Why are conventional gear aircraft favored for bush flying?
Most modern pilots have been trained to fly aircraft that have tricycle landing gear. The mere thought of flying a tail dragger is intimidating to outright terrifying to pilots who haven’t flown them. If you are in this group, the first thing to do is RELAX. Flying a tail dragger is not difficult, like a bike, it just takes some practice.
Most pilots get the hang of it in five or so hours, and the training is fun. Besides, having a tail wheel endorsement on your license marks you as a serious pilot in the aviation community and even Boeing 747-400 pilots will say “Oh really?” with enthusiasm when told that you have flown tail draggers. That is, if he or she doesn’t get all misty-eyed about the times they flew tail wheels.
There’s really no adequate way in which to describe what flying a tail wheel plane is like, except to do it. Pilots generally describe it in various ways (much as airplane pilots describe the transition to helicopters). The only common thread in the stories of neophyte tail wheel pilots is that the tail seems particularly twitchy until one gets the hang of it. If the tail gets too twitchy, the plane can ground loop which, while rarely dangerous to the pilots, can lead to damage to the airplane.
What is a ground loop and why do tail draggers do it?
By its inherent design a tail dragger has its main wheels located ahead of its center of gravity. If the landing gear wasn’t positioned ahead of the CG, the plane would sit on its nose, so it’s an element of tail wheel aircraft that cannot be changed. Because the wheels are ahead of the mass of the airplane, when the wheels are moving on the ground the mass behind them naturally wants to get ahead of the wheels. To illustrate this, let’s say were not too smart (we have to say this, otherwise none of us would be on this site!) and we take a bad mitten birdie. We take the birdie and throw it backwards with its feathery end facing the direction of our throw. As soon as we throw it, the birdie will do and abrupt 180 degree turn around and continue with its heavier rubber nose leading the way. The mass of the birdie naturally seeks to lead the way. When a tail dragger is allowed to do the same thing on the ground, it is called a ground loop and is heavily frowned upon in the tail dragger community. Ground loops can cause everything from embarrassment (if at slow speeds) to gear and gearbox damage (at higher speeds). Particularly nasty ground loops can damage wings and wingtips because as the plane goes around, the outside wing tends to fall. If it goes down far enough, it will strike the ground.
With all of this in mind, should we—the non-tail dragging pilots of the universe—fear the ground loop? Not, non, nyet, no way, never and not at all. Ground loops are scary and so are bogeymen that hang out under children’s beds. Most of us out grow our fear of bogeymen and while ground loops are a little more real than bogeymen, to experienced tail wheel pilots, they both have the same fear factor. Once again, learning to fly tail wheels may be a little intimidating at first, but soon that fear evaporates into nothing.
Why is all this fuss made about ground loops?
At the end of the Second World War, the major aircraft manufacturers suddenly found themselves faced with the gloomy reality that not nearly as many planes were going to be needed as had been required during the war years. At first, they anticipated a huge boom in civil aviation, because of all the pilots returning from the war, but this was not to be. Also, with the mass of airplanes they had produced during the war, it was unlikely that pilots were going to buy a new version—even a reworked version—of a plane that could easily be bought surplus from the military. Cubs, Aeronicas and Cessnas could literally be had for a song and the author’s father—who flew P-38s in the Army Air Corp (as it was known then) bought a surplus P-38 for $1,500. This made it kinda hard to sell a cub for the same money even if the cub could claim it was new and the P-38 was surplus. Now the P-38 was not really a suitable family or business plane, but it illustrates just how cheap surplus planes were at the end of the war. Cubs could be had for a few hundred dollars, C-47s (DC-3s) for a couple of thousand dollars and so on. While many things occurred that got the manufacturers through this period other than to switch to tricycle landing gear, trigear planes were new, could not be purchased surplus (other than odd P-38s!) and where seized upon by manufacturers as the wave of the future. All of the sudden conventional landing gear became passé and the people in the know only flew trigear planes. The major manufacturers did all they could to denounce the tail dragger and part of this was to create the myth that ground loops were a very real danger and tail draggers weren’t the way to go.
Okay, tail draggers aren’t that bad, but why are they favored for the bush? At first, and to an extent to this day with some trigear planes, the nose wheel on trigear planes was not very strong. Some nose gears are just not up to the rigors of bush flying and if a nose wheel fails miles from a mechanic, it can be quite an expensive proposition to get the airplane’s nose wheel fixed. Most modern trigear planes have nose gears that can take a good deal of punishment but they can still be a weak link in the proverbial chain. A more important difference relates to aerodynamics, and the differences between conventional and tricycle gear aircraft.
Remember how the wheels of a tail dragger are ahead of the center of gravity? In a trigear plane, the opposite is true. The main gear on a trigear plane are comfortably behind the center of gravity (otherwise the plane would always sit on its tail with the nose gear dangling in the air doing nothing). Once again, this is inherent to the tricycle gear design and cannot be changed (unless one converts the plane to a tail dragger!). Because the main wheels are located behind the center of gravity, when it comes time to take off, not only do the elevators have to have enough force to pitch the plane so it will take off, they also must have extra force to pitch the plane up on its main wheels which are behind the CG. This requires more speed for the elevators to generate the required force and this means the trigear plane needs more distance to take-off than it would if it had a tail wheel. To illustrate this (and fortunately we don’t need to be stupid this time), consider a Cessna 180 and an early model 182. Both planes were identical in all particulars except the landing gear. Because of the differences we have discussed, the 180 will always get into the air faster than the 182 under the same conditions. True enough, a 180 taking off from muddy grass on a hot day may not leap into the air as fast as a 182 on concrete on a cold day, but everything even, the 180 takes to the air first, every time. Also, pilot technique has a good deal to do with this too, so Freddy Fudpucker might not be able to get his 180 in the air as fast as Francis Fliesright in his spiffy 182.
Now it should be remembered that the differences between the take-off distances between the 180 and 182 will not be great, and it isn’t like the 182 needs an extra mile or two of runway over the heavenly ascending 180. But there is a difference and in the bush, that difference can lead to not being able to land at a really neat spot because our brand new Trigear Tigerocious 1000 won’t get out of the same spot whereas Francis Fliesright (who has seen the error of his way and switched to a 180) happy lands with no fear. This is the real reason tail draggers rule the bush and always will.
At this juncture it should be mentioned that there are plenty of trigear planes flying into the bush. There’s nothing wrong with trigear planes and the author does not wish to wish removed from the Christmas mailing list of all the trigear pilots out there that perceive this article as being snotty to the trigear types. The simple fact is that tail draggers are, and always will be, more suited for the bush.
Now, let's relax and watch a video about puppy dogs.
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