In one of the earliest scenes of William A. Wellman's 1942 film Thunder Birds, a sign can be seen in a room of a USAAF base (some relax or briefing room, apparently), which says:

Ground loops are costly. Fly them until they stop.

enter image description here

I am not entirely sure about its meaning. I know what a ground loop is, but in what sense “Fly them until they stop”? Is it an advice not to use brakes too soon after landing?

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting to see two faces in the image of men who appear to be Asian Americans in uniform. The film was shot in Arizona in 1942. Japanese internment began in 1942, and part of Arizona was included. I believe men were not interned if they enlisted, although their families would still be interned. Since this was a propaganda film, I assume the inclusion of these actors was carefully thought out. $\endgroup$
    – user7915
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell: The matter is explained by a voiceover at the start of the film. In that base American, British and Chinese pilots were trained. $\endgroup$
    – DaG
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 16:12

7 Answers 7


It just means "pay attention to what you are doing" until you are no longer moving. "Fly them" means "keep actively controlling the plane as if you were still in the air". Don't start daydreaming just because you're on the ground, in other words.

Especially with the taildraggers of olden times;

  • They are dynamically unstable turning-wise while rolling along the ground (because the CG is behind the fixed traction points; try driving a car backward really fast) and require careful attention to staying directionally aligned even while moving slowly. Taildraggers with locking/free swivelling tailwheels (which you tend to see on the larger ones) are even more demanding, and are basically like a shopping cart rolling backwards (the kind with fixed back wheels, not the 4-wheel caster kind) once the tailwheel is unlocked for taxiing, and need to be steered with brakes alone, which requires quite a bit of concentration.
  • They like to tip forward under hard braking so keeping full up elevator while taxiing is a requirement to minimize this tendency
  • Strong quartering winds, if present, are trying to tip you over while 3 point on the ground and you have to learn to apply appropriate amounts of aileron to counteract this tendency.

A lot of stuff to keep in mind. The tendency of a new pilot, when they had a successful landing, was to breath a sigh of relief and relax during the rollout when dropping below, say, 30 kt where rudder power fades away, or during taxi, forget they were in a backwards rolling shopping cart that is trying to switch ends continuously and let their mind wander, and oops.

Tricycle gear airplanes are nowhere near as physically demanding, but still you need to pay attention to what you are doing so it still applies in the end.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that even tricycle-gear aircraft are usually still easy to intentionally ground-loop; they just tend not to do so spontaneously. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 1:15
  • $\begingroup$ This very good answer could be further improved by noting that groundloops (at least in tailwheel aircraft) often tend to begin once the airspeed has decayed to a rather low value. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Sean not really. It's hard to make a trike actually spin around unless you are on an icy surface. It simply can't switch ends the way a TD can. It's the shopping cart going FORWARD; push it along and let it go and it just wanders off to one side. Inattention on a tricycle gear plane just normally means drifting toward the runway lights, still an exciting event all the same. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ The shopping cart analogy is a bit confusing when you, like me, are from a country where shopping carts generally have 4 free spinning wheels and going forward and backward is exactly the same. This answer refers to to shopping carts where the rear wheels are locked. (Common in the US I think, maybe in other places as well.) $\endgroup$
    – Maeher
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ It might be useful to mention that "them" in the second sentence apparently refers to "airplanes". Not to "ground loops", which might be what someone might thing. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 13:32

Ground loops are costly. Fly them until they stop.

What this literally says:

Ground loops are costly. Fly the ground loops until they stop.

What they meant to say:

Ground loops are costly. Fly the airplane until it stops.

Some background to why this was was important, not an answer to the question really...

From personal experience (twice) it is all to easy to relax and lose focus as soon as the airplane is rolling on the ground, the landing went quite well you think.

In a tailwheel plane you have to focus on directional control during the rollout. If there is a course deviation that is not corrected immediately it will quickly amplify out of control and develop into a ground loop. The situation is also complicated by a risk of pilot induced oscillation. If you correct a deviation to say the left and the tail is then swinging back to the right, you have to start stopping this right swing before reaching the neutral line otherwise you have a developing ground loop to the right that has to be stopped.

So, focus on the rollout, do nothing distracting like flipping switches, retracting flaps or folding maps until the aircraft has fully stopped.

The rollout is an important part of the flight.

Another saying: The flight is not over until it is over.

  • $\begingroup$ You could improve this answer by explaining what is meant by "fly" in this quote. It can't be about actual flying in the air, can it? $\endgroup$
    – Džuris
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Dzuris "Fly" in this context just means "it's an aircraft and you're in charge of it until you're stopped in the parking space with parking brake on/chocks under the wheels/tiedowns tied, engine off and checklists done." It's easy to relax after the aircraft has touched down and appears to be rolling out straight only to have a gust of wind embarrass you, or do a great landing then be careless taxiing. One is constantly admonished when practicing emergencies to not forget to "fly the plane." In this case, "fly" means be "in charge of" - you're not finished until the plane is safely parked. $\endgroup$
    – Flynn
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 19:20

It means that even if you've put the wheels on the ground, you still need to "fly" the plane (meaning using control surfaces such as rudder/aileron/elevator) to maintain directional control until you've stopped.


It is amazing to realize how much aircraft changed from 1920 to 1940, and how difficult it was to properly train people to operate the new ones (all the way to stop).

A "ground loop" means exactly what it says, a very sharp turn from your intended path. Your mechanic would not be happy when the cost of damage to struts, wheel bearings, tires, and other items (should a wing drag) is assessed.

The ground stability issues of these new planes came from 4 sources, greatly increased engine power, greatly increased weight, and, especially for this discussion, weight behind the brakes of the main wheels, and the natural "weather vaning" tendency of a directionally stable airplane.

The fourth is an issue of decreasing rudder authority in a crosswind rollout that has never changed. What did change was putting a wheel on the back instead of a skid, and the relatively larger vertical stabilizer on the newer low wing monoplanes as compared with biplanes. Having a narrow track on the front, such as the Me-109, made the differential braking required to control this more difficult. Wider track mains helped.

Greatly increased power lead to much greater turning tendencies as throttle was applied, and the greater weight per area meant inertial "overshoot" with inadequate aerodynamic control became more of an issue (should be ringing bells for you "Dutch Rollers").

But the fundamental problem is brakes in front of weight. Tractor-trailers are famous for "jack knifing" for the very same reason. A fully loaded tractor trailer has 60% of its braking in front and 75% of its weight in back. This is why it wants to "swap ends" when brakes are applied. Very similar concept to drag and weight in the air (the parachute). Drag wants to be in back, weight in front for a decelerating object on the ground.

This conflicts with the need to have the mains "raked forward" to keep the plane from flipping forwards when landing! Which brings us to the old term "tail dragger". When older lighter planes landed, the skid in back would more stably drag it to a stop (from maybe 35 mph). Newer planes, landing at 100 mph, with brakes on the mains, were a different story.

The tricycle gear greatly helps this issue because the mains are set behind the CG.

The "tail dragger" concept was successfully applied to the X-15, which followed the bi-plane tradition with 2 skids in the back and a wheel in the front. The Space Shuttle was a trike.

  • $\begingroup$ What does “Dutch Rollers” refer to? $\endgroup$
    – DaG
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @DaG a plane that Dutch rolls. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 3:17
  • $\begingroup$ but all aircraft "Dutch roll", it's one of the fundamental dynamic aircraft responses $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Federico yaw and roll coupling is fundamental, what we know as "Dutch roll" is considered undesirable. This would be a sustained, repetitive, undamped cycle of movement once controlled inputs are removed. Very difficult to get a paper airplane to do this .. why? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ because you do not have movable surfaces on a paper airplane that can excite the motion. it is undesirable to have it excited, but the coupling, i.e. the dynamic response, is there $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 13:35

"maintain directional control until you've stopped."

In aviation, a ground loop is a rapid rotation of a fixed-wing aircraft in the horizontal plane (yawing) while on the ground. Aerodynamic forces may cause the advancing wing to rise, which may then cause the other wingtip to touch the ground. In severe cases (particularly if the ground surface is soft), the inside wing can dig in, causing the aircraft to swing violently or even cartwheel.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your first sentence. The rest is from the Wikipedia article I myself linked to in my question. $\endgroup$
    – DaG
    Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 14:16

GROUND LOOPS ARE EXPENSIVE ie if it gets away from you and enters a ground loop so severe that the aircraft flips and/or strikes a wing into the ground the damage both to the aircraft - and to you - will be very costly.

FLY THEM UNTIL THEY STOP - maintain positive control of the aircraft throughout all ground and flight operations. This is particularly true of landing in crosswind conditions where the tendency is to release control pressures immediately after touchdown. This quickly results in the airplane weathervaning in the wind and veering off centerline. This is easily correctable on a tricycle gear aircraft with proper control inputs but with the inherently unstable nature of a conventional gear airplane can quickly get out of hand with overcorrections using differential braking and rudder, which may cause the airplane to enter an unrecoverable ground loop. The remedy for this is to maintain the proper crosswind control inputs even after touchdown and fly the airplane until it is slowed to taxi speeds and ready to exit the runway.

You should maintain positive control of any aircraft with the correct flight control inputs during all phases of flight operations, but this becomes especially true in taildraggers due to their inherently unstable nature during ground operations. Tailwheel airplanes will quickly show you how bad your landing skills are and some like the Pitts S-2B will punish you for it!


From an "aviation culture" perspective, "fly it until it stops" is still a phrase taught to student pilots to this day. It means "don't let go of the controls no matter what, act like you are in command of the aircraft until there is no more motion.". In modern times, this is taught in the context of landing in general, especially in emergency landing training (ground loops aren't a big concern with modern tricycle gear trainers). Even when things are slightly out of control, even if the airplane is running in to things, a pilot can reduce damages and injuries by applying counteractions. Just like in a car, if you skid, you don't let go of the wheel, you steer against the skid.

With this context in mind, "Ground loops are costly. Fly them until they stop." means "ground loops damage the aircraft, if you find yourself in one, don't give up! Keep trying to regain control, until there is no more motion of the aircraft."


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