If You See Me Propping, Go Away! (Unless You Wanna Pull A Few)


I’m not a superstitious person, nor am I particularly spiritual nor religious. I’m an agnostic on the paranormal, but I’ll admit to going a little around the bend on the existence of gremlins in old airplanes. Gremlins were, of course, well supported in World War II aircraft training manuals. Also, William Shatner saw one on the wing of a Constellation in 1963, fully three years before %$#@ really got weird in Star Trek.

A Cirrus would never have a Gremlin, of course, but maybe a data bus error or, horrors, noise in the music channel. But an 81-year-old dowager like our pre-war Cub definitely has gremlins and I talk to them. I learned this week that I’d rather not do this with an audience.

I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t flown the Cub in weeks and so many of them have piled up as to be months. So on Thursday, I pulled the old girl out of the hangar and set to propping the Conti. But I knew at the outset this wasn’t going to work. When I drove up to the hangar, a contractor was building what I think is going to be wash pad, but five workers were just sitting there in that relaxed state that says somebody forgot the rebar or the pre-mix truck crashed on I-75. Or something.

This put me a foul mood for two reasons. One, even if it’s a fixed contract, I detest the sight of workers sitting around on a public works project and second, just 50 feet away, they had now become my audience. They watched passively as I swung and swung and swung, fiddled with the primer, and swung and swung and swung some more. No joy. Not so much as a pop.

The more I swung, the more agitated I got, not so much at the airplane, but the workers. Eventually, I pushed the Cub back in the hangar and pulled the doors shut. I felt like screaming … Yeah, I meant to do that!

On Saturday morning, I pulled the airplane out again, determined to get it started, this time with no audience. I primed it and swung through 10 blades. Nothing. Enough. In a low, even voice addressed to the prop hub, I said, “Look, you yellow %$#I of &^% (*^%, either you start this time, or I’m gonna open the gascolator and burn your sorry fabric-covered %$# where you sit.”

You know what happened. On the next blade, the Continental was ticking over like a sewing machine. Good thing, too. I’m not sure how serious I was about that gascolator threat. 

Several lessons accrue from this. First, there ought to be a rule: “No person or persons may observe the propping of an airplane from a distance closer than 200 yards. Construction workers may not observe at all, unless glancing up from assigned work.” Second, when you haven’t propped in a while, you get lazy and the swing lacks the required vigor. You forget how much you have to put your shoulders into it.

Last, here in Florida, mags and plugs absorb moisture that erodes their performance. When you’re hand swinging a prop, there’s only so much energy to overcome that and sometimes it’s not enough. If the airplane is flown more often, this isn’t a problem. I know this because I flew this morning and the engine started on the second blade. 

A Few Words About This Photo

It has been quite some time since I felt compelled to publish the picture below. It’s one of many photos I have of the destruction of more than 100 aircraft at Charlotte County Airport during Hurricane Charley in 2004. But for a lucky last minute jink, that could have been our hangar in Venice. But not our airplane.

Heeding the advice of survivors of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I flew the Mooney out of harm’s way. I would do that twice more before the 2004 season ended. When I was gassing up to leave, I remember how the lineman couldn’t understand why it was worth the bother. On the morning of August 14, 2004, he knew why.

Hurricane Charley 2004

As I’m writing this, Hurricane Dorian is lashing the Bahamas with what may be record winds and surge. Florida’s East Coast may or may not be spared the brunt of it, but at the moment, the entire coast as far as Cape Hatteras is in the track cone.

I’m publishing the photo as a gentle reminder for pilots in those coastal airports to think about flying their airplanes out of the hurricane’s path, if practical. My strategy was always to get the home and hearth buttoned down first and if the schedule and resources allowed, to move the airplane.

Yeah, I know it’s insured. But if you’d rather not go through the hassle—and maybe trauma—of seeing your airplane shredded, flying out is worth a thought.  

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  1. If an A65 hasn’t started by the 6th pull after priming, it’s flooded, guaranteed. You can then prop the rest of the day and it will not start. Just recognize that, bite the bullet, and unwind it. Switch off, throttle full open and 12 blades backward. Then throttle CLOSED, switch on , and it will start in the next blade or two. Everytime.

  2. Actually, safety is a good enough reason not to encourage an audience. Anything that could distract you from the task at hand isn’t good when you are looking at that meat cleaver in front of your face! Roger A. is absolutely correct. Flooding is far more of a problem with the A65. I swing a few blades, do the preflight, let the gas vaporize and then it usually starts soon enough. I have a non-impulse mag set and it does well to start. I’ve actually stopped swinging a prop until people leave, just to avoid the distraction and the possibility of getting out of the routine. Also, never wear a cap when propping. If it flys off you will have the natural tendency to put your hand in the prop to catch it.

    • Actually, it wasn’t flooded, I don’t think. The reverse. The next day when I returned, the extra shot of prime got it going. The O-ring in the primer is getting a little iffy and the primer doesn’t fill very well to begin with.

      I used to prime it, pull it through five times with switch off, then switch on and it would light on the second or third blade. Late;y, I’ve just been turning on the switch and swinging it. I think I’ll go back to that method and try yours of preflighting while it rests.

      Flew this morning. Started on the second pull.

  3. I’m going with the Gremlins. You’ve hand propped a thousand times before, so my guess is you don’t need my advice.
    After decades of bending wrenches, I can’t tell how many times the gremlins get involved. They love making pilots and mechanics look bad 🙂 .

    Gremlins really get a kick out of messing with your communication equipment.

    Tower asked a pilot to hold at Bravo intersection for landing traffic. After acknowledging the hold request the impatient pilot proceeded to grumble with colorful language about having enough time to do a complete flight around the pattern before the plane on approach ever landed all while the gremlins held his push-to-talk. Shortly there after the mic released the tower controller came back with “Aircraft at Bravo take-off at your discretion”.

  4. My Cub had been starting pretty well but lately has gone back to its habit of being contrary. It usually takes 2 pumps on the primer before I feel resistance on the third one. I had thought of letting the gas vaporize longer but hadn’t tried it. After reading the comments I will try it next time I fly. Thanks