Ghost Cub Flies 1.5 Miles Before Crashing In Nebraska


A hand-propping gone wrong launched a vintage J-3 Cub on a 1.5 mile flight on its own last week in Nebraska. The Lincoln Journal Star is reporting that police say a mechanic was trying to start the Cub at Central City Airport on the evening of May 3 but didn’t realize the throttle was open. The Cub climbed to 200 feet and headed southwest where it met its demise in a corn field. Merrick County deputies responded to the report of a plane crash and were initially puzzled to not be pulling a pilot from the overturned wreckage.

They headed to the airport and got the story from the mechanic, who said he was trying to get the old bird going. “And when he hand-turned the propeller, the worst-case scenario happened,” a police spokeswoman told the newspaper. That got the newsroom thinking about just how often this kind of thing happens and they were perhaps disappointed by the response from the NTSB. It keeps no such records because this wasn’t an “accident,” according to the NTSB’s Peter Knudson. “There was no person on board the aircraft so it would not meet the definition of ‘accident’ for our purposes,” he said. “We do investigate accidents involving unmanned aircraft systems, but this was not one of those.”

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    While true, some of these reports do make it in to the NTSB records anyway. I’ve written before how years ago I wanted to research just how dangerous hand-propping really is. The 10-year range I searched revealed no lost limbs or fatalities, but lots of runaway airplanes. One plane took off like just like this Cub, but it took a week to find it.

    The only injury I found was actually rather humorous (NTSB Report NYC97LA106):

    …A witness reported that he was intrigued by the airplane and had come over to watch the start, taxi, and takeoff. He said he was immediately impressed with the pilot and passenger [husband and wife] of N4832H. He stated that the pair was extremely thorough and conscientious. The witness said he was impressed by the woman hand-propping the airplane and that it was clear “…she really knew what she was doing.” He said that after approximately three attempts to start the airplane, the woman started turning the propeller backwards. He further said:

    “At that point the victim came over. He was fairly insistent, kind of take charge … intimidating. The pilot waved him away but he pulled the prop through. I was shocked he just walked over and did this. I think maybe he suffered from complacency. Maybe he couldn’t handle that a woman was hand propping the airplane.”

    [The pilot/husband said] “At this point a guy walks up and says, ‘I’ll take it from here.’ The guy yelled, “Mags off!’, and I yelled ‘Mags off, but wait a minute!’ He was way too close to the spinner. He pulled it through, I heard this ‘clunk’, and he fell down out of my view. The airplane did not start. We got out of the plane and saw that it hit his left knee.”

    The [husband] reported that he gave his [wife] formal instruction on the hand-propping of his airplane and that she had performed this job successfully for 2 years.

  2. Looks like there was a mechanic that forgot the basics of hand propping an airplane by one’s self (chocks & tail tie-down). Hope he had good liability insurance. It would have been interesting to see the faces of the responding deputies when they arrived at the crash site and found the plane empty.

  3. Kinda proves a Cub does make a great free flight model…this one being a full scale version. I would assume the mech was propping from behind the prop. Full throttle start up while in front of the propeller would have made a mess of the free flight Cub and the mechanic. Safe but expensive ending with none hurt other than some one’s wallet or insurance company which we will all participate in one way or another the next quote.

    • Actually, the mechanic better hope that he has good liability insurance. If the plane is insured, the company will pay the claim and then go after the mechanic to get their money back. It’s called subrogation. Plus, they will also sell the wreck to a salvage operation, so their total costs are not that great. It’s the cases like a friend of mine who landed his Baron gear up that cost them. Two new 3-blade props, two engine tear downs and the fuselage repairs, plus no way to recover any of the costs.

  4. This can happen to large singles as well. On May 18, 1979, a pilot at Pirate’s Cove Airport, a private paved airstrip along Kentucky Lake near Aurora, Kentucky, was faced with a dead battery and someplace to go. He positioned the airplane at the end of Runway 36 and hand propped the airplane. The throttle was advanced far enough that when the engine started, the airplane roared down the runway without him and got airborne. It drifted off centerline and hit some tree tops near the runway and crashed. A colleague at the newspaper where I worked at the time who photographed the scene said, “If it hadn’t hit those trees, the Evansville Courier (a newspaper in southern Indiana north of Pirates Cove) would have had this story.”

  5. The 1.5 miles? Not even close to the record. 😉

    These stories serve as an example of what NOT to do. Unfortunately other pilots don’t lean from these mistakes. Personally I think the only way to stop them is for insurance to stop paying for loss due to stupidity.