Tail dragger endorsement

While doing my gliding course in November 2021 I was intrigued by the Piper Pawnee, the tug that was used to tow the gliders. Pawnees are a popular aircraft for glider tug duties. Most were originally used for crop dusting or other agricultural duties but have been superseded by more modern aircraft. They can be bought by gliding clubs relatively cheaply and are apparently not too difficult to fly – assuming you have a “tail dragger endorsement”. Tail draggers are the original style of aircraft with the small wheel (or sometimes a skid) under the tail and the main wheels under the wings, meaning that they sit at an angle when on the ground. This design means that there’s more clearance from the propeller to the ground than in a conventional tricycle undercarriage, making them more suitable for the rough fields and paddocks that gliding clubs often employ.

Tail dragger (top) and tricycle (bottom) designs

The design means that the centre of gravity is behind the main wheels and this fact presents some additional challenges when taxiing, taking off and landing. Taildraggers are inherently less stable in the longitudinal axis than the “tricycle” aircraft that generally want to keep going in a straight line on the ground even if the pilot isn’t concentrating. With the tail draggers, the aft centre of gravity means that if the plane wanders a bit off a straight line, the tail wants to swing around and overtake the front of the plane.

Centre of gravity in a taildragger is behind the main wheels

This simple fact of physics can result in a sudden “ground loop” in which the plane does a 180 degree turn or even further, and can lose balance, causing a wing tip to hit the ground and be damaged. This may lead to some significant damage and would be somewhat embarrassing.

So it’s an acquired skill manoeuvring a tail dragger and it requires a bit of training. If you go through the syllabus and pass, you’re rewarded with an endorsement, meaning that you’re qualified to fly one. I’d done a couple of lessons in a Citabria taildragger at the Redcliffe Aeroclub in 2016 but decided at the time that there was no point paying to have the endorsement as I couldn’t see any point of flying one……until I did the gliding course. Wouldn’t it be cool if I’m able to glide and also fly the tug from time to time? And it would improve my overall skill level. But where to do it? Redcliffe Aeroclub had sold the Citabria and didn’t have any taildraggers. So while talking to Jonathan, one my fellow students on the gliding course, he recommended I talk to Doug Field, who owns a flying school at Caboolture, not far from Redcliffe. Doug’s business is called “Sticknrudder” and they only have tail draggers. It seemed a good place to train so I went out to Caboolture in late November when there was an open day and had a chat to Doug and Cameron, one of his fellow instructors, and checked out the Eurofox aircraft they use for the initial training. Doug explained that the Eurofox, built in Czech Republic, is a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) so is administered by the Recreational Aircraft Association (RAAus) rather than CASA. This meant I’d have to become an RAA member, at least during my training. Flying it wouldn’t qualify me for a CASA endorsement. Once I’d mastered the Eurofox, I’d be able to switch to a Piper Cub, which is a “VH registered” aircraft administered by CASA so would be able to gain the CASA endorsement. That all made sense so I booked three days of training in the week prior to Christmas and went away to read up on tail dragger theory.

Eurofox

Before you could say “ground loop” the first day was upon us. I drove out to Caboolture and was introduced to the Eurofox by Doug. After completing the daily inspertion, the first task was to learn how to taxi without ground looping. I had done this in the Citabria before so it wasn’t too difficult, using the rudder to keep the plane heading in a straight line. There’s a hell of a lot of leg movement required to keep the thing tracking straight. It gives your thighs and calves a real workout. Next we were ready to fly. First Doug suggested a take off and flight over Bribie Island to get a feel for the plane and then practise some three point landings. The take off wasn’t so difficult. Just had to get the plane rolling then push forward on the stick to get the tail off the ground, then hold the stick back a bit to keep it level until it lifted off by itself. Then we had to climb out, retract the flaps at 300ft AGL and at 500ft start a turn onto crosswind. That’s when the lesson really started. Balanced turns are something that all instructors try to drum into students but with a small tail dragger like this Doug was all about making our turns as balanced as possible. What technique did he employ? Well he said it’s not about watching the “balance ball” as you turn, it’s about looking outside and observing the horizon as you turn. But first, just prior to the turn onto cross wind, look left 90 degrees and spot a land mark you want to turn to. Then with your eyes looking straight forward again bank first with aileron, then use rudder to ensure the nose comes around smoothly on the horizon. As your landmark appears, back off on the bank and balance with rudder. Why bother to be so precise? Well it makes it a much a more comfortable turn and reduces the risk of killing yourself through a stall with wing drop brought about by adverse yaw. And the climb out is one of the times that such a situation can develop. Makes sense to learn to do it properly. Anyway this attention to detail continued during the training in the Eurofox as we practised circuit after circuit for the whole day. We were doing “three point” landings, where all three wheels are intended to touch down at the same time. This requires quite a high flare, basically bringing the plane to a position like it is on the ground. It’s meant to be the easier way to land, once you get the angle right. It’s similar to landing in a glider and at first I was tending to land a bit too tail low or tail high but gradually managed to get the flare about right and by the end of the day I wasn’t doing too badly.

On Day 2 I was back in the Eurofox but with Cameron this time. Once again we focussed on the circuits but also started doing some “wheeler landings” which involve landing on the main wheels only. These are apparently better in crosswinds and gusty conditions but require a bit more skill, as you have to land a bit flatter and then when the main wheels touch, push forward on the stick to keep the tail off the ground. If you don’t do that, the inertia of the downward moving tail will make it continue moving down and the wing’s angle of attack will increase, causing lift to increase and the plane will take off again. The tail may also hit the ground and the resultant bounce, if not arrested can lead to a gradually worsening series of hops down the runway that could cause major damage to the aircraft. So the best thing to do if you start to bounce is to apply power and go around for another attempt. I did that a couple of times and by the end of the day was starting to get it about right but it was tricky.

On Day 3 I transferred to the Piper Cub, this time with Guy Hazelton, who turns out to be the son of the person who started Hazelton Airlines that used to fly into Mt Gambier when I was growing up. Guy is a very experienced commercial airline pilot who is now instructing in a “transition to retirement” type role. We started again by doing the daily inspection and starting the plane then doing some taxiing practice and I soon felt comfortable with the plane on the ground.

Guy with the Piper Cub

When we went out to take off however, we found during the run ups that the engine was running rough on one magneto. We leaned the fuel and ran it for about a minute to try to burn off any deposits on the spark plugs and tried again but to no avail. Still running rough. So we had to taxi back to the hangar and get it checked out by the LAME. I had lunch while they took it out and went for a short flight. On their return Guy and I taxied out again but still had the same problem. So we called it a day and I headed for home, hoping that things would be sorted by the morning.

The next morning Doug assured us that the problem had been fixed but we shouldn’t run the engine too slowly for long otherwise the spark plugs could foul so we taxied out with relatively high RPM and did the run ups again. This time all was good. It ran smoothly on both magnetos. So we took off. Once again, accelerating down the runway, keeping it straight with rudder, then allowing the stick to move forward so the tail lifted and then it lifted off almost straight away. I climbed out, using Doug’s technique to do a nice smooth balanced turn and headed for Bribie Island to get a feel for the plane with some stalls and steep turns. Then it was back to Caboolture again for some three point landings. The Piper Cub is a tandem plane so the instructor sits behind the student, and only has limited view of instruments so I had to let him know what our RPM, airspeed and elevation were until he felt comfortable with the way I was flying the plane.

The Cub is heavier than the Eurofox so isn’t as skittish and sits more stably in the air so was in fact actually easier to land than the Eurofox. It wasn’t long before the three point landings were going well and we tried some wheeler landings. These too were easier than in the Eurofox and by the end the day I felt I’d got them pretty well sorted. On downwind on one of the later ones Guy said “Oh, oh, Doug’s car’s on the taxi way. That means he’s planning to take a video of your next landing. It’d better be a good one!” So I did my best landing of the day.

My wheeler landing in the Piper Cub

We’d got a bit behind schedule due to the problems with the Cub, so I’d have to come back on the fourth day to complete the CASA curriculum for the endorsement including a couple of glide approaches so at 4pm we called it a day and headed home.

On Day 4 I was out at Caboolture at 7am and Guy had the plane ready to go. We taxied out and did a number of circuits with some practice glide approaches and a variety of different landings and by morning tea he told me that I’d completed everything required for the endorsement. So as he signed off my licence I suggested we do a flight out over the Glasshouse Mountains to Archer Falls, where Doug’s father has a small airstrip. Guy was up for that and suggested we also try some landings at another “bush strip” nearby to improve my skill level.

Tracking west over Caboolture

So we took off and headed west over Caboolture towards the hills where Archer Falls is located. And this was when I noticed a huge advantage of the Cub. It cruises at 70 knots, which is not very fast. Not good if you want to get somewhere in a hurry. But great if you want to sight see. You can really take in the country as you fly over it and although I’d flown over the Glasshouse mountains and Woodford area numerous times it was the first time I’d noticed so much detail. It was fantastic.

Near Woodford, with the Glass House Mountains on the horizon

We arrived over Archer Falls and did a pre-landing recce of the strip on downwind for RWY 18. Guy pointed out a powerline running along the road that crosses the northern end of the strip. Something to stay well clear of on short final. So we stayed a bit higher than normal till we’d cleared the power line then dropped softly onto the freshly mowed and slightly rising runway. Guy dropped something off to Doug’s father who was just finishing mowing the airstrip on his rider mower. A big job that had taken him a few hours. It’s a one way airstrip, and you land to the south, with Mt Archer rising at the southern end. This means you don’t get a chance to go around. Once you are close in you are committed and must land.

At Archer Falls with Mt Archer in the background

Of course, you have to take off to the north (RWY36), away from the mountain, and the strip is interesting in another way. It actually curves around a bend at its southern end, so to take off you taxi down to the southern end and around the bend so you can’t actually see the far end of the runway when you start the take off roll.

RWY36 viewed from just around the bend

We accelerated and I lifted the tail off the ground just as we reached the bend, turned left and headed down the runway, lifting off with plenty of room to spare. The Cub doesn’t need much room.

The airstrip on the round hill

Heading off to the north we found another “bush airstrip” on a nearby property. This one isn’t marked on maps and is also a one way strip. It’s also interesting in that it actually is on a round hill, so you land on a rising runway, climb up to and pass over the crest of the hill and then have to decelerate on a downward slope. Guy demonstrated the first landing and I turned the plane around and did the take off. Initial acceleration was slow and blind, lifted the tail, still couldn’t see over the crest of the hill, then cleared it and accelerated quickly down the other side, clearing the dam at the far end. I did a circuit then came back for my first attempt. Over the dam, in between the trees, settled onto the runway and we were soon careering down the other side but there was plenty of room to stop. After two more circuits we called it a day and headed back towards Caboolture.

But suddenly Guy said “Do you have another 20 minutes spare?”. Sure. “Well I know this new airstrip that’s being constructed over near Dayboro that ends over a sheer drop. You really should see it.” Sounds good. Let’s go. So we headed over to Mt Mee where I suddenly realised we were going near the house of some friends of ours so I said “Can we hunt for this house I know?” and Guy said Sure! The beauty of the Cub as mentioned above is that it flies so slowly that you can keep track of where you are and follow roads and identify landmarks easily. So I spotted Mt Mee township then the road we had to follow and soon we were over the house.

Orbiting our friends’ house

We did one orbit over the top but couldn’t see anybody so headed off again towards Dayboro. On the way we passed over the Ocean View Estate winery where two helicopters were coming into land and soon were over the new airstrip that Guy had mentioned. Very impressive with a significant drop at the western end into the Dayboro Valley.

Airstrip under construction
The strip ends at a precipice to the west, with a drop into the Dayboro Valley

Then it really was time to head back to Caboolture and the finish of my taildragger course. It had been fun. Meanwhile, gliders climbed behind tugs overhead.

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