Ever since I first flew in a J-3 Cub some 10 years ago, I’ve wanted to get my tailwheel endorsement. It’s hard to believe that 10 years have gone by, but life events made getting a tailwheel endorsement a challenge. I’ve flown in other people’s taildraggers, but you don’t get to just take other people’s airplanes and go out to practice landings (for good reason). And between constant moves, a lack of money, a long break from flying, and most recently a lack of time, I struggled to find my way back into a taildragger.
So when I saw the application for a tailwheel scholarship from Ladies Love Taildraggers, I jumped on it. About two years ago, I found my way back into flight instructing, and I knew that getting my tailwheel endorsement and doing some tailwheel flying would make me a better instructor. But I’m the world’s biggest skeptic, so I didn’t expect to actually be awarded this scholarship, and it was a huge surprise when I got the news. I had resigned to the fact that my tailwheel training would be forever on my bucket list, or at least left unchecked until I was older/wiser/had more time/had more money. Plus, I’ve never really won anything in my entire life, so I had that going for me.
As it turns out, it was my time to get back into tailwheel training, after all. So, thanks to Judy Birchler and the generous scholarship from Tailwheels, Etc., I headed to Lakeland, Florida for a few days with the goal of getting my tailwheel endorsement.
I met with Travis at Tailwheels, Etc. on a Monday afternoon, and we got started right away. We talked about the looming thunderstorms – a routine part of summer afternoons in Florida – left turning tendencies, and the types of takeoffs and landings we’d practice, and then we headed down to the hangar to get the Citabria out. (By the way, if you’ve never been to Tailwheels, Etc., the Amundsens run a Class A operation, and their hangar is one any pilot would drool over. It’s full of beautiful airplanes.) After a quick preflight, we hopped into N725MS, the yellow and white 7ECA Citabria that would become my very best friend (or frenemy, maybe; I’m convinced that I liked 725MS way more than she liked me) for a few days. The Citabria – the 7ECA version of the Citabria, at least- is a short-winged, low-powered, flapless airplane that, as Bud Davisson suggests, does exactly what you tell it to do. It was as pretty as it was primitive, and a dream to fly. I strapped in, started up, and taxied to the fuel pump.
Sitting in front meant I had plenty of forward visibility, which would have been a bonus if I could stay on centerline to begin with. But it was here that I learned the first important lesson of tailwheel flying:
Don’t hold the rudder pedal down like you do in your tricycle gear airplane. Tap it. Let it go. And then tap the opposite rudder.
It took some taxi time to get used to the rudder, and while I knew Travis was in back wishing I had the skills to taxi at a faster pace, I was secretly enjoying being a student again. Over the course of the next few days, 725MS and I fumbled along with Travis’ help, taking off and landing over and over again. I’m certain that tailwheel instructors see a myriad of different things when they’re instructing, and as an instructor myself, it was fun to think about things from his point of view as I floundered around quite uncoordinated, bounced landings and executed go-arounds that probably made him cringe. I got the feeling that Travis was relieved that I could at least find my way to a normal pattern airspeed and approach configuration, but I trusted that he wouldn’t let his guard down. And while I’m sure he didn’t totally let his guard down, he did allow me to make the necessary mistakes on my own.
On the last day, as I was still struggling to do a damn wheel landing, Travis would let me botch the landing, and I’d go around and try again, just to get crazy with directional control once I was down on the runway. My sympathies – and gratitude – go out to him for allowing me the freedom to make the mistakes I needed to make.
And when Wednesday came I walked away with a tailwheel endorsement in my logbook. Success!
Until recently, I had thought of the tailwheel endorsement as sort of a bucket list item. It was something I knew I wanted to do and needed to do, but something I wasn’t sure I’d do on a regular basis. (I don’t have a tailwheel airplane. And tailwheel rental is rare because of insurance rates. And I have friends with taildraggers, but like I said, few people are going to let an inexperienced tailwheel pilot land their airplane that they just bought/built/repaired/etc.)
But now I’m certain that it’s not just a check mark on my bucket list. It’s a new aspiration, a new way to keep flying fun, and a new way to challenge myself. And since I got home from Florida, I’ve been perusing Trade-A-Plane ads for a Citabria. Or maybe a J-3.
Either way, I’ve gotten the tailwheel bug, and I think it’s here to stay.