Heads up! Working around a propeller

Dale Nielsen


It appears from some recent incidents we need reminding that it is dangerous to work around propellers.

A 2,000 hour pilot was conducting a pre-purchase inspection on a Piper PA- 12 and was turning the propeller as part of an engine compression test. The engine suddenly started due to a faulty ground wire connection on the left magneto and the pilot was struck on the head by the propeller.

A pilot attempted to start his ERCO 415C at the fuel pumps by hand propping it. When the engine started, the aircraft swung 180 degrees and struck the fuel cabinet, damaging it and the aircraft. The pilot was able to get out of the way and was uninjured. He said he thought that he had set the brake.

The ski equipped Aeronca Champ was being started by the owner by hand. The engine started and the aircraft moved forward striking the owner on the forehead. The injured owner could not get inside the aircraft to stop it. The aircraft struck the owner’s truck and then continued across the lake. The owner gave chase on his snowmobile and collided with the tail of the aircraft. He then gave up the chase and the aircraft came to a stop in the trees on the far shore line of the lake.

The Aeronca 7AC was being hand propped on the grass near the runway prior to a local solo flight. With the main wheels chocked, the engine started with the throttle set near idle. The aircraft rolled forward over the chocks by pressing them into the soft turf. The pilot was unable to hold the aircraft back for more than a few minutes due to the wet grass and no assistance available. The aircraft stopped just off the turf area sustaining minor damage. There were no personal injuries or property damage.

The pilot of a Piper J-3C65 Cub aircraft was observed attempting to handstart his aircraft without a person at the controls of the airplane. It appeared that the pilot was hand-starting from behind the propeller, standing by the door of the aircraft. Immediately after the plane started, it throttled up with the pilot hanging onto the wing strut. The aircraft proceeded forward and then veered toward other aircraft parked on the north side of the apron while dragging the pilot (still holding on to the wing strut).

The aircraft’s wheel then caught in the drainage basin of the apron and veered toward four aircraft parked in front of the flying club. Also in front of the club at the time were one rental pilot doing a walk around with two passengers, one student pilot, and one line service technician. The aircraft then veered another 180 degrees and slowed down. The pilot was able to climb into the aircraft. Without any hesitation, the pilot taxied onto the active runway and departed to the south with a left hand turn at approximately 200 feet AGL.

A pilot planning a pleasure flight found he was blocked in the hangar by a Bellanca 7ECA. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to start the Bellanca with the starter, so he attempted to hand prop it. The aircraft started to move as soon as the engine started. The pilot ducked under the wing and tried to enter the aircraft but was dragged a few feet before losing his grip on the door and falling to the ground. The aircraft continued between two hangars, hit some trees and nosed over.

A pilot of a notoriously hard to start C-206G was in the habit of setting the propeller by hand prior to each start attempt. He accidentally left the right magneto switch in the “on” position before his third setting of the propeller. The aircraft started as he moved the propeller and rolled forward into some bush. The pilot was uninjured.

Before approaching a propeller for any reason, it is necessary to ensure magneto switches are not left in the “on” position. If the aircraft is started with an ignition key, it is a good idea to leave the key on the dash of the aircraft in plain sight, whenever it is removed from the ignition. For other aircraft, a check of all switches must be made. If maintenance is being performed it also a good idea to make sure the throttle is fully closed and the mixture is in idle cut off. Another safety precaution is to disconnect the spark plug leads to prevent the plugs from firing.

Whenever we reposition a prop, we should position our body so that if a cylinder does fire, we are not in the way of the moving propeller.

The CARs state that an aircraft is not to be started or left running if a pilot’s seat is not occupied by someone competent to control the aircraft on the ground, or unless the aircraft is prevented from moving forward. Brakes and chocks are not adequate methods of prevention. A tie down is.

If the throttle is opened a little too much for the hand propped start, brakes may not hold the aircraft and the aircraft may jump the chocks. A tie down with a quick release near the aircraft door is a much safer way to go if you are by yourself.

Hand propping an aircraft to start it can also be accomplished by standing behind the propeller on most low compression aircraft. Always make sure you are balanced so that you will not fall forward if you have to really heave on the prop. If the aircraft does start to move, all you have to worry about is the wing or wing strut, but they will be moving a lot slower than the propeller.

Training is always a good thing. Before your first attempt at hand propping an aircraft, get someone experienced to show you how to do it safely. Stress the safely. Experience does not always equal safety.

Winter flyers often pull the prop through a number of times before the first attempt to start the aircraft. The safety practices mentioned apply. Even a very cold engine can start suddenly under the right conditions.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.