Flying the Cessna Taildraggers
Cessna Built a
Bunch of Tailwheel Airplanes and we Review Them All
The original 120s used an all-aluminum structure but covered the strut-braced wings with fabric. This was later replaced with aluminum, and the double "V" strut was replaced with a single streamlined unit.
The airplanes started life with the Continental C-85 engine and, with that power-plant and no electrical system, represent probably the most fun, low-buck, nostalgic aviating available anywhere. Although the prices are rising rapidly, the non-electric airplanes are among the best flying since they aren't carrying the weight of the electrical system. On little airplanes, such additional weight can't be underestimated, causing a noticeable difference in performance.
The cabins are cozy, not tight, there’s a difference, and the control wheels, as opposed to sticks, give the flight deck a more modern feel. The majority of surviving airplanes, especially 140s, will have the main gear mounted on extensions that move the main gear several inches forward. This lets an overactive pilot get on the brakes without inviting a nose-to-nose inspection of the concrete ahead of him.
The 140s offer more sophistication, flaps, an electrical system, and 90 horses, but they aren't significantly faster than the 120s and some are actually slower. Both airplanes are supposed to cruise in the 105-110 mph range, but honest owners say 100 mph is more realistic. They were, and still are, excellent training airplanes and require just enough rudder to teach the pilot how to coordinate, but are easy enough to land that it's not a task requiring superhuman dexterity with the feet.
Of all the Cessna taildraggers, the 120/140 makes the most sense. They can be bought without having to sell one of your kids and are simple enough that the mechanical upkeep is minimal. The structure is such that the 120/140 doesn't suffer much if tied down outdoors (no, not by the seashore), so expensive hangar costs can be avoided. No, they won't seat four but how often do most people actually need four seats compared to the number of times they just want to get their butts off the ground? This is the original kick-around-the-area airplane.
This is the airplane more people should buy, but aren't. They are still a bargain at $10,000 to $15,000. (Note from 2008: double those prices…at least)
The later 170A/Bs fly and feel like early 172s, which is exactly what they are. The fabric was replaced by aluminum and the tail became the familiar Cessna shape until replaced on the 172 with more angular-shaped units. All models seat four adults comfortably and are powered by the familiar Continental 0-300 of 145 horses. This is the same engine the C-172 used clear through 1967.
Although the airplane supposedly has a useful load of close to 1000 pounds, it should be pointed out that with only 145 horses, a gross-out 170 isn't going to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Or even several bounds. It will carry the weight, as long as the pilot doesn't forget about density altitudes or runway lengths.
The 170 is one of the few taildraggers that lets the pilot, while still on the ground, almost see the end of the runway over the nose. Compared to most taildraggers, the pilot sits so high in the 170 that this is almost disconcerting. When the pilot comes in to land, he has to remember not to over-rotate because the nose is so much lower than in any other airplane. What this means is he can see every bit of the runway during approach and landing, and this is one of the reasons the C-170 is one of the easier taildraggers to land. The airplane also tracks straight ahead on touchdown, which makes it difficult to understand why Cessna decided to put a nosewheel on the airplane. The nosewheel didn't gain much, but did give away some rough field utility and a little speed.
The C-170 is good for about 120 mph cruise — depending on how
straight the airplane is, how it is loaded, and the honesty of the
pilot when asked. Once you've worked your way up through the Cessnas
to the C-170, you are no longer looking at an antique airplane. This
bird offers absolutely modern utility and structure and has a
lot more class than airplanes much newer.
L-19 BIRD DOG
In the air, the Bird Dog is a stick-controlled C-170 and has the same solid feel and less than spectacular roll rate. The L-19 puts the pilot even higher over the nose and, combined with the outward angled side windows, gives great visibility. Although the interior is typical military-stark, the airplane is comfortable on cross-country flights. Depending on the prop installed, the L-19 is good for 105-120 mph in cruise.
On landing, the Bird Dog can be whatever you want it to be — from a parachute to a hockey puck. The flaps extend a full 60 degrees which, when the airplane is on the ground, means they are almost exactly 90 degrees to the ground. In normal flap range, say 30 to 40 degrees, the airplane comes down like you'd expect. Go to flaps 60 and you'd better have your wits ready to act. The nose is pointed down at a truly incredible angle and the instant it is brought up to flare, the airspeed plummets off the dial. Flaring correctly, the Bird Dog is like a hawk coming to land on a fence post and just about that short.
The roll-out gives the initial impression of requiring more footwork than a C-170. The airplane makes tentative forays right and left, however, if left to its own devices those forays don't go very far — just keep tapping right or left and the L-19 will behave fine.
The airplane was produced for foreign as well as domestic armed forces and the Navy ordered a slight variation on a theme called the QE-2. This variant put a Continental 260 horse up front and had more angular tail surfaces. A few of these versions have surfaced, but there are lots and lots of the regular Bird Dogs floating around, ranging from $20,000 to whatever you want to pay. The price is going up fast, so don't wait. (from 2008: I waited too long -- it takes about $65,000 to get in to the L-19 game today.)
Incidentally, there is a commercially available version of the L-19 called the Ector 305. Although they haven't produced many recently, they did complete quite a few including a version called the Mountaineer with 260 hp and a constant speed. The airplane is well-named, although Mountain Goat would also be a good name since the modification takes what was an outstanding STOL airplane and makes it something nearly unmatched.