In 2012, I won the grand prize during AirVenture: a fully restored 1941 Piper Cub. I was, of course, surprised, given that there were 865,000 entries that year.
It was an honest, original Cub with no electrical system and a 65-HP Continental that cannot be modified with a starter. (Well, it can, but it involves a battery-powered drill and the addition of a ring gear behind the prop, and that ain’t pretty.)
Eight years earlier, I started a small flight school specializing in light sport instruction. When the economy began to sputter in 2008, things slowed down, and by the time I won the Cub, I decided to add it to our small stable of “new” LSAs, each of which cost twice as much as the $50,000-plus sweepstakes value of my prize. If potential customers were LSA shy, they certainly couldn’t be Cub shy, could they?
If I’d kept the airplane as my personal toy, insurance would have been around $800 a year. Putting it on line as a trainer pushed that to $4000. So before I ever got it in the air, I’d already sunk $20,000 into my free airplane. (The other $16,000 was in sweepstakes taxes.)
So George and I (both instructors with taildragger time) each got comfortable with the Cub. We’d be teaching from the front of the cockpit, but any solo flying would be from the back, so we took turns at being the person who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and the person who preserves the appearance of our unblemished yellow trainer.
Although I’d propped airplanes over the years, I learned by watching others, and eventually (and reluctantly) doing it when necessary. I decided to Google hand-propping in hopes of learning the Secrets of Propping an Airplane. And there was lots of advice. But as we all know, for every opinion found on the web, there is an equal but opposite opinion, thus canceling the value of either. For example:
If you can, prop the airplane from behind so you can quickly access the mags or throttle if something bad happens. Or: Don’t prop it from behind because you might get run over by a tire or hit by a strut if the airplane lurches forward.
Never wrap your fingers over the edge of the prop, which could backfire and shorten your fingers. Or: Wrap one thumb over the blade (up to the knuckle), because otherwise you won’t have enough of a grip to pull the prop through.
Before attempting a start you should pull the prop through to get some fuel into the cylinders. Or: You should never do that, but if you do it anyway, use the same motions you would use if you were starting the engine.
It is flat-out stupid to hand prop an airplane without a competent person in the airplane. Or: Always start the airplane alone, and if you have a passenger, leave him or her in their car or the FBO until you’ve started the engine. Or: Do what the old-timers do, and start it from the front or back, alone or with others.
Always make sure the airplane is tied down at all three points before hand propping. Or: Follow the J3C-65 owner’s manual which says to either chock the wheels or have a passenger who is familiar with the controls set the brakes.
From the front, use only one hand to swing the prop because using two hands is dangerous. When swinging the prop, swivel away on the ball of the foot on the side of the hand which is doing the swinging, while you extend your spare leg. Or … spare leg? Did the person who wrote this have three of them? I’ll stick with two hands and two legs.
As the engine starts, your inertia should carry you away from the airplane by four to six feet. Walk around the strut or wing for a normal cockpit entry. Or: Walk away from the airplane for 20 to 30 feet, then walk toward the airplane, avoid the prop, and get in normally.
Always start on only the impulse mag. Or: Always start with both mags on.
With all of that advice, we decided to start from scratch and invent our own method. We preferred to prop from the front. We learned how to set the throttle properly by setting it improperly, and used the same approach with the primer, and pulling the prop through with mags off.
When both of us flew together, we chocked the wheels and trusted the other guy to hold the brakes. But when hand propping alone, we were quite cautious. We’d park the golf cart behind the Cub, tie the tail to the golf cart hitch and lock the cart’s brakes. Then we chocked the Cub. After the start, we’d untie the tail, hop in, and unchock after getting belted. (We added a rope to the chocks so we could remove them from inside the airplane. Later I added another rope to provide for yanking a slip-knot to release the tail.)
Certainly our approach was bulletproof, right? Hah! Two incidents come to mind.
After somehow flooding it while preparing for a solo flight, I tried to unflood it by turning mags off, pushing the throttle forward and propping it backwards. I then turned the mags on and overlooked the throttle. (Just like Forest Gump said: Stupid is as stupid does.) On the first pull, the Cub roared, the tail came off the ground, and I nearly ruined a pair of new jeans. Thanks to the weight of six golf cart batteries and good golf cart brakes, the cart won. I survived.
Second, during a winter day with a hint of ice everywhere, George and a student were in the airplane. I pulled the prop, swinging a leg back as usual. The engine fired up. My spare leg (I guess) slid on some invisible ice, and I instinctively leaned back, hoping to put distance between me and the guillotine. I fell backward and landed hard in front of the airplane, smack on my tailbone. George noticed that, and didn’t run me over. I survived.
Anyhow, back to the business of why I sold her. We had lots of first-time customers take a Cub intro ride. But most never came back for a second lesson. Reasons varied, but many were put off by our rules. Once checked out, they could rent it, carry a passenger and do touch-and-goes at local airports. But we prohibited shutting the engine down, because (1) It can be difficult to start, and I’m the wrong guy to teach students how to prop it after flooding it; (2) There would likely not be two experienced persons to properly prop. And the scary question: (3) What if someone loses an arm? Would we, the instructors, be implicated? Sure. Given the lack of definitive information on How to Prop an Airplane, we’d be defending what we taught our students with little verifiable data to support our technique, other than to say we read it on the internet so it must be true.
I wouldn’t bother learning to fly something I couldn’t fly somewhere. I don’t blame anyone for walking away from a flight school with such restrictive rules. So after a fairly expensive four-year love-hate relationship with this gorgeous girl, I sold her. Later, after getting rid of my Cirrus, I stopped flying.
For about four months.
Then a friend and I bought another Cub. Born in 1946, 85 horse. Electric starter.