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Inspired by this question...

How does a taildragger take off? Does it rotate?

I imagine if a taildragger has to land front wheels first it has a very limited range of Angle of Attack (if the pilot wants to avoid a prop strike) during landing.

So do they land tail first by default? If not would a tail first landing be an issue?

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  • $\begingroup$ I assume you mean with the tail touching the ground first, not that the tail is in front of the mainwheels. Flying backwards is not typically possible! $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Feb 17 '17 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @DanHulme I did come to the conclusion that the tail had to be behind the nose by myself yes! Glad you said typical too! The Harrier and F35/JSF do like to show off with that. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 Feb 17 '17 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Notts90 That and the Antonov An-2. Which is a tail dragger that, in a stiff wind, could probably land tail wheel first. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Feb 17 '17 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DanHulme, I saw a floatplane fly backwards once (slow plane in a strong headwind), but I wouldn't want to land in those conditions. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 17 '17 at 22:23
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It's possible to land by touching the tail first, but this is undesirable as it puts a lot of stress on the tail, so it's not trained for and there are no circumstances where you would do this deliberately. There are two common methods of landing a tail-dragger: a three-point landing (where the tail and mainwheels touch together) and a wheel landing (where the mainwheels touch first).

Aircraft design

First, be aware that the aircraft is not level when it's on the ground, like a tricycle aircraft is. The tail position is set so that the aircraft is quite nose-up on the ground - in fact, the angle is about the same as the stalling angle, and the reason for this will become apparent. If your nose is on the horizon, the tail is off the ground (about five feet up in a Tiger Moth). Also, the prop is mounted higher up on a tail-dragger than on a tricycle, for exactly the reason you say. In the Tiger Moth, there is two or three feet of clearance between the ground and the prop if the nose is on the horizon.

The clearance itself isn't the direct problem. If you do go nose-down on the ground, the airplane is not stable. If you're moving forwards, the chief component of drag is acting through the mainwheels, so the engine thrust will tend to tip you further nose-forward (especially if you run over a hump or rabbit hole). In addition, the CG of the aircraft is closer to the mainwheels, and eventually goes in front of the mainwheels. If this happens, a prop strike is inevitable.

Three-point landings

Three-point landings are the default because the aircraft is fully controllable as soon as it touches down. The approach to the runway is done at low or idle power, and set you up to be flying level at rooftop height above the runway. As you lose speed (because you have idle power), you progressively pitch up to maintain height, which in turn causes you to lose more speed. This is called the flare Soon enough you are pitched up at the three-point attitude, and you can no longer maintain height - if you pitch up any further the wings will stall. At this point, you will drop down onto the ground and all three points will touch at once.

Wheel landings

Wheel landings are also used, as they offer more control in windy conditions, but they typically have a longer landing roll because you have more speed when you touch down. The approach is flown with some power on, but less than cruise power. It's a gradual descent towards the runway, and there's no flare, so you touch down in the level attitude. You then close the throttle to idle, and let the speed decay on the ground. As your speed decays and less lift is produced, you need to progressively push the stick forward to keep the tail from dropping, keeping the aircraft level as long as possible. Once the tail starts to drop, pull the stick back to drop the tail firmly onto the ground.

When do tail-first landings happen?

To reiterate, you never land tail-first deliberately. It offers very little control; the aircraft would stall at a higher speed (and therefore the landing roll is harder and longer); it puts undesirable load on the tail. They do sometimes happen by accident, if a student pilot has pitched up too aggressively when trying to do a three-point landing. Typically, too much nose-up input results in "ballooning" as the aircraft gains a little more height, but this results in the speed decreasing rapidly. If left uncorrected, the aircraft stalls, resulting in the tail touching down hard.

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When I was learning to fly, we did practice "soft field" (or "low-energy") landings. The scenario is that you need to land in a mucky field or on snow or some other soft surface and if you touch down main wheels first, you run the risk of putting it on its nose, or at least striking the prop. You come in as slow as possible (just above a stall), and touch down tail then wheels, in rapid succession. You're really just plopping it down at as slow a speed as possible, and doing your best to avoid prop strike. This is probably not a common thing they train for, but I grew up flying small airplanes and sailplanes in Vermont, where if you're landing out somewhere, if it's not trees, it's probably muddy or snowy.

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I have been flying a Maule for many years and do mostly three point landings, and sometimes wheels only. However when landing at an airport with say an 8,000 ft runway (which I hate to do as I have 29" Bushwheels) I will sometimes land with some power on and just touch the tail wheel down to 'gobble up' the runway to the exit point and then let the main gear touch and dump the flaps. This saves rubber on my Bushwheels and allows me to stop fast.

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