Three Point vs. Wheel Landings

dc3Much like our politics, amateur tailwheel pilots tend to suffer from polarization.

You are either in the three point or wheel landing camp. This is not a grown up way to learn about your favorite hobby.

Why? Because each aircraft type, set of conditions or the landing environment will help you choose the right solution.  It will drive home that there is rarely a panacea via “one solution.”

In the spirit of Dale Carnegie, I’ll start with my own biased world view. I have a fair amount of tailwheel time, but mostly in one aircraft type – the Cessna 180 / 185 family. Whether there was 230 or 300 hp on the nose, one thing to me became clear – this make and model, under most conditions, preferred wheel landings.

Whoa! Already so much push back.  Let me explain.

I flew this thing daily for years. I flew it out of short unimproved strips and landed it in the same places.

Initially I didn’t know what to do, and when properly scared and unsure I reverted to what I had first learned – the 3 point. Why? Because I knew that I wasn’t far from stopping if I could land it close to stall speed. As a recent convert from trike gear – it seemed the easiest.

That all changed the day Mike Ball showed me a few tricks, while practicing on the grass next to the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine. “Simply trim it nose low, or carry a little power, and release that back pressure (or chop the throttle) when you feel the grass touching the tires.”

That was it. In one second I had gone from fear to acceptance of the wheel landing.

But let me emphasize one thing. This was in the CE 185. It liked it. But I wasn’t worldly enough to know which airplanes simply wouldn’t tolerate a wheel landing.

I would later learn that while the DC 3 and many other vintage taildraggers simply preferred to touch down tail low or in the wheel attitude some didn’t.

Enjoying this new skill opened up some new benefits:

  1. final approach could be flown at the same speed
  2. I could see what was going on – all the time!
  3. touching down, “tail low” and letting it rise after touch down was an even “better” technique (reduce angle of attack / more braking)
  4. dumping (retracting) flaps right after touchdown added more braking authority
  5. stopping distances could be the same or lower than the three point landings
  6. the entire experience could be less stressful than staring up and out the dash, hoping that rudder and braking authority would save any sudden directional shift

But let me underscore the pro-wheel landing diatribe above – it was specific to the CE 180 / 185.

Many tailwheel planes, including noteable WWII fighter planes, simply can’t do wheel landings. Propeller clearance (in the P 47, for example) and geometry simply made three point landings a must.

The reason why this debate rages on is that we (as a community of taildragger pilots) tend to only fly one type. If you are a private pilot, who has a hard time flying more than 100 or 50 hours per year, odds are that you are not only flying one type, but that landings aren’t a daily affair, in crappy conditions no less.  You simply can’t be as proficient as a pro who does it daily.

High time DC 3, Pilatus Porter and other working taildraggers will confirm what is stated above: Context is critical. Conditions count and aircraft type and design should guide you.

Getting It Right

Imagine knowing that each landing had a near zero percentage chance of a ground loop, bounce or embarrassment?

It is possible, but the investment is abandoning any security some less than optimal solution may have given you. Here are two examples of where you might have fallen for incorrect assumptions:

Wheel landings require more speed and / or a flatter approach.

No, all approaches should be the same. In fact, a nice stabilized approach, whilst carrying a smidgen of power could be best. (Or in a complete glide for extra points!) Either way, it doesn’t matter how slow, or steep your approach is. What matters is the moment of contact: Your tail rises, the weight transfers to the mains, as you touch down. The compression on the mains of “landing” is ok (and will not bounce you) so long as the tail rises (aka cut the throttle or release the back pressure) as you touch down. If you can be sure that that is happening in one fluid motion, you will amaze yourself how much control and stopping power you have once the mains are on.

Three point landings set me up for a ground loop.

Not so.  I used to fly in Labrador with a venerable bush pilot who grew up in Helio Couriers and Cessna 180 / 185s. He three pointed *all the time* for a few simple reasons.

#1 The Helio had leading edge slats that popped out once the angle of attack changed enough (increased enough) that you were set up for landing. Since they were automatic and spring loaded, he didn’t want them being indecisive in an attitude that would lead to them slamming in and out. Pitch it back, keep it back and touch down in the three point attitude and you had a graceful extremely short landing. This is arguably the only way to land a Helio.

#2 He had a tailwheel lock. Being able to put the tailwheel on first, in many cases, is key. No matter the cross wind, this allowed him to be sure that it would “keel effect” the airplane straight. And this was happening before the mains touched. Once they did, he had ample aileron authority to keep the upwind wing “under” the wind so that there was no pick up and ground loop invitation. Speeds were so low that transition from flying to stopping was nearly instantaneous when the winds were really blowing. (Groundspeed 10 kts when it was 35 kts down the runway, or 40 plus from the side.)

Never Stop Learning

The best thing we can learn from this debate is to realize that there are no absolutes. Odds are that your field, your aircraft type and your dedication to building skill in your airplane will lead you to the right solution. As a long time CFI and CE 180 / 185 person I can tell you that in nearly 100% of the cases where I had to land very short, the wheel landing was the only choice. Keep in mind, I started my time in the airplane as an exclusively three point person.

If I had been a Helio owner / operator, however, things would have turned out very differently, and for valid reasons.

Much like our politics, we might want to look at the “why” it is that we believe what we do. Swearing allegiance to a technique, based purely on our limited world view, limits our knowledge.

And we never want such limits translating to safety and performance.

One thought on “Three Point vs. Wheel Landings”

  1. I have to agree with the Author regarding wheel landings specifically in high wing Cessna aircraft with the sprung steel gear. I owned a 56 Cessna 172 converted to tailwheel for several years and got very comfortable wheel landing in very windy gusty conditions. Now I’m flying an L-19 Bird Dog for a flying museum and am totally comfortable once again using the same techniques I learned in my own Cessna years prior. I still practice three point landings but for airshows on long asphalt in challenging conditions, the wheel landing gives me the control needed for consistent, safe landings. The Bird Dog had been damaged 3-4 times prior by other pilots and when I asked them the conditions and type of landing, it was always a three point on asphalt when the ground loops occurred. If the aircraft is even slightly sideways during a three point at touchdown on asphalt, it can quickly become Mr. Toads wild ride. With the wheel landing, your in control of your destiny and can go around much easier if things don’t feel right. This is just my opinion but is based on 600hrs of successful tailwheel flying. The day may come for me when it happens, but so far I’ve stayed out of trouble with my landings. I do a lot of flying in my head and visualize tailwheel landings with crosswind. This “chair” flying is very important and can help develop mental skills that seem to translate to muscle memory when it really counts.

    Mike Roach

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