We were shouting because even a tiny Continental C-75 engine emits a surprisingly throaty roar when you’re seated a few feet away with nothing but a bit of fabric between you and eternity, and the plane’s battery-powered intercom was weak. Even this is an unusual luxury for a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub, few of which have electrical systems or any of the things we take for granted on most light aircraft: starters, radios, lights. Student pilots and their instructors have been shouting back and forth in Cubs for seventy years.
Abeam the threshold, I chopped the power and nosed down to maintain 70 mph, or thereabouts. Logan is a tall guy with broad shoulders, and I could only occasionally stretch out to catch a glimpse of the airspeed indicator in front of him. Even when solo one pays only slight attention to the Cub’s five rudimentary instruments, but with a passenger or instructor in the front seat it becomes a truly seat-of-the-pants affair. You guess your airspeed based on the noise of the wind whistling through the wing struts; even a 5 mph change produces a discernibly different pitch. And oddly enough, a maxim usually applied to jet flying, “pitch plus power equals airspeed,” comes in very handy in the back seat of a Cub. About the only two things you can easily see are the tachometer on the extreme left of the panel and the position of the exposed engine cylinders relative to the horizon.
I turned left onto base leg, using ample amounts of rudder to roll into and out of the turn. The Cub was designed in a time before differential ailerons, control interconnects, and yaw dampers made adverse yaw a mostly theoretical phenomenon easily handled with slight nudges of the rudder. Use only aileron in a Cub, and the nose will visibly slide over in the opposite direction as your butt slides downhill and the slipstream batters the exposed fabric on the down-wing side of the fuselage. You don’t really need an inclinometer to know when you’re uncoordinated in a Cub, which is good since it’s well out of sight in the middle of the panel.
I glanced to my right to look for traffic on the ILS, and then turned onto final approach. The view wasn’t much different than from a C172, or the JungleBus for that matter. I reckoned I was a smidge low, and bumped the power up 100 rpm. Coming over the threshold, I smoothly brought the power to idle, waited to what I hoped was four or five feet of altitude – it’s hard to judge when you haven’t flown a small plane in a while – and eased the stick back. I initially pulled too hard and floated, then started sinking quickly, and overreacted with a little jerk on the stick. The oscillation was really only a little bobble, but it brought back memories of the time I nearly wrecked a little yellow C150 with a severe PIO when I was 15. I corrected it and kept the backpressure in while I waited for the wheels to touch. The runway ahead completely disappeared, blocked by the raised nose. There was a chirp, a slight bounce, and then we were down. I had meant to make a three-point landing, but the tail was still a few inches too high when the main wheels touched. There was a slight swerve after the second touchdown, but it was easily corrected with the rudder. I had anticipated more squirrely behavior on the ground, but of course the Cub is a pretty tame taildragger compared to, for example, the Cessna 195 - to say nothing of a Pitts!
“Not bad,” said Logan after I brought the Cub to a halt. “Hold it off a little longer. And make sure you don’t have any drift, you bounced that one because you landed with a little side-load.” That was a surprise, I had no idea I was drifting - but I had no forward vision at the time, either. “Use your peripheral vision,” Logan told me. “You gotta use peripherals to land a Cub!” I poured on the coals, brought the tail up, and rose into the sky for another pattern and another try.
The next landing was very similar to my first, though without the oscillation in the flare. The mains touched first, bounced a bit, touched down again, and there was a slight swerve that I quickly corrected with rudder. I tried again, with the same result, and yet again, and again. None of the landings were bad, just not quite right. Finally it occurred to me that I should take more careful note of the plane’s attitude on the ground, and use that to judge whether I had the nose high enough prior to touchdown. I was actually surprised by how far above the horizon the cylinders were.
On my next landing, I slid my butt over to the side a bit and kept my eyes moving between the nose and the pavement beside me. I held the plane off longer than before, and lowered the left wing a touch to keep from drifting as we slowed. Chirp! No bounce. No swerve. All three wheels touched down softly at the same time. Logan turned around and grinned. “That was perfect! Want to call it a day?” Not really – this is wicked-fun flying! But I had someplace to be and I felt a lot better quitting now that it had “clicked.”
A week later we were back at Airlake Airport for another round of Cub training, this time on a warm, clear day with a direct crosswind of over 15 knots. It would have given me pause in a C150, much less a Cub, but Logan thought it would be good practice. He took the first takeoff, and I was a little shocked when he used full aileron to raise the downwind wheel at the same time as the tailwheel, lowering the upwind wing until it seemed mere inches from the pavement. The plane didn’t drift an inch from centerline, though. He used the same radical slip on landing, touching down on the upwind main wheel only and not letting the downwind main touch until the tailwheel was ready to come down. Then he turned the controls over to me, and I wondered just what I’d gotten myself into.
To my surprise, handling the crosswind wasn’t really that difficult. Like any airplane, you just do what you have to do, using as much control deflection as you need to keep the airplane going where you want it to go. Because we were making wheel landings, the visibility was a lot better and it was easy to see and correct any drift. It was harder to figure out the proper pitch attitude for wheel landings and to touch down with no sink rate. Initially I was landing too tail-low, or else plopping down, either of which resulted in a little bounce. Eventually I figured out to come in flatter, power-on, and to not completely cut the throttle until touchdown, right as I gave the stick a tiny forward nudge. Actually Logan had explained all these things to me, but it was in half-heard shouts over the roaring engine as I was flying the pattern and going over the mistakes of the last landing in my head. Sometimes no amount of explanation will help, you just have to figure out things for yourself.
My second to last landing was my first truly ugly one in the Cub. I ballooned, then didn’t react quickly enough when I dropped back in. Meanwhile my crosswind correction had come a bit undone and so the plane had a fair sideload when the mains hit hard. I was still well above stall speed so of course the plane bounced mightily, the nose swinging about as a gust pushed us over toward the side of the runway. I gave the throttle a good burst, re-established a level attitude, got the upwind wing back down, and gave the rudder a boot to get the nose back on runway heading. The second touchdown wasn’t bad at all; I was mostly happy with the quick recovery.
Again, everything came together on the last landing. The crosswind had picked up again but I kept the left wing pinned down hard, I kept a little power through the flare, and the left main touched down with barely a chirp. I retarded the throttle and just kept flying the plane, left wheel rolling along, as it slowed until full left aileron couldn’t keep the right wheel off anymore. As it touched down, I moved the stick back a bit, the tail came right down, and then I held it there with full up elevator as I danced on the rudder to keep the nose pointed right down the runway as we slowed to a crawl just before the turnoff for the hangar.
Above all, one thing struck me about this flight. For the first time, I realized what tailwheel pilots mean when they say you have to “fly it until the last part stops moving.” In a tricycle gear airplane, there’s a pretty clear difference between the landing and rollout phases. The nosewheel comes down very shortly after touchdown, and it completely changes the aircraft’s behavior. A good pilot will keep in the correct control inputs throughout the rollout, but they don’t have nearly the effect they do in the air, and in all but the worst conditions a lazy pilot can usually get away with abandoning aileron and elevator inputs after touchdown. The line between “flying” and “taxiing” is much, much fuzzier in a light taildragger, and the landing is more like a gradual movement from one end of the continuum to the other rather than an abrupt transition between phases. You keep flying it until there is no airflow over the control surfaces, and simultaneously start taxiing it as soon as your wheels have friction. This was a real revelation to me even though I’ve “known” it from my earliest days as a pilot.
Logan’s schedule hasn’t lined up with mine for a few weeks since that last flight, so I’m itching to get back in the Cub again. According to Logan, I probably need one more flight to polish my three-point landings and I’ll get my tailwheel endorsement. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to blast off on my own in the Cub just yet. It belongs to a 12-person flying club, of which Logan is a member but I am not. Only about half of the members are at all active, so I’m trying to find someone willing to sell me their share. With luck, I hope to have a little yellow Cub that’s 1/12th my own in time for warm summer evenings spent loitering over golden fields with the door open and the wind in my hair.