Taildragger Training – Part 1

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen online right here by clicking:  http://traffic.libsyn.com/airspeed/AirspeedTaildragger1.mp3.

[Audio 01]

We’re going to do a little time travel here. Last April, when I had scheduled the DC-3 type rating course, I figured that it would be a good idea to get some tailwheel training before going down to Griffin. It seemed to stand to reason that it would be a good idea not to have my first tailwheel experience be in an airliner.

I actually needn’t have worried. Other than taxiing (which was an exercise in humility), the ‘three behaved beautifully.

But my tailwheel training has since become a lot of fun and I’ve spent a lot of time in a Citabria since then.

My instructor is Barry Sutton of Sutton aviation at Oakland County International Airport in Waterford, Michigan, although it’s “Pontiac” on the radio. The ICAO designator is PTK, for those following along in their A/FDs.

Barry’s a DE and an amazing instructor. John and Martha King have nothing on Barry for cockpit chatter. Barry is polished and smooth and seems to have a telepathic sense for what you need to know and immediately begins telling you before you have to ask. But Barry also has a talent for being quiet when he senses that you’re working things out, which is a rare thing indeed. I think Barry is the best instructor with whom I’ve ever flown. And I guess that’s saying something these days, as many people who’ve occupied the right seat in airplanes I’ve flown.

Anyway, I got ahold of Barry and scheduled a time to go get an intro to taildraggers and to go do some pattern work.

The airplane today is an American Champion Citabria 7ECA Aurora, tail number N157AC. It’s practically brand new, with its airworthiness certificate issues in December of 2006. It’s powered by a Lycoming O-235-K2C that puts out 118 horsepower at 2,800 PRM and it’ll climb at 740 fpm at sea level. It’s 22 feet long, 34 feet wide, and has 165 sq. ft. of wing area, giving it a wing loading of 10 lb./sq. ft. at its max gross of 1,750 lbs. It’s also certified for basic aerobatics and is rated for +5/-2 gees. I

t seats two in tandem. I’m in front for these flights. It’s a little weird if you haven’t flown a lot in tandem airplanes. You don’t see the instructor directly, so his or her voice is just sort of there in your ears. Like a voice in your head that’s teaching you to fly. Note: If you still hear a voice in your head telling you how to fly when you’re solo, consider a precautionary landing and some rest.

As a note for future episodes, I’ve done a lot of aerobatic training in it and recorded a lot of audio and video that will appear in future episodes.

Flying a taildragger is different in many ways. Probably the most important is that the center of gravity is behind the main gear. If you think about it, that’s an important thing because, if it wasn’t, the airplane would simply rest on its nose with the tailwheel in the air.

The most important consequence is that taking off and landing in a taildragger is a little like pushing rope. If there’s any off-center drag or friction, the center of gravity is going to want to come around from behind you and get in front of you. In a taildragger, that’s called a ground loop and it’s embarrassing at best and can bend you and/or the airplane at worst.

Think of it like this. The nest time you’re in a grocery store parking lot, go grab a shopping cart. Turn it around backwards and put your forearms on the sides of the cart, rest your elbows on the front corners, and grab the sides with your hands. Now run really fast. The cart isn’t very graceful and it gets worse the faster you go. That’s a pretty good proxy for what it’s like the first few times you fly a taildragger.

One other thing as we get started. Barry talks a little about an imaginary nosewheel. He is, of course, addressing the fear by tricycle-gear drivers like me that pushing the nose over will result in a prop strike. The fact of the matter is that there’s a fair amount of downforce on the tail of the airplane and you’d actually be hard-pressed to have a prop strike. Even if you got pretty well beyond level, the prop would tuck under a bit before actually striking the runway.

For all normal operations, you can simply imagine that there’s a nosewheel in front and you don’t even have to imagine very hard. After a certain amount of forward force, the airplane will resist you pretty well and the nose feels pretty stable.

Also, this is my first time flying an aircraft with a stick. You hold the stick in your right hand. Push and the houses get bigger, pull and they get smaller. Left and right are as you’d imagine. The throttle is a knob on the left wall and the carb heat is a smaller knob just below it and you operate those with your left hand. Trim is also on your left, but it’s only marginally helpful for gross adjustments. It’s almost impossible to trim the airplane for hands-off level flight.

The transition from yoke to stick took ten seconds. I’m not kidding. It seemed completely natural immediately. And I love, love, love flying with a stick instead of a yoke. I’d have to get a different kneeboard if I was going to fly the Citabria IFR (and, by the way, it’s IRF certified), but I’d consider doing that. As it is, I fly it without a kneeboard and take notes on my right knee with a fine felt-tip marker. Right on the knee. A prouder tattoo one cannot imagine. In fact, I’ve often considered writing an ATIS on my knee before going out just because I think it looks cool.

The first order of business was to familiarize me with the feel of the rudder at high speed before rotating. To that end, Barry and I did two high-speed taxis down Runway 27L. Barry had the stick and the throttle and got us moving just fast enough to get the tail off the ground. I’m sitting up front with my hands in my lap and feet on the rudders.

Here’s the first high-speed taxi.

[Audio 02]

Not bad. We taxi back and do another one.

Barry and I talk about the first run and get ready for the second one.

[Audio 03]

Then it’s time to do the second high-speed taxi.

[Audio 04]

We taxi back to the approach end of 27L. this time, we’re going to take off. The wind is pretty heavy out of the south and I’m not ready to crosswind operations in this airplane yet. We’re going to ask for a right turn on takeoff and make right traffic around to Runway 17.

You can land a taildragger in two ways. The easier and more common is the three-point landing. As the name implies, you try to touch the mains and the tail all at the same time. A three-point landing is a little easier in the Citabria because the tailwheel is steerable and you have more directional control when the tailwheel is down.

The other kind is a wheel landing. In a wheel landing, you land on the mains and then let the tail fly until it can’t fly anymore. It’s much the same as takeoff except that you’re slowing down. It’s also a lot harder because (a) as a tricycle-gear pilot, you’re overly scared of nosing over and having a prop strike and (b) you don’t have that steerable tailwheel on the ground and you’re instead depending on the rudder for directional control, even though rudder effectiveness is decreasing all the way until the tailwheel makes contact.

All of the landings today will be wheel landings. That’s because the DC-3 almost always does wheel landings. Unlike the Citabria, the ‘three is very stable in a wheel landing. In fact, although the ‘three can and does do three-point landings, it’s discouraged because the tail could begin oscillating up and down and, when a tail that big with that much momentum starts to oscillate, you can have control departures, prop strikes, and other nastiness.

But the Citabria is a good platform for understanding what goes into landings of either kind and we’re going to do some wheel landings today.

Here’s the takeoff from runway 27L and part of the pattern over to Runway 17. You can tell that I’m really enjoying the way this airplane flies.

[Audio 05]

And here’s the approach and the first landing. There’s a lot of convection and other turbulence, so you’ll head Barry coaching me on the throttle until I get the approaches dialed in.

[Audio 06]

Not awful, but I can tell that Barry’s doing a lot of the flying on the landing. We taxi back to the approach end of Runway 17 and I get my second takeoff. I feel pretty good about the takeoff and do most of it myself.

[Audio 07]

We get through the thermals and it’s time to touch down again. I don’t keep the stick forward to keep the tailwheel off and Barry helps me out with that. I’m exhibiting ever reaction that you’d expect from a tricycle-gear pilot flying a taildragger for the first time.

[Audio 08]

We head around the patch again and I put in my worst landing of the day. I keep wanting to pull back when I need to be disciplined enough to keep it forward to keep it on the mains and keep the tail off the ground. This time, we have to play with the power and oscillate a few times before getting the aircraft down and stopped.

I should mention that Pontiac is a pretty big airport with parallel main runways in addition to the crossing runway that we’re on. It’s a rare time when we have the airspace pretty much to ourselves. Barry’s friendly with the guy in the tower and I take the opportunity at the end to try to cloak my landing in a PIREP.

[Audio 09]

We got something like seven takeoffs and landings that day. Here’s the last one. It was a little better than most, but I still didn’t push adequately and we had to play with the power in order to get the right attitude for touchdown.

[Audio 10]

Needless to say, about a month later I had a tailwheel endorsement from Dan Gryder in the DC-3. The ‘three was much easier to fly than the Citabria in many ways. Lots more on the checklist and much more technical to get her over the fence but, once over the fence, docile as could be.

My understanding with Barry is that I’m going to fly the Citabria with him until he tells me that he’d sign me off for a tailwheel endorsement in that aircraft. Then I’ll really feel that I’m a tailwheel driver. Most of the flights since then have been aerobatic for the first hour and then pattern work after that. As I record this in mid-January, I haven’t been up in the Citabria since November, but I’ll be back in the saddle as soon as I can get there.

I think the Citabria is my favorite training aircraft thus far. It’s yellow, it’s new, it’s clean, it has great visibility (including a transparent roof), you sit on the centerline, you have your feet up on the rudders, you have a four-point harness, and it’s a genuine stick-and-rudder pilotmaker. Captain Chris of Plane madness did an informal poll on Twitter a few months ago, asking, if money was no object, what two aircraft would you own. I responded with the F-86 Sabre and either a Citabria or the Citabria’s big brother, the Super Decathlon. It’s that much fun.

Stay tuned because there’s lots more tailwheel and aerobatic audio stored up from the last year. And I’ve shot a lot of cockpit video of the aerobatic stuff, so I’m planning to release some more video episodes, too.

Contact Barry Sutton at Sutton Aviation:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive, Waterford, MI, 48327

UPDATE as of February 2012:

N157AC is now on the line at FLight 101 at KPTK.  Contact information:

2121 Airport Road
Waterford, Michigan 48327
Ph: 248-666-2211
Fax: 248-666-1094

First Post-Thunderbirds GA Aerobatic Flight

This is a regular blog post. Looking for show notes or links to audio? Please check out the other posts. AND CHECK OUT THE THUNDERBIRDS POSTS FROM A FEW DAYS AGO! (Scroll down.)

Spending a lot of time with the audio from the Thunderbirds ride getting it edited down for another epic summary episode a la the DC-3 summary episode. Thinking 90-minute-plus extravaganza. Might even go into the studio to record original music for it. Will have more vide to post soon, too. Will Hawkins is helping with the initial production. Watch this space!

Got up on Tuesday for 1.5 in the Citabria with Barry Sutton. I should note that, since Tradewinds closed in February, I haven’t had any home FBO at which I am checked out to rent airplanes all by myself. And I’m finding that, for the time being, I don’t care! I am a growing Citabria addict.

I did about 1.5 in the 172RG over at Flight 101 and had a good experience, then there was the DC-3 training. Just before doing the DC-3 training, I went up with Barry in the Citabria because I had no tailwheel time and wanted to do a few wheel landings before flying the ‘three. I loved that flight and went back to do more tailwheel training with Barry so that I could say with a straighter face that I have a tailwheel endorsement (the ‘three is wildly tailwheely in the taxi, but behaves like a big tricycle-great airplane otherwise). I really need to master a smaller taildragger before I can feel good about claiming to be a taildragger pilot.

Barry allowed early on as how he does aerobatic training in the Citabria, which piqued my curiosity. We did two flights after I got back from Griffin and before the Thunderbirds ride. The first was about aircraft stability and the second was about unusual attitudes and energy management. In each case, my stomach had had enough by about the 20-minute mark and we did the rest of those 1.3 or 1.4-hour flights in the pattern working on landings.

I got pretty green toward the end of the Thunderbirds flight. Not dwelling on it and not saying that I didn’t have an outstanding experience. (Can I say it again? The Thunderbirds rocked and Maj Mulhare worked really hard to make it a solid experience! I will never, ever forget that flight!) But I was a little disappointed in myself about getting that green that quickly.

So I had low expectations going out again in the Citabria on Tuesday. We strapped on the chutes and headed to the practice area and I expected to get maybe 20 minutes of cranking and banking before having to come back to the pattern.

Surprise! Yours truly got a full hour of loops, rolls, and hammerheads (I love hammerheads!) and no tummy issues at all. In fact, it was Barry’s idea to head back to the airport. (Not that Barry had issues – He just wanted to get some landings in.)

I think that it might have something to do with being on the controls a little more. I flew most of the maneuvers instead of watching or just following along on the controls. I think that made a big difference.

And there’s some element of exposure that helps. Most aerobatic guys who take time off in the winter will tell you that it takes them about five flights to get back into the swing. There’s an extent to which you have to just keep at it and push through whatever barrier you’re experiencing.

I was really stoked after the flight. This is what I’d hoped aerobatics would be like! Not having to be limited by the stomach and just enjoying the outer reaches of the flight envelope. And getting familiar enough with the maneuver to be able to just watch yourself do it.

You know the aerobatic sequences from One Six Right? I used to just hang my head and cry (yeah, cry) when I saw those because, although I’ve had more flight experiences than most people will ever have, I feared that that real skydancing would just plain elude me. Can it be that I can reach it and that it’s just on the other side of a little push through that 20-minute barrier? Can it be that I just need to have my hands on the controls?

What is a barrier, really? The problem is that the most important barriers are unique to each of us and there is no way to see anything but this side of the barrier until you put your head down and make a run at it. Maybe many runs. Maybe even fighting your own physiological and mental limits each time.

But the happiest times of life are when you realize that the barrier is surmountable. That you can do it. Or at least peek over the other side.

Hey, I’m no steely-eyed missile man yet. In fact, in many ways, I’m just a poser. I have a lot to learn. I’ll always have a lot to learn. But, on Tuesday, I transcended what I though was going to be an ongoing personal limitation. Or at least made a big-ass dent in it.

Car-dancing on the way home. Liquid Tension Experiment blaring. Windows down. Yeah!

Flight will transform you. Flight finally let me give my undivided attention to a burning blue-green horizon as the brilliant yellow nose of the Citabria fell through it and then the wings were like they were on straight vertical detents for a moment before pulling out.

Poser though I may be most of the time, for a little while this Tuesday, I was Superman, Harry Potter, and Fletcher Seagull. I am Stephen Force and I love this stuff.


Contact information for Barry Sutton:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive
Waterford, Michigan 48327

Unusual Attitude and Upset Training in the Citabria with Barry Sutton

This is a regular blog post. Looking for show notes or show audio? Please check out the other entries.

Try this at home! It could save your life. (Just make sure that you do it in a properly certified airplane with a qualified instructor.)

1.3 hours and five three-point landings yesterday in an American Champion 7ECA Citabria. I got a little time in this aircraft with Barry Sutton in May prior to going for the DC-3 type rating – the idea being that I didn’t want to show up in Georgia with zero tailwheel time. What I learned was that the dynamics of the two aircraft are almost completely unrelated. Not that there’s nothing to be learned from one taildragger to the next, but the skillsets are really different. Not unexpected, I guess.

But the experience with the Citabria really made me want to get more time in it. Two objectives here. (1) become proficient enough in the Citabria that Barry says he’d sign me off if I had come to him ab initio for a tailwheel endorsement and (2) cooler still, use this opportunity to explore the flight envelope in terms of aerodynamics, upset recovery, and aerobatics.

So I scheduled some time yesterday to go up with Barry and do just that (er, those).

Weather was cool with good visibility, smooth, and broken ceiling at 3,500 to 4,000. Not so good for serious aerobatics (in my conservative view of things until I gain some more experience), but just fine for basic VFR unusual attitudes.

We started out with demonstrations of stability. Trim the airplane out for straight and level, give the nose a good push, and let her porpoise through four or five oscillations to demonstrate that the aircraft tend toward return to level flight if left alone. Okay, I read about that. I understood it all, too. No problem.

Then Barry pitched us way the hell up. Cranked us over to 50 or 60 degrees of bank and said, “let go.” (Let go?). (Yeah, let go.)

I wish I could say for sure what the airplane did. I think that she yawed gradually around her wingtip with a bit more increase in bank and gradually went nose-down. The cool thing is that the yaw and bank basically damped down and, within about six seconds, we were stable, even if we were looking at a lot of planet out the front window. Throttle back and pull out of the dive and return to straight and level flight.

Guess what? The stability thing works in all three axes. For some reason, they don’t tell you much about that in the primary training literature. But we had the airplane all cranked over and scrambled in all three axes and it returned relatively stable flight all by itself.

Next, we did a spin to the left. The wing dropped off to the left and the autorotation started. Barry pulled the throttle and, after a turn or a turn and a half, Barry said “Let go.” With both of us hands-off, the Airplane broke the stall, stopped rotation within a quarter turn, and became merely a diving airplane instead of a spinning airplane.

I recovered from the dive and took her back to straight and level at 3,000 (about 2,000 AGL). After some more maneuvering, Barry asked me what’s required for a spin to occur. I gave the textbook answer: “The airplane must be stalled and it must be uncoordinated.” But Barry illustrated the truth of yet another precondition. We stalled the airplane and kept it coordinated and the nose came straight back down. Then we stalled it with the ball way outside the middle and let the airplane do what it did. Which is to say that the reaction was very incipient for a long time (more than five or six seconds, which is a long time if you have even moderate reaction time) and, absent keeping the stick all the way back and the rudder floored, so spin ensued.

The take-away is that there’s a practical third element, that being that that condition has to last a long(er)(ish) and/or the stall condition needs to be pretty deep. Modern aircraft don’t really want to stall or spin. If you’re in a stall of the inadvertent VFR kind that doesn’t find you suddenly and extremely cockeyed, you’re probably going to have time to recover. Just don’t do anything stupid, like letting your lizard brain pull back on the controls to accelerate the stall.

There is an extent to which the airplane will take care of itself. Although we were in very unusual attitudes, the aircraft recovered in every instance hands-off with only a power reduction required and then a pull out of the dive (which is easy to do because you’re wings level and have a good look at the ground and/or the horizon and they’re not rotating anymore).

The key is having enough altitude. This stuff takes several hundred feet, if not more than 1,000 feet, to happen. None of this knowledge would be very helpful on the turn from base to final. But I think I’ve seen enough to consider adding “hands off” to my SOP in this type of aircraft if I’m VFR and have altitude to spare. Not sure about other aircraft (e.g. C-172s, etc.), but it sure works in the Citabria.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Barry’s a really good instructor. And I know from good instructors. He takes the time to understand what you want out of the flight and presents the material in an ordered, sequential, and helpful way. If you’re looking for tailwheel, high-performance, multi, or similar training, Barry’s your guy. I’m not sure how much primary or instrument instruction he does, but I think that any primary or instrument student would be licky to train with Barry, too.

Obviously, this account is unique to this airplane, this instructor, and this author. Do try this at home because it’ll give you confidence, a better understanding of the flight envelope, and additional tools in your flight bag. It might even save your life. But do it in an aircraft certified for the maneuvers, observe placarded and other limitations, wear a parachute if required, and get a well-qualified instructor who knows you, the aircraft, and the airspace.

Contact information for Barry Sutton:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive, Waterford, MI, 48327

Capt. Force Drags His Tail – And Manages to Keep It Behind Him

This is a regular blog post. Please check out the other posts if you’re looking for show notes or episode audio.

Got some tailwheel time this afternoon at Sutton Aviation with Barry Sutton in a Citabria. I had been reading the materials that Dan Gryder provides and saw something to the effect that “if you can taxi the DC-3, you can probably fly it.” So I reconsidered the wisdom of flying the DC-3 while having had no previous tailwheel time. Taxiing or otherwise.

We flew a really nice Citabria, namely N157AC. Two high-speed taxi runs down 27L at Pontiac with Barry handling the stick and throttle and me on the rudder. Then eight takeoffs and landings for a total of 1.4 hours. All were wheel landings, with the idea being that you always do a wheel landing in the ‘three and it would be good to get an idea of what wheel landings are like and have an understanding of the forces involved. Obviously, the ‘three is going to be a lot heavier and more steady, but it’s still a tailwheel aircraft.

That’s Barry Sutton in the back. Thousands of hours in tailwheels and other aircraft. And a great manner as an instructor. I think he out-John-Kings John King. And, when you’re in a tandem configuration with the instructor behind you, it’s like you have this disembodied announcer voice coming from the sky that occasionally moves the controls, too.

Actually, it might be fun to just have the instructor be the voice of the airplane. “Hey, that hurt! Could you maybe point me down the runway now?”

I’ll post audio from this ride as soon as I can. Probably after the daily updates from the ‘three training May 23-25. But it’ll be fun. The tower was really chatty and it was a fun day to be in the pattern.

More information on Sutton Information:

Sutton Aviation, Inc.
Oakland County International Airport
6230 North Service Drive, Waterford, MI, 48327