Nosewheel or Taildragger?

The nosewheel or taildragger debate is - along with whether or not to prime - one of the most emotional topics to be discussed in the RV community. It resurfaces periodically on various RV newsgroups or mailing lists. Usually, it's not because someone wants to know (everyone already has their mind made up anyway), but because someone makes some offhand comment about how one particular design is better.

In the ensuing snotstorm, there seem to be larger numbers of emotional assertions (i.e., "all noseroller pilots are all weenies") accompanied by smaller numbers of actual good observations. This rant is a collection of the good observations that I've seen go by, mainly in the RV7and7A Yahoo Group. Pretty much all I'm doing here is collecting and organizing comments from people more experienced than I - my personal experience is limited to rides in both kinds, and building a -7A.

Moving right along. Let's start with a list of some statements that everyone seems to agree on, and then see if we can come to some sort of conclusion:

  • Noseroller RVs are more difficult to build, in addition to being more expensive. More complexity translates into more potential problems with the gear - i.e., you'll never have nosewheel shimmy issues if you have a taildragger.
  • All other things being equal, insurance rates are lower, for most pilots, if you have a noseroller airplane. If you have 5 billion hours in taildraggers, this is probably not relevant for you. If you're planning on getting hull insurance, this lower cost will offset any addition cost that you had in building the more complex gear.
  • Ground visibility is better in noseroller RVs. After you take off, it obviously doesn't make any difference.
  • Nosegear airplanes are not as difficult to handle in a crosswind. Folks that fly tailwheels say that if you know the right way, taildraggers aren't difficult to handle in a crosswind, but judging by the insurance rates, not everyone knows the right way. Personal experience is probably the determining factor, here.
  • Some people that really like tailwheels just really like tailwheels, and some people don't. There's not really any rhyme or reason to this.
  • Taildraggers just look cooler on the ground.
  • Taildraggers are marginally faster.

It seems to me that this shouldn't be as big deal as it's made out to be. If you want to build a taildragger, build a taildragger. If you don't care, if you're a low time pilot, or you don't have any experience in taildraggers, then probably a noseroller is the right choice for you.

However, let's not hear any of this emotional garbage from taildragger folks to the effect that noseroller airplanes have training wheels, or what have you. RV-7As have their nosewheel in common with P-38s and F-18s, and, well . . . draw your own conclusions about the coolness factor. If you're the sort of person that thinks that taildraggers are cooler, that's fine too - if that's the right choice for you, that's good too. Both of them are great airplanes.

More comments - 24 March 05 - there's been quite a bit of discussion lately on some of the forums and groups as to how safe the RV nosewheel is in off-airport landings, and there have even been a few folks that have opted to build the straight 7 instead of a -7A because of the supposed issues.

If you want to know what I think about this, keep reading. If not, you better hit that back button.

Observations, in no specific order. We'll sum up at the end:
  • This has been triggered by a few accidents that have taken place in noseroller RVs. Some have been off-airport landings, some have not been. The specifics as to if it was a design flaw, pilot error, or error in assembly was still being debated (with no resolution in sight, I might add) by the time I lost interest in following the discussion. (My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that there's not a smoking gun in any of these areas. It's a complex problem, and I think that anyone that attempts to pin it on only one reason isn't really being realistic.)
  • Most all reasonable folks agree that this should be investigated further, though what sort of results further investigation will generate is (surprise) hotly debated.
  • In quite a few of the landings, one of two problems have been noted: either there has not been enough clearance between the nosewheel pant and the tire, or the tire has been underinflated - both of these can result in contact between the tire and the wheel pant.
  • Concern on off-airport landings of the aircraft flipping because the wheels snag the ground can't realistically be limited to only nosewheel aircraft. RVs that are taildraggers have flipped on off-airport landings - this is a result of the small tires that have low drag that let you go fast. Personally, I think it's a bit of a stretch to call it a design flaw. If you want an slower RV that can handle rough fields, that's perfectly fine. Then for you, it's a design flaw, simply because it's not the airplane that you want. Put tundra tires on it, and that's okay. It'll still be a great airplane.
  • As more and more RVs are built, the number of hours that an average RV pilot has when they fly their RV for the first time is probably going down. To my knowledge, no one has done any studies on this, so I may be right and I may be wrong. Even if I'm right, the result of this is debatable.
Can we draw any conclusions?

No real smoking guns, really. It needs further investigation, that's for sure. Probably the design can be improved, but doing that at the expense of speed probably isn't going to be really popular in the RV community . . . not that I'm implying that this is a good position. It just seems that most folks would rather go fast and take the (marginally smaller) risk than having to go slower. Can the design be improved without sacrificing (much) speed? Probably. If a factory improvement comes out, my RV will be wearing it.

On the other hand, this situation could likely be improved with better training for noseroller pilots. We can get away with being sloppy - taildragger folks are more likely to get bit in the rear with the design of the taildragger, so they're more careful. If everyone that flies noseroller RVs landed with the skill and care that taildragger pilots have to display, that would probably improve the situation. Is the design safe right now? It's not as dangerous as some folks would have you believe, I don't think. I certainly don't have any qualms about going anywhere in a -A model RV that I would go in a taildragger RV. I've flown off grass strips - grass strips that are in good condition, anyway - in -A model RVs, and I'm perfectly willing to keep doing it whether or not an improvement in the design, pilot training, or anything else takes place.

If it worries you, build a taildragger. It's interesting to note, though, that insurance rates are still lower for noseroller RVs, and it seems to me that insurance companies, of all people, would keep track of the stats behind this sort of stuff.

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