Now if you want to fly tail draggers in San Jose then the only place to go worth talking about is Amelia Reid Aviation in Reid Hillview Airport (Yes, its the same Reid - Amelia’s father founded the airport). This FBO is a whole different experience from Tradewinds or any of the other flight schools on the field. Their whole fleet are tail draggers - A Champ, a Talyorcraft and a bunch of Citabria’s. The atmosphere is busy and informal. The front office is usually crowded on weekends with pilots, students and CFI’s. The walls are covered with years worth of awards and memento's, old pictures of planes and pilots. Their motto is “Real Pilots Fly Tail Draggers”, I’m not sure I totally agree, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think there was some truth to the statement.
I had called up on Friday and arranged a flight at 2pm today, Bob Goodwyn was the CFI that happened to answer the call - so first off I’ll fly with him. He told me to arrive early and I did. Bob is a tall blond guy who appears to drink coffee more or less on a continuous basis - his right hand seems to be permanently holding a cup. I thought I drank a lot of coffee - buy I now realize I am a mere bit player in the coffee drinking arena. We spent the first hour just going over the theory of what a plane’s rudder is for and why tail draggers are different. A lot of the stuff I have read about before and from an engineering perspective I understand why the center of gravity being behind the wheels makes the plane dynamically unstable on the ground . For non-engineers this means that taxiing a tail dragger is like pushing a supermarket trolley backwards (or driving a fork-lift which I have never done). Basically, the tail would much prefer to be in front rather than behind you - meaning that given a chance it will try to swing around in a bit of tail dragger revenge know as a ground loop. Apparently tail draggers were invented to punish pilots who think that they are done flying once the plane’s wheels are on the ground. Bob, explained a bunch of maneuvers we would practice - all basically to learn how to fly in a coordinated manner, then it was off to pre-flight the plane.
Today we would fly N2805E, the Aeronica Champ - a 1946, tandem two seat plane with a stunning 65HP engine. The student sits in front with the CFI in the back (opposite to the Piper Cub arrangement). The pre-flight is fairly basic - there is not much to check on the plane. Fuel (should be full - there is only 3-hours worth in the tank so the club doesn’t let you leave without a full tank). Oil - 3~4 quarts. Lift the engine cowl to check the oil and generally look at the rather small engine. Remove the cover and check the beautiful wooden prop - tail draggers don’t like brakes - they punish their over-enthusiastic use by nosing over and hitting the prop on the pavement - therefore make sure the previous pilot didn’t damage the prop. Check the controls - breaks (they are not very good) and rudder. Make sure the stick moves everything the way it should. There is no electrical system in the plane - except a radio which has its own battery - you need to do a radio check by calling Ground Control in case the battery is flat. Check the wheels and wings (looking for damage to the wing tips - resulting from a ground loop). Lastly check the tail. Be careful where you push and prod the plane - its made of fabric not metal! Now its time to start the engine. No electrical starter here - its a hand prop job. Its is a complete blast from the past, like being in an old movie. “Breaks”, “Throttle”, “Contact” and Bob swings the prop and the engine starts. Very cool, but I’m happy to be the one sitting in the plane while he does the dangerous bit out front. The cockpit is rather different from what I’m used to. No yoke, instead a real stick, fly with your right hand, left is used for the throttle. No mixture or prop control. No instruments except some engine gauges (oil pressure and temp), an altimeter, an airspeed indicator (rather strangely reading a little over 200 MPH as we sit on the ground) and a slip indicator (the “ball”). There is a compass over on the right which I doubt would be a whole lot of use for navigating anywhere. The radio is on the floor between the rudder peddles, its a bitch to reach down to change frequency. Instead of toe brakes, there are heel brakes, quite a bit harder to work in conjunction with the rudder. That’s it - no distractions in this cockpit.
Bob releases the tie-downs and chocks and climbs in the back - he takes care of the difficult right turn out of the tie-down spot. Then its my big moment - first time to actually drive a tail dragger on the ground. After everything I’ve heard I’m convinced that a second’s inattention will cause a ground loop - that I’m riding a completely wild animal ready to turn on me in a second. We start to taxi very very slowly - Bob gently reminds me that this taxi way is uphill - perhaps a little more power might get us to the runway before our two hours slot is over. So I cautiously increase the power - nothing bad happens. A little more power, almost up to normal taxi speed - nothing bad continues to happen. Hey! wait a minute! this isn’t bad. This plane is not trying to kill me (or merely badly damage my bank account). It goes in a straight line, it responds to gentle nudges of the rudder, It doesn’t feel in the least bit unstable. Is it all a lie? - a carefully organized conspiracy to make tail draggers appear more difficult than they really are ? Don’t they know I have a web site - that I’ll tell the world their dirty little secret - a tail dragger won’t actually kill you and spit out your head for the presumption of trying to taxi it in a straight line. Well, as you can see my confidence was increasing. Next comes the 90 degree turn onto taxiway Zulu. But wait! the plane happily makes the turn, the tail stays behind me like its supposed to. Confidence continues to increase - I do S-turns as we go down the taxiway just to show who’s boss. Its funny, but the last time I drove a plane down taxiway Zulu fish-tailing it like this was my second ever flying lesson and that was because I didn’t have clue how to work the peddles.
Bob takes care of the turn into the run-up area and we do our engine checks. There is not much to check other than carb heat and mags. Then the turn-out to the runway threshold. Bob, talked quite a bit in the pre-flight briefing about how tail draggers like to weather vane - so they don’t like turning their tail into the wind (which is exactly what you are trying to do after a run-up facing into the wind turning to face downwind to get to the runway). A little quick work on the breaks and rudder and Bob makes the turn look easy. We are cleared for take-off on 31L and Bob tells me he will work all the controls except the rudder peddles - that’s my job. The take-off is a quick swerve one way, stamp on the rudder and swerve the other way - then we’re up. Bob comments that its not that bad for a beginner - we stayed on the runway, if not on the center line. Bob, gives me all of the controls as we climb out - the turbulence is really bad the plane is yawing from side to side, the wings rolling one way then the other like a drunken seagull. As we climb on the downwind I ask Bob if it is really this bouncy or is it just me. He sardonically answers, “It’s mostly you”. By 3000’ the “turbulence” is finally easing, I have discovered that leaving the controls alone is a good way to get the plane to behave. You need only a very light touch - its not a Skylane. I start to notice the view, wow! I’m surrounded by windows the visibility is fantastic. This is nothing like anything I’ve ever flown before. The seat is high up, its easy to see over the nose, there is no instrument panel in the way. I’m surrounded by sky and it is way cool. This feels like really flying.
We level off about 3,500’ and over Lake Anderson start our maneuvers. First off - feet off the rudders and bank the plane one way then the other. Now, in a Skylane or a Skyhawk as long as you make some attempt at pushing a rudder when you turn the plane pretty much does what its supposed to (that is turn). Even, feet off, you don’t notice much adverse yaw. No so in the Champ! right bank - boom, the nose yaws 30 degrees to the left and she really doesn’t want to start turning. This is an eye opener, I’ve read about adverse yaw, its in the books, but this is the first time I’ve really see it. Then its Dutch rolls - this is a bit like trying to pat your head with one hand and rub your belly with the other at the same time. The idea is to bank one way then the other all the while keeping the nose fixed on some point on the horizon with the rudder. Basically, you work the rudder and aileron in sync but a little out of phase with each other. After five or six rolls you get out of sync and it all goes to hell (the nose starts to swing left and right). I actually do a pretty good job of this for a first timer. Bob tells me that we will pretty much be doing Dutch rolls whenever were aren’t doing anything else. Then we do some steep turns left and right, first at 45 degrees then at 60. This is not too bad - and boy you really feel the 2G’s in the 60 degree turn. We try some forward slips left and right, again not too bad, but the nose really wants to pitch up when you get into the slip. Then a maneuver called fish-tailing, basically yaw the plane left and right with the rudder, but keep the wings level with the ailerons. Another exercise that teaches coordination between rudder and aileron that is kind of the inverse of the Dutch rolls. Then its slipping and skidding turns. This is cool. Again, I’ve read about “flying by the seat of your pants”, the ability to actually feels the sideways force in a slipping or skidding turn (like the force you feel going around a corner in a car). But, I’ve never really noticed it in a plane - until now. First start a turn and leave keep the rudder pressure in - basically use the rudder to force the nose of the plane inside the turn - this is a skid. You really feel the push towards the inside of the turn. Then ease off the pressure on the inside rudder and apply a little outside rudder (not too much or she stops turning) you need a little extra inside aileron to keep turning. Now you feel the slip pushing you sideways to the outside of the turn. Very cool finally I start to understand how to feel the slip or skid with the “seat of my pants”. Lastly we finish off with some stalls, power-off straight ahead and turning. There is no stall horn and the stall break is a little more inclined to have a wing drop compared to the Cessna’s I’ve flown. But stay on the rudder and the recovery is pretty easy, though I probably let the nose drop too far on the recovery (but that is fun too).
We headed back to Reid Hillview, cleared to land on 31L. Bob had me pull the power all the way back and glide in at 60 MPH. I consistently over estimated how far I could glide. In my Skylane, if I’m above glide slope (two white lights on the VASI) within 3 miles of the threshold, then I’ll have to work fairly aggressively to get down and slow up to land. Get far above the glide slope and it ensure a less than pretty landing. All my practice (especially for the instrument and commercial) has been to get on glide slope and ride it all the way down to the surface. I generally keep power until over the threshold, the Skylane will drop its nose and sink like a stone if you pull all the power off, this can make slowing your vertical descent rate over the numbers somewhat interesting. The Champ drops pretty steeply without power as well, so I finally find the point where she will glide to the numbers. I flare a little high and balloon up, Bob adds a burst of power and we settle onto the runway with the stick all the way back landing on three wheels. I feel Bob hit the rudder a couple of times keeping us straight and slowing us up. It was my first “assisted” trail dragger landing. Again, we stayed on the runway, walked away from the plane and get to use it another day. Not too bad. The taxi back to Amelia Reid is a non-event.
So my first tail
dragger experience is done. It was a blast, so much fun its hard to believe
its legal. I totally, without any reservation urge you to go fly a tail
dragger. Even that single lesson has taught me a whole lot about how planes
really fly. Concepts like adverse yaw, slips and skids that I had learned
but never really understood in real terms were made real today. The Champ
seems to amplify the effects (or more likely they have been designed out
of more modern training aircraft). I can’t wait to try out some
the maneuvers I’ve learnt today in my own plane - I wish I been
shown them as part of my Private Pilot training. I know the effects won’t
be as pronounced, but now that I know what to look for I’m sure
I’ll see them. This tail dragger endorsement is going to be a lot
Saturday April 17th 2004, N2805E, 1.3H
My second tail dragger lesson started with a quick pre-brief with Bob on the maneuvers we were going to practice. Basically more coordination practice and stalls. This time I got to do the pre-flight on my own no issues found. Bob arrived, asked me about oil and fuel and then we went through the "brakes, throttle, contact" routine as he hand prop'd the plane. Unlike last time, I got to try and make the right turn out of the tie down spot - no luck, even with full right rudder she wouldn't turn and we were headed for the fuel truck when Bob took over and made the turn - it is a difficult dance between holding full rudder, tapping the right brake and applying power to get around the corner. Once around however, I took care of the taxi all the way to the run-up area. One of the mags was a little rough on run-up but high power for about 20 seconds cleared it (there is no mixture control to lean the engine to help clear the plugs). We were cleared for take-off on 31L and this time I got to work all the controls. Stick about 2/3 forward, full power, keep her straight, 40 MPH, stick a little forward to bring up the tail - now really keep her straight, then we're up. It was not pretty, I think I know what I'm doing wrong. When I make a correction, I hold that correction to bring the plane back to the center line (which is what I try to do in my Skylane). However, this is the wrong thing to do. Instead the aim is to just keep the tail behind the nose because once it starts to swing around it takes increasing force to correct. So being a bit off center line is fine, don't worry about it (I'm sure that as I improve, I won't get off center line in the first place) - just stop the sideways movement.
Anyway, we depart downwind towards IBM at 2500”, there is a broken ceiling today a little above 3000” so we’ll be staying low. The climb up is fairly smooth - I getting the hang of using a gentle touch with this plane. I practice some Dutch rolls on the way - not too bad, but I get out of sync quicker than I would like. We do some rudder turns as well. These are just using the rudder to dip the wings, I’m not quite sure what they teach you other than rudder on its own is a piss-poor way to turn an airplane. Once we get over the open country-side south of San Jose we start the airwork with a couple of clearing turns, there is not much traffic today because of the low ceiling. First off its a couple of steep turns just to get back into the feel of the plane. Then straight into stalls with power on and off. I make a reasonable job of these, still little too aggressive on dropping the nose for recovery. Then Bob takes control to show me what he calls “rudder stalls”, he warns me that these can get a little violent (that is an ominous term when applied to a plane). So, first he does a power off stall, on the stall break instead of recovering he holds the plane in the stall and then tries to keep the wings level using just the rudder. Now I have done this exact same maneuver in a Skyhawk during my Private Pilot training. I remember at the time telling my CFI that I was a bit scared when I stalled the plane that one wing would drop and I’d start to spin (this happened the very first time I tried a power-on stall and it scared the hell out me, I only had 5.8Hrs at the time). So the CFI says, “Don’t worry if that happens just use the rudder to level the wings, its easy”. He then proceeds to show me by stalling the plane and getting me to hold the wings level with a fixed heading using just the rudder while he held the plane in the stall. It was easy and we held the plane like that for maybe a minute or so. It was a great demo and it did a lot to reduce my fear of power-on stalls. So now I’m wondering why Bob is telling me “it could get a bit violent” doing the same thing in a Champ. It didn’t take long to find out. It was a bit like balancing on the edge of a blade. One wing would start to drop, quick rudder correction, the other wing would start down a little faster, after 3 or 4 oscillations, bam! time to recover! which was pretty easy, just let the nose drop out of the stall. Then it was my turn, I think the most I managed was 2 oscillations before I lost it and automatic (that is mild panic) recovery kicks in. I don’t like flying planes when they are nasty and unstable like this, but it doesn’t scare me nearly as much anymore.
Next up Bob completely screws me up by covering the slip indicator (the ball). Now there is not many instruments in this plane, but I like this one the most and I glance at it a lot. But like all flight training, your favorite instrument is always the one the CFI takes away first! Now its back to steep turns, and I do a fairly poor job of staying coordinated. Basically, I always relied on the ball to tell me which rudder peddle to press. Now, I’m getting pushed out the side of the plane because of a slip or is it a skid? I’m not sure, so which peddle do I press ? Truth be told I’m still not that sure - I need to get this straight in my head the next time out. After a few turns I’m doing a little better, but its more by random experimentation with the peddles rather than an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing. Then its back to more stalls (with no ball!). This time I just try to keep the plane’s nose straight as I get into the stall and hope this keeps me coordinated enough that I don’t drop a wing too much on the break. Nothing too dramatic happens so it must have worked. Then Bob tells me to take my feet off the peddles, stall the plane and when a wing drops try and level it with the ailerons. In other words do everything wrong that you can when you stall a plane. So, feet off the rudder and pitch up. The plane starts yawing & turning to the right, then the stall break and the right wing drops. Quick left aileron to try to level the dropping wing. The result, the bottom drops out from under the right wing and we fall to the right in maybe an 80 degree wing down attitude. Whoa! I’m so surprised Bob has to remind me, “recover with rudder“. Quick left rudder, levels the wings, stick forward and recover from the stall, no problems, much excitement. Thankfully, Bob tells me that that is the most excitement we will have today. The moral of this story is don’t ever ever try to recover wings level in a stall using the aileron - it will just make an already bad day a whole lot worse. For those of you wondering why, what happens is this. When you stall while the airplane is uncoordinated one wing will stall before the other (it drops because it loses lift before the other wing - so the plane is unbalanced around its longitudinal axis ). Now, when you try and correct with aileron, you actually lower the aileron on the dropped wing (aileron down on a wing usually has the effect of increasing the wings lift and causing it to rise). However, the wing is stalled, so when the aileron lowers it changes the cord of the wing which increases the angle of attack (which is the angle between the wing cord and the relative wind).
Now in a well behaved wing, the stall starts at the root first, the wing tips may not be stalled and are providing a little lift. Until you drop the aileron (which is out on near the wing tip) and increase the angle of attack in the last bit of wing that was working. The wing now totally stalls, stops being a wing and becomes dead weight heading towards the earth.
The last set of maneuvers was slips. First forward slips which are easy. Until you try to get smart and smoothly try to transition from left wing down to right wing down. Left to right, right to left, back and forth. This takes some fancy footwork and I confess I just couldn’t get it to work right. This I need to practice. Then we tried side slips, but not your simple drop a wing and keep the nose straight. Bob had me enter a slip and then vary the bank angle more and less while keeping the nose absolutely fixed straight ahead. First banked right then left and back again. Boy this was hard, I had the nose wandering all over the shop, but I can see how fine control of this skill will make cross-wind landing much easier.
At last it was time to head back to RHV. As I attempted to fly straight and level, Bob asked me why we were flying in a slip with the right wing down, dammit the ball is still covered and I can’t feel he slip in the seat of my pants. I try to get the wings as level as I can and the nose pointing in the same direction we are flying. This should be easy but it isn’t. About 3 miles out I’m back in a slip again, simply by virtue of getting the plane lined up with 31L and the nose pointing down the runway (rather than having a crab angle into the wind as one normally would with a slight crosswind). Bob decides I’m practicing my side slips from a long way out and I don’t tell him any different. We have a plane behind us so we keep the power up as we glide down. I hit 60 MPH over the numbers and then flare a little high again. I hold the flare, then as we sink bring the stick all the way back and bam, we set down all three wheels on the center line. I’m on the rudder peddles and we don’t swerve too much. I think Bob might have helped with the braking a little as we rollout. I think we got of at taxiway D which is a pretty long landing. We had asked for the option, so we taxi back to the hold short line and Bob asks the tower for a high speed taxi. This is basically to practice the takeoff roll. It doesn’t go well, we swerve all over the shop - I made the same mistakes I made on the takeoff. At the time I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong, its only later after some thought that I think I know the mistake I’m making. We were going to practice a few more high speed taxi’s, but there are four planes down in the run-up area and things are getting busy. So we terminate with the tower and I taxi back all the way to the fuel truck outside Amelia’s. Part of a tail-wheel checkout at Amelia’s is to learn how to refuel the plane from the truck. Not too hard, but a new skill. Bob did it the first time, this time I did it.
So my second lesson
is over. Again, it was great and again I learned a bunch of stuff about
basic flying that just wasn’t that real to me before. Sure, I
knew about not using ailerons in a stall, but today I really learned
why. Sure, I knew about slips, but I never really had any fine control
over them. I still don’t, but I’ve got a feeling that after
some more practice I will. And lastly, my first unassisted tail wheel
landing. Not too bad and actually easier than the takeoff. I’m
looking forward to some pattern work to hone this skill.
....Time Passing....More Time Passing....Boom...2 Years Later.....
Well I finally finished my tail wheel endorsement on 4/1/2006, almost two years since I first started it. I flew 4 more times with Bob in the Champ with the last two flights doing pattern work and practicing landings. I got almost 9 hrs in total.Then life intervened, I headed off on a business trip. I never got around to scheduling a next flight with Bob and he never called me back (big sin for a CFI that wants to keep their business going). Frankly, he didn't really click with me and the training experience wasn't great. Either way, work got busier and I even stopped working on my commercial rating. I finally got back into the training grove and did my commercial checkride in December of 2004. Then in September 2005 my Private Pilot CFI, Grainne Gilvarry started working as a CFI in Amelia Reid and I re-started the tail wheel endorsement with her in the Citabria. It still took forever, 10 flights & 11hrs spread over 8 months to finally get the endorsement finished. Basically, both our schedules and the weather conspired to make it difficult to schedule flights.
I will say I'm a much better pilot today compared to when I first started flying tail draggers two years ago. Mainly just due to experience with almost twice as many hours. Tail draggers are a lot of fun, they are not all that hard to fly (or land for that matter), you just need to give them your full attention. Flying them WILL absolutely make you a better stick and rudder pilot, you will without doubt fly that Skyhawk or Skylane better. Also after landing the Citabria in a 10-knot crosswind I'm a lot more confident about crosswind landings - a skill that almost cause me to fail my commercial checkride.