Aviators mouth the word with humble respect or anxious disdain. Taildraggers are viciously treacherous, they say. “There are only two kinds of taildragger pilots — those who have already ground-looped their airplanes, and those who are about to.”
Most airplanes, from Boeing 747s to Cessna 152s, have tricycle landing gear — two main wheels and a nose wheel. The center of gravity is in front. The weight of the Cessna’s engine, above the nose wheel, keeps the wheel firmly on the ground.
So the center of gravity is in the back, and the tail, not the nose, rests on a small wheel.
Nose wheels are skinny and flimsy. Taildraggers are MANLY. On rough sod or grass airstrips that REAL MEN use, the big, strong main wheels in front pound over the humps (should I pursue the phallic metaphors… ?).
Taildraggers also enjoy a large clearance between the ground and the propeller, good for those rough airfields. Finally, taildraggers weigh less than tricycles because the tail wheel is smaller than a nose wheel.
There is one disadvantage.
In the picture, the center of gravity is the purple dot. Imagine all the weight of the airplane on that dot. All is well as the airplane tracks straight on the runway. Then a wind from the right nudges the tail to the left… .
As the airplane swerves, momentum acts on the center of gravity to pull the tail further around. The tail swivels around, sometimes violently, as the airplane spins around in a “ground loop”, the tail and nose swapping places. This sometimes causes some damage to the airframe.
The pilot’s ego takes the biggest hit. (Imagine this happening at the big, public international airport.)
In a nose wheel airplane, where the purple dot is in front of the main wheels, momentum actually pulls the nose straight. Which is why tricycle landing gear was invented. Tricycles almost pull themselves straight.
But where’s the fun in that?
Now, taildragger pilots — REAL MAN pilots — use leg muscles! They fly that airplane all the way to the hangar.
Because taildraggers, with their swiveling tails and the swinging center of gravity, don’t stop flirting with the wind until they are tied down, in a locked hangar, with the keys on the pilot’s bedside table. Then, and only then, can you turn your back on it.