Tailwheel Training

Last weekend was our EAA chapter’s annual camp out/fly-in. and I was really excited after having so much fun last year. This year’s event did not disappoint. I had been itching to get with an instructor to start my tailwheel training. It is challenging because instructors around here are very busy, or are not interested/current in tailwheel aircraft. I told one instructor, Ron, who I had never flown with before, that I was interested in doing it, and he was eager and willing to get me going. We scheduled to get started right away on Saturday morning.

We did the usual aircraft familiarization, looking at weight and balance, operating limitations, key airspeeds, aircraft systems. After getting some fuel, we loaded up and started with some taxi practice. The ramp was empty so we did several passes doing figure eights, 360 degree turns. Then on to working on keeping the centerline, wind correction, and just getting used to the heal brakes.

Next, Ron demonstrated a takeoff and briefed me on what it would be like, and how I would need to control the aircraft, followed by a demonstration of a landing. Then it was my turn to try it. This first lesson was rough. I am not going to sugar coat it. Some of my landings were harrowing and embarrassing. A lot of good friends were there watching too. Despite the fact that this was all new to me, I was also struggling with the controls. I felt I was too far reclined, and that was limiting my ability to reach some of the stick forward positions. It was really uncomfortable.

We took a break for lunch, and to wring the sweat out of my shirt. All of my friends that had been watching on the ground were great They were supportive, offering advice, and sharing stories from their own learning experiences. For the next lesson, I was refreshed, and I had a new seat cushion that put me in a much better position to control the airplane and see.

The second lesson was much better. Ron, did an excellent job of giving me little nudges of feedback at just the right time. The landings were much smoother, but I was still really awkward on take-off.

The next morning, we got started right away and headed over to a nearby airport that would offer us direct cross wind’s to practice landings. Ron had me do several low passes keeping the airplane centered over the runway to get the feel for the inputs. Then it was time to land. I felt more in command of the aircraft that morning, and my cross wind landings confirmed it. I was able to smoothly touch down on one wheel and maintain my crosswind correction until all three wheels were on the pavement with a smooth roll out… It felt terrific!

Photos courtesy of Lisa Johnson

This Citabria is notoriously difficult to wheel land, and we made several attempts. After a while, we were kind of getting the hang of it.

We just took a short break, then back up to do the fourth lesson. Throughout this whole process, I had never envisioned that I would get the endorsement over the weekend. In my mind, I was just starting out, working to get the endorsement in the next couple of weeks. On this flight, Ron started coaching me on “when I solo”, so I got the idea he was planning to get out of the airplane. We did several circuits, and I was feeling very comfortable, and Ron was completely hands-off of the controls. He told me to pull over, where he endorsed me for tailwheel and told me to go do three take-off and landings, full stop, with one of each in the grass.

My solo went great! On one approach, as I was coming in over the tall grass for the grass strip, I added power to maintain a safe height above the tall grass, but let my airspeed get too high. Rather than try and salvage it, I just went around for another shot at it.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Johnson

There were lots of friends eager to greet me and shake my hand. I even got a hug from our chapter president, Tom. It felt extra good to get that from a man I admire so much. My solo during primary training was a relatively mundane event. It was just me and my instructor, and a single photo after our lesson, mostly in the dark. While this wasn’t as big as an accomplishment as the first solo, it still felt really good to have a bit of a moment of celebration with a large group of friends. Since we weren’t expecting it, my wife and I had planned for her to head home with the dogs, so I didn’t have her there to share the moment with me. That is my only regret.