Okay, I admit it. I was introduced to flying in taildraggers. Almost by definition, that dates me to the middle of the last century. Today, there are a diminishing number of conventional-gear airplanes still in production, most targeted at the bush plane or aerobatics markets.
When it came time to go shopping for that first airplane in 1966, the least expensive types available had the third wheel mounted beneath the elevator. Most of the immediate post-war candidates were built before 1950, when there were few nosewheel-equipped general aviation airplanes available.
No, this isn’t another of those “Real pilots aviate in front of tailwheels, and only wusses fly behind nosewheels” diatribes. While there’s no question tricycle gear has a number of advantages over conventional gear, and versa visa, we’ll leave the philosophical argument over which is “better” to smarter folks.
Though my first two years of flying were spent in a Cub before I was old enough to take legal instruction, my 58 legitimate hours for the Private ticket were flown in a Piper Colt and a Champion Tri-Traveler, the latter a terrible thing to do to a Champ. Like most new pilots with a limited budget, I rented a variety of nosewheel machines before accumulating enough disposable income to dispose of it on an airplane.
Eventually, at about 100 hours total time, I was seduced by a 1946 Globe Swift GC-1B. Of course, aesthetics won out over logic. Sex appeal cannot be denied, and the Swift’s aesthetic attraction usually made it the most outstanding airplane on any ramp. It also didn’t hurt that the Swift I chose was priced at only $3,750 (remember, this was 1967).
Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into. I learned to love my Swift anyway. It was a fun little, low-wing, retractable taildragger, but it had more than its share of warts.
The 125 hp Continental engine wasn’t nearly enough power (is there ever enough?). Many GC-1Bs and practically all the initial 85 hp GC-1As have since been converted to 145, 160, 180 or even 210 hp. Accordingly, climb and cruise with the stock engine never lived up to the flight manual’s promise.
The Swift’s electro-hydraulic gear was reluctant to retract the wheels when the motor got hot (which was most of the time in summer). I learned to pull the gear circuit breaker on hot days to avoid burning up the motor, climb with the gear half up until I reached a cooler altitude, then pop the breaker back in and try again.
The Swift’s switchology was marginal, at best. The flap actuator was shaped like a wheel, and the gear position selector was shaped like a flap, though with a spring-loaded button that needed to be depressed to flip the control to the “up” position. Flaps were either full up or full down in about two seconds—no intermediate settings in between.
You had to fill both wing tanks and the center aux tank through a single point on the left wing and wait for fuel to run across to the other tanks. Depending upon the efficiency of the crossfill system, this could prolong fueling considerably.
More to the point, the airplane was something of a squirrel in crosswinds, especially on approach to a short field. If you allowed airspeed to deteriorate with a high angle of attack, the wheel wells could create buffeting and generate a premature stall, dropping the airplane in before you were ready.
On the plus side, the GC-1B was blessed with the quickest handling of any scaled-down, post WWII, make-believe copy of a Curtiss P-40. Roll rate was the fastest of any general aviation airplane I’d flown at the time, and elevator response was right now. Only the rudder was relatively ineffective.
(Several years later, I flew a 210 hp Swift that practically knocked my hat in the creek, and rudder control during takeoff was practically nil. I learned from the owner how he compensated for lack of rudder power on the ground. The mod had been certified by the Feds with a simple placard that suggested limiting takeoff power to 24 inches, intended to minimize the effect of torque. The owner put me in the left seat, had me align the airplane on the runway with the nose 40 degrees to the right of center, floor the right rudder and cob the throttle. Of course, the massive amount of torque would pull the nose hard left, and, perhaps by coincidence, the Super Swift would be ready to rotate in a few hundred feet, just about the time the airplane was tracking straight down the centerline and ready to fly.)
I assumed my time in the miniature taildraggers I’d flown in CAP had prepared me for the Swift. Instead, I got a well-deserved lesson in humility. The Swift was more than a handful on the ground, especially for a low-time pilot who was too arrogant to believe he needed a checkout.
I wound up flying with the only pilot I could find willing to help me with the transition. He had a thousand hours in the type, and it showed. He wasn’t an instructor, but he understood the airplane’s handling quirks both on the ground and in the air. He demonstrated the Swift’s good and bad points, and watched patiently as I bounced all over Southern California during a three-hour checkout.
I learned that many of the myths about the short-coupled little taildragger were just that. Others turned out to be exaggerations. Though the rudders weren’t very effective, takeoffs with the standard 125 hp engine weren’t much of a challenge unless you had a strong left crosswind, compounding the left-turning tendency of torque. Sometimes, I had to delay a flight or change runways because the left crosswind was too strong.
On landing, however, trying to plant the Swift from a three-point attitude—what the Navy used to call “kerplunk” in the days when carrier-based airplanes flew in front of tailwheels—would often result in a stall that would drop the airplane to the ground before you were ready. That wasn’t so bad if you were trying to catch the two wire on the Enterprise, but not a great idea on more conventional runways.
The obvious solution was to land in the more conventional, tail-up wheel attitude, pin the main gear to the ground with forward stick, then lower the aft wheel to the grass.
It seems everyone who’s read Rod Machado, the late Bill Kershner, King Schools or Jeppesen training manuals knows that tailwheel airplanes position the CG well behind the main gear, whereas nose gear machines place the balance point farther forward, well in front of the big wheels. The obvious benefit of a nosewheel is that it’s self-centering, whereas a tailwheel tends to exaggerate any mistake, adding inertia to a deviation from centerline.
I have a friend in Arizona, a longtime instructor, who believes every pilot should learn to a fly in a Pitts, certainly one of the most sensitive trainers available. He has educated several pilots all the way to the Private ticket in his S2A.
I’ve flown the gamut of aerobatic two-seaters, and teaching ab initio students to fly in a Pitts would certainly school a student in proper use of the rudder pedals.
Amazingly, I survived 500 hours in that first airplane without any adverse experiences. Three years after buying the Swift, I purchased a 1950 Bellanca Cruisemaster with four seats and a triple tail, another taildragger, but I loved the Swift so much, I kept it for four more years. Just what I needed—two taildraggers.
I finally sold the Swift to an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot. On his second flight, he flew it to Las Vegas, lost control in a nasty left crosswind at McCarran and totaled the airplane. The pilot walked away with only an empty wallet and cuts and bruises, but if I’d been there when he wiped out my beloved Swift, he might have had a few more bruises.
Inevitably, I moved on to a succession of other airplanes, and only the first three were taildraggers. As mentioned above, I’m neither an advocate nor a detractor of tailwheels or nosewheels. Personally, I think tailwheels are a lot more fun, but nosewheels are probably easier to manage in adverse wind conditions. Anything that makes flying safer can’t be all bad.
I still miss my Swift.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.