I Want to Be a Better Pilot — Relaxing on Takeoffs and Landings

By Steve Krog, EAA 173799

I took a call recently from a fellow pilot who had just acquired
a tailwheel aircraft. He had earned his tailwheel endorsement but indicated he
was not yet comfortable and confident when flying his new taildragger. We
discussed his previous flight experience, which included a fair amount of time
in light twin aircraft but very little in tailwheel planes.

We agreed to get together and scheduled some flight training.
While preparing for the first flight, he asked that I treat him as a first-time
tailwheel candidate and start at the very beginning, which we did. The first
flight covered the usual basic maneuvers like steep turns, slow flight, and
numerous power-on and power-off stalls in various configurations and attitudes.
Then it was time to return to the airport and work on takeoffs and landings.

I could sense his apprehension settling in as we turned onto
final approach for the first landing. Inputs became stiff and jerky. The
landing was adequate in that it was safe, but it was far from smooth. At the
end of that first flight he commented that he felt he had learned more in that
hour than in nearly all of his previous tailwheel instruction, even though we
had yet to work in the pattern.

We continued working together for the next several days, and by
the end of the week he was comfortably and safely doing three-point and wheel
landings with and without a crosswind on both turf and hard-surface runways.
Confidence was established. Before heading home, he commented that he no longer
felt a pit in his stomach when faced with a crosswind landing, regardless of
the type of runway.

Common Mistakes and Building Confidence

What were some of the things we did to build confidence? First we
established and reinforced the sight picture needed for taking off, performing
maneuvers, and in the traffic pattern when landing. As mentioned in previous
articles, forward visibility is nonexistent in many, but not all, tailwheel
airplanes. It is important to develop and get comfortable employing a diagonal
line of sight about 30 degrees left or right of the center of the engine
cowling. Look just enough to either side so that your peripheral vision sees
the side of the cowling. Then look forward diagonally about 200 feet
(approximately two runway lights ahead). Your line of sight should intersect
the runway edge at this point on a normal-width runway. Using this sight
picture, your peripheral vision shows left or right movement for directional
control, and when landing, the diagonal line of sight provides depth perception
needed to level, flare, and smoothly control the airplane to the touchdown.

The second thing we worked on was getting the arm and leg muscles
to relax. Relaxed muscles allow for smooth, fluid control inputs, while tight,
tense muscles cause jerky control inputs, usually a split-second behind when
needed. Many of us unknowingly allow the arm and leg muscles to get stiff and
tense when taking off and landing. I’ve pointed this out to students, and they
admitted not realizing they were even doing so.

What I’ve found to help get relaxed is to remind students to take
a deep breath at the point of power reduction in the traffic pattern and, while
doing so, wiggle their fingers and toes to help ease the tension. I repeat this
exercise again on the base leg and at least twice on the final approach. It
seems silly at first, but it really helps. After several repetitions while
doing takeoffs and landings, the students begin to relax. Control inputs become
fluid, and both the takeoffs and landings become smooth.

A third common mistake is fixating on the airspeed indicator on
takeoff and on landing. I once had a newly rated flight instructor almost cause
me great bodily harm because of his airspeed fixation. As the tail wheel lifted
and we were about one-half second from lifting off, he shrieked and let go of
the controls. I stated in a firm voice to “fly the airplane.” He replied that
it wouldn’t fly because the airspeed said zero! I took the controls, made the
takeoff, flew the traffic pattern, and then landed with the airspeed stuck at
zero. Quite shaken by the event, the new instructor opted not to do any further
flying that day.

I prefer teaching people to “feel” the airplane. Begin the
takeoff roll with the control stick or yoke all the way aft. As groundspeed
increases, the elevator gets heavy and can be felt by the resistance in the
control stick. At that point, ease the stick slightly forward, allowing the
tail to come off the ground but remaining within a foot of the ground. The
airplane is now in a near perfect angle of attack generating a growing amount
of lift. When the lift becomes adequate for flight, the airplane will
gracefully lift off and become airborne.

A mistake commonly made when first working on takeoffs is to
raise the tail high enough to see over the nose. In this configuration the
wings are in a neutral, or even negative, angle of attack. One could use 10,000
feet of runway and never get the airplane to fly. Establish a positive angle of
attack and let the airplane do what it was designed to do. Here, too, is where
that diagonal line of sight pays off. It will help keep the airplane rolling
straight down the runway before lifting off.

A fourth common mistake is pushing on the rudder pedals with both
feet. This is quite common on both the takeoff and the landing until one can
get the leg muscles to relax. When I begin working in the traffic pattern with
a student, I’ll gently touch a toe to a rudder pedal and see if it moves. If it
is rigid, I know the student is tense and pushing on both pedals. It’s a common
reaction in the early stages of pattern practice. Once I’ve determined this,
I’ll have the student take both feet off the rudder pedals and twist and turn
his or her toes. Then, I have the student gently place the ball of each foot on
the pedals, saying that I should be able to slide a matchbook cover between the
shoe and the pedal. After three or four approaches and landings, simultaneously
pushing hard on both pedals is gone.

A fifth common mistake is the desire to rock back and forth on
the rudder pedals during a takeoff and again on landing. This may be a habit
that is a carryover from learning to ride a bicycle. To propel a bicycle, the
rider pushes the left pedal down, then the right pedal, and keeps repeating. An
airplane is not a bicycle. Pushing on one pedal then applying the same amount of
pressure on the opposite pedal is a great way to begin doing S-turns on the
runway and can make for an adventurous takeoff or landing. This left pedal,
right pedal rocking is most apparent on the landing several seconds after
touching down. Rather, we want to tap and release the rudder pedal needed to
keep the airplane tracking straight on the runway.

When giving dual instruction in a Cub, I’ll sometimes reach down
and grab the student’s shoes, one in each hand, and then push on the right or
left shoe as needed to keep the airplane tracking straight. One or two landings
with this method usually breaks the individual from rocking the pedals while
taking off or landing.

The sixth common mistake made by students or pilots learning to
fly a tailwheel aircraft is the problem of letting go of or relaxing
back-pressure on the control stick or yoke immediately after touching down. It
seems as if the students are so relieved to get the airplane on the ground,
they want to let go of everything. This is not a good idea in a tailwheel
airplane, and this is where the tailwheel incidents and accidents are most
often occurring — after touching down and while rolling out. A tailwheel
airplane requires the pilot’s attention from the time the prop begins turning
until the time when the prop is stopped in front of the hangar.

There are many myths and tall tales being told by hangar pilots
about the “tricky” tailwheel airplanes. Most are not true. Safely flying a
tailwheel does require much more attention from the pilot than a tricycle-gear
airplane, especially during taxi, takeoff, and landing. However, once in the
air, a tailwheel airplane is almost no different than any other airplane.

Steve Krog, EAA 173799, has been flying for more than four decades and giving tailwheel instruction for nearly as long. In 2006 he launched Cub Air Flight, a flight training school using tailwheel aircraft for all primary training. For more from Steve, check out his column The Classic Instructor every month in EAA Sport Aviation.

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