Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tailwheel Travails - Lesson One

It shouldn't be hard right? I know how to start an aircraft, how to taxi it, how to take-off, fly and land. That means that flying a new type should be a snack! Wrong I'm afraid - much to my disgust.
If gliders qualify as taildraggers then I've got a fair bit of taildragger time. I suspect however in all the things that are important to flying a taildragger gliders don't count. That means that like many pilots of my age I don't have the rare qualification of being a "real" pilot, because I don't fly a taildragger.
I decided that as I did want to be a "real" pilot it was about time I did something about this glaring hole in my capabilities. I'm getting endorsed to fly a 'dragger. As you might have guessed from a previous post I've chosen the Zlin Savage Classic (called the Cub in Australia) as the initial vehicle for my mortification. So from time to time I'll write about my progress - or more to the point, lack of it.
Lesson one: We had the briefing - you know the one about the C of G being behind the main gear in a taildragger, unlike in a tricycle undercarriage aircraft where it's in front. That means that the tail wants to swap ends with the nose, the tail wants to go first and let the nose come along later. So the story is that as a pilot your only important job is to make the tail stay behind the main gear, and not just behind but straight behind please. Why straight behind? Well as you let the tail get out of line the aircraft will start to turn and the line of the C of G will move rapidly outboard on the outside of the turn. Once it gets beyond a certain point you are going to ground loop and nothing is going to stop you. So keep the tail nicely in line behind you please!!
Once we had got over the briefing we climbed aboard and the instructor said "let's go and do some taxiing practice". Taxiing practice? That's the first thing you learn when you learn to fly - you're kidding me aren't you? Not kidding and what's more let's pick an open area away from obstructions and other aircraft. Well even getting to the open area was a series of drunken lurches. Once a taildragger starts turning it keeps turning. Unlike a nosewheel aircraft where relaxing the rudder on the ground tends to see the aircraft returning to straight line progress, the taildragger keeps going round and indeed has a nasty tendency to tighten the turn. So to stay straight you watch the nose like a hawk and use little dabs of rudder to correct any deviation from the path of righteousness - and don't leave the rudder input in will you! The toe brakes can help too but we'll come to the difficulties of those in a minute!
OK we've lurched drunkenly to an open area and on the way avoided any collision with any object. "OK let's just turn to the right here - more power, keep her moving, why have you got all that rudder in?" This as the aircraft performs a perfect low speed pirouette. Without power the rudder isn't so effective so you tend to pile in more rudder to get the aircraft moving where you want it and then as you increase power to aid the process you have way too much rudder and around you go and unless you are very quick you keep going around. As for the frigging toe brakes, I couldn't work out how to hold one rudder pedal still whilst I rocked my other foot forward to use the toe brakes. By this stage the local idlers had moved into a prime position to view the fun. These are the guys who don't need to burn fuel to get their jollies, they just watch idiots like me and gain immense amusement from it.
Slowly it began to make sense: initiate a turn, release the rudder once you are turning, maybe use some opposite rudder to keep things seemly and never use too much rudder. Now lets see if we can taxi to the end of the strip without hitting the fence or making a runway incursion. At the first turn on the taxiway I conducted a graceful little groundloop and stopped only a few feet short of the runway. Over the radio "xyz turning final for runway 11 and I have the Cub in sight (giggle)". Sweating and red faced I encouraged the Classic back onto the straight and narrow and we waltzed to the end of the runway, managed to enter and line up straight and then took a deep breath.
Open the throttle slowly, feet nice and soft, eyes fixed on the far end of the strip, tail up slowly and we're are in the air. Straight, perfectly straight, fuss free! Climb out and wander off for some upper air work - time to understand the beast in the air. After a very benign session we head back to the circuit. The Classic feels great in the circuit and everything falls into place, no fuss on final, sliding down on rails and into the flair. The exhortations from the back seat start at about this point: "keep coming back on the stick, don't give up on her, more, more..." and we touch in the gentlest most graceful landing of my life. Little dabs of the rudder to keep her straight and we slow to turn off the strip and taxi back for another one. Well I managed to get through that without wrapping her up in a ball!!
None of the other landings were quite as good as the first, but my footwork got better and more assured. Of course if every landing was perfect we'd never bother coming back. My daughter is one of those pilots whose landings vary between very good and completely bloody perfect. She's fond of telling me that I have every reason to keep coming back to fly some more - one day I might just fluke a landing that's worth watching!! That's why you have kids.

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