May 06, 2007

'Tail draggers' not for the casual pilot

Only a special breed of pilot enjoys flying planes with the kind of landing gear that was on the aircraft that crashed at Republic Airport Saturday, area flight instructors say.

Nicknamed "tail draggers" because of their raised nose and back wheel, such planes are "definitely not for the casual pilot," said Adam Rosenberg, 35, a flight instructor at Heritage Flight Academy at MacArthur Airport in Islip. "They are notoriously difficult to fly."

He added: "I fly them because they're a challenge."

The FAA requires aspiring tail dragger pilots to take special safety courses and to be endorsed by a flight instructor specifically trained on these types of planes before flying solo.

Pilot Vincent Pacifico and a passenger -- who crashed in a 1999 Husky A-1A during takeoff -- were on their way to just such a safety course at Brookhaven Calabro Airport.

Built for the days when most runways were grass fields and the propeller needed to be higher, tail draggers -- which are still being made -- can veer unpredictably even while taxiing on concrete and are hard to control during takeoffs and landings, said Rosenberg, who's flown tail draggers for 24 years.

The problem, pilots say, is the back wheel.

Most modern planes have two wheels near the middle of the craft and one near its nose. But a back wheel changes the center of gravity, making the plane more susceptible to engine torque and wind conditions during takeoffs and landings, pilots say.

"You're steering from the back of the plane," said Mike Sanda, a flight instructor at the Academy of Aviation at Republic Airport in Farmingdale. "You have to be very steady on the rudder."

The FAA and Republic Airport officials offered different accounts of what happened in Saturday's crash. But the most common danger tail dragger pilots face is a wayward backwheel.

If the plane is crooked, centrifugal forces can cause uncontrollable spinning, a phenomenon called a "ground loop."

Despite the risks, instructors encourage beginning pilots to learn how to fly tail draggers.

"It's a challenge but if you can master the skills, it will make you a better pilot," Rosenberg said.


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