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Nosewheel vs. Tailwheel by Martin Sutter
Home > Articles > Nose wheel vs. Tail wheel
The RV6, RV7, RV8 and the RV9 come in two basic flavors - taildragger and tricycle.Now if any RV topic gets the faithful on the barricades, this is it. Immediately you hear passionate statements like " tricycles are for wimps, real pilots fly taildraggers" or "taildraggers are an anachronism for an accident waiting to happen". Reality is probably not as simple as this so let's consider the facts from a less emotional point of view. Most airplanes of newer origin are designed with a tricycle gear. The simple reason for that is dynamic stability. Since the center of gravity lies ahead of the pivot axis, the natural tendency is for the airplane to go straight until disturbed by other forces. Taildraggers are inherently less directionally stable because the opposite is the case. Beyond these facts the arguments get emotional but I will try to examine the pros and cons point by point.
Visibility: This one is a clear winner for the trigear. The ground in front of the airplane remains in full view and running over chocks on the ramp, pot holes and off the pavement in turns is inexcusable if you keep your eyes open. The same is the case on take off and landing. Proper seating position in the taildragger will mitigate some of the visibility problem but not all of it. Make sure your head is as high up as possible without banging the canopy. Van had an excellent article on that subject in one of his recent news letters.
Ground Handling: The trigear RV's manners are straight forward and honest but it is not an airplane that tolerates poor pilot skills as well as a Cessna 152, for instance. The nose wheel is free castering so steering has to be done with brakes at low speeds and the nose wheel may follow ruts on rough ground. While I have no engineering data on nose gear strength, I am aware of quite a few 6A's loosing their nose gear because their pilots did not use proper technique. Landing nose wheel first or taxiing thru dips and chuck holes without elevator back pressure are good ways to feed that new prop some asphalt. The taildragger takes continuous rudder input on the roll to keep it in the direction you want to go but it's positive tail wheel steering make it a snap to taxi even in strong winds. Since the tail wheel is quite small, a constant vigil must be kept to steer clear of pot holes and reflective marker dots (they sound like someone is hitting the back of the fuselage when you taxi over them). Another point to remember is that a taildragger can go over on its nose if you do not keep the stick back on full power run-ups or when suddenly applying hard braking.
Take off and Landing: The taildragger RV is one of the easier handling members of its genre and take offs are easy to keep straight with appropriate rudder input. On higher horse power airplanes with constant speed props there is a lot of torque (p - factor) at play which can easily be overcome by leaving the tail wheel on the ground until the rudder becomes fully effective. Raising the tail a bit after that greatly improves down the runway visibility. The trigear takes a little dancing on the brakes to keep things straight until the rudder becomes effective since the nose wheel is not steerable. In the landing phase the trigear really shines and is a pussy cat as long as you fly it properly (do not land on the nose gear as many spam can drivers do and get away with it). Touch down speed is forgiving as long as it is above stall of course. With a little nose up attitude and the proper flare it's a greaser. Not so with the taildragger. Unlike its brother, it demands a precise pitch attitude and touch down speed and zero sink rate on touch down or it will bounce. Roll out is easier since it is quite stable directionally for a taildragger. Unlike many production taildraggers like the Champ and the Taylorcraft, full stick back in the flare will result in an higher angle of attack than three point attitude resulting in a clumsy touch down with the tail wheel first and a big clunk when the mains finally crash down after the wing stalls. So this one is definitely in favor of the trigear.
Rough field Capability: You might surmise that the taildragger would be the clear winner there since most bush planes have conventional gear but those airplanes have big beefy tail wheels. The RV's tail wheel is quite small and on airplanes with smaller engines and wood props there is quite a bit of weight on the tail. This means it takes a fair amount of speed to get the tail up. The trigear's nose wheel can be unloaded while taxiing by applying full up elevator and it is considerably larger. An additional advantage is the over the nose visibility to avoid rough spots in the first place. Which one gets off shorter and lands shorter? Believe it or not, it's the trigear. Because the taildragger sits nowhere near at maximum angle of attack on the ground, it must reach greater speed before it can fly. The same is true on landing unless you want to land tail wheel first. Of course these factors only come into play with a skilled pilot at the control. Van used to demonstrate an unbelievably short take off and touch down in the former red trigear 180hp cs prop 6. On both take off and touch down the tail would only be an inch or so off the ground and the aircraft at an ridiculous angle of attack.
So which one should you get? Practical reasons favor the trigear but it's not that simple. We all get into this because we have a passion for it and practical reasons are not the only thing we consider. The taildragger demands good piloting technique but does the trigear deserve anything less? Both airplanes look the best when flown by a skilled pilot, so get your skills honed before you start flying these beauties. My airplane is a taildragger, mostly because that is all Van had to offer when I built it. At the time of first flight I was coming out of a thousand hours in a Cherokee. I thought I was a pretty competent pilot, but once I started tail wheel training in a Taylorcraft I realized I had a couple of very lazy feet and had a long way to go to truly be flying an airplane instead of just riding in it. When I started flying the 6 it made me even more aware what precise flying meant. Not that I ever felt out of control, but being a perfectionist I was always painfully aware when my technique was lacking. Today I have almost ten years and 1,650 hrs in the RV and really enjoy flying it, including cross wind landings. Do I think the taildragger is the only way to go? Of course not - but then I just am in love with its looks.