Propping? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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It’s amazing how quickly a sunny day can turn to biblical mush with the flick of a wrist. Extreme weather events tease this watery planet’s skin as it heats up a few degrees, and we ants just walk faster in search of shade or higher ground. Firestorms, tornadoes, the New York Mets—all proof that our puny endeavors are at the mercy of stronger forces, such as student pilots.

I’ve been instructing for more than 25 years and have mostly enjoyed it. Being paid to ride around in old airplanes of dubious pedigree while chiding, “right rudder, right rudder,” is a scam I thought would’ve been exposed long ago, but still the phone rings. And, yes, I have a telephone that rings, literally off-the-wall, given the crappy job I did mounting it.  Duct tape does not solve all problems.

Lately, I’ve been getting more calls from student pilots looking for a new CFI, not because their old one was too ancient to climb into the Skyhawk, but because the airline mother ship has been luring instructors from airport ramps with rapturous promises of flight everlasting and nifty shoulder epaulettes. If I were a bunch of years younger I’d heed the air carrier siren song and leave the right seat of wheezy Cherokees for the friend-filled skies. Actually, in the time it took to finish the previous sentence and begin this one, I’ve changed my mind. I’d make a terrible airline pilot. I’ll stick with instructing it old school.

Where else could I find myself in the right seat of a Piper Arrow, completing a flight review with an experienced private pilot/owner in the left who’d shown flawless command of his airplane only to have his brain implode on short final? I’d been downright bored after the fifth lap around the traffic pattern, so I did what I often do when bored. I sang. Mostly show tunes, some Motown, that—for whatever reason—distract the student from the business at hand, namely flying the airplane.

The pilot had the approach nailed, gliding nicely on short final into a 2200-foot grass strip. Gear and flaps down, he retarded power and gently rolled aileron into the crosswind while simultaneously adding the perfect measure of opposite rudder to slip to what would’ve been a better-than-textbook touchdown, when I hit upon a particularly catchy bit from Hamilton.1 And with the flick of his wrist, the pilot, who was about to ace his BFR, seriously missed his shot

Distractions are a real part of flight, so examiners and instructors are expected to evaluate the candidate’s ability to handle the weasel that slips up the pant leg in stressful moments. Apparently, my singing was a distraction, but the pilot—being a Midwesterner—was too polite to tell me to shut the heck up. With seconds to go, he scanned the panel in a final gear-down-and-locked check—green—but reacted with an almost imperceptible jerk when he caught what he thought was an error—it wasn’t—and corrected it. Now it was. He raised the gear, over-riding the perceptible jerk in the right seat.

Blah…..! The gear horn sounded, interrupting my aria, and I asked, “Whatevuh could that awful racket be, suh?” My Blanche DuBois accent being yet another distraction. The Arrow continued its descent, as the pilot desperately reviewed the panel for divine intervention, until I called, “Go around.” And, catching his brain malfunction in disbelief, he added power, and around we went.

“Can’t believe I did that!” he repeated six times before being told that four was enough, and he should “Fuggetaboutit and fly the airplane.” Self-flagellation could wait. The flight review took on new dimensions, but the chances of him landing gear-up are now gone … since he traded the Arrow for a Cirrus. If things break bad in that plastic bubble: Pop the chute, problem solved.

Hey, mistakes happen.

But never to me. My specialty is teaching tailwheel, wherein the instructor does not have to gin up ways to distract a student who’s used to nosewheels keeping the longitudinal axis pointed down the centerline and wingtips off the runway. All those left-turning forces memorized when training in a tricycle-gear airplane really come home to bite when transitioning to an airplane with the third wheel in the back where it belongs. Yes, we’re snobs about this, like drivers who insist a stick-shift is better than an automatic.

On the day the sun blinked for me I’d endorsed a student for tailwheel life and offered a free turn in my 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ. It’s a modest airplane from a simpler time when men wore fedoras, women nylons and everyone smoked Luckies. The Champ has no electrical system so no starter on its 65-hHP Continental “Powerful as the Nation” engine. Starting is a snap—literally.

As instructors routinely did 70 years ago, I told the pilot to give three shots of prime, and, then after commanding, “Throttle closed, brakes on,” I did as I’ve done thousands of times in the 36 years I’ve owned this airplane, I flicked my smoldering Lucky Strike into the weeds, removed my fedora and pulled the propeller though six blades. Always six, no more, no fewer. Then, from my hand-propping starter’s position safely behind the propeller on the cowling’s right side with feet straddling the gear leg, left hand holding the door frame, I called, “Switch on left (magneto with the impulse coupler)1, throttle cracked, brakes on, stick back,” and the pilot repeated all with the clarity and devotion of … someone about to chop off my hand. 

Never trust a propeller. The only time they’re safe is when off the airplane … and, even then, you’re likely to trip over the damn thing inside a dark hangar. I’ve preached this for years and handled propellers as one might a sleepy rattlesnake; yeah, it’s safe now, but that could change. I knew from the countless previous attempts, that my engine would now start with one easy flick of the ….

Son of a …!

It’d been a sunny day. The Hello Dolly overture played in my head, so it took a microsecond for my distracted brain to recognize the pain from the thin metal propeller blade as it swung not down and away, as it had always done for three-and-a-half decades I’d known and propped it but, instead, kicked back with the viciousness of an adorable puppy instantly transformed into an unneutered Rottweiler who resents having its feed bowl removed before he’s done.

I was stunned. I was in pain but mostly stunned. I counted my fingers—all there, albeit tingling as I stared at the now inert puppy of a propeller blade attached to this benign 65-horse engine … that can kill. The student, who learned new aviation terms that day, stared before asking, “Are you OK?” I, of course, wasn’t. I was chastened and humbled—rare emotions in a CFI. No blood, no mangled digits, simply the stinging tingle of a lesson slammed into my ego. “Fine,” I answered, and asked that the mag switch be returned to OFF, while I walked in head-down circles, awaiting the pain to wash my sins away.

What happened? It’s likely the pilot-at-the-controls had set the magneto switch to either RIGHT—where there’s no impulse coupler, so it fires roughly 30 degrees before TDC3—or to BOTH. With the switch now OFF any evidence was anecdotal, but it didn’t matter. As the CFI, the snake-handler who fears no propeller blades, I was the reaper of any pilot error in this situation.

This should be the “You see, Timmy,” moment in the story, where I light my pipe—in lieu of Luckies—and explain how safety is always first. Except it’s not. Flight, by its nature, is inherently dangerous. Safety is a goal, not a given. Parachutes, shoulder harnesses and insurance mitigate the errors. I’m still flying 70-year-old airplanes and will spin props by hand until they’re pried from my cold, detached fingers. Admittedly, I may be an experienced instructor, but I’m a slow learner. So, to younger, smarter instructors everywhere, I say, enjoy your flights across the sunlit uplands before the airlines take you home … but watch out for the wrist flick reminders that we’re all human and, therefore, capable of instant and creative stupidity.

1Failed Broadway play about George Hamilton

2 Retards spark for easier starting, while taking us back to the 20th century

3 Top Dead Center


Comments (8)

Very refreshing read, Paul!

Posted by: Jason Baker | August 6, 2018 7:28 AM    Report this comment

You need those fingers to keep typing, so take good care...

Posted by: Timothy Cole | August 6, 2018 7:48 AM    Report this comment

I stopped hand-propping airplanes, 20 years ago. Put it in the category of "unnecessary risks."
I'll probably get killed by a fly ball to the cranium, at a baseball game...

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 6, 2018 9:29 AM    Report this comment

I'll do it, when necessary, but not my favorite thing.

However, in spite of all the countless injuries, minor & major, you have to admit hand propping certainly has generated some really entertaining stories. Non-aviation passengers departing sans pilot on their first (short, and probably last) small airplane rides, airplanes flying out of sight with no one aboard, and property damage stories galore all all well represented.

And although not strictly "hand" propping, I was always fascinated by the tales, and pictures, of starting big engines with a wound rope...sometimes pulled by a vehicle.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 6, 2018 6:23 PM    Report this comment

I won't hand prop nor would I encourage others to do it.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 7, 2018 10:32 AM    Report this comment

I actually like hand propping--will happily do it on a small Continental with someone I trust at the controls...I get this sense of accomplishment when the thing starts that makes it fun.

(It also helps that the small continental on my airplane has impulse couplings on both mags--occasionally I hand prop even though I have a starter...)

Posted by: Colin Reed | August 7, 2018 2:07 PM    Report this comment

I enjoy propping my piper L-4B
Have also propped my Cessna 170A
And even my Cessna 180 when I owned it.
I always wear leather gloves when I do this
But, the secret is to be very, very careful
Due to aging, I'm less able to do certain things each year
And will be sad when I have to relent
And put an electrical system in the L-4B

Posted by: David Ahrens | August 7, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

When I was regularly hand propping my antique, I concluded that it was safer to tie it down, set the parking brake, lock the controls, and switch the fuel selector to off than have a pilot unfamiliar with my plane in the cockpit or one unfamiliar with hand propping out front. Fortunately it started well with throttle fully closed (and locked) and it ran long enough for me to enter and turn on the fuel before it starved.

Posted by: DAN MICHAEL | August 13, 2018 4:18 PM    Report this comment

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