Smooth Flying in the Pattern

The Set-Up

While instructing, one of the lessons I have learned over the past several years is to always expect the unexpected.  On one particular day I was conducting a flight check in our Citabria with a pilot who I had never flown with before.   He had about 50 hours of tailwheel time and a further 1000 hours flying time in his log. With the preflight briefing completed and I then thought to myself that this should be a straightforward enjoyable flight as the student seemed competent.

The Issue

The plan was to commence with some circuits and all was going well from engine start to take-off.  And then it happened… the turn to crosswind. We were approximately 600 feet AGL in the climb when he very aggressively applied full left stick and before I knew it we were in a 60° banking climbing turn at a low airspeed. That got my attention and I almost instinctively pushed forward on the stick and took control. Stall horn screaming I recovered and leveled off on the downwind.

I then asked the obvious question?

“Why did you do that”

For his part, he was surprised that I had taken control and didn’t understand the problem as that is the way he was taught to fly a taildragger.

What to Do

Accidents in the pattern happen all too often, and all are avoidable. Pattern or circuit flying should always be smooth and precise. Turns should coordinated, and not aggressive. Be especially mindful of turns from downwind to base and base to final.

When first learning how to land a taildragger often the student becomes fixated on the actual touchdown portion of landing maneuver, and stop thinking about the turn onto final. Here if airspeed gets to low and the turn is uncoordinated a stall spin accident may be the end result.

For many learning how to fly a taildragger is a totally new experience. For example moving from a Cessna 150 to a Piper Cub takes a little time to get used to. Take your time; in this situation what I like to do is start with upper air work followed by pattern flying. I will complete several circuits in the pattern without landing and then initiate a go around at about 50 feet. I want the student to concentrate on flying and conducting a stabilized approach. Once they are comfortable and competent in the pattern I introduce an actual landing.

A good tailwheel pilot is a smooth one.

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