Tailwheels

“Betcha can’t land there,” I said to Chris. We were photographing our way north along the Waterpocket Fold in southeastern Utah. The Fold is a seven thousand foot wave of Mesozoic rock that appears to have suddenly frozen as it surged eastward sixty-five million years ago. I’d spotted a straight stretch of road on top of Thompson Mesa on the down-thrown side of the Fold. If we could land, it would be nice to stroll over to the nearby cliff that afforded a beautiful view of Halls Creek and the Waterpocket Fold.

As always, Chris had an almost empty beer can lodged between the two front seats. He didn’t respond to my taunt, just stared straight ahead and kept on flying. I watched as he worked the Skoal around in his mouth and, with studied nonchalance, spit into the can. Without a word he wheeled the plane up on a wing and spun back to the south. He reached up and jammed his ratty cowboy hat further down on his head. I tightened my seatbelt, grinned and kept quiet.

We were a couple thousand feet above Thompson Mesa. Chris nosed the plane over and picked up speed. The little dirt road quickly came back into view. I thought we’d do a fly-by to check for ruts and rough spots. Instead, I realized, we were going to land straight away. The approach was hot, too hot. We landed fast and firmly, and banged hard across a wash-out. Chris shut the engine down when we halted at the end of the road. We sat there, both looking straight ahead. The tailwheel was seriously bent. The only noise within fifty miles was a slow metallic tick as the engine cooled down, and the hissing sound of Chris seething. He wanted to kill me.

Waterpocket Fold above Halls Creek; Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

 Taildraggers are airplanes with two big tires up front and one tiny wheel in back. Well into the 1940s, most airplanes had a tailwheel. Chris taught me to fly in this 1952 Cessna 170, so I hadn’t gotten used to tricycle gear, had never learned that taildraggers are supposed to be tricky to land. Wheel landings? Three point landings? Short field landings? Crosswind landings? You keep your feet busy on the pedals and just land them. Taildraggers are useful in the backcountry because, when abused, a tailwheel is more likely to bend rather than break like a nosewheel. Chris had just proven that point. We were able to fly it out.

I’ve since landed on Thompson Mesa many times. Once while working on a geology book about Capitol Reef, I wanted to camp close to this part of the Waterpocket Fold. I swept in low and fast to check out the strip. To my horror, too late to break off, I passed fifteen feet over the head of an unseen motorcyclist at the south end. I landed at the other end and, with tail tucked firmly between my legs, tip-toed into the sagebrush. Sure enough, not five minutes later, here comes the motorcycle. The rider popped and sputtered up, took off his goggles, leveled his gaze at me like a revolver and said, “That motor of yours got a most beautiful sound I ever heard.” Well, whatduyouknow?

Soldier Bar strip above Big Creek, Idaho

I took my dad to Idaho a few years before he died. We landed at Cabin Creek, a one-way strip grandfathered into the wilderness in 1964. He wanted to fish and I wanted to photograph mountains above the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I said I’d be back in a few hours. But, along the way, I landed at another strip called Vines. It lies along Big Creek, about a thousand feet long with trees at both ends. The landing was uneventful, quickly decelerating to taxi speed. At the end I kicked in left rudder and spun the tail to face back up the strip. But just before coming fully around, I felt a thud and the Buzzard abruptly stopped. Hmmmm. The tail must have hit a rock. But I hadn’t seen any when I started to turn.

I climbed out and looked. My tailwheel had broken off. The landing hadn’t been particularly rough; the darn wheel just decided to break off. A bolt had snapped right where the stinger attaches to the wheel. There was a fresh tear on one side of the bolt, and corrosion on the other. The bolt could just as well have come apart back in Boise or Salt Lake where it would have been a little more convenient to repair. Instead it had to happen here in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. No return indeed. By definition, there are no roads; not a soul within miles.

I used a small tree to leverage the Buzzard into alignment with the runway. The tail rested on the stinger so the elevator wasn’t damaged. The nose pointed much too high at the sky. What’s a boy to do? I unhooked the rudder cables, gathered all the stray parts, and climbed back into the cockpit. The tail, without the weight of the broken wheel, readily rose off the ground when I added power. Away we went.

I flew toward McCall and radioed ahead that my three-wheeler was down to two. I asked if a mechanic could meet me with a cart out by the runway because I wasn’t going to be able to taxi very far. Maybe just in case he could bring a fire extinquisher. I landed a little faster than normal so that wind would keep the tail flying. In fact, by simultaneously adding power and braking, I was able to turn off the runway, sidle up to the mechanic, and gently lower the lighter-than-normal tail to the ground. Well, whatduyouknow? The stinger was replaced and the wheel was quickly fixed. I retrieve my dad the next morning. He asked, “Where have you been?”

Panamint Dunes, California

So when a friend and I were photographing near Panamint Valley, I wasn’t too perturbed when he had a little problem with his tailwheel. A few months earlier Mark had piled up his 180 on a short strip. This would be his first crack at another short, one-way, dirt strip. Mark went in first. He stopped at the end but didn’t turn off to the west side as I would have expected. I waited and waited, then finally went in using a bit less of the strip than I had intended. There was Mark standing at the back of his plane, scratching his head. In his excitement, he had landed hard and popped the back tire.

Mark performing maintenance on his Cessna 180, "Dot"

I carry a pump and patch kit, but the tire was beyond repair. We walked over and sat in the Saline hot springs, stewing about the fix we were in. After a few minutes, I had an idea. I retrieved the saw that lives in the back of my plane. We found a mesquite log, cut out a tailwheel-shaped blank, and drilled a half-inch hole through the middle. The wooden wheel fit perfectly. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Fred Flintstone in the pilot’s seat as Mark clattered down that dirt strip and took off.

 

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About Michael Collier

I had the good fortune to be given five mentors early in life. John Running shared his love for honest photographs. Chuck Barnes showed me how to think like a geologist. Chris Condit, bless his soul, taught me to fly. Walt Taylor will always be the most effectively caring physician I could ever imagine. And Wesley Smith, that night above Crystal, taught me how to pray to the river. My thanks to you all. www.michaelcollierphoto.com