Tie ‘er Down, Mate. Chocks, Too.


“Well, of course I expected you to think it was me. I would have been insulted and disappointed if you hadn’t.”

This was my immediate thought after I got a text and a couple of Facebook notifications Tuesday discreetly inquiring if it was me who took out a hangar door at Venice Tuesday while propping an airplane. No, it was not me. God protects idiots and drunks; it’s the smart ones who get into trouble.

The odd thing is, I was there just after this incident happened and on my way home, I drove by the hangar alleyway that the cops had roped off. The news people were outside the fence setting up cameras. By the time I got home, the world knew and there was even newscopter footage. Really? Of a propping runaway? Unfortunately, the pilot doing the propping was seriously injured, although he’s expected to recover, so that was a hook on a sloooooow newsday.

The details of this incident—which I do not know at the moment—really don’t matter much. What’s always been true is still true: A properly chocked and tied down airplane will not get away and flatten you no matter how awry propping might go. If you’re slow of foot or just plain clumsy, it might whack you in the head, the arm, the leg or some other body part, but it won’t launch off in search of additional victims. It can still kill you.

So here, in an effort to be helpful, I regurgitate my periodic spiel about propping. It is dangerous. It has always been dangerous. It will always be dangerous. Without getting into ad nauseum review of whether to stand in front or back, propping can be done with acceptable risk. My definition of this is to always, with absolutely, positively no exceptions, chock both wheels and tie the tail. I do this no matter where I am and whether a qualified pilot is in the cockpit or not, which for me, usually isn’t the case.

Safety—or should I say survival?—is comprised of a lot of things, but one of them is a disciplined, habitual approach to mitigating things that can kill you. And so the friendly reminder about chocks and ties. My chocks for the Cub would be suitable for a 777; people have been known to giggle at them. I encourage such derision because it’s ever so much better than the alternative.

I’ll Take Aerodynamics for $50, Ethan

My friend Russ Still of Gold Seal Online Ground School corralled me into being a contestant on their new online game show called Prop Quiz. (Catchy, huh.) Having disabused my worried friends about culpability in propping, we shot the program Tuesday night. They’ve been doing this for a couple of months.

Such a thing has a high probability of being hopelessly lame or crushingly boring, but the boys have thought this one through. Thanks to some impressive technology, just the right production values and the effervescent hosting of Ethan Berg, I thought the program was creative, entertaining and quite watchable. It was fun to do from my end, and competing against two guys—Russ Roslewski and Chris Dunn, both active and accomplished instructors—I was happy not to embarrass myself.

It worth checking out. You can also see the previous episodes on Gold Seal’s YouTube channel.  

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  1. Paul–what Army flying club were you in, and what years?

    I ran the Ft. Campbell, KY. Army flying club in 1967-68. It beat the hell out of being on post (It was Headquartered at civilian Outlaw Field in Clarksville, TN. at the time–I got a lot of experience and hours, AND made more money than I did as an E-4.

      • Without getting TOO personal, were you Airborne–(only asked because of your Bragg connection, and a current civil skydiver)

        I started skydiving in 1970. Owned a 9TU T-10. Still have my VERY low serial number PC and “belly wart.” Owned a “Strato Cloud” because I weighed 235#.

        • I was not airborne qualified. Although every time I saluted, I was supposed to say “airborne” or respond “all the way.”

  2. Paul, all I want to know, is, do you recommend wearing a mask while propping and do you, or, are you pulling a “Pelosi?” Be safe.

  3. Gotta admit, you were the first person I thought of when I got the news yesterday. I checked out the overhead view and saw immediately it was not you, based on the location and the lack of Cub yellow. Glad to see it was not you. Thankfully the fellow pilot will recover, hopefully not too badly scared. Best Regards!

  4. Years ago I did a hand-propping demonstration at the annual Cessna 150-152 Fly-In. Since I was also skydiving into the Fly-In (yes, from a 150), my theme for the demos was “The dangerous can be done safely with proper training”. Both demos went off without a hitch. And were well attended, though the cynic in me wonders about the motivations of some of the viewers for attending….

    Anyway, as part of the hand-propping portion I researched the NTSB reports to see how dangerous it really is. The range I searched revealed no lost limbs or fatalities, but lots of runaway airplanes. One plane took off like a full-scale free-flight model… and disappeared over the horizon (gee, just like my 1/4-scale free-flight models). It took a week to find that one.

    The only injury I found was actually rather humorous (NTSB Report NYC97LA106)
    ..A witness reported that he was intrigued by the airplane and had come over to watch the start, taxi, and takeoff. He said he was immediately impressed with the pilot and passenger [husband and wife] of N4832H. He stated that the pair was extremely thorough and conscientious. The witness said he was impressed by the woman hand-propping the airplane and that it was clear “…she really knew what she was doing.” He said that after approximately three attempts to start the airplane, the woman started turning the propeller backwards. He further said:

    “At that point the victim came over. He was fairly insistent, kind of take charge … intimidating. The pilot waved him away but he pulled the prop through. I was shocked he just walked over and did this. I think maybe he suffered from complacency. Maybe he couldn’t handle that a woman was hand propping the airplane.”

    [The pilot/husband said] “At this point a guy walks up and says, ‘I’ll take it from here.’ The guy yelled, “Mags off!’, and I yelled ‘Mags off, but wait a minute!’ He was way too close to the spinner. He pulled it through, I heard this ‘clunk’, and he fell down out of my view. The airplane did not start. We got out of the plane and saw that it hit his left knee.”

    The [husband] reported that he gave his [wife] formal instruction on the hand-propping of his airplane and that she had performed this job successfully for 2 years.

  5. Hand Propping can be done safely; among others, I fly a 1942 Tiger Moth with no brakes.
    In that aircraft, our procedure always includes a pilot in the cockpit for propping.

    Another solution for solo propping is a glider tow hook on the aircraft.
    Put an appropriate rope/chain in the tow hook; prop the airplane, seat yourself comfortably, and when ready to taxi, release the tow hook!

  6. Paul: I want a T-shirt just like the one you are wearing. Where can I get one?…before I get too senile to read!

  7. For 62 years I flew mostly non electric taildraggers. So I have propped many, many times. And, although non electric taildraggers do occasionally make the news as a propping runaway, statistically it seems to be the electric starter flying machines, that have a dead battery, that seem to run away more often. I stopped for fuel at a Kentucky airport several years ago in my non electric Aeronca Chief. I asked the fuel pump guy to stand as ignition guard at the Chief’s door for me while I propped it to get under way. He was hesitant about me even propping the airplane at all. Reason…they had just experienced a runaway recently. An RV, with a dead battery, pilot propped it. It went pretty much full throttle and straight across the ramp accelerating rapidly until a near new and very expensive Lear got in its way. My ramp guy said both aircraft were near totaled. Can you imagine the insurance and lawsuit issues here! Not to mention the Lear operator’s anger.

  8. Except maybe for discussions about the legal and moral hazards associated with flying in forecast icing conditions without the proper equipment, there’s nothing like the subject of hand-propping to get pilots to descend into name-calling. (It hasn’t happened here yet, but just you wait.)

    Consider the following, which I have stolen from Mr. Bertorelli and shamelessly paraphrased for my own purposes: “Here’s my periodic spiel about [flying]. It is dangerous. It has always been dangerous. It will always be dangerous. Without getting into [an] ad nauseam review of [the relative merits of one flying technique over another], flying can be done with acceptable risk.” I have friends (just acquaintances, really) that would disagree with that last part. These are the same people who happily drive on 2-lane roads, hurling themselves at oncoming vehicles, 1 in 5 of which are being operated by someone who is legally drunk; at closing speeds in excess of 120 mph, and experiencing repeated, intentional near-misses any one of which would scare the bejabbers out of any of us in an airplane—to the point that we might seriously consider taking up religion.

    Point being, there’s nothing special about hand-propping other than the fact that it’s unusual nowadays. There’s no hazard associated with hand-propping an airplane that doesn’t yield to training, mitigation, and well-informed risk-based decision making. I’ve been hand-propping my Champ, and other airplanes on occasion, in relative safety for 33 years by observing one simple rule: “Tie. It. Down.” I do have a second rule: “Refer to Rule 1.” Now that I’ve read Paul’s article, I should probably consider adding a big, clunky, laughable pair of chocks to my routine. Maybe. I need to think about that.

    I once stopped for fuel and a brief respite at a nice little airport in western Massachusetts. When I went to start the Champ, I tied-down all 3 points out of an abundance of caution—or at least to give that appearance. As I was getting ready to fling the prop, the FBO manager ran out and shouted “we don’t allow hand-propping at this airport!” I replied, “Well, sir, unless you’re prepared to buy this airplane off me right here and now, this is the only way I’m ever going to get out of here.” Having committed himself to admonishing me for something, however, he changed his tack and told me that I should have asked for help. I don’t remember my response, but I do remember that I avoided pointing out the obvious absurdity of asking for help in doing something that isn’t “allowed,” and that in any case is safer done by someone who knows what s/he’s doing rather than involving strangers who have no idea what they’re doing. To Mr. Kirk W. I suggest that the point at which the uninvited local “expert” steps up to lay his hands on my prop is the point at which the mag switch goes to “off” and this whole operation ceases—for 2 reasons: (1) No matter what kind of expertise Mr. Local claims to have, I have never personally witnessed it and am unwilling to assume it, and (2) Mr. Local has violated one of the cardinal rules of life and aviation: You NEVER touch my airplane or my wife without permission. Ever. Hand-propping should be an event that is undertaken with familiarity, planning, and care; like pulling or pushing an airplane into or out of its hangar. It’s better to do it yourself the way you know how to do it than to introduce greater risk by letting people “help” you who are unfamiliar with your routine.

    There are airplanes I wouldn’t recommend attempting to hand-prop, of course—a Cessna 206, for example. The reward of flying a stock 206 with a dead battery probably isn’t worth the risk of getting my head chopped off by a balky high-compression engine, even if I did have the heft and heave-ho to get it done. On the other hand, if that 206 was parked on a jungle strip in Columbia and I was being pursued by an armed gang of narco-terrorists, I might have to reconsider my risk-reward analysis. I still think I’d tie it down, though. (Maybe not worry so much about the chocks right then.)

    The idea of installing a tow hook has merit, I guess, if you really think it’s worth the hassle and expense. Personally, I don’t think it is. I think a good, strong length of nylon rope, 2 half-hitches around the tailwheel or tie-down fixture (okay, 3 if that makes you feel better), and maybe a carabiner at one end—and a pair of big, clunky, laughable chocks—will do you just fine.

    It’s just like everything else: Gather reliable information (engine type and compression, the angle at which you’ll have to bend your back to get it done, the quality and slope of the surface, the likelihood that the aircraft might start to roll, etc.), evaluate the risk, devise a mitigation strategy, and have a willingness to walk away from it if there’s no “out.”

  9. My introduction to hand-propping was in the ’80s, when I flew Pete Bowers’ original Fly Baby until 1994. N500F had a glider hook, which, to me, left most of the hazard out of hand propping. At my hangar, I’d use the glider hook and a chock, and at other airports, I’d tie the required loop into a convenient tiedown rope.

    However, I always kept a hank of rope in the baggage compartment, because many times, I’d tug on a tiedown rope and it would just snap.

    In seven years of flying that airplane, I propped it “free” only twice. One was when the engine quietly went to sleep on final when landing on a 25-degree day. I managed to coast to a turnoff, and it quickly started with one flip. The second time was landing at a friend’s grass airpark and discovering he wasn’t home…no trees or fenceposts nearby to tie my rope to.

    I accidentally started the plane at full throttle once. The tail was off the ground, held by the glider hook and rope, by the time I made it around to the cockpit to pull the throttle back.

    About 25 years ago, I bought my *own* Fly Baby…one with a starter. My hand-propping days were over.

    I really recommend the glider hooks. Homebuilts can install anything of course, but there are approved glider hooks for the Standard category crowd. More details at: