subject.
We went out and he introduced me to "the beast". The Decathalon has a semi-symmetric wing that is shorter and has less dihedral than the Citabria wing, making it much more aerobatic with a better roll rate and better for inverted flight. It's your standard tandem-seating arrangement. Solo is done from the front seat. We walked around the outside of the plane and Ross described it to me. One noticeable item missing was flaps. "You get to know slips real well in this plane", Ross said. Beyond the lack of flaps, not much is different than a "standard" high-wing plane like a Cessna, other than the fact that it's a taildragger. We spent a few minutes talking about the tailwheel. This Decathalon has a castering tailwheel, which means that it will spin 360 degrees. It does have a "locking" position that is in line with the rudder. When it is locked, it will follow the direction of the rudder, which means that you can control the direction of the wheel when you taxi with the rudder pedals. However, the locking position has a "shearing" point. When a certain amount of side load is placed on it, it will "unlock" and caster freely. This is useful if you want to turn the plane sharply such as in parking. Letting the plane roll forward slightly in a straight line will realign and lock the tailwheel again.
The interior is pretty sparse, even compared to the basic Cessna 152. Noticeably gone is the Attitude Indicator. Smack dab in the top middle is a G-Meter! Ailerons are controlled by a joystick instead of a yoke, and the throttle is on the left under the window. All of the switches are above and behind you to the left. Finally, this particular plane had a constant speed prop, so I was glad that I had a fair amount of hours in a complex aircraft (Cessna 172RG with CS prop.)
We climbed into the cockpit, Ross to the rear and myself in the front seat. Ross had a set of controls (stick, rudder/brakes, throttle) for maneuvering, but all of the starting and radio work was done from the front seat. I held the toe brakes and cracked open the throttle. To start the engine, you press the starter button (no key) and when the engine catches you feed in the mixture to full. When the engine starts, you adjust the throttle. And that's exactly how it worked.
My first task was to learn how to handle the bird on the ground. We taxied to an empty area of the ramp and Ross demonstrated how to kick the tailwheel free and spin the airplane around. Just a touch of throttle, a tap of the brakes on the side you want to turn to, and the tail kicks around, unlocking the tailwheel and pivoting the plane around on the inside wheel. A touch of opposite toe brake stops the turn, and if you timed it right, you are right were you want to be.
Once I had the feel for the airplane on the ground and understood the "breaking point" for the tailwheel, we headed out to the runway. Taxiing requires you to keep your eyes on the edge of the taxiways, and to do some "S-turns" on the ground to make sure you are going to plow into anything due to the limited forward visibility. Additionally, crosswind taxiing procedures are IMPERATIVE ! You can get away with a lot in a tricycle gear when you are taxiing, but a gust of wind can make you swap ends in the taildragger if you are not positioning your ailerons and elevator correctly. We pulled onto the runway and came to a stop. You start with the stick all the way back and begin adding power. As the power comes in you let the stick move forward to the neutral elevator position, maintain proper left or right positioning for the ailerons depending on the nature of any crosswind. With someone in the back seat, you might have to coax the tail off the ground with a slight forward pressure of the stick, and then neutralize the stick again. My tail came up, and I immediately began swerving all over the runway. I got my feet working on the rudder pedals (like I should have been doing from the start) and attempted to get the thing straightened out. I was drastically overcompensating on the rudder and I felt like the plane was about to swap ends when the wheels lifted off the ground and we were airborne. Whew! It takes a fair amount of right rudder pressure to keep that sucker straight when the tailwheel leaves the ground. I adjusted the prop and RPMs for the climb and headed west out to the "practice area". Ross had me play around with the plane for a while to get the feel of the controls. I'll tell you right now that I LOVE flying with the stick. Something very nostalgic about it. I used the ailerons by themselves and then in conjunction with the rudder to get a feel for how much rudder pressure was needed to stabilize the nose on approach. We also did some steep turns.
After I felt pretty comfortable with the flying characteristics of the plane, we headed back to the airport for some takeoff and landing practice. After getting into the pattern we began to set up the approach. There's not a lot to do with regards to configuring the plane for landing other than making sure the prop is all the way in and you are full rich on the mixture. The absence of flaps pretty much reduces your options for aerodynamic configuration. I elected to begin the approach somewhat high, knowing that it's extremely easy to get the plane to come down without radically changing my forward speed. We did the approach at 90 mph to allow me ample speed for control. My goal was to try to make the tailwheel touch first. The exercise here was to get me to flare properly for a three-point landing (one where the mains and tailwheel touch down at the same time). We were tail-heavy with Ross in the back, so the procedure I was attempting would have produced a normal three-pointer when I was solo. I have about 400 landings logged, in 152s, 172s, and Archers. I suddenly felt like I was a 1 hour student. I flared too early and ballooned. Instead of adding a little power (if anything goes wrong on a taildragger landing, ADD POWER), I tried to flare again. At that speed, though, the Decathalon is finished with flying and is coming down. I bounced it once on the mains and then it came down on all three gear, and immediately started swerving all over the runway. I could feel remote pressure on the rudder so I realized that Ross was assisting the recovery without completely taking over. I managed to get the beast stopped and pointing in the right direction down the runway. Suffice it to say that I was drenched. After taking a deep breath, I got my composure back. Ross didn't seem the least bit flustered. He made a few comments about using peripheral vision for alignment and to use a little power if I flared to help me reconfigure the landing attitude. We took off again, this time I was ready with the right rudder. It still got a little squirrelly when the tail came up, but I had a halfway decent control of the rudder and was able to get us off in one piece. We went around the pattern three more times before calling it a day. I felt a whole lot better about my takeoffs, but still felt dazed and confused about the landings.
May 19, 1997 - Lesson 2
On our first lesson, the ceiling had been broken, just barely 1,500 feet, so we didn’t have room for stalls or slow flight. Today, however, the towering cumulus where far apart and we could easily climb up to 3,500 to allow us ample room for maneuvering. I had mentioned to Ross that I'd like to get some spin training, and since he was a former aerobatics instructor (and that this IS an aerobatic plane), he heartily agreed. We started out with power off stalls. These are so benign in the Decathalon that you barely feel the break. We then did one at about half-power and another at full power. Still pretty tame. Ross had gone over the steps to induce the spin and the steps to recover from it. Like the Cessna family, you pretty much have to force this airplane to spin, and it recovers nicely. Ross did the first one to show me what it was like. We would do a full turn, counting half turns, and would begin the recovery procedure at the full turn mark. We were lined up with the nice grid-like roads that covered the farmland below. He began to pull the power, setting us up for a power-off stall. The stick was all the way back. As soon as the stall horn came on he kicked the left rudder and held it there…..and awaaaaaaaaay we went! We had done one full turn before I knew it, but I was surprised that it was pretty easy to count the half turns by watching the ground we were point almost directly toward. A kick of the right rudder along with a neutral stick promptly stopped the spin and he pulled back firmly. I felt myself get pretty heavy, only to see afterwards that we had only pulled 2.5 Gs. Then it was my turn. I climbed back up to 3,500, got lined up with the roads, thought about the steps, took a deep breath and pulled the power. As soon as the stick was all the way back the stall horn came on and I kicked the left rudder. Half turn, full turn, opposite rudder and neutral stick and we stopped spinning. A firm pull on the stick and we pulled out of the dive. WHAT A RUSH! I did the next one to the right. It took me a little longer to pull out of the dive than the left hand had taken, and Ross told me that a lot of people were somewhat reluctant to pull back on the stick. But by not getting on the stick sooner, you just build up speed, making it even harder to pull out. I did one more to the right. This time I overcompensated somewhat, but cleanly pulled out of the dive. The G meter told me that that one had pulled just a little over 3 Gs. We headed back to the airport for takeoff and landing practice. Ross then gave me a treat. He took over the airplane and demonstrated and aileron roll for me. Something I'd get to do in the days ahead. He told me the basics of what he was doing as we went through it. It was too awesome. I'm afraid I could really get hooked on aerobatics!
My first landing was somewhat better that the previous day, although I have a tendency to drift to the right. Not a huge problem on the 100 foot wide runway we were using, but not very useful if I ever wanted to get it into the 30 foot wide strips that are peppered around the area. My takeoffs were improving rapidly as I began to anticipate the rudder pressure needed and to apply them quickly but lightly. Like Ross says, your feet kind of dance on the rudder. If you ever get the chance, watch a taildragger take off from a close vantage point, and watch the rudder. It's flicking back and forth pretty good. Not big changes, but a lot of small corrections. The time around, Ross didn't say a peep until we came to a complete stop on the runway. It was one of my better landings (of the few that I had done!). I think he wanted to see what I would do without verbal coaching. I had made a decent flare and touched down nicely, but I had still drifted to the right. Ross told me to fly the airplane all the way to the landing. Basically, your goal is to keep flying the airplane until it doesn't want to fly anymore. He told me to fly it down to about a foot off the runway before I flared and then to flare more gently to prevent ballooning. If things got screwy, add a little power to prevent a drastic sink. I came around the pattern, and lo and behold, I did an almost perfect landing, as was the one that followed it. We decided that two in a row was good enough for one day and taxied back. I think he wanted to leave me with a decent confidence boost.
May 20th, 1997 - Lesson 3
We started out today's lesson with a little classroom work on crosswind landings, wheel landings, and aileron rolls. I wasn't going to attempt a wheel landing today, but Ross was going to demonstrate one on our last landing to give me the feel for what takes place.
We headed out to the practice area and climbed up to 3,500 feet. Ross took over the plane and got lined up with a road down below and proceeded to show me the aileron roll like the day before. Things are really happening fast during that procedure! Nose down to build up 130mph, then nose up to about 20 degrees, then FULL left aileron (if you rolling to the left) and a little bit of left rudder to eliminate the induced yaw from the ailerons. The plane rolled over on its side and then its back. At that point you give it just a little bit of forward stick to keep the nose up and then you give it all the left rudder you can. You roll out flat with your nose about 20 degrees below the horizon and pull out, letting the speed bleed off while you regain some of the altitude you lost. Then it was my turn. Nose down, 130, nose up, ailerons, rudder, whoosh! Over we went. I didn’t give it enough aileron or kick in enough rudder, so we ended up a little nose low, but we still rolled all the way around. I just had to pull out from a little steeper dive. The next one went much better, and the third was pretty good. I'm here to tell you that this is a REAL KICK! The broken ceiling was a little too low, or Ross would have demonstrated a loop for me. Something I'll get to try when the ceilings permit.
The wind was coming out of the west to northwest, so we headed over to Weiser Aiport, (EYQ) to use their 27/09 runway. This gave me a slight quartering headwind to practice on, in addition to the fact that Weiser is only 40 feet wide (it looks smaller than that!) and relatively short (3,500'). Up until now, all of my takeoffs and landings in the Decathalon had been on the big runway at Hooks (100' x 7,000'). I can remember back to my Private Pilot training days when my instructor first took me over to Weiser. We did one touch and go in a 152 and I thought that I'd never get into a field that small on my own. Now, I regularly put the Archer into a 30' x 1,900' strip. But today, I felt like I was back to a 1 hour student pilot as I got the Decathalon on approach for runway 27 at Weiser. I had been lucky the past couple of days with straight, head-on winds at Hooks, and although I pride myself at being a pretty decent crosswind lander, the thought of putting this thing down at the wrong angle and swapping ends was really adding to my fear factor. I kept putting too much aileron into the correction and I didn’t feel that I was going to get lined up in enough time. "Do what you think is right", Ross said. I decided to go around. "Good choice", he said. "Nothing wrong with that." I circled around the pattern and got established on the approach again. This time I was able to stay lined up with the runway. As I descended onto the runway I began to drift to the right, a problem that seems to plague all of my landings in this aircraft. My only guess is that I'm used to sitting in the left seat of the Archer, while in the Decathalon I'm sitting directly in the middle, which is throwing my perspective off. I was able to get it down with a minimal amount of float and ballooning. I brought the power back in too fast and got a pretty hefty pull to the left which I didn't compensate for fast enough and began to swerve back and forth. As noted before, Weiser is pretty narrow which doesn't allow for a lot of maneuvering of this type. The plane wanted to fly again and I pulled back on the stick, launching us back into the air, sweat pouring off me. We got out of the pattern for a few minutes so Ross could critique what I was doing. After a few pointers about getting a little slower on approach (I was coming in closer to 100 than 90) and using the power more smoothly, we got back into the pattern. By now I had a pretty good feel for how the approach looked and concentrated on my speed. I crossed the threshold at 90 and settled down a foot or so above the runway pulling the power out. I gently flared, and concentrated on keeping the plane straight and centered on the runway. After all three points were down, I still drifted a little to the right, but not nearly as much as before. I SLOWLY brought the power back in and got the tail back up, and in a few seconds we were airborne.
I was pretty wiped out by this time so we headed back to Hooks. As we began our base, Ross took over the controls to show me a wheel landing. "The idea", he said, "is to grease it onto the runway." As we descended over the threshold, he gently flattened out our descent until we were just skimming above the runway. As soon as the mains touched down, he began to slowly push the stick forward forcing the tail to stay up in the air. He kept moving the stick forward until it was all the way forward, and the plane ran out of enough speed to keep the tail up. As the tail settled onto the runway, he brought the stick all the way back. One of the things that I really liked about the wheel landing was that I could see the runway over the nose for a much longer period of time as the plane slowed down. I'll get to try these next time.
We debriefed for a few minutes, and then he showed me the mechanics of performing a loop. If the ceilings permit next time, we're looping!
May 24th, 1997 - Lesson 4
Well, today's lesson was pretty much of a bust. Texas weather has NOT been cooperating for the last few days, as multitudinous thunderstorms rolled through. I rolled out of bed early Saturday morning to check the weather, fully expecting to be rained out. Much to my surprise, the local ATIS was reading "few clouds at 1,400, broken at 5,000. I knew we wouldn't get our loops in today, but I figured we'd get a lot of touch and goes.
We took off and stayed in the pattern. The first landing was to be a three-pointer. My feet obviously had not woken up yet as I pretty much botched the touchdown with a big balloon and bounce, forcing me to power up and go around. As we climbed out, we could very clearly see a BIG downpour just southwest of the airport, and moving our way. Ross called the tower and asked if their radar was painting that storm. They confirmed that they were and expected it to hit the airport in about 3 minutes. We said that the next landing would be a full stop and tightened up the pattern. Let me tell you, that storm was MOVING! By the time I was abeam the numbers, I could see it crossing the south end of the runway. Our biggest fear was that it would be pushing some strong winds ahead of it. I cut the base short and got lined up for the approach. By now the rain was halfway down the runway coming towards me. I desperately watched the windsock to see if anything unusual was happening, but other than picking up a few knots head on, it looked alright. Just as I crossed the threshold, we ran into it. Turns out that I made a pretty decent landing even though it was extremely difficult to see. We taxied off the runway and as we taxied back to the hangars, the storm blew over us. Even though the sky looked pretty clear behind it, you could see more stuff coming in the distance, so we called it a day. Ross only charged me for about 10 minutes total and then gave me a lot of ground instruction on loops and wheel landings.
May 27, 1997 - Lesson 5
I played a little hooky this morning from work to take advantage of the cooler air and clear skies. There was not a cloud in the sky at 8am as I arrived at the airport. I preflighted the plane and then Ross arrived. We decided on a plan of action. We would do a couple of landings in the pattern and then head out to the practice area, finishing with a few more landings.
The first landing was a standard three-pointer, and it worked out perfectly. My takeoffs were working fine as well. The next landing was to be what Ross called a "runway game". I was to just fly it down to the runway and touch on the wheels, keeping the speed up, and stay on the mains if possible. The goal was to give me a good feel for the wheels just greasing the runway, which is a requirement for a good wheel landing.
On the approach, I pulled too much power and began to sink too fast. The result was a bounce and I added some power to retry the landing. I eased the airplane down. I felt the mains touch and then bounce slightly. A little more power and I tried again. This time I had a little more bounce and I couldn't make the mains stick to the runway. I powered up and we took off, heading out to the practice area. Ross said that my attempt wasn't bad, and that all that the goal was just to let me get a better feeling for knowing when my mains were down.
We headed west, and when we had reached the 3.000' ring of Class B, we climbed up to 2,500 to do some aileron rolls. I did the first one to the left and it worked out great. Then he had me try one to the right, something I had not done before. He told me that I might have to use two hands to push the stick over to the right. I would also have to use a lot of right rudder on the last half of the roll to keep the nose up. The first one was decent, although I backed off a little too soon on the rudder and ended up a little too far nose down. Let me tell you that the stick is somewhat heavy on these full aileron rolls, and unless you've been pumping iron, it's pretty difficult to get the aileron all the way over to the right. To the left is no problem because you can push the stick with your body. However, to the left require you to "pull" the stick, and you really only have your forearm strength to do it. Thus, a lot of people use both hands on the right aileron rolls. I tried another one, this time making sure that I kicked in a lot of right rudder, and it rolled out great.
By this time we had made it out to the 4,000 foot ring of the Class B airspace, so we climbed up to 3,500'. Ross took over and demonstrated a loop. We nosed over to build up 150 mph. Then he pulled sharply up and you could feel the G's pushing down in your seat. Very quickly, though, we were upside down at the top and we were light in our seats. He pulled the stick back through the rest of the loop and we built up speed and G's again, pulling out at 140 mph. Our G-meter showed a positive 3 Gs, and just about 0 Gs on the negative needle. He did another one and told me to put my hand over the throttle to see which power settings to use throughout the maneuver. Nose down again, up to 150 mph. A quick pull up, and then full throttle. Look out the window 90 degrees at the wing tip to monitor your rotational progress. As you pass the vertical, look up through the clear roof and wait for the horizon. Stick goes towards neutral at the top of the loop. At the top, check the horizon to make sure you are level. Stick begins to come back, throttle comes out, and you look straight out the window, lining up with your initial reference, like a road. Pull out of the dive, watching the G meter and airspeed. Throttle comes back in to cruise and you bleed off the airspeed a little nose high to regain some altitude. Then it was my turn.
Ross had told me that if you don't pull back hard enough at the beginning of the loop, you will be to vertical and run out of airspeed. Likewise, if you pull back too much, you will stall the plane and also run out of airspeed. You have to find that happy medium, and it's kind of by the seat of your pants. I did the second thing on my first try. I pulled back on the stick and didn't bring it out towards the top. We stalled when we were almost upside down, and the plane rolled over on its side. At that point we were basically in an unusual attitude, and the recovery was smooth. I regained my lost altitude and tried again. This time I still pulled back a little too much around the top, as was indicated by the stall warning going off almost constantly until we were over the top. However, we made it around and we pulled out smoothly. I tried one more. This time I really concentrated on the stick position as we began the loop. Towards the top I let the stick go towards neutral and didn't get a stall warning. I pulled back on the stick after we were over the top and reduced power. We smoothly came around the loop and I pulled out nicely. What a BLAST! Ross then took the controls and demonstrated a barrel roll. We started it out just like a loop. As he pulled up, he brought the ailerons over. The concept is to combine a loop with an aileron roll, spreading the aileron roll out over the time of the loop. The nose came up as we were on the knife edge position, and then we were inverted. He kept the loop coming around and kept the roll up. We slowly rolled out of the aileron roll as we pulled out of the loop. Great! I get to try one next time.
We were ready to head back to the airport to try some more wheel landings. We were close to the 3,000' ring of Class B airspace, so Ross had me practice a spin to help us lose altitude quickly. I did one to the left. Throttle out, stick back, stall warning comes on, kick the left rudder, and awaaaaaaaaay we go! I did two full turns and then recovered. We headed back to the airport.
I set up the approach, determined to grease it on. Everything was going great until the mains touched down. I wasn't aggressive enough with the stick, which needs to be pushed forward to keep the tail up. As a result, the tail dropped and with our airspeed still up somewhat, the plane ballooned off the runway. I added a little power and tried to grease it down again. This time I got a smaller bounce, but still was porpoising somewhat down the runway. By that time I decided we didn't have enough runway to try again, so I powered up and went around. The next time around I was a little better on the stick, but still let the tail droop. The big problem with this is that you still have a fair amount of airspeed, and if you let the tail sag behind you, the rudder is blocked by the rest of the airplane, and you effectively lose rudder control. We converted it to a three-pointer. I took off again, and this time Ross suggested that I add a smidgeon of power just as a transition to the landing attitude. This would help give me a little bit of added control. I greased the mains onto the runway. I sagged the tail slightly and the plane gave a little hop off of the ground. I add a little more power and gently lower the mains back down. This time I was ready with the stick and the mains planted firmly as I brought the power out. Ross coached me on pushing the stick forward and I was able to keep the tail up in the air, and the airplane straight, as we slowed down. Then the tail dropped on its own accord and I pulled the stick all the way back, firmly planting the tailwheel. We powered up and took off. The next time around I concentrated on a smooth approach and greased the mains down. This time I was ready with the stick and the mains stayed planted, I kept added forward stick to keep the tail up as we bled off speed. Then the tail came down and I pulled back the stick. I gently added brakes and we came to a stop. Perfect wheel landing! Hooray! We called it a day and taxied in.
The one item I forgot to mention was that a small tree frog had made a home in the cockpit, and we didn’t discover him until we were heading out to the practice area. In the Decathalon, you are REALLY strapped in, and it doesn't allow for much interior mobility. He evaded our grasp for about 5 minutes before we gave up and told him to enjoy the ride. He hid out during the rolls and loops and then made a home on Ross' shoulder for the landings. When we got back, I was able to catch him and set him free. One lucky frog.
June 3rd, 1997 Lesson 6
I was a little worried about today's lesson, as I had not flown the Decathalon for over a week. This taildragger thing is really a learned-muscle response type of activity, and frequency of training has a lot to do with your progress. Nonetheless, I strapped in and we taxied out.
We stayed in the pattern for the first couple of landings. The first was to be a standard three-pointer to get me back into the swing of things. My takeoffs seemed to not have degraded and went very well. I came around the pattern, set up a good approach and brought it in for a near perfect three-pointer. Great way to start! Ross then had me try a wheel landing. I came around to the approach and tried to keep my glideslope somewhat shallow to help me grease it on. I sank too fast and ended up causing a bounce. I added a little power and tried again. Still bounced. After I failed to make the wheels stick on the third try, we powered up and climbed out of the pattern to the west towards the practice area.
We made a quick pitstop at a small airfield just west of Hooks. Some friends and I are constructing some hangars there for our upcoming homebuilt projects (Nieuport 11's! More on that in the future!), and I had some estimates to drop off. May is about 3500' long with about 2000 feet in tarmac and 1500 feet in grass. The grass is on the south end and since the wind was coming out of the north, this would be a turf landing. I set up the approach on the south end and aimed for the beginning of the turf strip. I think I was too worried about the length of the turf strip because Ross said to try to stop or be very slow when we came to the paved section. As a result, I dived somewhat to the end of the runway and my airspeed was too high. I flared out and bounced and ballooned. My airspeed was still high and I decided to go around. Up we went. The next time I concentrated more on my airspeed and brought it in near 80 mph. We floated over the fence and I flared gently and touched down a nice three-pointer on the grass. I must admit that I was somewhat nervous during this whole process, not really because of the field, but more so because one of my buddies working on the hangar was watching, and is a proficient taildragger pilot! As I taxied up, he came up and said, "Why did you go around on the first one? You had a great wheel landing going. " I wasn't about to tell him that I wasn't trying to do a wheel landing!
We took off and headed out to the practice area. I did several aileron rolls to the right and left, and then a couple of loops. Then Ross took over and demonstrated the barrel roll to me again. Then it was my turn. Dive for 150 mph, pull up like a loop, and simultaneously begin a slow aileron roll. The whole time you are doing this, you keep your eye on a fixed point that was 45 degrees off of you nose on the horizon. The trick is to "roll around" this point on the horizon. The nose came up, and I slowly rolled the plane over to the right. Then we were inverted. I kept the roll going and began to pull out of the loop. We ended up slightly nose-down and fast, but Ross was noticeably impressed. He commented that it was a very good barrel roll, especially for never having done one before. I felt that the whole thing had happened so fast, that it probably worked out good by accident. I tried one more. This time I didn't keep up the roll enough as we went inverted, combined with not getting the nose over enough. The plane basically laid over on its back and I pulled it out of the loop. We ended up about 30 degrees short of our original heading, but in control. I still felt good about the whole procedure because I knew exactly what I had done wrong, and that made me much more confident in my flying ability. We headed back to Hooks to practice wheel landings. Ross told me that the flying I was doing (taildragger, aerobatics) had made me a much better pilot. I certainly felt much more confident in my ability to handle the plane.
As we approached Hooks, I tried to set up a good approach. I came in and tried to grease it on. However, I had pulled too much power and was sinking a little too fast. I bounced slightly and added a little power, trying to get established again. I still bounced. We went around. Ross told me that my landing attitude was sufficient for a wheel landing, and that I just wasn't being aggressive enough with the stick to plant the mains firmly on the runway. The hardest thing about wheel landings in the beginning is figuring out when to push the stick forward. My greatest fear was that I was going to nose the airplane over. Ross told me that it wouldn't happen. When your mains are on the ground and you push the stick forward to keep the tail up, you really can't push too far. If you do push more than is necessary and the tail begins to come up, the wind will push the tail back down, basically acting as a "safety stop" to keep you from nosing over. I was determined to be aggressive with the forward stick. I kept in a little power to smooth out my sink rate, yet keeping about 85 mph on the airspeed. As I greased the wheels onto the runway, I responded quickly with forward stick and the mains stayed planted. I kept adding forward stick until the tail got mushy and dropped on its own accord. In retrospect, I should have pulled the stick back as soon as I began to feel the tail get soft. I was still able to get the tail down firmly and keep directional control of the airplane. We slowly rolled almost to a stop, and then I powered up and went around again. Now that I knew exactly when to add forward stick and when to pull the stick back, I was determined to make the next one a perfect wheel landing, and that's exactly what I did!
A cold beer was my reward back on the ground. I think I have these wheel landings down. Total taildragger time so far: 6.6 hours.
July 10th, 1997 - Lesson 7
As is to be expected in most training situations, events will combine to cause your flying to come to a screeching halt. Thus was the case, for the remainder of June and early July for myself. First, I caught the flu for a week, then Ross was out for a couple of weeks for his regular job with the airlines. Then I had to go on a business trip… etc…etc. This was pretty frustrating as I only need another 3.5 hours to get signed off.
Fortunately, we got back on track today with a good 1.6 hours doing nothing but touch and goes. We did a three-pointer followed by a wheel landing at Hooks to get me back into the swing of things. Surprisingly, the three-pointer was one of the best I had ever done, and the wheel landing was nothing to laugh at. With this under my belt, we headed down to West Houston (IWS) to get a little cross-wind work in. The wind was out of the south-southwest, and West Houston's runway is 15, give us a nice 5-7 knot quartering crosswind.
We went around and around, doing wheel landing after wheel landing. My confidence had gone way up in my ability to control the airplane on touchdown in a wheel landing. Now I was working on the finer points of cross-wind wheel landings, which basically involved landing on one wheel and keeping it there, along with keeping the tail up, while you bled off airspeed. While I had done this in Cessna 152s and 172s, I actually found it somewhat easier to do in the taildragger. Unlike a tricycle gear, where you are working to keep your nose gear up and touch down on the crosswind side of the mains, it seems much easier to do a wheel landing in a taildragger while just keeping the attitude of the airplane slightly cocked towards the crosswind side. In this configuration, it was actually pretty easy to ride down the runway in a wheel landing on one main wheel.
After about a dozen and a half landings, I was pretty wrung out. Did I forget to mention that it was still about 95 degrees and HUMID at 7pm ? Nonetheless, I felt that barring any large crosswind, I could confidently get the plane down on the ground in a respectable manner, both in three-pointers and tailwheel landings.
Let me say at this point, that I MUCH prefer the wheel landings to the three-pointers. I feel much more in control of the plane, and I like being able to see forward out of the window throughout the touchdown and rollout. Now, with 8.2 hours under my belt, I feel like I'm much more in control of landing the aircraft than I was just a couple of hours prior. I've got two lessons scheduled (if the second one is needed) the weekend of July 26th and 27th. With any luck, I'll finish up on that Saturday, and go fly the beast solo on Sunday.
July 26th, 1997 - Lesson 8
You might remember from my last post that when my last flight occurred at 7pm, the thermometer was still hovering around 95 degrees here in Houston. Well, you can well imagine the environment of today's flight at 1pm in the afternoon! Nonetheless, I strapped on my sweatband and we headed off to West Houston (IWS) to grind out some more wheel landings. After a few rounds in the circuit that produced a few respectable wheel landings, we headed over to Weiser (EYQ), which has a much shorter, narrower runway, and is generally oriented 90 degrees to the prevailing south winds. The wind was light, allowing me to do either a three-pointer, or a wheel landing. The first, a three-pointer, went off without a hitch. The second, a wheel-landing, found me coming over the threshold too fast, and then forcing the mains down and causing a bounce. I powered up slightly to try another, but a glance down the runway told me that I would not have enough room. I applied full power and climbed out. A couple more tries produced suitable if not completely satisfactory results in terms of wheel landings. I don't have a problem with the width of the runway and allowing for the wind, I just need more runway for the wheel landing at this point in my skill level, and if you don't grease it on right away, you don't have any room to try again on a runway as short as this.
Ross felt that I was responding appropriately to my mistakes and taking all the right corrective actions, and felt that I would have no problem getting the plane on the ground. He told me that good wheel landings are an art, and that my skill level would increase with more practice. That being said, we wiped our brows and headed back to Hooks. I did a rolling wheel landing touch and go, and then circled the pattern again for another wheel landing, this time to a full stop. Total time was 1.3 hours, and we were wrung out. Our shirts looked like we had gotten caught in a rain storm. ( I only wish!!)
We plan to burn the last half an hour tomorrow with a couple of circuits at Hooks, and then he would turn me loose.
July 27th, 1997 - Lesson 9 …. Signoff and Solo !
I arrived at 11am today, and yes, it was already a scorcher. I preflighted the Decathalon and we strapped in. (My favorite placard on the door reads "Climb in, sit down, strap in , shut up.") The plane had been flown an hour or so earlier, so we were doing a warm start. However, the poor old bird just didn’t want to crank the prop around. We decided to give it a little longer to cool off. We burned about 30 minutes getting a coke and walking around the ramp looking the planes that had flown in to Hooks for a local Confederate Air Force fly-in. My favorite was a beautiful P-40 WarHawk sporting the Flying Tiger paint scheme.
After touring the displays and losing about 10 pounds via perspiration, we headed back. We didn't get much better results, but this time the mechanic was around and gave the starter a shot of some lubricant, which seemed to make all the difference in the world, and minutes later were strapped in and had the big fan in front turning.
Taxiing out took on a whole new perspective as errant visitors to the fly-in were driving around the ramp in a stupor, looking for the exit. Event ground crews did their best to herd the wayward vehicles away from the active taxiways. We did our runup and jumped into the pattern for a couple of quick circuits for a three-point landing and a wheel landing, both of which proved uneventful. I did get to follow a group of three O-2s (Cessna 337s) in formation coming in for a landing. They kicked on smoke on final which I got a good whiff of as I came around for my final.
Back on the ground we taxied back to the flight school where my instructor quickly endorsed my logbook and I headed back out………solo. Upon arriving at the runup area, I was delighted to see one of my flying partners in the Archer we lease. My runup went rapidly as I was just doing a quick systems check. As I was cleared to taxi around her, she gave my an enthusiastic wave and thumbs up, realizing that this was my solo in the taildragger.
Ross had warned me that the takeoff roll would result in the tail coming up a lot faster since I wouldn't have his weight in the back, but it didn’t seem that much different than before. I circled the pattern and did a three-pointer touch and go. By now a lot of other planes where arriving for the fly-in. A Pitts, a couple of Stearman bi-planes, a couple of T-6s, and a few others. With so many veterans around I did my darndest to land like a pro. I did my next landing to a full stop without event and pulled off the runway, elated to know that I now had taildragger bragging rights. Taxiing back was like fighting 5 o'clock traffic but I eventually made it back to the flight school without hitting any priceless warbirds or wayward pedestrians. This Decathalon was painted in the red, white and blue "Texas flag" paint scheme, and as I taxied back, many show visitors waved at me, assuming that any taildragger must be old and part of the show. I didn't disappoint them and waved back.
In all seriousness, I can't describe how much more confident I feel after doing this last ten hours in the taildragger. Combining the process of learning how to "tame the taildragger" with learning how to get upside down in the air really did a lot for my confidence as a pilot. I firmly believe that this is one of the best endorsements you can add to your logbook to help you round out your flying skills. I plan on doing a lot of taildragger flying over the next year as I begin construction of my replica Nieuport 11 WWI bi-plane!!