The Pros and Cons of Piloting Tailwheel Aircraft

A yellow tailwheel airplane at Gordon Graham Field in Danville, Indiana.

Edlund Aviation Photography / Getty Images

When talking about airplanes, a "tailwheel" aircraft, or a "taildragger," refers to the position of the landing gear on an airplane. An aircraft with a tailwheel—also known as conventional gear—is an aircraft designed with its two main landing gear placed forward of the center of gravity of the airplane. So, your main landing gear is toward the front of the aircraft and there is a single "tailwheel" in the rear. The back wheel is to offer support to the tail of the plane. 

The term conventional can be confusing, though. With modern aircraft, the more commonly seen gear on light aircraft is a tricycle gear and not tailwheel style. Nevertheless, the term conventional came from the fact that most early airplanes—when they were first being designed and built—were designed with a tailwheel gear configuration. So, conventional means a tailwheel configuration and does not refer to the more common tricycle design.

Aircraft with tricycle landing gear has the two main landing gear fixed behind the center of gravity, and the nose gear supports the nose of the aircraft in front, is more commonly seen in light aircraft today. 

Disadvantages of Tailwheel Aircraft

Tailwheel aircraft are often thought of as more challenging, perhaps even more hazardous, to fly than an airplane that has tricycle landing gear. The challenge comes from the position of the center of gravity being located toward the rear of the main gear. Pushing back the center of gravity can make ground operations—mostly landing—more difficult in a tailwheel aircraft. 

Also, because the rear of the plane is lowered, a tailwheel aircraft sits with its nose higher than the tricycle gear airplane. This angle lowers forward visibility for the pilot during ground operations—such as during taxi operations.

It's more difficult to taxi without being able to see directly in front of you, which is why you'll often see pilots of tailwheel aircraft do S-turns while taxiing. Also, steering a tailwheel aircraft is different than steering a nosewheel aircraft since steering is accomplished from behind the pilot instead of in front. 

Advantages of Tailwheel Aircraft

There are certainly benefits to a taildragger, as well. The nose-high attitude on the ground means that the propellers on tailwheel aircraft often have more clearance from the ground. The extra clearance makes these aircraft better suited for grass or dirt runways.

The tailwheel craft is often designed and configured for slow flight. This slower speed makes them easier to land on short runways. Many are high-design and better suited for backcountry flying than nosewheel aircraft are. Tailwheel airplanes are without a doubt the favorite airplane among bush pilots.