Joy of Tailwheel Flying


“There are four things to remember while flying Tail Wheel Aircraft”  my instructor Kurt explained. “Always fly the aircraft to parking, maintain center line while taxing,  no braking (well use a little, only if necessary) and if a landing is bad, go around!”.
After a few minutes of talking and explaining, “What were the four important things to remember?” he asked. “Oh my” thought I. “Was I supposed to be memorizing all this stuff? Here I was patiently waiting to get done talking so we could do some flying!”

We were standing outside Kurt’s hanger where he houses his Citabria and Pitts aircraft and mostly teaches tailwheel and aerobatics in his spare time.  It was an impromptu lesson towards a tailwheel rating. I had called to inquire about tailwheel flying, while waiting to learn aerobatics. The instructor was free and available to teach that afternoon, so here we were next to the Citabria getting started with my first lesson. The four important things were not stated as succinctly as I put, at the start but interspersed among a lot of other important information he was happy to dole out to me. Eventually after a little stumbling, embarrassed to be caught off guard, I managed to regurgitate most of it back to him and redeem myself.
Soon we were off. I could just barely reach the rudder/break pedals even with seat cushions tucked behind my back. All aircraft seemed to be designed for six foot men. Taxing out from the hanger was like following a maze and I hoped I wouldn’t do anything silly such as crash into the next hanger. Turns always have to be anticipated well in advance, as applying rudder pressure requires some lead time before the aircraft actually begins to turn. After zigzagging through the taxiways, for I was applying too much right, then over correcting it with too much left (my instructor said it was good ‘S’ turn practice 🙂 ) we made it safely to the run-up area. After a quick run-up and long wait, while we waited for landing aircraft, we were finally cleared for takeoff. Aligned with the center line ready to take off, “Hurray” I thought, my first stick take-off. I had previously flown a Taylorcraft way back in 2003 at Columbia Airport. Other than some wobbly taxing to my embarrassment, and some stick time in the air, I had never performed either a takeoff or a landing. A whole lot of boxing with the rudder pedals with little jabs to the keep the aircraft along the center line, full throttle, stick neutral and before long we were off the ground. It is amazing how smoothly and quickly the aircraft  lift’s off the ground.
We headed south to the Avila Bay area for some practice maneuvers. A few steep turns and some  slow-flight practice later,
“We’re going to stall the and not recover” said my instructor.
“Okay” said I. “Is this for real?” I wondered but didn’t say.
“Instead we going to stop it from tipping over by applying opposite rudder, are you ready?”
I must confess, I was never comfortable with learning stalls, does one ever? But I was willing to try.
Soon with throttle eased back, and nose pitched high we were poised for stall. No stall warning in this aircraft… hope I can recognize when it stalls! Before long, I could feel the mushiness and impending stall. Stalls in a Citabria compared to a Cessna 172 are almost  feather-like, gentle, almost non-existent. “Right rudder” said my instructor. And we were off dancing with the rudder pedals. First right, then left, preventing the aircraft from tipping over. This was way too much fun! I could really start to like this stuff….
As all good things must end, so did our flight.  We headed back to the airport to shoot some landings. Landings are supposed to be the hardest to master in tail wheel flying. In fact, that is the only thing that is practiced over and over again before a sign off. After the innumerable landings, I had to practice for my private pilot training, I thought I was gonna hate doing it again. But landing the Citabria is a whole new ball game. I have barely begun, and I am already looking forward to my next lesson.

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