Trikes can do 99% of it
I like flying taildraggers. In fact, other than when my wife occasionally lets me fly the Citations she drives, I haven't flown a nosedragger in nearly a decade. Many folks think that you need a jacked up taildragger to access the backcountry, but the reality is that most recreational strips in the lower 48 are accessible by the majority of average light general aviation planes, the majority of which happen to have a nosewheel.Some trikes actually are made for serious bush work, like this fat-tired Cessna 206, where the nosewheel attaches to the engine mount instead of the firewall like a 182.
I am not talking about off-airport, bumpy suspension-testing landing areas. However, most legendary backcountry airstrips like Cabin Creek, Mexican Mountain, and the Missouri Breaks are perfectly fun, accessible places to take your average GA plane. To be clear, many of the newer-generation traveling planes like Cirrus and the Lancair-born Cessnas have critical wings, small tires, and prop and tail clearance that make most of their pilots wisely opt for a more traditional runway, but your average Bonanza, Cessna 210, or everyday 172 can take you to some pretty fascinating places. I'm not going to lie; I get some guilty satisfaction out of seeing a ratted out 150 parked next to a brand new Husky on 31's at backcountry strips. It's certainly a statement about a scenario where skill trumps equipment.Sometimes all you need is skill and determination; the humble Cessna 150 conquers the Simonds airstrip in Idaho.Photo: Richard Wissenbach
In full disclosure, I'm not a high time trike pilot in the backcountry. While the majority of my time is in tricycle gear aircraft, with most of it on paved runways, I have landed a King Air or two on short dirt strips in other countries. I have also gotten my fair share of trikes stuck on beaches, soft strips, and the like. Most of my backcountry experience has been in taildraggers. But during the last six months I have had the privilege and opportunity to ride with some of the sharpest trike pilots out there, and picked the brains of pilots who fly trikes not just recreationally, but also for a living in places like Alaska, Africa, and all over Asia.
A slightly different approach
Operations to some of these neat places does require a departure from what is traditionally taught in primary training. We won't go into huge detail here, as that is covered in our previous approach and landing writeups. However, we will talk about how trikes differ from taildraggers for ground operations.
The approach and landing is pretty straightforward: The goal is to arrive at your touchdown spot with minimum kinetic energy and use the flair to dissipate this energy. In our previous writeups we have described this as a "flat wing approach". This approach utilizes gravity to initiate a steep and stable approach. Ultimately, this is quite the departure from what light GA pilots are taught in primary training.
We are advocating flight at a slow enough speed so as to avoid floating at the touchdown point. Candidly, we aren't really suggesting anything different from what the pros are used to. You would never see an airliner flying final at nearly double its stall speed, nor would that turn out well. For airliners, every approach is basically a precision approach to a short field. If we stole a page out of their book, we could reproduce those results. Only we don't have all the fancy equipment and vast resources to come up with their VREF numbers, so instead we suggest a steep approach flown with a wing parallel to the horizon. This "flat wing" will give us ample margin from stall while minimizing energy when we get to the flare. For more information, check out "The Approach" in our STOL Tips series.A precision approach to a short field is just that: a precision approach.
Because we won't have all the excess energy that we usually have to flare the plane, we suggest an aggressive flare with a shot of power (in most cases.) In most heavier planes, this aggressive flare is particularly needed. The energy-dissipating flare will have to be equivalent to your vertical energy. Because your average GA plane is probably a bit heavier than your Cub-type taildragger, this dance will be even more critical in, say, a Bonanza than a Carbon Cub because of the weight and delay in the constant-speed prop "spooling up". In our previous landing video and article, we broke the maneuver into three parts: The flare, The touchdown, and the roll-out. The fundamentals while airborne are the same; it's the moment the plane touches down that the differences between trike and taildragger really become apparent.
What really sets a trike apart from a taildragger?
The primary difference between many light GA airplanes and their taildragger brethren is really just the gear configuration. In taildraggers the tailwheel is just a simple spring-suspended wheel that attaches to the back of the plane. There isn't really much too it it, yet we still make great effort to keep it protected. In a trike there is often quite a bit of structure and complexity involved with the nose gear. Unless it is free castering (which brings its own host of issues) then it will at least have a shimmy dampener and some sort of shock. Of course, if it's retractable, that is a whole other issue and the fragility and complexity only climbs from there.
Also attached to the front is the propeller. Typically, on a smooth runway the prop is safe if the gear stays intact, but in the backcountry there are many oddities that can circumvent that truism. Little dips, soft spots, rocks, and many others obstacles could prove to be an issue for tricycle gear planes due to the decreased clearance from prop tip to ground. This is of course where trikes set themselves apart. Because so much attention must be paid to the front end of the plane, we often have to concede some of their short field capability. In taildraggers, I advocate a firm touchdown putting the plane in a position to use the brakes to their fullest capacity without tipping over. Trikes in theory do have a braking advantage over a taildragger, since they don't have to worry about tipping over. However, most real trike operators will opt to land and stay on the mains as long as possible in order to get to a slower speed before letting the nose down to the ground. This isn't just because of the fear of a gear collapse and prop strike, but also because it means that less debris is running through the prop and into the belly and tail. This means a careful balance of backpressure and brake is needed. Just like a taildragger, the combination has to be right for optimum balance of prop protection and braking effectiveness. However, the attitude of the plane is just opposite. In a taildragger it would be tail up, in a trike it would be tail down.Retractable grear aircraft like this Cessna 210 should be given a little extra care in how hard they are worked on short and unimproved strips.
In a trike you also have to worry about a tail strike, where as in a taildragger we just call this a three-point. This is true in all trikes, but particularly true in the longer, heavier planes like a 206. While trikes are certainly able to land short, special attention needs to be given to the nose if you are going to operate them in the rougher environments. This usually means giving up some braking opportunities making for slightly longer rollouts than on pavement.
Site evaluation and balancing act
I am a huge advocate of triple-checking a "primitive" airstrip or landing area, an this is every bit as applicable to trikes. The ultra low, weight-on-wheels rolling evaluation that is typically used by the off airport tailwheel crowd isn't as big an issue in trikes in most recreational strips. Most recreational trike pilots are probably landing at a strip that is typically well traveled enough that true surface evaluation isn't going to be a day-to-day occurrence. The technique for most aborted approaches, balked landings, and go-arounds won't deviate from our previous videos and writeups. However, there are certainly folks that are going to utilize landing areas that are unused or not frequented. When they do they will want to ensure a successful outcome by evaluating the landing environment. We call this an intentional balked landing or landing area evaluation.
Regardless what you call it, essentially you are going to use your main gear as a barometer for figuring out your desire landing spot. In taildraggers we put weight on main gear keeping a tail up attitude. This attitude allows us to see where we are going, keeps the tail out of harms way, and allows for an easy transition to a go-around. In a trike the weight would still be on the mains, but now the nose, instead of the tail, would be in the air. Of course this makes it hard to see where you are going, but provides the necessary protection for the prop and nosewheel.Rolling the surface with a little weight on the mains is a good way to evaluate the surface for the best touchdown spot. See our "Balked landings" piece.
Learning this attitude is key and there is certainly a balance between tail strike and front end protection. The same will be true in a trike or tailwheel; the slower you go the more weight will be placed on the mains giving you a feel for the surface. In the event of a go-around or balked landing, accelerating in ground affect can't be emphasized enough. Often times you can get airborne while not at actual flying speed. You will want that speed not only to climb, but also to combat any sink or turbulence so often found in the backcountry environment. In our Balked landing video and write up, we emphasized the fact that if the decision has been made to do a low approach or airstrip evaluation, then that is the decision. Deviating from your plan leaves precious altitude or airstrip behind you, there is no harm in just coming back around and giving it another shot. The same is true if you end up having a genuine balked landing or go around. Once you pour the coals to it, the focus is about the abort. Do not try to salvage the landing.
In a trike special attention is particularly need when taxiing. It is during taxi that the nosewheel and prop are the most vulnerable. The plane has no tail authority or momentum to help with lifting the nose. Taxiing is also a place we may get totally complacent if airports are our normal operating area. For the pilots truly flying off-airport in taildraggers, taxiing is always a place where our guard is up. There are just so many gotchas that you never really feel comfortable taxing off airport. This unfortunately has proven true for me in trikes as well. I haven't ever had an issue landing or taking off, but I have gotten a host of planes stuck in everything from sand and mud, to even just soft sod during taxi. This proves particularly true during tight-ish turns or slower operations. Of course the natural thought is that momentum would be a friend in this situation and it really is...until it isn't. The only way to really combat this to always stay vigilant and treat taxing like walking on eggshells. The more experience you get the better off you will be to evaluate conditions.A humble 1956 Cessna 172 taxis for takeoff at the beautiful Stehekin airstrip. With good planning and good technique, a trike will take you most places without issue.Photo: Zane Jacobson
Advantages, similarity, and reality
In theory, a trike would have a small aerodynamic advantage over a taildragger during takeoff. Unfortunately, this isn't typically how it works out. The idea is that the flat attitude would be better for drag and also provide a nice pitching moment for rotation. However, as always, the prop and nosewheel need to be protected. This usually means no brakes and heavy backpressure on the yoke or stick to keep the nosewheel and prop out of harms way. This isn't just for bumpy terrain but also to keep debris from slinging through the prop, hence backpressure on the elevator and a rolling takeoff. Of course it goes against most of the information in the POH (it normally calls for full power, then brake release for shortest distance) meaning that all those numbers go right out the window.
In taildraggers we advocate getting a feel for the takeoff by verbally counting off sections during training to better familiarize yourself with all of the variables in the backcountry. This is also true in trikes. I like to count each section. It would go something like this: Throttle forward: 1 potato, 2 potato, 3 potato... Nosewheel comes off the ground: 4 potato 5 potato 6 potato... Rotation then accelerate in ground effect until true flying speed is reached. With enough experience you will eventually be better able to adjust for the real variables in the backcountry. It isn't uncommon to have to do a tailwind or uphill take off in the backcountry. Additionally, many backcountry strips are at higher altitudes. All of these variables aren't going to be accounted for in the POH, and having a tangible count based on experience for each section is a real asset. For instance, if you think your nose wheel is going to lift off after 4 potatoes and it doesn't, that would be a good time to abort and figure out why, rather than an attempted rotation with no results and limited runway left.
While taildraggers are certainly fun, they aren't a necessity to start exploring in the backcountry. If you are bored doing a $100 hamburger run in your 182, exploring the backcountry is a great way to utilize your plane. With the right technique and practice, there are many fascinating places you can go in your average traveling plane.