The Best Taildragger I Ever Flew

Somebody recently asked me, “What’s the best taildragger you ever flew?”
Hmm…
That’s a tough one.

Then again, it’s not.

I guess it comes down to three aircraft – the Aeronca Champ, the J-3 Cub, or the Gipsy Moth.

The Champ is by far the “friendliest” of the trio. You fly it from the front seat (rare in a taildragger), the nose slopes down and away and the view out the big bubble windshield – and tandem-seating side windows – is nothing short of “spectacular.” I mean you can actually SEE where you’re going.

The Champ takes off and lands in a few hundred feet, stalls definitely- but in a solid way from which you can easily recover – and it’s just about the nicest spinning airplane I’ve flown (goes in easy, comes out the same way – exactly where you want it.) It loops like a dream and is fun to snap roll, hold, then degenerate into a spin.

Using “Bach’s crosswind technique,” it’s amazing how much wind this plane can take. One of my best Champ memories was the day I took off in a howling wind, climbed to a thousand feet, then throttled back until the Champ was just above the stall. A little power held it there, and as I looked down I saw we were going backwards over the ground!

I had the absurd desire to look over my shoulder in case I was “backing up” into someone. Then the ground began to get misty … and disappeared! It took me a moment to realize the Champ had actually climbed into the low cloud while it was “reversing,” so I quickly chopped the power, stuffed the nose down, and popped back into the world.

No question. If you’re looking for a fun, easy to fly aeroplane, with great visibility, the Champ wins – hands down.

John “Tiny” Miller’s gorgeous Aeronca Champ (Photo: Michelle Goodeve)

But…

If you can see in front of you, where’s the challenge?

And that’s where the Gipsy Moth comes in.

Please note that I’m saying “Gipsy Moth,” not “Tiger Moth,” or “Thruxton Jackaroo” (and I’ve got hundreds of hours on all three of these fine de Havilland Aeroplanes).

The Gipsy Moth is the original. And you know what they say about British aircraft – “Design Once. Modify Forever.” {No angry letters, please. I was born in England, so I get to say that.}
In 1974, Benson & Hedges gave us a 1929 Gipsy Moth (Canada’s oldest licensed aircraft at the time) to fly coast to coast in our 2nd “Air Dash.” (Full story coming soon.)
When I went to pick up the airplane, no one knew how to fly the plane, so I checked myself out, and what an amazing flight that was.

Your Why Fly Editor “winding up the Gipsy’s rubber band” many years ago.

You can see absolutely nothing in front of you – just an empty front cockpit, lots of struts and wires, and a long, long nose.

You can’t see much to the left while you’re on the ground, because of the absurdly-long pipe that runs along that side, (allowing the exhaust to exit a few feet behind your head). They say you can spot a true Gipsy Moth Pilot by the burn scar on his/her left elbow.

There’s a little “door” (and I use the term loosely) on the right side which you can leave open – if you have to. But then it gets too windy, so you usually leave it closed. As a result, when you taxi out to take off (perched on top of those ridiculously-tall wire wheels), all you can really do is guesstimate the centre line, keep your fingers crossed, then pour on the power.

“Our” Gipsy had an old Gipsy 1 engine which put out a clattering 98 hp. But even with that smaller motor, it only took a second for the tail to come up with a good solid push on the stick. You correct for the inevitable off-centre alignment with the rudder, then – almost simultaneously – gently ease back and the Gipsy Moth is off the ground.

The overall sensation isn’t so much of “lifting” as of “wafting” into the air.

You can hang the Gipsy Moth on its automatic slats and climb upwards at a ridiculously slow speed. From the ground, the plane can look like as if it’s elevating, rather than climbing into the sky.

Once you level off, you still can’t see much straight ahead, so an occasional “walk” on the rudder pedals – swinging the nose left and right – is a very good idea.
I did that once and was shocked to see a 3,000’ tower directly ahead {just over the fold on my map}. I’ll never forget the shocked look on the face of the man working on top of the monstrous pinnacle as we flew by.

I flew the Gipsy Moth coast-to-coast and did a lot of Air Shows in that wonderful machine. When I got bored of doing straight and level fly-bys, I developed a variation on the Crazy-Cub routine – pretending to be a drunk, old farmer who steals the airplane then goes up and flies the thing till it runs out of gas.

It was tricky getting the prop to stop, but once I’d managed that, I did a bunch of dead stick aerobatics before bringing the bird in for a one-wheel landing and letting it roll – prop stopped – back to its tie-down.

I once had the pleasure of hopping from our Gipsy Moth into a British Tiger Moth, then a Canadian Tiger Moth. Flying these three classics “back-to-back” really made the differences clear. And while I’ve come to enjoy flying Tigers, I clearly remember thinking – as I flew home in our Gipsy Moth – that I was extraordinarily fortunate to be flying the best of the three machines.

There’s something about the solid “bottom end” feel of the Gipsy Moth – as it hangs on the edge of a stall – that lets you get away with things you’d never try in any another airplane.

All that is, but one.

I feel like I’m betraying our old Gipsy by saying this, but … when I really stop and think about it … the best taildragger I’ve ever flown (out of roughly 70 types) is the plain old J-3 Piper Cub.

Now the Cub is a truly absurd airplane when you really think about it. You clamber inside through a pair of upward-and-downward-moving, clamshell door/windows then try to unfold yourself into the rear seat. The front is even worse, as you find your knees somewhere up around your chest.

Once you’re seated, you can see nothing ahead (especially with a passenger) … but … you can leave the clamshell open and even slide down the window on the left hand side. (You pretty much have to do that anyway as the left window on all but the newest restorations is inevitably scratched and scored to the point of opaqueness.)

After moving your feet to an ankle-breaking angle, you S-turn your way to the runway with rudder and heel brakes, line up with the centre, put in the power and shove forward on the stick – at the same time! The tail pops up immediately – with tons of control – and you’re immediately aware that the feeling of the landing gear is … solid.

This is one of the areas where the Cub wins over the Champ. The Champ kind-of-wobbles on its gear. Not so with the Cub.

You can easily lean the J-3 over onto either wheel (by cross-controlling) and perform a very dramatic, wingtip-just-off-the-ground, one-wheel take off.

The only problem angry-crosswinds present is getting to the runway. Once you’re on the roll, the Cub can handle just about anything.

With a standard 65hp Continental stuck up front, the Cub gets off the ground in very short order. If you really want to take off short, just keep the stick full back when you put in power and the Cub will come unstuck in about a hundred feet.
Just remember to IMMEDIATELY lower the nose and keep the bird in ground effect until the machine is REALLY flying.

The Cub’s rate of climb is nothing to brag about, though it’s a great deal better than its Grand-Daddy, the 37/40hp Taylor E-2 (whose rate of climb is best described as “Glacial”).

The Tiger Boys’ 1935 E-2 – the first Cub in Canada (Photo: Michelle Goodeve)

But, who cares?

With the clamshell doors open, the view out the right side of a Cub is close to that of a “Breezy.” I mean, you really get the feeling of being “in the air.”
To me, it’s the best view going … something to do with the “image” being so nicely framed by the open door and the struts (then again, that may just be my inner-photographer talking).

Tim Eckensviller brings the E-2 in for his usual 3-point landing. (Photo: Michelle Goodeve)

Once you (eventually) reach a decent altitude, you level off and can almost see out the front (though there are, of course, passengers, cross-braces and engine-eyebrows in the way).

But it’s when you start to really fly the Cub that you fall in love with this machine. This airplane is nothing short of AMAZING; a miracle of aeronautical design that results in the most incredibly positive flight-feel I’ve ever experienced.

The Cub doesn’t mess around with its stall – it STALLS – and down goes the nose.

But…

If the wing is just about to quit, and you add a touch of power, you can hang there – one mile an hour above stall speed – with an incredible amount of control.

The bottom end on this aeroplane is amazing!

There’s a reason most “Crazy-Cub” acts use Cubs.

You have so much control.
One of my favourite games is to drop a hat out the door on take-off, go up, do your routine, then turn off the engine and glide in dead-stick (making sure you ALWAYS come in too high, then slip off the excess once you’re SURE you have the runway made.) After a little bit of practice, you can roll the dead-stick Cub up to the hat, stand on the left brake to pivot, jump on the right brake to stop, then calmly reach out the open door and retrieve your hat.

Sidebar: There IS a trick. And as I’m in such good company, I’ll share it here. a) You want to make sure the hat “accidentally” flies off your head at least 1/3rd of the way down the runway. b) When you land, touch down faster than normal … fast enough that you KNOW you’ll reach the hat. The actual trick to finishing up right next to the hat is all about braking.
You want enough speed left so that when you hit the left brake, the Cub pivots, but doesn’t stop – the right brake handles that final part of the manoeuvre (and – I trust it goes without saying – that you make damn sure you’re not going so fast you chance standing the Cub on its nose. Props are expensive these days … as are bent crankshafts … and egos).
I could write so much more about the Cub (and I will … in the future), but if I had to use one word to explain why I think the J-3 is the greatest taildragger I’ve ever flown, that word would be “Control.”

You can do things in a Cub you can’t do in anything else.
At least … nothing I’ve flown yet.
(Though I sure would like to try a Fieseler Storch.)

8 Comments

  1. The only taildragger I have much time in is the J-3. I have been a passenger and copilot in many others and have flown the PA-22.

    I first flew as a kid with my dad in the 40’s after he took flight training under the GI Bill where the government paid for veterans to be trained in various enterprises. My dad and his friend took flight training just for fun.

    My last check ride was in a J-3. We flew about 30 miles out to a small country airport with a grass runway and shot touch and goes all day long. We broke for lunch and ate sandwiches in the shadow of the cub’s wing on the grass. I remembered my dad and thought about him a lot that day. I felt closer to him somehow after that check ride. I guess I had experienced a little of what he and his friend had experienced while taking flight training.

    The return home was against a 20 knot wind so our ground speed was pretty slow. I flew low enough to enjoy watching the activities below. School buses bringing children home spewing little bunches of them out at each stop. Water birds flying over marshes. Cars and trucks moving about. All the things that we enjoy as pilots. Seeing the earth as no one else sees it.

    I have many fond memories of the Cub.

  2. I vote for the Champ. Especially the L-16 version 🙂

  3. Hey Robert – Lovely words. BTW, have you read our Contributor’s Guide? You sound like “A Writer” to me. Anytime you feel like sending in an article – or an idea for an article – I’d love to see it.
    Editor@whyfly.aero

  4. Nigel…
    Gee. I wonder why you prefer the L-16? Oh right – you used to own one. {g}
    Personally, those long anti-bounce legs don’t work for me (though – don’t get me wrong – both Widge & I loved, and deeply appreciated – flying yours).

  5. BTW – Tiny’s Champ – pictured above – is for sale, you know {g}

  6. Great article, Glenn. There is nothing so satifactory as the feeling of the mains and tailwheel kissing the ground at the same time. I have to thank the designers of the Tiger Moth for making it easy for an absolute beginner to do three solo circuits and with bang on three point landings without a minute of dual on the aircraft. Wonderful airplane.

  7. For me, it’s the Pitts Special!!

  8. I saw Tiny’s Champ! Beautiful. Now if he would only lower the price because he knew I was a good guy and that there was no better home for his “Pride and Joy” … 🙂

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