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One Man's Opinion - Wheel Landings      

an essay by Tony Markl

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What is a wheel landing??

The last 5 seconds of the approach is entirely different. This landing is made from an attitude as opposed to the 3-point or full-stall landing which is made from altitude.

Tony Markl's L-16 at Home

When should/could wheel landings be done? When crosswind is strong, when winds are gusty whether crosswind or not, any time the pilot feels like it, if uncertain about the landing surface and need to land there, and at intervals for practice. Wheel landings are required by FAR to receive a tailwheel endorsement but I have found several cases where persons with endorsements had never done them.

A wheel landing is more difficult than the normal, 3 point, full stall landing which is why so many pilots avoid doing them unless absolutely necessary. Of course this means they are not proficient just at the time that proficiency is needed. Practice these - on grass and pavement (on easy days at first).

When teaching wheel landings to students in my Tailwheel Training Course, I tell them to decide which type of landing they will be making while on downwind and preferably say this out loud to themselves on final. The reason for this is that deciding at the last minute increases pilot workload and frequently results in what I call 2˝-point landings followed by humorous events called "chasing rabbits". Students take me off the runway about once a year. Practice someplace where leaving the runway does not have to be expensive. When doing wheel landings, do not be concerned with touching down at the numbers. Such a concern will cause you to "paste" it on with a "bounce " resulting from the excessive rate of descent. Use a sideslip on final and touch down on the windward wheel first; if control is OK touch down the downwind wheel, and if control is still OK complete the landing; if NOT, go-around and go elsewhere.

Use a partial power approach (about 1200 rpm for under 100HP) for better control during approach and to make the transition from gliding to touchdown last longer. This gives slower deceleration and more time to "feel" for the runway. Fly at least 10% faster than your normal approach speed, especially in gusty conditions. A helpful technique may be to leave the elevator trim at the cruise setting or nearly so. This will give a nose down force on the stick/wheel, and remind you that you are intending to wheel land. It also keeps the airplane descending during the transition to touchdown. I avoid using the word "flare", as this transition from gliding to touchdown requires that you not raise the nose as you normally do. Keep the nose where it was during your glide. Start your transition from gliding to touchdown at the lowest possible height. Your goal is to reduce the rate of descent without losing airspeed. Look far down the runway as you normally do and "stair-step" your way down. By "stair-step" I mean move the stick/wheel forward an inch and right back to where it was and forward an inch and right back and so on until you have touched down. Three to five stair-steps will make a nice touchdown. This technique avoids the common problem of letting the nose rise and getting "bunny hops", "bounces", etc. If you are trimmed a little nose heavy, the stick/wheel will move forward easily and you can pull it back with 2 fingers. Do not look at the airspeed indicator during any part of the transition and preferably not below 200'. When students look at the airspeed indicator instead of the attitude as seen in the windshield I cover the airspeed for the rest of the training period and invariably they do a better job of airspeed control. For a windshield airspeed indicator (Heads Up Display) put a black grease pencil mark on the inside of the windshield (it wipes off) to mark the horizon line at gliding speed.

If your touchdown speed is not high enough or descent rate low enough you will "bunny hop" or "bounce". "Bunny hop" means we touch down in a 2˝-point attitude with not enough speed and touch the mains and touch the tail and touch the mains and touch the tail etc. You can get more than 5-6 of these before the airplane runs out of energy and stalls. If you are making "bunny hops "and the wind is not such that it requires a wheel landing, you may convert to a 3-point/full-stall landing at this time by bringing the stick/wheel all the way back. Do not convert to 3-point unless the airplane is pointed the exact same way the runway points and you are still over the runway and you are at a height at which you are willing to stall, and there is NO drift. (When I ask students about the height they are willing to fall from usually this will be about belly-button height.)

If these conditions are not met, your correct move is to make a "Go Around". This is a poorly understood maneuver. To "go around" properly, simultaneously adjust pitch attitude for climb, get wings level in coordinated flight, and apply climb power. When there is nothing more important to do you can put carb heat to cold, raise flaps etc. "Bounce" means you touched down with too great a rate of descent and are back in the air. Usually you are nose high, drifting, and no longer exactly on the runway heading. A "bounce" calls for a "go-around". Do not try to salvage a "bounce". If you are good enough to salvage a bounce then you are good enough not to have bounced in the first place.

Finally we are at the hardest part for most students. As soon as you know you have touched down on the windward wheel, (not before) move the stick/wheel forward. This goes against the grain for nosewheel pilots especially. Everyone worries about "getting the prop". In a few airplanes with long noses or big props this can be a consideration but for typical aircraft such as Champs and Cubs, do not worry. In a Champ the tail is pretty heavy and full forward stick/wheel is required. Full forward may be too much in other aircraft as tail weight may be less (C-170, J-3 for example only want a small forward motion.) The mission of the pilot is to maintain the best possible control of the airplane for the longest possible time so having the tail up high gives better steering at a time when we need the best possible steering. When speed drops and the nose starts to rise, (meaning tail is starting to come down) move the elevator to full up and get best steering by use of the tailwheel. Yours truly has had the experience of being hit by a gust during this short moment of tail up to tail down. It turned me 30 degrees on a narrow runway with a ditch about 10' away. This is one of the few cases where brake usage is authorized during landing. Reduce power to idle when you are sure you can make a full stop landing, not before.

While decelerating after touchdown is when most wheel landing accidents occur. You are still at a relatively high speed which is the bad news but is also the good news. The higher touchdown speed of a wheel landing gives you more rudder and elevator authority and directional control. After touchdown, increase aileron input until you have full aileron into the wind to prevent windward wing from rising. "Tiptoe" down the runway or "wiggle your toes" or whatever gives you the idea to make only small rudder inputs. When first learning wheel landings it is OK to just continuously wiggle the rudder. It is not OK to put in a correction and wait to see the effect. If you swerve in an amount that is not OK with you, the correct move is to "go around". If you wait too long, a "go-around" becomes a poor idea and consider accepting the indignity of going off the runway as long as the terrain in front of you is OK. I have intentionally gone off the runway when wind was too strong and other landing places were not available. In this case choose the touchdown point so as to lose control (the aircraft weathervanes) at a place of your choosing. In strong wind it will stop right away and your biggest problem may be taxiing to a tiedown. In this case get a wing walker to hang on to the upwind wing.

If your aircraft tailwheel is not steerable (you have a tailwheel lock or it is full swivel only) it is especially important that airplane and runway heading are exactly the same. Do not take your aileron input out at this time as most students wish to do. Keep on "tiptoeing" down the runway. It is more important to stay parallel to the runway than it is to stay in the center. If you are parallel and on the side, be happy, do not try to go back to the center. When the airplane speed is so slow that you would let a fourteen year old drug addict taxi your airplane, decide where to turn off the runway and do so.

The wheel landing is over.

Member Tony Markl is a "...17,000 hour pilot, that still LOVES to fly". He offers flight training in his taildragger and teaches fabric re-covering workshops. You may email him directly.

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