Landing the Cessna Skywagon and Related Mythology

Let’s admit that all taildraggers are different.  Some way way different.  Some are easy and some are mean.  I have not landed a Douglas DC-3, but I bet it is easier than a Super Cub on a cross-windy day.

Regarding the cult of the Skywagon and related 185 / 180 obsessors, I can offer this from 47 years of breathing, 25 of which I’ve spent teaching flying things:  The Cessna 180 / 185 Skywagon is an easy thing to land, to land well, with grace and aplomb, when you master key principles:

Key Principles

When teaching landings I don’t really care how you get onto final, just get onto final and think about being sure of three things shortly after you roll onto final:  You are on “a glidepath” (up to you to choose the steepness of), you have full flaps <- in the big boy world they call this “fully configured” so if your Skywagon is amphibed or wheel-skied be sure gear is down also if pavement or up if water or snow .. and you have a smidge of power dialed in.  No, I won’t say how many inches of manifold pressure a smidge is.  (To be further defined later.)

Stabilized Approach: Get it set up on final, at least 500 AGL and a mile back.  (By mile I don’t care if statute or nautical, again, up to you to choose steepness.)  To be more anal and non-bush pilot-esque you could set up a 3 degree glideslope, which would be 300 ft. per 6000 ft.  (For jet people, I wrote this similar piece.)  No way your Skywagon is going to stay on 3 degree (ish) glidepath with full flaps and idle power so you’ll need “some” power to keep any stabilized approach (unless super crazy steep).

This “smidge” I speak of will also help you with the touchdown / stopping / wheel landing.  So let’s call the stabilized approach this: At least 500 feet AGL and roughly one statute mile back (this will be steeper than 3 degrees FYI) with full flaps and a smidge of power.

Full flaps:  You have one, two, three and four clicks for the big flaps that require big muscles to pull – especially if you are going too fast! – so be sure you add flaps before you land and be sure that you have all four “clicks” (40 degrees) in before you land.  Ideally put in your last notch of flaps when you have the runway made but yet are far enough back that you have a stabilized approach. To all the naysayers out there who say “you gotta fly it on” for a wheel landing or “use less flap if the wind is howling” I say poppycock.  Why?  Because if it is gusting 30 to 40 knots and you have full flaps in, your groundspeed will be near zero when you touchdown.  After you’ve successfully touched down, retract the flaps and taxi *very* carefully to wherever you seek shelter in this silly place you have landed.

Here are some more reasons to always use full flaps:  If you put in anything less than full flaps the aircraft will say to itself “Oh… hai… you wanna fly again?”  This is especially true if you let so much as an inkling of an increase in angle of attack into the deck angle – i.e. going “up.”

“Up” with three flaps in a Cessna Skywagon 180 / 185 is sooper easy with three flaps and works just splendidly with one or two as well.  [See articles on take off technique.]

Smidge of Power:  At some point in this adventure that you call “mastering the Skywagon” you’ll need to know when on final to “set the power.”  Real rockstars set it once, abeam the numbers / touch down zone on downwind, and then fly a pattern or U-turn to final and do it gracefully by adding flaps and modifying their groundtrack to stay on profile.  [Note: If you are a hack like me you can simply get onto final and then set it one more time.]  When you set it you will have done the things above.

  1. You’ll have full flaps
  2. You’ll be on profile (glideslope of your choosing) and then
  3. The power you set will not be something memorize, rather an audible sound of “oh yeah that sounds about right” as you [perhaps] look at the VSI and say “oh yeah… that seems about right” to ride the rails of the glideslope that you’ve just built.

The Final Act

The final act by which we are judged as pilots is landings.

This is largely insane and annoying but we cave to its convention and social pressure.  All my Navy friends don’t really care.  They just smash things into ships and stop and they know that that is what is required.  [You can do this in a Skywagon too, but I’ll save that for another post. ] However, in the genteel civil world we seem to care how cool it looks, feels, etc. for all judgers seated in the aircraft and watching from the FBO.

The final act is preceded by you reading the above carefully and adhering to it.  You are on final, you have set 60 knots (70 mph) as your speed and everything is looking great.  You are on a glidepath that will get you there, free of tree smashing and other short final surprises.  You are a hero.  You’ve already won.  You are done.

Why?  Because there isn’t much left to do.  If you can practice to that level of proficiency and can get this “set up” each time, then the odds are you are going to do great.

Ok, I lied.  This last bit has some anxiety so let’s explore that.

Unlearning the Learning

So now you are about to touchdown.  Remember two things:  You must chop the power when those wheels touch and you must (for the love of God) not pull back on that yoke (or stick for you others) after you’ve touched the mains on.   Sure you can flare and pull back before you touchdown, but when those tires touch let go of that f*&^% yoke please. And by let go I mean “release any back pressure” not hands free.

Ideally you chop the power and release any flare back pressure at the same time.  Sometimes you’ll forget and do one and not the other.  That’s ok too.  The airplane just needs enough tail “up-ness” to not bounce – do that right and you are going to get an “ooh” or an “ahh” out of someone that cares at the FBO about your style.

If you’ve smashed into the ground hard (as I have done too many times) that is ok too – just be sure to “unsmash” by pushing forward on the yoke so that tail comes “up” whilst that big metal gear is splaying out under the main smashing press.  Make sense? Good.  Doesn’t make sense?  That’s ok.  Go back to the top, read this post again, then go practice some more.  I guarantee that every high time Alaskan will agree with the content above.

Found post helpful? Email me or post below and tell me nice things and share ideas for The Chicken Soup for The Taildragger.  This post is dedicated to Billy Johnson and Alex Polvi who were gracious enough to hire me for endless landing practice.  

Alameda, CA, USA

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