Purity Of Flight Is Overrated


Last week, a friend texted me with a question: He had found a nice restored Cub, but like so many J-3s, it didn’t have an electrical system. It had a C-85 upgrade with the accessory case that can’t be converted to electric start. So hand propping would be the only option.

“What do you think of the balance between purity and safety with something like that?” he wanted to know. After giving this some thought for, oh, maybe 14 nanoseconds, I told him there’s really no balance here. To hell with propping. Now I happen to own a non-electrical system Cub so I have to prop it; no choice. But this has nothing to do with tradition or aeronautical purity and everything to do with the fact that I’m just a cheap bastard. It could be converted to electric start and I’d do that if I had a spare 12 grand or whatever it costs. But I could never see the cost/value because even if I could crank the old girl with a battery, I still can’t go very far in it. It doesn’t make the airplane much more practical.

Propping, I have found after having done a lot of it, is something between an acquired taste and a 50-50 chance of having an ambulance summoned to the hangar alley. Yeah, sure, it can be done safely, but there’s always risk of it going south when you least expect it. I went all Steven Spielberg on it and made a movie about it once. I’ve never found any particular Zen in swinging a prop by hand, revealing, perhaps, that I’m just an unromantic lughead with no feel for the spiritual aspects of flight. Pulling a few blades doesn’t help me get my head in the game for the magic that’s about to ensue. It’s just a chore, a physical prelude. While being a cheap screw is one argument for having no electrical system, there actually is a better one. For the owner or organization restoring and/or flying a museum piece, it makes sense to keep modernity at bay so the progress doesn’t intrude on the dream preserved in amber.

The best compromise I’ve seen in the service of this goal was in the Collings Foundation’s B-24. Entering the flight deck, which is quite expansive, the panel looks like straight-up 1943. But one of the instrument sub-panels is cleverly removable, revealing a Garmin 530 hiding behind it. By now, they may have upgraded that, but I thought the solution was a nice bow to history without eroding safety. I’ve been in a few Mustang cockpits that have a version of this approach. One I saw had a large glass display of some kind center panel. It was jarring and defeated the point of flying the thing to airshows so people could see what World War II fighters looked like.

We have this argument all the time in the world of motorcycles, mostly related to ABS. For almost 20 years, ABS has been required for new cars and it has certainly paid off in fewer accidents, especially when wet roads are involved. Yet some crusty riders—and a few new ones, too—don’t want the option. “I can stop shorter without it,” goes the argument.

Perversely, this is true in the laboratory attempt on a clean, dry road where you know what’s coming. But when a deer hurtles out of the brush and your plan turns to crap, ABS is the difference between stopping and low siding into a ditch. But not having it does maintain the purity of hand-eye-hydraulics without some pesky relief valve bollexing up the fun. Perhaps there’s something satisfying about a crash unencumbered by the vulgar intrusion of anything related to, you know, progress.

Purity came around again this week when I was interviewing Noah Forden and Brenda Cowlishaw for this week’s video on the Gordon Bennett balloon race. Some of the balloonists chose not to equip with ADS-B, mostly for the expense and power drain because we are, after all, talking about battery-operated systems that have to last for 60 to 80 hours. But what about the purity thing, I asked. Sure, some of the older guys, Noah said. They want to slip through the dark unnoticed so their competitors won’t see what tricks they’re up to. But I tell ya what, if I was flying a balloon through the dark of night for three or four days, I’d want it to be the electronic equivalent of a Christmas tree, purity be damned.

But gas ballooning is the sport of kings compared to owning a ratty old Cub with no electrical system. So much as I might like my own hydrogen balloon, equipping it with ADS-B is a choice I won’t have to make.

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  1. When I first saw the title to this article and then read the first sentence or two, I thought you’d be talking about putting glass and other unneeded instruments in one … not having a starter, or not. I was all spooled up when I realized that trying to turn a Cub into “Scrappy” wasn’t what was going on. THAT is ridiculous … talk about conspicuous consumption!

    Hand propping a 65hp engine isn’t that big a thing … people have been doing it for decades. I had to demonstrate the start on a seaplane flight check. The C85-8 powered Cub could be converted to a -12 allowing a starter without having to mortgage the family farm IF that was important to one. OR … just seek out another airplane. Frankly, I’d rather have an 85hp Aeronca 7AC so I could see stuff vs looking at someone’s haircut in the front seat.

    As to ADS-B in a balloon, I think some of those small tiny units could be made to run a long time on battery. But you bring up a good point. You’re not supposed to turn off an ADS-B unit. If you don’t have an electrical system and choose to equip for safety, there ought to be relief from the requirement to keep it on full-time. Are ya listening FAA?

  2. While most people are afraid of the big slicey thing, probably more common is people having the throttle set too high and the plane overcomes the parking brakes or chocks.

    A good compromise is to install a glider tow hook. That way you can tie the tail down, prop the engine, get in the cockpit and strap the airplane on, THEN pull the handle to release the tail hook. Whenever you fly somewhere, there’s usually a tiedown rope going unused. Tie a loop in it, drop it in the hook, and Robert’s your father’s brother.

    Used to fly a C85-powered homebuilt that needed hand-propping. Had trouble starting the engine one day, and managed to start it at full throttle. The tail hook, and the rope attached to it, held long enough for me to skitter around the wing and pull the throttle back. The tailwheel of the plane was actually off the ground before I killed the power.

    Sure, one can tie the tail down conventionally, but the remote handle makes it real easy. Carried a hank of rope in the airplane in case I stopped at an airport that didn’t have any unused tiedown ropes. In ~7 years flying that plane, I only had two instances when I propped the plane without the tail rope. One was when the engine quietly went to sleep on short final on a 15-degree day. Coasted off the runway, got out, and it started with one flip.

    • Good idea about the tow hook but my insurance company absolutely refuses to allow a tow hook on my Cessna 180. I guess they’re afraid that my buddy and I, both glider pilots AND C-180 pilots will head out on a safari alternating duties as tow pilot and glider pilot.

      But, frankly, I would not like to try hand propping the 180…

  3. It’s hoped, in all the MOSAIC excitement, that the FAA takes a look at streamlining ways to make older planes a bit safer. A simple signoff for a glider hook, for instance, and not requiring the hook be TSO’d. The hooks are very basic, are not that difficult to build, and are basically backup equipment anyway.

    Another factor is to simplify the ability to install starters on the small traditional engines. There’s an outfit in Canada that makes an add-on starter for A65s that uses a motor from an electric wheelchair. They can install these under the Canadian Owner Maintenance policies, but Cub/Champ/Homebuilt owners in the US are out of luck.

  4. Great article and absolutely brilliant! Good for you Paul, hand propped airplanes are out there and will be along time too come! Hand propping an airplane is a technique that needs to be taught, properly! “ punning “!

  5. We don’t need no stinking lectric starter. (grin)
    As a flight instructor, I developed a syllabus of instruction to teach hand propping. There are two very different scenarios:
    1) Those of us that prop our non-elect airplane every day.
    2) Those that never have, but with an unexpected need, at some boondock airport. I saw a guy do it once . . . let’s give it a try! (no grin)

  6. I’m kind of with Paul here. If I didn’t have to hand prop the ol’ 7AC, I wouldn’t. I loved the starters in my RV-4 and Rans S6. I mean I LOVED those starters! But dang I love the Champ too. Especially after the impulse mags got installed. Mucho better starting.

  7. I own a ’46 Champ powered by a C-85 and do not (most of the time) have to hand prop.
    I was not so much afraid of the the aircraft leaving terra firma without me, or an unintentional amputation (or worse) as the problem of starting when solo and having to find something to tie the tail down to.
    Years ago a pilot & A/P named Harold Hamp devised a “Rube Golberg” kind of starter for the classic mid-20th Century tail wheelers like Cubs, Champs, and Taylorcraft that uses a Dewalt right angle drill powered by a 20 Volt Battery mounted to the firewall that turns a log rod that ends in a bendix drive gear which in turn engages a large ring gear mounted behind the propeller. When it works, and it does 90% of the time, several pulls on the “T” handle on the panel pushes the drill slightly forward into a bar that engages the trigger on the drill, the prop slowly rotates as it would with a person swinging it, and, if the engine is either primed or warm the damn thing actually starts and you get to yell “clear” instead of “damn”
    It cost me about $2000 and installation and adjustment is a bit of a chore, but the main drawback is the “purists” think of it a heresy. Despite the STC not a lot of them have been sold or installed. I have never seen one in the wild other than on my aircraft.
    The purists can tutt, tutt, all they want but I like it. I have never thought about testing it but I might be able to restart in the air should the front end ever go silent for some reason other than mechanical disassembly of the engine or fuel starvation.

    • I totally forgot that there’s a guy at my summer time airport near OSH that has one of those STC’ed DeWalt systems on his 65hp 11AC Chief. It IS a Rube Goldberg system but it IS STC’ed. I haven’t heard him say anything negative about it. He gets numerous starts out of the battery before he has to recharge it, too. Don’t know if it’s STC’ed for the 85hp engine? Sounds like something PB needs for his Cub. The weight penalty would be negligable. The same guy uses a hand held radio that seems stronger than some installed radios. You wouldn’t know he has no electrical system.

      So there’s the answer to the dilemma for those who don’t want to hand prop.

  8. On the one or two times that my anti-lock brakes tried to do their magic I could not help but take my foot off the brake pedal.

  9. Ah the adrenaline rush when a Cherokee Six is hand started with no one in the cockpit (er flight station) and the airplane surges forward against the tie down ropes.

  10. No electric 1948 Piper Vagabond owner/operator here for over a dozen years. Although my plane starts very easily by hand with its 6.3:1 compression ratio, I enjoy hand propping less and less as I get older and shakier and scare easier. Someday I’ll add a starter I suppose. Until then, I enjoy not dealing with a (dead) battery and added weight. It’s too easy to add this and that until you end up with a single person airplane due to empty/gross weight. Also, I don’t have to add a transponder and ADSB-out avionics as long as I don’t add an alternator. A small battery powered lightweight starter would be my choice if I could deal with the increased empty weight.

  11. Twice in the last month I’ve had traffic in our local pattern say on CTAF “I don’t see you on ADS-B, could you recycle your transponder?” The first fishfinder was pointing right at me on a reverse 45º entry to the downwind. The second was taxiing to the runway. I keep things classic for similar reasons, but if being a luddite has taught two unsuspecting students to look out the window in the pattern, I’ll continue in my hand propping ways for safety’s sake.

  12. Good idea about the tow hook but my insurance company absolutely refuses to allow a tow hook on my Cessna 180. I guess they’re afraid that my buddy and I, both glider pilots AND C-180 pilots will head out on a safari alternating duties as tow pilot and glider pilot.

    But, frankly, I would not like to try hand propping the 180…

    • I actually saw a 182 hand propped one time – I was sitting in the pilot seat holding the brakes. My buddy Tony Tatum was a “big ‘ol boy” as they say round those parts. He reached up one big hand just flipped it one time and it started right up. Ain’t never seen nuthin like it before nor since.

      So it can be done, but it takes some serious meat behind it.

    • If you’re too old to hand prop a small engine then you need to give up flying IMHO. You don’t have to LIKE it … just be able to DO it. Unless you faint and fall into the prop, there are ways to mitigate the other safety issues.

      • That’s a little broad, I think. Someone with a bad hip or shoulder can be perfectly competent to fly but not fit to safely hand prop.

        • Yeah … I figured someone would say that. “Sorry, I couldn’t help yank my unconscious passenger from the wreckage because my hip and shoulder pain was too great. I did fly the airplane to the scene of the crash, though. Sorry that he died in the post crash fire.” I’d say that applies to the pilot, too. Gimme a break. Being “fit” to fly means … um … being FIT to fly! Self-assessment to fly means just that. I’m no spring chicken; there are plenty of days I’d like to fly but shun the temptation because I’m not running on all cylinders.

  13. My father used to own a Sokol M1C (a little Czech taildragger with a Walter Minor engine) which was originally hand-propped. When the engine quit the prop would stop at it’s “ready to prop” angle and broke off during the following wheels-up landing. He had a starter installed thereafter. I’ve never propped anything bigger than a Cox PeeWee but I’m with you on the “chore rather than joy” sentiment.

  14. The theme of this article reminds me of an old saying about the fire service, that it is “250 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress.”

  15. I teach my students how to safely hand prop as an emergency get home item. I can do it but I don’t go looking for airplanes to hand prop and would never own an airplane without a starter.

    Seems to me that a lot of perfectly good airplanes have got wrecked when they got away from the guy swinging the prop….

  16. Mr. Bertorelli;

    I love your style as always. Keep up the great work. You class up the whole place.

    I agree with your attitude towards Hand propping. I had a Airknocker back in the day that de-romanticized hand propping for me. It was a great plane, but when I was finished with I had no need to prove myself in that way again.

    However I need to correct you on ABS on motorcycles. I know I can’t stop as quickly – but “straight” brakes have been functioning flawlessly for zillions of decades – or some other stunning period of time. You have not had fun until your ABS controlling stops working – and then starts again – and then stops again. Or maybe when it seizes in the “apply brake” portion of it’s cycle. My BMW K750 taught me all those lessons and more. All three ABS units put on that bike gave me some unpredictable and usually life threatening thrill. ABS is just something else to go wrong. Motorcycles don’t NEED that. Pay attention like you should and you should be able to avoid any situation that ABS could rescue you from. I’ve been riding since 1969 and never even got close.

    Technology is great, but not tricky new stuff is progress, some is just change. Bill Lear had it right, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

    But put a starter on airplanes for criminy’s sake.

    • Perhaps the BMW simply had a poorly designed ABS module. There are millions of cars and motorcycles that don’t have that problem.

    • Perhaps. But a K750? That was like…1985. ABS has essentially been invented since then. It now has fail safe modes that don’t inhibit the background brake function. Also, now we have electronically linked brakes. You oughta try some of this stuff. (:

  17. I learned to Champ fly and hand prop when I was in high school. I flew until 4 years ago (getting old) and sold my ’46 no electric Chief. Frequently I propped without anyone else to assist. I had a checklist for propping my Chief that I never failed to say out loud as I went through the routine. That checklist was very important when you have a flooded engine and had to unwind it a dozen or so time with the throttle full open. All that time I tried to tell myself it is just like operating a chainsaw. Do not get complacent. And towards the end, I really did wish I had an electric starter. And the days of asking about anyone around the flight line to “gimme a prop please” are long gone. No one can or will.

  18. I must have started flight instruction too late (1990s). I learned how to hand-prop but never got caught up in the romance of going through that tedious and dangerous process just for the sake of “purity”.
    But even decades before that, when I heard about hand-cranking early car engines, nobody associated it with the “purity of driving”. There must be antique-car enthusiasts who fuss over details like hand-cranking, but I never run across them.