failed, either a friend has hand-propped
the airplane for me, or I’ve done it
myself with somebody who could be
trusted at the controls.
Some of the things we do in aviation
have a certain danger quotient to them,
but I’m convinced that we have a good
chance of staying out of trouble as long
as we know most of the ways in which
we are vulnerable—the not-so-obvious
ways that something can sneak up on us
from behind. Usually that’s because others have gone before us and found out
the hard way how things can go badly.
We know not to fly into clouds, even
though they may look like a fluffy
Disney version of heaven, because
others have flown into clouds and have
sometimes been torn apart. We know
that on cool, foggy days, the mist can
not only reduce visibility, but also
adhere to the airframe and the prop,
freezing quickly and degrading performance so much that the airplane can’t
stay airborne and can even fall out
of the sky. Similarly, with hand-propping, others have already discovered
Before enumerating them, however,
I have to point out that this is not a
how-to article. Hand-propping is not
something you learn from a magazine.
But we can list some things to avoid,
some of those lessons learned the hard
way by others.
Having somebody on the
controls is of little use if
you fall into the prop disc,
except to call 911.
BE NOT ALONE
Having somebody at the controls is crucial. Everybody in flying, it seems, has a
story in which a guy he heard of decided
to hand-prop an airplane with nobody at
the controls. The wheels weren’t
chocked, the throttle was left wide open
(often because, in the story, the engine
wouldn’t start with the throttle at idle),
and it started, and almost mowed the
guy down, took off, and flew away. Many
of these stories are true, although possibly the flying away part, while it may
have happened once or twice, is probably just an enhancement intended to cap
the story off with a dramatic
flourish. Usually the airplane taxies off and does
What is certain is that
in any circumstance in
which the engine
starts at more than
idle speed, and there’s
nobody at the controls,
something bad will happen.
For that matter, if there’s an
unqualified person at the controls,
something bad can still happen. There’s
a You Tube video (you can find it on
www.SportAviation.org) that shows
a pilot trying to hang on to one wing
strut of a Cessna taildragger that he has
just started. The airplane pivots rapidly
around and around, with the pilot
unable to do anything but hang on, his
shoes sliding on the surface of the ramp.
There’s a passenger in the right seat
who is undoubtedly terrified, but in
any case can’t stop the airplane. It does
not end well, although there are no serious injuries.
What is a “qualified person”? Well,
another pilot, for starters. The only time
I ever hand-propped my Quicksilver
MX Sprint, my wife was able to help.
She had flown the aircraft solo, so she
was completely qualified. Even so, we
worked out in advance what to do with
ignition and throttle. Things can go seriously wrong if communication is not
clearly established and words or hand
signals agreed upon. “Off” sounds so
much like “On” when heard through a
windscreen or in a noisy environment
that some other words or gestures
would be wise.
(This is a good place to remind readers that the ignition in a two-cycle
engine is “off” when a circuit is closed.
It’s possible for that circuit to fail,
which would mean the engine could
start even when the ignition is “off.”)
Lots of people, including lots of non-
pilots, could serve as the person to sit at
the controls. All that’s necessary is intel-
ligence and a willingness to get it right.
Lucky me, I’ve never had an occasion
when there was neither another pilot nor
an intelligent helper to sit at the controls.
If that ever came about, the rational thing
could be to give up the project until some
HOW SURE IS YOUR FOOTING?
Do not hand-prop while standing on ice,
mud, wet grass, or anything else slippery.
Having somebody on the controls is of
little use if you fall into the prop disc,
except to call 911. And even then—are the
surgeons in your area good at reattaching
limbs? Just asking.
I may be the only one who thinks this
way, but whenever I hand-prop, I first
look critically at my immediate surroundings to make sure there’s nothing to trip
over, and to decide just how I will make
my getaway if things go sour. Always stay
ahead of the airplane, we say in aviation,
even if that means throwing yourself to
the side to get out of its way.
A CERTAIN BEAUTY
It’s probably not a coincidence that I
have been refinishing the wooden propeller for my Quicksilver GT400 as I write
and illustrate this article: Hand-sanding,
pausing to blow the dust off, sanding
some more—it’s all part of the joy of
aviation. All props are beautiful, especially wooden ones. Meat cleavers
have a certain beauty, too, but let’s
keep them separate.
Dave Matheny, EAA 184186, is a private pilot
and an FAA ground instructor. He has been flying
light aircraft, including ultralights, for 30 years. He
accepts commissions for his art and can be reached