Everything I Know About Flying I Learned From Social Media

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Once upon a time in a world thought to be a fantasyland, but that actually existed, if you did something stupid in an airplane that didn’t kill you, this would happen: An avuncular man with pattern baldness wearing a short-sleeve white shirt, a narrow black tie and a blue FAA nametag, would put his arm around you and start the conversation by saying, “son.” Wisdom and advice would flow, but your certificate wouldn’t be wrested from your wallet. And a good thing, too, because you probably left it on your dresser.

It’s different now. If you do something embarrassing, it will be caught on video, likely from several angles, edited, posted and viralized before the engine cools. And what will happen next will be the beat down of your life on social media because everyone is, well, just smarter than you.

I hardly need to post the video link because there are only about six people on the planet who haven’t seen the footage of the hapless pilot of a Cirrus get ignominiously dragged across the ramp after the airplane got away while he was propping it. Only two of those people haven’t commented.

I’m going to skip adding another lash to the poor man because I think the horse has already been reduced to red molecular mush and I can’t add much … other than to make the case for propping big ass engines in the first place.

That’s right, I’m arguing for and not against propping. Somehow, the notion has evolved that it’s OK to prop 65-HP Continentals, but an O-360? That’s suicide. I used to think that myself until the starter on the right engine of a Navajo I was flying crumped in, of all places, Teterboro. When I described my plight to the maintenance shop, the mechanic on duty said he could prop me so I could fly home to get the starter he didn’t have in the parts bin.

Prop a TIO-540-J2BD? Are you nuts?, I asked, but not in those words. He said something that began with “son” and ended with “just watch.” So I manned up, he propped the engine and away I flew. Both mains were chocked while all this supposed impossibility and inadvisability was going on. I’m sure I was on the brakes, too.   

So yeah, you can prop a Cirrus. Or a Bonanza, an Arrow, a Mooney or almost any small airplane with pistons. A DC-3? I don’t think so. But I saw a pre-YouTube film of some clever lads wrapping a rope around the prop hub and tugging it with a truck to spin the engine to life. Necessity may birth invention, but desperation nurses it. Maybe it's Briggs and Stratton run amok, but on other the hand, it's just a question of scale.

The usual reason for doing any of this is a dead battery or, as in my case with the Navajo, a defective starter. But it is a good idea? Depends. If the battery can be easily and conveniently charged and you’re not in a hurry, that solution is less risky and allows you to have that second cup of coffee while you savor the wisdom of not planting yourself in front to something that can cut you to pieces. The second point would be to never be in a hurry around airplanes. It just never seems to be of any benefit.

But if you want to prop just because you want to prop, chock the sucker down with the biggest blocks you can find and/or tie the tail. I do both now, after my own near miss of losing track of the Cub. Just don’t forget that even after doing all this, you can still get injured or killed. But then that’s true of flying in general, no? Why give up living just to stay alive?

Pro tip: Always have a ballpeen hammer either in the hangar or your flight bag. Before you swing that first blade, find every camera you can and smash it to bits. Can't a man at least enjoy his screw ups in privacy?

One last thing. Please keep the comments civil. We had to switch them off on the story about this because of downright nastiness. So, please don't.

Comments (16)

As we saw in the video, propping a larger engine is NOT a problem.
Not being prepared for success causes the problems.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 26, 2018 4:26 PM    Report this comment

Old Fart advice to any "son" who's willing to listen:
If you elect to approach a junkyard dog, be certain that his chain is at maximum extention.
And IF you decide to do battle with a man-sized Cuisinart, remember the advice about the dog - at least restrain the airplane.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | September 26, 2018 6:56 PM    Report this comment

My compliments to the pax for his gracious punch out.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 26, 2018 10:40 PM    Report this comment

Imagine that guy's mood swing from "Yipee, I did it!" to "Oh shit"

When I was learning to fly, the first lesson was how to prop the plane. We had a whole field full of planes with bad batteries or no batteries. The prime directive was" tie the kangaroo down" or whatever it took to keep it in place and always handle the prop like the mags were hot. My own personal best is having propped a geared Lyc 480.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 27, 2018 7:11 AM    Report this comment

Some years ago I wound up with a weak battery on an old Beech Musketeer with a Shower of Sparks ignition system (i.e. no impulse coupling). The battery was too far gone to engage the starter so I assumed the trip was off. A line boy came by and, with me at the controls (probably not his best decision), gave the prop a couple spins. On his second try the engine came to life and he scampered away with a quick thumb's up. I have been told many times since then that propping a SOS ignition is not possible. So much for old wive's tales.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 27, 2018 11:46 AM    Report this comment

prop my L4 with ease
prop my C170 with little effort (when I've been careless with the master switch)

did prop my C180 before I sold it
was very careful
had tailwheel tied down
along with the wheels chocked

and never had any problems


Posted by: David Ahrens | September 27, 2018 1:42 PM    Report this comment

Everyone is zeroing in on the relative sanity -- or insanity -- of hand propping an airplane with a dead battery and what happens when it doesn't go right. No one has addressed the wisdom of taking off with a battery in a near discharged state just because they managed to start the engine.

The starting battery has two main purposes. First, starting the engine. Second, it provides backup power in case there is an inflight failure of the charging system. Just because you managed to get the engine going doesn't mean that the battery has charged sufficiently to run radios, nav boxes or other necessary devices should the charging system fail subsequently. In a local VFR flight ... it's not likely an issue. But if you're going cross country and -- especially -- in IFR conditions ... DON'T DO IT !! Let an A&P with more than electrical tape experience check it and advise you.

We all know aviation accidents usually involve the dreaded 'three's.' A dead battery is usually indicative of deeper problems. Either a charging system not working right or a battery not in good shape to retain a charge. It COULD involve a master switch left on but it still doesn't charge the battery enough to meet necessary or reasonable specs once the engine starts. THE BATTERY WAS NEAR FULLY DISCHARGED !

Batteries are supposed to be inspected at annual time but ... that's rarely done. Usually, they get changed out when they'll no longer hold a charge or start the engine. Anyone who doesn't pay close attention to their battery's age or state of charge is asking for trouble ... like that described.

I consider myself a battery expert. Long story. I've changed hundreds of them over my many years. I recently had a "new" one happen to me with a PA28. I had the lead acid battery out of the airplane on my battery bench. I charged and checked it as being OK but knew it was old and was having issues. I needed to start the engine to taxi the airplane only. It did that and the ammeter appeared normal. But when I went to R&R the battery with a newer airworthy item, I discovered that the battery had SEVERELY puked acid into the battery box ... apparently one cell didn't like carrying the starting current and must have "exploded" fluid out of the cap ?? You get the point. If you hand prop an airplane, you don't see what's going on inside the battery box.

Finally ... I no longer spec or use flooded lead acid batteries. Spend the extra dough on the AGM types now available from both major manufacturers. Bear in mind, these need special chargers and require special handling.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 27, 2018 5:43 PM    Report this comment

I guess I should have added that newer airplanes with a ton of glass panels and electronics are TOO valuable and expensive to trust using an old or marginal battery or one that has been severely discharged requiring a hand prop. If you fly one of these ... make sure the battery(s) are in top shape and checked and replaced regularly. I always recommend that folks that have airplanes that sleep a lot, install a proper trickle charging system. This helps to ensure 100% starting power AND longevity of the battery. I have a truck battery that's now 12.5 years old and running fine because it lives on a properly selected trickle charger !!

In the case of the PA28 battery that puked acid, I knew one cell was having an issue but all I wanted to do was start the engine for taxi to / from the wash rack. In those two evolutions where the engine started nearly immediately, that one cell apparently didn't like being discharged and recharged or carrying the current. If I'd have taken it flying ... it would have puked acid on the belly of a world class paint job. Subsequently, it was oozing acid on the bench with NOTHING connected to it. BEWARE !!!

THIS blog du jour talks about crashing an airplane into a hangar because it didn't go well. Imagine if the battery ate all the electronics in the thing. It'd be worse but you might not know it immediately.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 27, 2018 6:17 PM    Report this comment

"never be in a hurry around airplanes." That statement can never be said enough. It should be permanently posted on every aviation social media site, "never be in a hurry around airplanes."
It's kind of like, "just fly the airplane." Sear it into your head.

Posted by: Tom Cooke | September 28, 2018 4:37 AM    Report this comment

"Just because you managed to get the engine going doesn't mean that the battery has charged sufficiently to run radios, nav boxes or other necessary devices should the charging system fail subsequently. "

This is true, and I won't argue about the principle of this concept. But there are some cases where it's perfectly OK to get an engine started on a weak battery and go flying (some of which you pointed out). All of the planes I've flown (that have an electrical system) also have a procedure for starting the engine using a power cart, so clearly the manufacturers think there are instances where it makes sense.

I think the real issue is that some pilots just don't think about the bigger picture (or simply don't know enough to care). Quite often there are situations in flying that don't fit a cookie-cutter approach, so while one day it may be perfectly safe to do something, on another day it's just asking for trouble. But in almost all of these cases, you can turn a normally safe operation into a dangerous one if you don't approach it with the respect and knowledge it demands.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | September 28, 2018 8:08 AM    Report this comment

It's been my experience with autos and airplanes that if you get more than 5 years out of a lead-acid battery you are on borrowed time; 7 years and you are likely facing imminent failure. I believe it is just the natural chemistry process (entropy?) that causes this.

After being stranded several times (either on the roadside or on the ramp) I change these things out at the 5 year point regardless. It helps to take a large yellow paint pen and write (for example) SEPT 2018 on the top of the battery so every time you look at it you get a reminder of when it was installed.

Posted by: A Richie | September 28, 2018 9:20 AM    Report this comment

Tom ... I like and emphatically support your idea of "never be in a hurry around airplanes." In fact, I think I'll bring it up with the FAAST team next time I see them. I'll give you credit. In fact, I FORCE myself to be that way ... learned by several near disasters where I ignored that axiom. I agree that it's a first corollary of "just fly the airplane." Hang on for a story you won't believe ...

Gary ... you ARE correct about the external start capabilities of most airplanes and of different situations demanding use of common sense ... aka known as understanding the situation and "risk management." Problem is, many pilots -- even good ones -- know little about what's going on mechanically and/or electrically with their machines. SOME of it is subtle, too. That's why I chimed in about worrying about what the battery -- that you can't normally see -- is doing. I would never hand prop an airplane to fly cross-country, IFR or at night but would to do a short local fun flight. Given what I saw with the PA28, I'll now worry MORE, however.

When a seriously discharged A/C battery is seriously REcharged, it gets hot. Lead acid flooded batteries are prone to puke acid, too. They like slow recharges over time. Remember that.

At my local airport, a friend called me in to inspect his C172 because there'd been an "issue." When I got there, he explained that his partner had "hit a tree" with the airplane. At first, I though he meant taxied into one. Nope. He was going to go on a cross country flight and decided he needed to get night current on a particularly moonless night with temp/dewpoints close. He loses track of his position in the pattern and pilot controlled lighting isn't working correctly. So what does he do, he descends. We're surrounded by very tall pine trees and he actually hits the top of one IN FLIGHT! The whole front of the airplane, the landing gear legs and even a small span of the horizontal stab are dented ... to the point where I tell him he's had major damage potentially demanding a major teardown and inspection after closer internal examination.

Art Linkletter woulda said, "pilots do the darndest things." It's a good thing there wasn't any social media available for that now seriously damaged Cessna ... which had a safe landing after its ignominious flight. It's now in Cessna ICU and the partner is going to shell out some serious denaro to make it right.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 28, 2018 9:20 AM    Report this comment

Larry's advice on batteries is all good, but I would like to add a few additional comments. First, two things a battery hates are heat and vibration. The more it is exposed to either, the shorter its lifespan. Depending on where you live and where your battery is located in your airplane, the "typical" lifespan will vary. So don't feel bad if your firewall mounted battery in Phoenix does not live as long as a tail mounted one in Portland Oregon. Second, NO aircraft battery likes a fast charge. If your charger runs greater than 2 amps, you will probably damage the battery. DO NOT use a car charger on your airplane, even if it has a low charge setting. And, a "trickle" charger will probably kill you battery too, just not as fast. You need a battery maintainer that is specifically designed for the type of battery you have (wet cell or AGM). Aviation Consumer magazine has information on which types work best. Yes, they are expensive, but so is a new battery.

Finally, AGM batteries are great; no messing with acid vapors or topping off the cells with water. But, they are kind of temperamental and easily damaged. High charge rates will vaporize the electrolyte in the cells, and once gone, it cannot be replaced. Make sure your charging system and voltage regulator are properly set. You can kill a battery in the air too. Also, do not pass up the annual capacity test. AGM's can die very quickly, so follow the manufacturer's test instructions and don't rely on your mechanic's "we've always done it this way" approach.

Take care of your battery and hopefully you won't wind up on the next YouTube video.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 28, 2018 12:47 PM    Report this comment

"Tom ... I like and emphatically support your idea of "never be in a hurry around airplanes."
Actually Larry, not my idea, it was Paul's. It's just one of those truisms that cannot be defied without paying some kind cost, usually in the form of breaking things or regs. Sometimes it's much more costly. ):

Posted by: Tom Cooke | September 28, 2018 1:48 PM    Report this comment

John ... I'd just like to corroborate what you say about trickle chargers. PLEASE, guys! Do not think a small trickle charger can't hurt your battery over time. As John M says, it can, just slower.

What I do is hand pick the cheap Harbor Freight chargers for voltage output. I tell people that any voltage above 0.5 vdc above that of a new perfect battery at 12.9 vdc can harm it. So I find a charger that puts out ~13.25 vdc. That's enough to keep the battery perfectly happy over LONG periods of time without harming it. You can buy an expensive charger if you don't want to pay attention OR you can do what I do. Either way, your battery will be happy. It's NOT about current, it's about voltage once the battery reaches charging equilibrium.

The truck I reference above has been sitting on such a hand picked charger for 12.5 years 24/7/365 except in very rare instances where I start it up. It's in a cold environment which batteries also like. Finally, it was Hecho en Mexico which means the lead is virgin lead vs reclaimed lead. That's a biggie, too. It's now a "game" I play with the battery. I want to see how long I can keep it happy.

Finally, don't forget that on any airplane that has a mechanical clock, it bypasses the main contactor and is -- effectively -- a parasitic load on the battery.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 28, 2018 1:49 PM    Report this comment

Instead of using a fixed-voltage charger, I am really happy with the newer type smart chargers (for example I have one made by a company called ctek). The charger is limited to 2A but it does an amazing job of first pulse cycling a low battery to reverse any sulfation, then applies a charging current in several stages until at full charge. Following that it shuts off and monitors the battery, occasionally testing and charging as needed to keep it "topped off" indefinitely; it's much better than standard trickle chargers. It has a series of LED indicators to tell you what stage it's in. It's not much bigger than a cellphone (except for the cables) but it is far better than anything I've ever used in the past 40 years and costs well under $100. Easily charges a 35AH aircraft battery overnight. Just something to think about.

Posted by: A Richie | September 28, 2018 4:07 PM    Report this comment

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