Close Call with Hand-Propping

31 Aug 18 11 Comments

Today’s piece is a guest post by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. I think it’s great that he’s not only willing to learn from his rather frightening experience but happy to share it with the rest of us.

Handpropping a 1941 J-3 by Tripgill (2011)

Let me preface this by saying that both myself and the plane are fine, the only damage was a couple of scrapes on my legs.

Woke up this morning in a flying mood, weather was great so I decided to use some of the block time I had bought in a J3 cub. I arrived at the airport to find the tank empty, so after the 20-minute ordeal of unsuccessfully looking for a line guy, pushing the plane to the pumps, fueling it, and pushing it back, I was ready to start it up.

Edit by Sylvia: The aircraft in question is the Piper J3 Cub which you can see being started up in this video.

Unable to find the ramp guy for the school that rented it, I asked a CFI if she could sit at the controls while I propped it. The CFI reluctantly followed me and sat at the controls while I tried to prop it. After 10 minutes of trying to start it, I called the instructor who had checked me out in the plane, as he had a lot more experience in it. His suggestion was to pull the prop through with full throttle for a few rotations, then bring throttle to idle, turn the switch on and try again. I tried this process a few times, still nothing. At this point the CFI in the plane said that most other people who rent the cub just chock it and start it by themselves; realizing that she probably wanted to leave, I said that I could manage with just a pair of chocks and that she could head back to the school.

This was a huge mistake. Of course I’ve heard that the official stance of the FAA is that planes should only be hand propped with a pilot in the cockpit, but frustration was mounting and I knew that people propped their planes solo all the time. I should have never taken the word of a CFI who had no experiance propping a plane, and I should have known that chocks are not enough to hold a 90hp J3 if something goes wrong.

After the CFI left, I spent another 5 minutes trying to start the plane. I alternated between full throttle with switch off (as the CFI that I’d called instructed me) and different amounts of prime before contact and throwing the prop. It had been probably an hour since i had gone out to the plane ready to fly, maybe my frustration and impatience were a factor in what happened next, or maybe my stupid ass just forgot to do the most important thing before starting: I left the throttle at full while turning the mags on with the intention of trying to start it up.

From here my memory isn’t as great, everything that followed swinging the prop was my gut reaction to seeing shit hit the fan. Bear with me as I explain what I am pretty sure happened.

I pulled the prop through, the engine started (finally). A quarter second after the victory feeling of finally starting the engine, it started to rev up far past its idle speed. Oh [expletive deleted].

Without hesitation I ran around the prop to get control over the airplane. Again, my memory isn’t great, but at some point while I was trying to get to the cockpit the plane jumped its chocks and started to accelerate. I managed to get half in the cockpit, half out before it had gotten to a walking speed. Initially, not realizing the throttle was full, I tried to dig my feet into the ground while holding onto the plane to stop it. The plane continued to accelerate. I realized that something must be wrong; I saw the throttle and grabbed it, pulling it to idle. At this point the plane was moving at a jogging speed and was still accelerating.

I was still half out of the plane, dragging my feet on the ground trying to stop it when I realized that idle was not the fastest way to stop the plane, the mag switch was. I reached up and turned the switch to off. Finally the engine quit, and a second or two later (with a lot of help from my feet dragging on the ground), the plane came to a rest. From jumping the chocks to finally stopping the whole ordeal was probably 5 seconds long, and the plane moved about 50 feet in a big half circle (my feet digging into the grass on the right side made the plane turn right).

I don’t even know how to start debriefing this. I’m safe, the plane is fine, but I am so incredibly lucky that nothing worse happened. I can’t stop thinking “what if I didnt get to the plane on time?”, “what if in my haste to get to the controls I ran through the prop?”, “what if the plane was facing the other way when I started it and it hit the hangar?”, “what if it hit a person on the ramp?”

I know I screwed up big time. I know that I made an unsafe decision by trying to prop it alone with only chocks. I can learn from bad decisions like these and just be thankful that nobody was hurt. What I can’t stand is the fact that I could so easily overlook something so dangerous (the throttle being open) while performing an already inherently unsafe procedure. How do you learn from such a simple yet dangerous mistake of forgetting something so vital? I obviously have a lot of thinking to do. I don’t know… the whole thing happened 4 hrs ago so I’m still pretty screwed up about the situation. I can’t stop thinking about what could have happened.

There isn’t much you guys can learn from my mistakes, I just wanted to share what happened and hear everyone’s thoughts. I hope everybody is having a good day and flying safe <3

Feel free to discuss in the comments but please remember that he is 1) my guest and 2) he is pretty shaken up by the whole event. Be kind.


  • Oh, this brings out memories from my own early days of flying.
    My first flying lessons were on a Piper L4J. In fact, also a Cub but with the difference that this had started life as an observation ‘plane for the armed forces and had a lot more plexiglass, especially at the back where the pilot would be sitting when flying solo. As a result, view from the back seat of that aircraft is a lot better.
    The original J3 or L4J had a 65 hp engine. I know, some have been converted with the more powerful 90 hp, but the one in the photo and video here looks very original. The cowling looks vintage to me, anyway. The 90 hp engine had an optional starter motor, but since the J3 did not have any electrics at all, re-wiring after an upgrade may have been a problem.
    Anyway, I had problems landing. Who does not? The aerodrome in question, Hilversum (EHHV), was grass only. A little bit fast, anything in fact not the 100% landing technique, would result in a series of hops that would make a kangaroo jealous.
    It was winter, it was cold. Freezing actually. I already had logged more than 7 hours and still had not be sent off solo. Anyway, I was allowed to take flying lessons if a customer cancelled. The procedure was for a mechanic to react to the sound of a horn from the flying school office and come out to swing the prop. It was 1965, the mainstay of the school was the L4J.
    The mechanics were in their warm, cosy canteen, having a tea break. Nobody came out. So my instructor decided to swing the prop himself.
    As the temperature was below freezing, he decided to turn the prop a few times in order to suck in some extra bit of fuel.
    I repeated his command “brakes, ignition off”. Only, I mistakenly turned the switch to “on”. He gave a tug on the prop in order to check that I was holding the heel brakes and swung the prop.
    It started at once.
    The instructor climbed into the front seat without much comment.
    I was furious with myself. How could I have been so stupid? I could have killed him !
    I was no longer tense when landing. In fact, I did not care. I just was upset and embarrassed and relaxed about my landings.
    Of course, this resulted in one “greaser” after another. It ended when the instructor said “You are too dangerous, I don’t want to fly with you any more”. And told me to taxy back to the hangars.
    Oh ! My surprise came when he got out and sent me off for my first solo. The Cub had a fuel tank directly behind the engine with a spoke on a cork float for a gauge. Even to-day I remember leaning to the left to see past the instructor – who was no longer in the front seat. And I still in my minds’ eye can see that spoke bobbing through a tiny vent hole in the fuel cap.
    Soon after, the L4J was phased out and replaced with again the observer version of the PA18. Which was flown solo from the front seat, but did not have a starter motor, either.

  • Thanks for sharing. The biggest takeaway I see is that fatigue and frustration, along with what the FAA calls “plan continuation bias” can quietly become links in the accident chain. It can be very difficult to sit down and take a break at the very times when a break is most needed, and that’s probably what needed to happen.

    You made a bad mistake. You got lucky that a few gray hairs are probably all the consequences you’ll suffer. It happens. Sharing the experience is sometimes the best we can do.

  • Brad,
    I am not sure who your comment was intended for: the guy who wrote this interesting article (btw, thanks Sylvia for sharing it !) or to me.
    Well, this mistake did not give me grey hair. the following solo was too exciting. And the instructor? He was a very, very experienced one. He had been an instructor with the RLS, the Dutch government-sponsored cadet school for KLM pilots. He was not going to be caught out by a stupid mistake of one of his students.
    In the ‘sixties there was no demand for commercial pilots. The cadet scheme had been suspended and qualified pilots went to work as cabin crew just to be in with KLM.
    The situation had not changed much when I gained my CPL in 1969. It took me years to get a proper job, after starting towing advertising banners, sightseeing flights and aerial photography. I did more than 3500 hours on Super Cubs alone
    But that is a different story altogether !

  • Sounds like you kept your head during a very stressful experience. Well done. Sharing this experience is good for new pilots to hear, imo. It may sink into their subconscious an be accessible, should they need it. Everybody makes mistakes, keeping a level head can be the difference between a successful resolution and disaster. Well done.

  • I have _very_ little flying experience, but I read all the stories about flying I can get my hands on. So, for whatever it’s worth, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there’s not much that can be learned from the author’s mistakes. As I see it, the lesson is that one should do things by the book, _especially_ when one is tired, in a hurry or has his critical faculties impaired in any other way. And that abandoning the standard procedures can be justified only as a means to avert impending disaster, not to salvage one’s plans for today.
    While hardly original, this lesson deserves to be repeated over and over again as long as it remains such a prominent cause of accidents it is.

  • Many years ago, when doing my qualifying cross country solo, I was using a Cessna 152 which had just been fitted with an overhauled engine.
    The starter motor was faulty and the flying club operator hand propped the engine to get me on my way. This was totally unacceptable, as I had to do two away landings and would need to restart the engine. At that stage I was a student pilot.
    But youth (relatively) and being eager to get on with qualifying I set off.
    At my first stop in Staverton the starter motor failed to engage and I was fortunate to find an experienced pilot prepared to sit in the driving seat, while I twiddled the prop.
    Prop starting is NOT for the faint hearted or inexperienced and I knew that I had to be extremely careful not to get badly injured or killed.
    Good luck was on my side and the engine started almost immediately and the friendly pilot soon had it ticking over whilst we swapped seats. I doubt he ever realised that I was a student.
    At the next airport, the engine starter engaged and no problems. On the final leg of my trip, the radio failed!
    All enough to negate my qualifying cross country.
    Did I pass? Only my logbook will tell you that information.
    Hand prop starting is not for those, who have not had a very through briefing on how to do it, the risks involved and the realisation of the immense power in those whirling blades!

  • same thing happened to a good friend of mine. Clearing a flooded carb, had the throttle open and accidentally left it open when starting. The aircraft was loosely tied down, but the little resistance from the skies on snow, the airplane broke lose at full throttle, dragging my friend along with it, he flipped over the strut (he starts it from behind the propeller) as the aircraft slid forward.. It went about 40 feet before nosing over into a ditch and doing some serious damage to the engine and left wing.
    Always double check before starting! Countless lessons to be learned,
    Fly safe everyone

  • The fact that you consider a 20 minute delay to get fueled up an ‘ordeal’ tells me you have a *serious* problem with patience. That was the root of this near disaster , and if you don’t focus on fixing that you will endanger yourself and others in any type of moving vehicle.
    You asked for suggestions? I don’t know, meditation? Flying is supposed to be fun – if every small delay causes an ordeal in your life, maybe it’s time for another hobby…

  • Agreed. Not enough patience to be a pilot. “Without hesitation I ran around the prop to get control over the airplane”. This indicates he propped from in front of the prop. BAD IDEA! I’ve got a couple of hundred hours in a J3 and I never propped from in front. I was taught to prop from behind. Also hand propping that long with no result is bad physically and metally. BAD all the way around.

  • Stand BEHIND the prop on the right side of the plane with your left hand inside holding one of the upper struts for stability. Use your right hand to pull down the prop. Now if you have mistakenly positioned the throttle too far forward you are safely BEHIND the prop. And don’t keep on priming it after it won’t start. You’re just getting the plugs wet. If you’re still paranoid about it and alone, you can chain the tailwheel to a tree or a car in addition to the chocks.

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