Tail Low Wheel Landings

By Alan Negrin, CFI, MEI

I have written several times about the long standing debate over three point versus wheel landings in tail wheel equipped airplanes. Of course the debate has been ongoing since there were airplanes.

When Ian Orrman was going through the TWTT program and training with me, he informed me that tail wheel pilots in Australia are taught to always make wheel landings. So, it was quite foreign for him to learn three point landings. I thought that was pretty odd at the time.

When I was working on my tail wheel rating in 1997, I did the wheel landing portion of my training with and instructor who owned a “one-off” design aircraft that looked almost identical to a Van’s RV-4. It was pretty challenging to land in any configuration, especially for someone new to tail wheel flying.  I remember one of my early landings where the stick simply came loose from the linkage just as the airplane was about to touch down,  and I had no control. The instructor laughed “insidiously” and then took over but it did sort of creep me out. We re-attached the stick and continued on without further incident. But, he never taught me about tail low wheel landings. We did all the wheel landings in a pretty flat pitch attitude and used up a lot of runway to do so.

So, for all these years and over 2000 hours of flying tail wheel aircraft, I never really understood how to best use the wheel landing and could not really understand why one would chose a wheel landing over a three point. Even after reading several books and having many discussions with other pilots until I recently discovered the “tail low” wheel landing.

Now it all makes sense. You might ask, “So you are just now discovering that after all those years and hours flying tail wheel aircraft?” I would have to answer, sheepishly, “Yes”.

No one ever really pointed out or demonstrated the different methods of making wheel landings, so I simply thought you needed to fly the airplane onto the runway in a level flying attitude. While that works very well, it is still even more  challenging to do so without bouncing back into the air and it really does take up a lot more runway. It requires a lot higher ground speed to keep the tail up that high, flying  onto the runway with as close to zero descent rate you can manage.

The tail low wheel landing on the other hand is so simple and obvious (as far as the concept to understand is concerned, not necessarily the actual execution of one), I just don’t know why I haven’t been doing them all along.

You maintain pretty much the same pitch attitude at touchdown as you would for a three point landing but just as you touch down, you push the stick slightly forward to keep the tail wheel from touching down. Now, of course it does take practice and I would recommend that anyone that is new to tail wheel flying, do so with an experienced instructor who has done them before.  For those of you that have more tail wheel time, I think it would be easier to accomplish safely.

The properly executed tail low wheel landing can be done at reduced airspeed,  which also means less runway used and a shorter roll out comparable to a three point landing. The reason for using this type of landing would be good if you are landing on a very rough strip or if your heavily loaded or both, and you want to minimize the wear and tear on the tail wheel assembly.  As the airplane is rolling out, you hold the tail wheel off as long as you can until it settles by itself as the tail stops flying. At that point you have to really pull the stick firmly, all the way back and maintain rudder control as you would for any other tail wheel landing.  Just like any tail wheel landing, you will still need to be cautious on the roll out and maintain positive control.

I have noticed with the extensive training that I do, there is a point in the roll out where the airplane becomes unstable and the tail wants to wander. It’s that point at which the airplane is slowing down and the rudder is no longer effective as a control surface and before the airplane has slowed down enough to not need as much control.

It’s probably the point when most ground loop accidents occur. I have witnessed the pilot landing with a good pitch attitude, good runway alignment,  proper touchdown with no bounce, etc. and then suddenly the airplane is heading off on its own to the side of the runway. I also have noticed that this happens primarily when the pilot does not have the stick all the way aft as far as it will go. Even a slightly forward stick at this point can be dangerous.

There so much going on at that point, especially for the new tail wheel pilot that the brain reaches an overload and just  forgets about holding the stick all the way back as far as it will go and firmly.

I remind my students that the airplane will talk to you. I think you know what I mean. If you execute a good landing, no matter what kind of landing gear configuration you fly, you know it. If not, the airplane provides instant feedback. Sometimes however, it may difficult to know what you have done wrong if you are in a unfamilar aircraft or flying a new gear configuration. That’s why the prudent pilot will obtain transition training with a qualified instructor and even seasoned pilots will periodically fly with someone else to get a different perspective and possibly improve their technique.

Alan Negrin is CFI,MEI and former factory demo, flight test and transition training pilot. He owns a Sportsman tail dragger and a Glasair III providing 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