Takeoff in a Taildragger
Your first takeoff in a taildragger might seem like some kind of exercise is
s-turns on the runway, but with a little understanding of what is happening,
getting a few techniques down, and a little practice, you'll soon be able to
make nice, straight, and clean takeoffs in the taildragger.
In this overview section, we will explain the basic takeoff
procedure in a taildragger. The next section will break down the forces
acting on the taildragger in more detail.
Takeoff in a taildragger starts about like a takeoff in any
airplane. You taxi out onto the runway, get the airplane lined up with
the center line, get the tailwheel straightened out, and begin applying
power. You will see that right rudder is immediately required to keep the
airplane rolling straight down the runway. You must look straight down
the runway throughout the entire takeoff roll with full attention and use the
rudder to keep the airplane going straight. Don't let anything distract
you from paying full attention to maintaining directional control. Do not
underestimate the taildragger's ability to quickly get you in trouble if you
fail to heed this advice.
Taildraggers are essentially designed to sit at their stall
angle of attack on the ground for landing purposes. This is not the ideal
situation for takeoff. You need to raise the tail a little during the
takeoff roll to achieve something closer to the airplane's normal climb angle
of attack. You accomplish this by applying forward stick/yoke fairly
early in the takeoff roll. Be prepared for an extra dose of right rudder
when the tail comes up. Hold this attitude and allow the airplane to fly
off the runway.
You don't worry about the airspeed indicator during takeoff in a
taildragger. You're not waiting to achieve "V1" at
which point you pull back on the stick/yoke to rotate and lift off as you do in
a nose wheel airplane. Just the opposite is true in a taildragger.
As discussed above, you actually push forward on the stick/yoke to lower
the nose as it's too high when sitting on the tailwheel. Some folks
raise the tail too high, then do pull back on the stick/yoke to "rotate" and
lift off. This is not the correct way to make a takeoff in a
taildragger. You want to raise the tail just a little to a normal climb
attitude and let the airplane fly itself off. Airspeed is irrelevant
during the takeoff roll in a taildragger. You're flying the airplane by
pitch attitude, not airspeed numbers. In climb, the airspeed indicator is
just used as a reference to make sure you have the correct pitch
attitude. You tweak the pitch attitude to maintain the desired
airspeed. Once the taildragger lifts off, you certainly use the airspeed
indicator in this manner, but when rolling down the runway, you are highly
concerned with marinating directional control, not waiting for any desired
airspeed. The airplane will fly off when it's ready. Then you can
start using the airspeed indicator as you normally would in climb.
It cannot be emphasized enough that you need to have all eyes
looking straight down the runway on takeoff. You're actually flying a
taildragger off the runway from the moment you started your takeoff roll.
You need to pay full attention to controlling the airplane, especially keeping
it going straight down the runway. You should have a feel for a good
pitch attitude that allows the airplane to just fly itself off the
runway. The ideal situation is to raise the tail to attain a normal climb
attitude, the airplane flies itself off the ground in that attitude, and you
continue to hold that exact attitude for climb as it is the normal climb
attitude. That makes a pretty takeoff and climb out in a taildragger.
Next we'll look at the forces at work acting on the taildragger
during takeoff that require you to use all that right rudder to keep the
airplane going straight down the runway.
Forces at Work
Torque is a major factor acting on the airplane at all times when the
engine is running. It's there when you're sitting on the ramp with the
engine idling. It's there when you're doing your run-up. It's there
when you're in cruise. It's there during takeoff too, and in a
taildragger, this is one of the times it's most noticeable. In the
average taildragger most of us fly, it is most noticeable early in the takeoff
roll. Essentially, torque is the tendency for the propeller to stop and
the airplane to turn. The more horsepower an airplane has, the stronger
the effect of torque on that airplane. A 65 HP J-3 Cub does not have a
lot of torque, but it is (barely) noticeable and cannot be ignored. A 300
HP Cessna 195 has very noticeable torque and must be countered properly during
takeoff or you'll end up in the weeds for sure. Imagine what torque must
be like in a P-51 Mustang! In these really powerful airplanes, you have
to bring in the power incrementally as you pick up speed so you don't introduce
more torque than you have available rudder with which to counteract the torque.
The bottom line is that when you add power for takeoff, you must
get on the right rudder to counteract torque. Torque is trying to turn
the airplane to the left.
P-Factor is caused when the plane of the propeller is moving through the
air at an angle. With the airplane in a nose-high attitude in relation to
the path of the airplane, as is the case in a taildragger starting its takeoff
roll, the plane of the propeller is not moving perpendicular through the
air. The air is coming at the propeller at an angle from below.
This means that the propeller blade moving downward has a higher angle of
attack than the blade moving upward. Since the blade on the airplane's
right hand side is moving downward it is realizing a higher angle of attack,
therefore producing a little more "lift". Since the blade on the
airplane's left hand side is moving up, it realizes the slightly lower angle of
attack and produces a little less "lift". So, the right hand side of the
propeller is pulling a little harder than the left hand side. This tends
to turn the airplane to the left. If the airplane is not moving, there is
no P-Factor at all. As the airplane begins to roll down the runway,
The bottom line is that this force also requires right rudder to
counteract. This force gets stronger as the airplane picks up speed, but
the rudder also becomes more effective as you pick up speed. This force
is reduced once you have the tail raised, but is still there because you do not
raise the tail high enough to completely eliminate this force.
This force only acts on the airplane during the moment the tail is moving
up. The propeller is a pretty good gyro. When you apply a force to
a gyro, it reacts 90 degrees in the direction of rotation. When you are
raising the tail, you are essentially changing the plane of the propeller
"gyro" as if you were pushing on the top of the propeller arc from
behind. Since the propeller is turning clockwise when viewed from behind,
and since a "gyro" reacts with a force 90 degrees in the direction of rotation,
the reaction comes as if you were pushing from behind on the right side of the
propeller arc. This tends to turn the airplane to the left. The
more horsepower the engine has, the stronger this gyroscope reaction will
be. In airplanes with a lot of power, you will need to be careful not to
bring the tail up too soon, before you have enough speed and therefore rudder
effectiveness to counteract this force.
The bottom line is that while the tail is coming up, an extra
dose of right rudder is required to keep the airplane straight. A good
taildragger pilot will anticipate the tail coming up and be there an instant
before with the right rudder so the nose never moves, rather than waiting to
see the nose to start to the left and then kicking it back with the right
rudder. Once the tail stops coming up, you let off the right rudder a
little because the gyroscope effect stops, and at this time, you have reduced
the angle at which the plane of the propeller is moving through the air, so
P-Factor has also been reduced. Also, when the tail comes up, you lose
the traction provided by the tailwheel, so this too causes a little more rudder
to be required.
Once the tail is up, the airplane is picking up speed, so the
rudder is becoming more effective. As the rudder becomes more effective,
less rudder is required to do the same job. The typical taildragger
takeoff may require a lot of right rudder during the initial moments of
takeoff, maybe even sustained doses of full right rudder. During the end
of the takeoff, you have pretty much reduced right rudder usage to that normal
during a climb. When the airplane flies off the runway, you are
essentially in a normal climb, and we all know that a little right rudder is
required in the climb, whether in a taildragger or a nose wheel airplane, to
counteract torque and P-Factor.
Techniques to Learn and Use
Look straight down the runway
During a taildragger takeoff, you should look straight down the runway at
all times and keep on the rudders to keep the airplane going straight.
Don't concern yourself with the airspeed, waiting for V1 so
you can rotate. That's not how it works in a taildragger. There is
no rotation in a normal taildragger takeoff. Your first and foremost
attention should be paid to keeping the airplane straight and getting the tail
up to attain the proper angle of attack so the airplane flies itself off.
You're flying the airplane off the runway like they did in the old days, not
like they do in today's modern aircraft. Hopefully you're flying a
taildragger in the first place because you like to fly, not watch gauges and
push buttons on fancy radios and other equipment. You're a pilot when you fly a
taildragger, not a cockpit resource manager!
Learn to anticipate right rudder when needed. When you start applying
takeoff power, apply right rudder at the same time. Don't wait for the nose to
move to the left, then come in with rudder and move it back. Keep ahead
of the airplane. The same holds true when the tail comes up, as mentioned
above in the gyroscope discussion. Anticipate that tail coming up.
Be ready to lead that with right rudder so that when the tail comes up the nose
doesn't move, rather than waiting for the nose to move to the left, then
pushing in right rudder to bring it back straight. You may be a moment
too late and full right rudder won't be enough to get the nose back straight.
Use your feet
Use you feet aggressively at first. The taildragger wants to do
everything but go straight down the runway. Work your feet like crazy and
stay ahead of the airplane. You're better off to use a little too much rudder a
little too quickly than to let the airplane get ahead of you and heading off
towards the weeds on either side of the runway because you can definitely get
too far behind in a hurry and not be able to get the airplane straight
again. You will probably pull the power off at that point, but you're
probably going to end up in the weeds or the ditch along side the runway, and
that's if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, you may end up plowing
through other airplanes on a taxiway or parked on the ramp.
Takeoff Summary Outline
Line the airplane up with the runway center line
Get the tailwheel straight
Look straight down the runway
Apply power gently
Keep looking straight down the runway and keep the airplane straight with the
Apply a little forward stick to raise the tail as necessary
Anticipate the tail coming up and be ready with more right rudder at that time
Keep looking straight down the runway and keep the airplane straight with the
Hold your climb angle of attack until the airplane flies off the runway
Begin your climb out holding that same angle of attack
Now check your airspeed and make minor pitch adjustments as necessary
This section will be updated soon. Please bear with us, but
feel free to bug us if you get tired of waiting!
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