It’s still an airplane,” insisted Damian DelGaizo, as I hesitantly leveled out over a grass strip much shorter than I was used to. “Don’t overthink it.” In the flare, I tried my best to pretend that the Top Cub’s main wheels weren’t actually there, per Damian’s coaching, but it’s not that easy to ignore 31-inch tundra tires. Easing the stick back, I focused on the tailwheel instead. After a dance between altitude, airspeed and imagination, we touched down on all three wheels. But before I could even exhale—“Rudder, rudder, rudder!” exclaimed my instructor. “Stay alive on the rudder.” Although we were earthbound, the landing was far from over. Small jabs—playful yet authoritative—on the rudder pedals kept our yellow beauty pointed in the same direction we were moving. Slowing down, small inputs became large ones, and we rolled to a stop on the bumpy grass.
One wouldn’t expect to go bush flying only 50 miles from New York City, yet with a bit of ingenuity Damian’s school, Andover Flight Academy, succeeds in creating challenging and realistic backcountry settings in rural New Jersey. With parallel grass and paved runways bordered by lakes on both ends, Aeroflex-Andover Airport (which is contained entirely within a state park) can be as challenging as you make it—and Damian does. The school’s training playground extends to nearby strips; one has a path cut out through trees at such an angle that you don’t even see the runway until short final, and all have the potential for wildlife crossings, including bears.
With more than 15,000 hours of mostly tailwheel time, Damian began the “college of taildragger knowledge” in 1987 as an extension of his love for bush flying. For more than 25 years, the tailwheel expert has taught the likes of actors Harrison Ford and James Brolin as well as pilots from Africa and Europe.
Even if you don’t own or ever plan to own a taildragger, the training is still beneficial. Lest you develop bad habits from flying nosewheel aircraft (which are more forgiving), Damian and his team of instructors have the fix. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve noticed a deterioration in stick and rudder skills,” he said. “Students often suffer from a lack of situational awareness, chasing gauges and losing sight of flying the airplane. We provide tailwheel endorsements, but the training encompasses basic airmanship, which is becoming a lost art.”
With most of my flight time in a glass-panel Cirrus SR22, I was anxious to learn what my transition would entail. I spent two intense days training with Damian to find out.
Our learning platform was a 2005 CubCrafters Top Cub, the newest addition to Andover Flight Academy’s fleet, which also includes a Piper J-3 (L-4) Cub and a 1943 Boeing Stearman PT-17. The modern-day Super Cub looks like its predecessor but has a stronger fuselage, a more powerful engine (180 hp Lycoming O-360) and an increased gross weight (2,300 pounds). Optional goodies include Garmin avionics and Bose headset connections, but as is typical of taildraggers, it’s not what’s inside that’s important—instead, the Top Cub is about flying and feeling.
“We’ve got the world’s biggest glass cockpit—it’s right outside the windshield,” joked Damian. “I’m not saying that gauges aren’t important, but flying solely by numbers is like paint-by-numbers. At the end of the day, you might have the Mona Lisa, but it ain’t quite the same.” A taildragger demands finesse of its pilot, who learns to feel the aircraft and fly by the “seat of their pants.”
The tandem two-seat aircraft cruises at 127 mph, and vortex generators (which come standard) reduce stall speed to just 48 mph. With takeoffs and landings easily accomplished in 300 to 350 feet, the short-field star makes the 1,981-foot runways at Andover seem to stretch forever.
Our plan was to fly two sessions per day, with plenty of ground school before, between and after. My pre-arrival homework had been to practice soft-field landings in a nosewheel aircraft to get a feel for the sight picture of a taildragger. I practiced in a Cessna 172 until I could do touch-and-goes without ever letting the nose touch down, but I constantly found myself peering over the front of the aircraft, rather than using my peripheral vision. This was disconcerting, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to “cheat” like this with Damian watching from behind.
Although the flight school has a casual atmosphere—old jeans and baseball caps are de rigueur—Damian and his staff take training very seriously. In a wood-paneled office cluttered with countless aviation mementos, I sat on a worn-out floppy sofa while my tailwheel guru used a dry erase board and a wooden aircraft model—everything’s “old school” at Andover—during two hours of thorough ground school.
A discussion ensued about the main differences between nosewheel and tailwheel aircraft: ground handling, amount of backstick on landing and sight picture. The geometry and location of the center of gravity in relation to the main gear makes taildraggers less forgiving. Groundloops—to be avoided at all costs—are preceded by a swerve. And should a swerve occur, apply opposite rudder and brake, and follow with a “popping or pulsing” of the throttle while applying ailerons into the swerve. Easy, right? I sank into the sofa.
“A taildragger always wants to rotate into the wind,” explained Damian as I took copious notes, “therefore it’s crucial to use controls properly while taxiing and think ahead of the plane.” If it’s a quartering headwind, climb into the wind; a quartering tailwind, dive away. Because of the limited visibility on the ground, it’s often necessary to taxi using S-turns, but be aware that the tail can hit lights and other objects. When pivoting, use power then brake, but keep the tire spinning so as not to lock it. Avoid high rpm on the ground, which could send too much wind over the elevators.
“You can learn a lot about an airplane just by looking at it,” he continued. “If it has a small rudder and large elevator, don’t get the tail up too quickly.” During acceleration on takeoff, smaller rudder inputs are used, and while decelerating on landing, larger rudder inputs will be required. And apparently, it makes a difference whether you press the rudders using your thighs or ankles—not something I had ever considered. “Put your heels on the floor and flex your ankles,” he advised. “This way you can make faster and lighter inputs—a tap dance on the rudder.”
My task on takeoff would be to concentrate on the ever-important rudder, and not the stick. From a three-point attitude to a two-point attitude to rotation, I should be guided by the edges of the runway out of my peripheral vision.
Power settings and speeds for the pattern were straightforward: on downwind at 2,100 rpm, abeam the landing spot at 1,500 rpm, first notch of flaps at 70 mph, on base throw in the second notch of flaps at 65 to 70 mph, and on final maintain 60 to 65 mph.
I should begin to level off at 10 feet above the ground, and finish leveling off at six feet. That seemed awfully precise, but Damian explained how to manage it by taking control of the sight picture: “Change your sight picture before leveling off. Don’t let the airplane’s position change it for you.” When the runway was made, I was to look down to the end of the runway. And that’s all there was to it—at least on the dry erase board.
In The Air
At first glance the school’s Top Cub can appear intimidating. Sitting atop 31-inch Alaskan Bushwheels (which, Damian thoughtfully pointed out, would make my training more challenging due to the higher deck angle) attached to three-inch extended heavy-duty landing gear, it felt a bit like the aviation version of a monster truck.
The Top Cub is flown solo from the front seat, so my instructor climbed in the back. Right off the bat I had trouble with the heel brakes—it just didn’t feel natural. I was eager to fly, but Damian had more patience. We progressed from high-speed straight taxis to step-by-step (or “bite-by-bite”) taxis, moving from centerline to the right and left of the runway.
For the initial takeoff, I had to keep my hands in my lap and use only rudder. With each subsequent takeoff, we added a new step until I knew by feel when the tail should be raised. We practiced shallow and steep turns, as well as slow flight and stalls.
In the pattern, we worked on three-point landings with full flaps, 50% flaps and no flaps. After each landing, we paused to discuss my performance and the surroundings (“Look at those birds in a thermal on short final. They indicate unstable air, so be prepared.”) before taking off again. These mini-debriefs helped greatly.
During the second session of the day, the focus was on slips and engine outs. With each pattern, the voice in my headset sounded less often, and I flew without any coaching. We practiced crosswind landings and takeoffs with a “snake dance”: roll onto one wheel, then both, then the other wheel
The next morning found us back at the dry erase board. “Wheel landings are like landing a 172,” said Damian. “Use the same flare, but then gently push the nose forward to hold the wheels on the ground.” But as simple as it sounded, I flared too high and pushed the nose forward too abruptly. A few patterns later, it clicked, and after alternating between wheel landings and three-point landings, touch-and-goes and full-stops, Damian announced that I had successfully completed the course. His endorsement in my logbook represented a secret code to a formerly inaccessible world, and I felt, well, kind of cool.
You can learn a lot in one weekend, but not everything. It’s important to fly often and under different conditions to keep your skills sharp. Andover Flight Academy offers an Advanced Tailwheel/Bush Flying Course, focusing on extreme short- and soft-field techniques, and operating in confined areas. Transition training, biplane checkouts and aerobatics training are also provided in the Stearman.
As I headed back to California, I wondered if the tailwheel experience might somehow interfere with or contradict my training in the high-performance Cirrus. But what I found was that even though the Top Cub has completely different handling characteristics, lessons learned in a taildragger can be applied to any aircraft. Always keep coordinated, fly using sight pictures and most importantly, stay on top of the rudder.
Andover Flight Academy