Close Call with Hand-Propping
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.
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.
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.