Tail Wheel Aircraft – 3 Point or Wheel Landing?

By Alan Negrin, CFI, MEI

There has been a lot of discussion of late on one of the Glastarnet.org forums about landing technique in a tail wheel Glastar or Sportsman and whether it is better to land three-point or on the main wheels first, keeping the tail wheel off the ground until the airplane slows down (wheel landing).

This discussion is not the first of its kind and probably has been debated since the beginning of time (airplane time that is). When I first learned to fly tail wheel aircraft, I did so in a Maule and somebody said you should never do a wheel landing in a Maule because of the lack of prop clearance. Hogwash! However, I didn’t practice wheel landings at all until I was taking an FAA part 135 check-ride in my Maule and the check airman said I needed to demonstrate a wheel landing or two to pass. So, I did a couple and it wasn’t so bad. No prop strikes either.

Lately I have been doing a lot more wheel landings in my Sportsman, largely because of the discussion and simply wanting to become more proficient at doing them. I never really saw the need do wheel landings over three point landings, especially in very strong and gusty cross winds.

However, according to Harvey S. Plourde, author of the “The Complete Tail Dragger Pilot”, “The wheel landing must be used when the winds are high and or gusty, especially if the wind is across the runway as well. It is used because it gives the pilot much more control at the instant of touch –down”. This is where I respectfully disagree with Mr. Plourde. While I respect the fact that he is considered an expert and has written one of the most definitive books on flying tail-wheel aircraft, his statement has always seems at odds with my experience, at least flying in the Glastar and Sportsman aircraft.

He does refer to flying aircraft with very springy gear in his book, such as the L-19 Bird dog and the Cessna 195, and that may have something to do with his statement. It always seemed better to have three points of contact on the ground at once, instead of only one while wrestling the airplane around in strong gusty and attempting to transition to getting all three wheels on the ground. After all, when making a wheel landing, the tail is still flying while the weight of rest of the aircraft is being shifted from lift created by the wings to the rolling tires. If you are landing in a strong cross wind, you have the upwind wing lowered with aileron, the opposite rudder mashed to the floor to maintain your runway alignment and now you are rolling out on one tire and trying to carefully get all three on the ground without losing control and winding up in a ball.

Every single landing during the trip to Sun and Fun in 2008, both coming and going, was in very strong, gusty crosswinds. I used the wing low method, established well out on the final approach path and then touching down in the three point attitude. Then I would simply hold my control inputs until I slowed down and taxied off the runway. It works folks. However, one advantage of wheel landings is the reduced wear and tear on the tail wheel mechanism and the tire, especially if you are suffering from tail wheel shimmy when landing. If the tail wheel is shaking and you are on pavement, it is amazing how quickly the rubber on your little tire will wear away to nothing.

If you are heavy and slow and trying to land short, you can really slam the airplane in the ground hard; another reason to carry a bit more power and fly it on to the ground. Short field wheel landings can be achieved by using a tail low method. It is much the same as a normal three point landing except that the tail is held just high enough above the runway to prevent it from touching. Then when the main wheels touch, a slight forward push on the stick, just enough to hold the tail wheel off will be sufficient.

Mastering this technique will allow you to maintain a slower approach and touch speed, therefore less energy and a shorter roll out.

According to Mr. Plourde the three main advantages of three-point landing are while learning to fly tail wheel aircraft and when landing on, short or soft fields. Wheel landings in the Glastar and Sportsman do take practice to get proficient and comfortable, and just like any other landing in these airplanes; you need to fly it on to the runway. If you bounce a little, you need to force yourself to push the stick forward slightly. It’s counter intuitive to do so for most pilots, but it is a must if you want to “stick” the landing (remain on the ground without bouncing back into the air and risk looking like a porpoise or worse, losing control of the airplane). All the while, maintaining good rudder control too. It is fun and a great way to build proficiency. It would be a good idea to take some out with you who has more experience than you do to help you stay out of the weeds.
Quoting from book again regarding wheel landings:

1. Perform a normal approach at normal approach speeds.
2. In the early part of the flare-out, let the main wheels contact the ground with minimum downward velocity (rate of descent). It may be advisable to carry some power until the touchdown point, at least during training since this seems to help beginners. However, beware of carrying too much. (ed note: you had sure as heck better do this if you are in a Glastar or Sportsman)
3. Immediately apply forward stick to keep the airplane on the ground. The required amount of forward stick will be small in the downward momentum (rate of descent) of the airplane was small. Remove (ease it off) the power which was carried through the approach.
4. Continue increased applications of forward stick to keep the tail up until it descends of its own accord with full stick forward.
5. Once the tail has lowered to the ground, apply full back elevator to keep the tail wheel on the ground.

Here are some tips to use while practicing wheel landings:
1. Use a long runway (3500 feet or longer is great).
2. Try some very low approaches without touching down. See if you can maintain a constant level attitude while holding the aircraft off a foot or two above the runway.
3. Keep an eye on your rate of descent indicator and make sure you are only descending a few feet a minute when you touch down. If you are descending too rapidly, you will bounce.
4. Keep your feet off the brakes and be ready to go around. In fact, I use a little call out on final as part of my final landing checklist. “Feet on the floor and ready for the go around”.
5. Be ready to push the stick forward when you touch down. The how much part is something you have to work on. It should only be a very slight amount, maybe an inch or less. You have to be smooth and steady.
6. Pick a day that is calm if possible or with the wind coming mostly straight down the runway. Trying to learn all this in a crosswind is a lesson and discussion for the next issue of the flyer.

Alan Negrin is CFI,MEI and former factory demo, flight test and transition training pilot. He owns a Sportsman tail dragger and provides transition training for Glasair, GlaStar and Sportsman owners, including those who are about to commit first flight and those who have purchased flying aircraft.

He can be reached at alan@glasairtraining.com or 425-466-8472