I Don't Need No Stinkin' Electrical System

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When Iím shopping for an engine overhaulówhich Iíve done a half dozen times, I guessóI tend not to dwell on the details. Days of handwringing over which shop to use, fussing over accessories and generally just worrying the decision to death will make you crazy. So I just gather up the available data, sort through it, try to gain some customer feedback and then just get on with it.

This time around, however, as weíre overhauling the Cub engine, once decision point gave me pause. We have the option of upgrading from the installed C-65 to a C-85. Itís basically a bolt-up. Other than a welcome boost in performance, this opens up some interesting options like a starter, an alternator and an electrical system. While we were debating this upgrade, I got a look at a C-85 overhaul for a Champ done by Donís Dream Machines in Griffin, Georgia. It was a perfectly finished little jewel of a thing, fitted out with state-of-the-art electricals, including a lightweight starter and alternator. Very sweet. We could have not just a starter, but a proper radio and even a transponder.

Then the visceral reaction hit me.

I donít want no stinkiní electrical system in the Cub. Donít want a radio either, other than the handheld we already have. Transponder? Forget it. This sentiment stems not from some gauzy romantic nostalgia whereby I imagine myself strutting from the line shack in a leather helmet and jodhpurs. I was born in the year I was supposed to be born, thanks. I have no fantasies pre-dating an era when gas cost a dime and my Mom could drive me around in her Oldsmobile and not risk arrest for letting me stand up on the seat on the ride to the Piggly Wiggly.

I donít think itís related to purity of flight, either. You know, the usual claptrap about a simple airplane being so elemental that youíre at one with the wind, separated by nothing but a thin cloth membrane and sensing the sensation of flight through the sinews of the control cables. Bleeech!

Probably I voted against the C-85 because Iím cheap and it would have cost another eight grand, at least. But really, for me, it gets down to this: I like to prop airplanes. Thatís basically it. So many people are fearful of the simple act of swinging a wooden blade through to start an engine that the contrarian in me absolutely revels in this simple process. Thereís a bit of challenge and art to it and every airplane that requires propping has a different personality. Some like just a shot of prime, some want two. Some will fire on the first blade every time and others will force the hapless pilot through a five-minute symphony of swinging, cursing and farting until theyíll fire and run with a will. Propping forces a certain concentration and focus on the task at hand, because if you do it wrong, you can ruin your day.

A guy who prefers a starter wouldnít necessarily appreciate that and on some days, I donít either. But not enough to spend $8000 to install a starter button.

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (21)

I fly a J3 with a c90. I agree be a man and hand prop. Look macho, it really grabs people.

If you are going to buy at Don's buy a real engine from him, get the c85 stoker with the o-200 crank.

Don't whin about fuel cost, maybe $3.79 a hour, so don't go girly girl. Your loops will be easier with more power.

Posted by: Scott Fasken | September 16, 2013 7:38 AM    Report this comment

A Dewalt 18 volt drill works great on our wood prop A-65 Champ !!

Posted by: James Thomas | September 16, 2013 7:48 AM    Report this comment

I just upgraded my J3 from an A65 to a C85-12 stroker. I was talked into being able to add starter down the road as we age. We could of made it a C85-8. A starter will also help when I put the J3 on floats. Don't need an alternator with today's battery operated electronics. Just ask the glider guys.

Posted by: Jim Newton | September 16, 2013 9:29 AM    Report this comment

I enjoyed flying my neighbor's Champ until he sold it....without asking me, BTW.....but solo hand-propping the little putt-putter wasn't at the top of the fun factor list. Care & feeding of the handheld radio was another annoyance, there always seemed to be some problem there.

Maybe you could salve the pain of the extra cost with the idea that when/if you (gasp!) sold the Cub a good chunk of the investment would come back?

Posted by: John Wilson | September 16, 2013 9:42 AM    Report this comment

I've always been one to think propping an aircraft was better avoided if at all possible. How do you do it safely solo?

Posted by: Jay Maynard | September 16, 2013 9:45 AM    Report this comment

During the winter I had prop my 160hp cub for the first start of each day. The battery is under the front seat and is what ever the outside temperature is. -40 to +30. After that the battery is warm and I will use the electric starter.

Posted by: James Hamilton | September 16, 2013 9:58 AM    Report this comment

The nice thing about hand-propping a Cub is that you can swing it from behind and have a snowball's chance of grabbing the throttle if it was ever to get away from you (in a Champ the door gets in the way). I remember a case where an L-16 (Aeronca) took off without the pilot and flew unmanned for 100 miles before running out of gas.

But propping anything with a tailwheel is easier than a nosewheel as the latter requires you to lean into the prop arc...I propped 172s and Tri-Pacers when the battery was dead but did not enjoy it.

Posted by: A Richie | September 16, 2013 10:37 AM    Report this comment

"I've always been one to think propping an aircraft was better avoided if at all possible. How do you do it safely solo?"

You can't make it entirely safe, but you can reduce risk by chocking the airplane carefully and, lately for me, tieing the tail with a quick disconnect. Some people have been propping airplanes for years with never an incident. Just lucky? I don't think so.

On the other hand, more than a few pilots have lost control after starting with an electric starter, followed by a trip through the tulies or into the nearest hangar.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 16, 2013 11:25 AM    Report this comment

My dad began flying in 1928 - obviously propped them all. He taught me how and I taught my 12 year old son to do same with T-Craft we were flying at the time. His wife learned to fly about 3 years ago in a 41 T-Craft and learned to prop it also. No you don't need a starter. It is fun to prop different aircraft. Tail draggers are a treat - Nose draggers a pain. I'm 76 years old now and still propping the small stuff. Saves money on required Xponders and all that other gunk you need to go along with an electrical system too. It does scare me to watch some people who have not been shown good technique. Hint - turn main fuel off before propping. It will run plenty long enough to get in and sit down. Learn to get out of the way by stepping aside. A runaway aircraft can go faster than a scared aviator can run backwards.

Posted by: Lou Whitaker | September 16, 2013 6:27 PM    Report this comment

I have the utmost respect for your frugalness - starters, alternators, and avionics are nice but all add to ownership costs. It seems to me that pilots who buy airplanes they can afford fly them a lot - those who bite off more than they can chew own hangar queens.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 16, 2013 8:31 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Paul about propping, it is enjoyable, especially a small Continental with a wooden prop; a GO-480 with a 3 blade metal prop, not so much. I probably would have gone with the C-85 less the electricals but I fly in the mountains and climb is more of an issue than in Florida which is pretty much two dimensional.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 17, 2013 8:30 AM    Report this comment

I depend on an electrical system in my 170, but the more guys who don't need one, the better. Our government amasses way too much information, but not quite so much on the J-3 fleet. At nearby (for me) Hampton, N.H. (7B3), where J-3s are used in flight instruction, pilots from away are advised to fly a proper pattern to mesh with the nordo traffic. I say right on!

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | September 17, 2013 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Hand propping is a neanderthalic practice and should be prohibited especially to anyone with bad backs, arthritic hands and over 70. There ...

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 17, 2013 4:22 PM    Report this comment

I don't begrudge anyone any method used to start an aircraft if they take the responsibility - I still flint and steel start my campfires and love it. And living under a huge Mode C veil a transponder is necessary for me. But this notion of 'right on!' to non-emergency nordo flight is one I'll never embrace.

Communication is one of the highest safety considerations in flight, and this attitude, similar to not using turn signals in autos, that YOU know where YOU are going and others can just get with YOUR program is simply childish and unnecessary today. A good handheld is not too much to ask for anyone flying in today's complicated airspace.

Posted by: Dave Miller | September 17, 2013 5:35 PM    Report this comment

One trick I use when hand propping my Aeronca is to put the trim full down. That way if the chock and tie down fails, the plane may get away from me but it won't aviate without the pilot.

Posted by: jay Manor | September 17, 2013 7:09 PM    Report this comment

We have a PA-11 with an A-65 engine which has been in the family for 47 years. When my daughter learned to fly recently, I taught her how to hand prop the airplane safely as my mother had taught me.

There is certainly risk involved in this operation just as there is with anything else involved in flying an airplane. We choose to minimize this particular risk with proper training and procedures.

Incidentally, Mr. Miller, we use a portable communications radio in the airplane but I disagree with you that communication is one of the highest safety considerations in flight. Radio communication does not provide collision avoidance in uncontrolled airspace.

Posted by: Brian Moore | September 19, 2013 7:30 AM    Report this comment

'Radio communication does not provide collision avoidance in uncontrolled airspace.'

Sounds very authoritative and absolute. I can give dozens of examples where it has, but if you say without any doubt that it cannot, then evidently your flying experiences have been very different than mine have.

Posted by: Dave Miller | September 19, 2013 3:41 PM    Report this comment

I find looking outside the airplane more useful than relying on radio communication. I acknowledge that a comm radio is a useful tool, but it does not make you bullet-proof.

Most folks that fly airplanes without radios are particularly watchful. Those equipped with all the bells and whistles don't always realize that TCAS and related equipment don't show all traffic. Another point to ponder is that a full stack of radios doesn't do much good if they are tuned to the wrong frequency, have their volume turned down so an instructor can communicate with a student, or rendered useless by an inadvertent selection on the audio panel.

Posted by: Brian Moore | September 19, 2013 7:46 PM    Report this comment

A perfect bullet-proof world I would never entertain, no need for a false contrast of inadequate volume levels, TCAS shortcomings, or low batteries in handheld radios to feel comfortable in randominity. One could also add windscreen glare, bugs and dirt, a wasp in the cabin, how could I have missed that? or any one of many possible problems with the see and avoid technique we all use also.

Fly as you see fit and categorize as you need to. Put communication with other traffic wherever you wish on your scale. Along with other important safety tools I use, it will remain high on my list.

Posted by: Dave Miller | September 19, 2013 10:19 PM    Report this comment

While the NORDO pilot may truly feel his superior see-and-avoid skills more than compensate for having no communication, a significant factor to remember is that today other pilots tend to expect to hear as well as see other traffic and as a result may not be scanning at your level of dedication. This is particularly true of pilots who very rarely encounter NORDO traffic, which today in most localities is the majority. Remember also that even your superb scan will not detect traffic coming at you from one of your blind directions.

I agree a shortcoming in technique on the other guy's part would not excuse their failure to spot you. On the other hand, after a mid-air the matter is likely to be moot from your perspective.

Sad truth is that regardless of your own skills you must share your sky with many imperfect pilots, and every compensating safety advantage available to you at least deserves an honest cost-benefit analysis.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 20, 2013 11:25 PM    Report this comment

Common sense: the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions. Fly safe my friends.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 21, 2013 9:14 PM    Report this comment

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