Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Taming the Taildragger

Taming the Taildragger
Part 1.
Playing on a grass.
When I first signed up for the flying lessons, I had zero knowledge of small general aviation airplanes. I have never seen one up close and personal, let alone fly in one. The closest I came was AN-2 few lifetimes back in Russia. This one is even from my home city. http://www1.airliners.net/open.file/1131702/M

As I was signing up, the person at the counter asked me whether I wanted to learn in the high wing or low wing and, in case of high wing, 152 or 172. Seeing the blank expression on my face, she gave up asking and just put me down for a Cessna saying I could always switch to a Piper later. One glance inside one of the numerous 152s on the field convinced me that I wanted a "bigger Cessna". That's how I ended up learning in a 172M.

In time, that proved to be a great selection as the fleet of rental 172’s is now the largest at my school (i.e. more choices for a weekend pilot) and high wings proved popular with my main passenger interested in aerial photography.

I discovered various aviation boards even before starting ground school, and shortly thereafter my internet education was notably enhanced by familiarity with such topics as high wing Vs low wing, flaps in the x-wind, slip Vs crab, etc. It soon became apparent that there were as many opinions about flying as there were pilots. Some topics, however, seemed to have everyone agreeing. One of them was that flying tail dragger would improve one's skill as a pilot. Another was that aerobatics was a great way to build skills and confidence.

After some research, I found a little paved airstrip 5 minutes drive from where I lived that had a Citabria 7CAB (150 HP and inverted fuel) and offered both tail wheel and aerobatics. I did an into to aerobatics half way through my private license and knew I would be coming back for a formal course. That meant getting a tail wheel endorsement first.

By the time I finished my PPL and signed up for the tail wheel training, I was feeling reasonably confident in my ability to fly and (more importantly) land a 172. My PPL instructor liked taking me up in gusty x-winds, so I thought I got my x-wind inputs down solid. I have also been exposed to shorter and grass strips and was comfortable with those as well.

The comfort went right out of the window as soon as I started the engine in a Citabria and tried to taxi in a straight line. I realized instantly that that plane did not do straight lines. At least not with me in control. By the time we made it to the little run up area on the paved taxiway, the plane tried to make a run for the grass twice, both to the right and left of that paved taxiway. I could swear that the plane just liked grass better than asphalt.

I got lucky that day and the plane got its wish. The wind was strong and directly perpendicular to the only paved runway, so we ended up taking off and landing on a short grass runway that was directly into the wind. With no markings on that runway, other than a general direction, “straight” was a relative term, so I was able to taxi in general direction of the beginning and even turn it around w/o running into the trees.

Takeoff directly into the wind was relatively short as the plane did not really get any chances to do something bad. Once in the air, that plane turned from an uncontrolled wild creature into a precise flying machine. At least it was precise when I remembered my rudders. It let me know instantly when I did not – such a chance from Cessna!

Landings were relatively easy ( and I am pretty sure that having an instructor in the back seat that did not want to crash that day helped too). The easiest part of the PPL training for me was always arriving at the numbers at a precise speed – I can’t do the math or what I need to add or deduct in terms of pitch and power, but I somehow intuitively know when to make these corrections. Citabria was the same once I adjusted to the sight picture (it flies much more nose down compared to Cessna) and required speeds.

Having arrived over the trees at required speed, it was just a matter of flaring in a timely fashion, pulling the stick back and remembering to pull it all the way back, once the plane made contact with the grass. Sure we bounced a bit a few times, but grass, being such a forgiving surface, made me feel like I was making progress that day. Little did I know of what future would hold.

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