Hand Propping Gone Wrong

by HPA · December 20, 2013

Hand Propping

by Sarah Rovner (Commercial Pilot, CFI & FAASTeam Representative)

I have always had this theory that risky things should never be done out of a perceived necessity. I have no problem flying low in a Piper Cub on a sunny, cloudless day; but I will not fly low if it is due to weather. I have no problem hand propping a 1940 Taylorcraft that does not have an electrical system, but I will not hand prop the flight school’s Cessna 152 due to a dead battery. Under these theories, I am still assuming risk, but not for the wrong reasons.

Since I began flying, I have always felt a connection with older and vintage airplanes. It is something about the true meaning of aviation when flying in a wood and fabric built machine from the 1940s. There are no glass panels or GPS – all you have is a stick, rudder, and open window. You navigate only by looking outside. A fresh breeze comes rushing through the window on a hot Houston day. Your fuel gauge is a cork with a wire on the top of it on the nose of the airplane. In my opinion, this is the best type of flying.

Hand Propping Gone Wrong

However, technology has done a lot for aviation. By far, today’s fleet of airplanes is much safer than the airplanes built back in the 1940s. The planes are now better equipped, more reliable, and more accurate. The term “situational awareness” has been invented. The G1000 system can literally tell you anything you need to know about what is going on with the airplane and all around you. I fly with the G1000 all over the country, and embrace the technology just as I embrace the old stick & rudder skills. However, a good balance is definitely necessary for any aviator.

Hand Propping Gone Wrong

One of the risks that come along with some of the older airplanes is that they do not have a starter. I had become a regular at the hand propping process while I was building tailwheel time in a 1946 Aeronca Champ with a generous friend. I was familiar with the procedure, and familiar with the airplane. I had a lot of experience with heel brakes, and until this point nothing abnormal had ever happened with hand propping.

On a beautiful, sunny day, I decided to take a friend of mine flying in a 1940 Taylorcraft BC-12 with the 65hp engine. He had never been in such an old airplane and I wanted to show him the experience. It was equipped with pilot side heel brakes and even a parking brake. The parking brake was somewhat close to useless, but it was at least another line of safety. The airplane had a handheld radio with an external antenna, and was so old that it did not even have a mixture – just a fuel on and off lever. My friend was an experienced pilot, but had never seen heel brakes before and had never hand propped an airplane. We decided that I would be the one to pull the prop through, and he would be in the airplane.

I explained in detail what we would do and the verbal callouts to use. I explained that if the airplane started moving or got out of control, then he should shut it off immediately. I propped it uneventfully at the hangar and we taxied over to the fuel pumps and shut down. After fueling the plane, I went through the same process with him. On the second pull, the engine roared to life and the airplane started moving forward. The throttle was at a higher power setting than before. I expected him to at least pull it to idle but the power actually sounded like it was increasing and the airplane started moving faster. It then started turning toward the hangar and a car. I began yelling for him to shut it off, but the airplane did not shut off. I ran around the side of the plane, opened the door, reached in and shut off the engine. It came to stop less than 10 feet from hitting a car. I was pretty upset, but realized that more could have been done to prevent it. I should have pulled on the prop to make sure the brakes were really set. I should have chocked the wheels even though it was a pilot at the controls since he was unfamiliar with the airplane or heel brakes. Should have, should have…

Overall, the lesson learned was to err more on the side of caution. Once again in the risk management process, you learn to identify, assess, and mitigate risk. If all else fails, prop the airplane as if there was nobody in it. That includes chocks and tying the tail down. If someone is familiar with the airplane and has done it before, then maybe the tail tie down may not be needed. It was a valuable lesson in both human behavior and risk management. Overall, I hope that you can apply this to more than just hand propping. Account for all of these “what ifs” when planning every flight. Do what you can to mitigate it, and then accept the risk if it is worth it. And as always, fly safe!

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

2022.06.09 11.19 Flyhpa 62a27fea7716a


The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/


Would you like more information?

Send us a message below.

5 + 7 =