Improving Your Stick and Rudder Skills: Seaplanes and Taildraggers

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APS Training photo

In mid-January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released some cold, hard facts. “Between 2001 and 2011, over 40 percent of fixed wing general aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their airplanes.” You might be surprised to learn that when The Boeing Company studied commercial jet accidents around the world between 2004 and 2013, the cause that resulted in more fatalities than any other – by a 2 to 1 margin actually – was Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I). What we don’t know of course is why this keeps happening?

While the relationship between LOC-I precursors and actual loss of control is still being investigated, it’s clear that pilots of all categories are, at times, simply unable to fly their airplanes out of situations in which they find themselves. Cockpit automation has often been pegged as a likely culprit. Today, we’re going to do our part to slow the advance of LOC-I by turning off all the cockpit automation and hand-flying the airplane more often. Two ways I learned to be more closely tied to my airplane was to check out in a taildragger and earn my seaplane rating. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. While flying both can be challenging at times, I’ve found the skills they build have truly made me a better pilot and instructor.

Dragging My Tail

I learned to fly a 7ECA Citabria many years ago after I bought it. I thought it was just an airplane with the steering wheel on the wrong end – although it used a control stick and not a wheel. Wrong again. For starters, the view out the cockpit window was different from the tricycle gear aircraft I’d flown Taildraggerbecause the taildragger’s nose sits high on the ground. That makes taxiing … interesting. Lots of rudder and brakes to turn the aircraft, or even keep it heading straight, especially when a strong breeze starts blowing. My first few hours with an instructor produced a great logbook entry … “N8300V 1.5 of crash and dash,” he wrote. I was mortified. After all, I already held a commercial pilot certificate. I’d pour the coals to it on takeoff and of course, with P-factor, torque and everything else, the Champ would head to the left side of the runway. Then I’d kick right rudder which brought us back toward centerline. Unfortunately, I waited until the nose began heading to the right edge of the runway to kick in left rudder and hence many zig-zag takeoffs were started and stopped. The key turned out to be calm days of partial power on takeoff, just enough so I could raise the tail and learn to steer before I pulled the throttle back and taxied back for another try.

It took me awhile to realize I needed to lead the nose around rather than allowing it to lead me. But of course during takeoff, the airplane is also trying to accelerate and I couldn’t see much over the nose. I also learned to raise the tail once there was enough airflow. But you have to do that gently or you’ll put the airplane on it’s nose. You might remember something in ground school called gyroscopic effect … well maybe not. Point is, when the tail comes up, that movement also makes the nose want to swing so you really need to be on the rudders there too … positively, but gently. During my first landings, all seemed normal until I realized this was simply a reverse crash and dash … keep on the rudders to keep the nose straight. Add a crosswind and it becomes a tad challenging until the tail comes back down.

Worst case scenario in my Champ was the inability of the airplane to turn downwind after landing in a 25-knot headwind. Too much brake and power and I could feel I’d put the thing on its nose. The solution turned out to be impossibly simple. Shut the engine down, get out and lift the tail myself to turn the airplane around. Then I restarted and moved it to my tiedown. While all of this sounds tough, after 10 hours or so, I was no longer zig zagging. I used my rudders often and cross winds no longer seemed to bother me as much. I’d become not only coordinated, but finely tuned.

seaplaneSplish Splash

Last fall I realized I craved a new learning challenge. That evolved into earning my seaplane rating in Traverse City, Michigan. The first hour in that Cub on floats reminded me of a few things from my days as a taildraggers student. When the pitch and power of the instructor’s voice is high and loud, danger is near. I also realized the airplane started moving the minute the propeller spun up and of course, there are no brakes. Like the Champ, the Cub had a control stick which I thought made aileron and elevator movements easier to plan and water rudders for improved steering on the surface. I just needed to remember to retract them before takeoff and landing. The seaplane rating is all about learning to taxi, takeoff and land on the water. The rest is like any other airplane, except that when the instructor pulled the engine on me at 1,000 feet AGL, those floats acted like barn doors that pegged the vertical speed indicator pretty fast. On takeoff, it’s all about finding a place on the water called, “the step.” It’s a spot where you have just enough forward pressure on the stick to raise the back of the floats out of the water, but not so much that you put the airplane on its nose. Like the taildragger, it was all about learning to fine tune my movements. I learned this piece of fine tuning the hard way however.

On takeoff, I shoved the stick forward in the Cub like I did to raise the tail in the Champ. WRONG! I learned that fine tuning means too much forward pressure on the stick and the floats bog down in the water. After a few takeoffs, I absolutely began to feel it. Too little back pressure on takeoff and we just mush along in the water like a boat. Finding the takeoff sweet spot meant power, a bit of forward pressure and after about three or four seconds, the airplane accelerated … no it actually jumped ahead. Then I had to finely oscillate the stick to keep the floats in the same place until liftoff speed. Then a bit of back pressure and I was climbing just like a regular bird. By the second hour or so of instruction I thought figured it out. My silent instructor in the back seat confirmed it. There is of course the issue of docking the airplane to contend with too, but I’m still working on that part.

The point of convincing you to give a taildragger or a seaplane rating a try is of course, both are fun. But both also require the pilot to control the aircraft very precisely at times. The first few hours will be real work, but after that you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll fly these and any other airplane. BTW, when you see AOPA President Mark Baker at AirVenture this year, tell him you’re thinking about a seaplane rating. He has more great seaplane stories than any half dozen other pilots I know.


  1. I learned to fly tailwheel airplanes at Lenair Aerobatics at SNA. That made me a much better pilot. I had spent the first part of my flying history afraid of stalls and spins. Then, I came to grips with it. When playing in the aerobatic box near Laguna Beach, we had to lose 1,500 feet to get under the outer ring of the class B airspace. So, a three turn spin was the solution! Later took seaplane rating and flew our Maule to AK on straight floats.

    • “we had to lose 1,500 feet to get under the outer ring of the class B airspace.”
      Are you freakin kidding? NO, a 3 turn spin is not the way to get under a Bravo shelf. What’s wrong with you? Knowing where you are before you even come close to the bravo and planning ahead is how you avoid Bravo airspace. All you did is place all other traffic approach the Bravo in danger with this stupid stunt near extremely busy airspace.

      • Well, it was pretty standard practice there. We were in the aerobatic box and in touch with ATC outside of the Bravo airspace. Those spins were nothing very different than what we had been doing for an hour or so before descending to avoid entering the outer ring on the way to the airport. We knew exactly where we were and ATC knew exactly what were doing. I recall traffic reports like, “NXXXX, if you are right side up, traffic at your 9 o’clock and 1,000 feet is a Douglas 2. Thought you might want to get a look at it.”

        • Well Dan,
          If a three turn spin to lose altitude in the box freaks you out, then the 17 (Yes, seventeen) turn spin we did once to get down enough to get under Bravo in the same area should really send you off the deep end. Yes, we started really high, and yes ATC knew where we were and what we were doing.

          • First of all, spins don’t freak me out. Second, you were not in the box. Third, I don’t give a crap what ATC cleared you to do, you shouldn’t have put yourself in the position to need to spin to get under the bravo. If you think this is acceptable piloting practice I feel sorry for you.

          • Dan! Chill, Who said anything about NEEDING to spin. Sounds to me it was a method they chose to arrive at a desired point in time and space that was coordinated with the appropriate agency. They were manouvering and could have chosen any number of other actions to achieve the same result.

          • “They were manouvering and could have chosen any number of other actions to achieve the same result.”
            Any one of which would have been more appropriate. Intentional spins to get under the shelf of controlled airspace is not an appropriate maneuver. If you think it is than I feel sorry for you also. I don’t know one professional pilot or instructor that would agree with you. And I know quite a few.

  2. I have to wonder if Dan knows what an aerobatic training area, or even a “box”, really means? I’m not familiar with the aerobatic area near Laguna Beach, but I’d be very surprised if it was near to the Bravo area. And approaching aircraft would have no business flying through an aerobatic training area . . . .

    • You are obviously not a pilot, the box as he likes to call it is a designated area for practice which by the way is not labeled on any chart I’ve seen. All that it says is intensive flight training. And yes, to answer your question, all planes have a right to that area because it’s not restricted airspace. Not to mention that Laguna beach is at least 6 miles from the bravo giving even the most in experienced pilot time to lose 1500 feet to clear the bravo shelf. Also being that the 1500 foot dive took place so close to the bravo shelf so that he could clear the shelf in time I can guarantee he was no longer inside the”box” at that time.

  3. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. I thought it was until the airplane was tiedown! They use to say, “everybody was a passenger on a DC3 from when the main gear touched down until the tailwheel touched down.”

  4. Robert Paul Mark

    March 30, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    OK, so maybe we can move on from the fact that aerobatics beneath the Class B is not such a great idea. The point of the piece was to get folks talking about the importance of some hands on flying wasn’t it?

  5. I learned a bit of tail-dragging when I took aerobatics lessons almost 35 years ago in Boulder. Like any skill, my abilities with a tail-dragger have atrophied a lot since then, so that although I’ve flown a couple of tail-draggers more recently, I’m much safer in a trike. But I’m better in a trike, because of that tail-dragging experience.

    Fast forward to last summer, when I earned my SES rating in Seattle. That has to be the single most fun thing I’ve done in an airplane. Combining two of my favorite activities, flying and boating, and getting instruction from two truly outstanding seaplane instructors, was a real treat.

    Both of these skills, without a doubt, provide improved stick & rudder abilities. But I’d throw in the aerobatics training as providing even more improved S&R abilities. Any kind of upset recovery training is extraordinarily valuable for all pilots. Being PIC doesn’t just mean pilot in command; it means pilot in charge, so that the airplane does what the pilot wants it to do, rather than the pilot just being along for the ride.

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