Runaway: When Hand Propping Goes Bad

In my years as a pilot, I’ve had some bad days. I’ve been socked in, hundreds of miles from home, stuck to the ground by hard IFR. I’ve had instruments fail in flight, minor electrical problems … even an instructor that seemed intent on killing me. Still, nothing in my experience was ever as bad as the event I watched one pilot experience.

It Started With A Dead Battery — Mine, that is. I had just bought an airplane and had it at a local airport. I still wasn’t checked out in the plane, but that didn’t stop me from trying to clean it up. I was also installing a freshly charged battery, since the battery on the plane was dying when I bought it. I was poking around the inside of the cowling, when the first signs of a problem emerged. It was the sound of someone trying to start an airplane, but the fellow’s battery seemed no more willing than mine.

Turning back to my own airplane, I pondered how to get the battery into the battery box and, in the process, not manage to ground out something and cause a spark. As the battery settled into the bottom of the box, I heard the unusually loud roar of an airplane engine starting up behind me. Out of reflex, I turned and looked to make sure the plane wasn’t taxiing in my direction. It wasn’t, but something just didn’t look right.

“Man, that guy is taxiing way too fast, he’s going to cause an accident,” I quietly mused, hoping that the pilot would not run into the planes on the western side of the airport. What I saw next was almost surreal… I watched as the pilot picked himself up off the ground and started running after his runaway airplane.

I ran into the local FBO, and told them to call the fire department. The stunned counter person asked me what was the matter. I explained that there was a plane running on the field without a pilot, and ran out to watch the carnage unfold.

Our intrepid pilot made a gallant chase, but the stabilizer had caught him in the head as he dove out of the way of the prop and wing. The plane accelerated as it raced towards the southwest corner of the airport, gaining speed as it approached the fence. The Archer became airborne — slightly — just before it reached the fence. The power setting was a bit low for flight and the landing gear clipped the fence, sending the plane into an aerial pirouette, before it came down on the right wing.

BA-BOOM! A huge, orange fireball from the full load of 100-octane fuel lit the sky as the wing collapsed and the fuel tank inside it burst. The fireball rose some 100 feet into the air, as the plane settled down on the mains and roasted away. Moments later, with the ground fully involved in the fire, the left fuel tank cut loose with another fireball.

Five minutes later, as the tires were starting to explode from the heat, the fire department arrived. The plane was a total loss — melted from tip to tail. No part of it was left unscathed.


The first rule of hand-propping: Have a qualified pilot in the cockpit, at the controls. That pilot will be able to throttle down the engine, and hold the brakes to keep the plane from moving before the experienced person who is physically spinning the prop is ready.

The second rule of hand propping — watch the throttle. You are starting your engine, not starting a race. If you normally use a half-inch of throttle to start the plane, the same amount holds true for hand propping. Too much power can easily cause the plane to lurch forward — whether it’s tied down or not — and if you aren’t careful, you can quickly become the prop’s lunch!

True, but not advised: Some old-timers who fly Cubs and non-starter equipped airplanes tie a slipknot to the tail, with a long rope and are capable of hand-propping their aircraft without help. If the plane starts, they can climb into the cockpit and then pull the release to free their tail. This keeps the aircraft tethered, but it also takes some skill and practice to do it right. This is not something to try out yourself, without help or instruction.

Uncommon Sense: Whenever you hand prop an airplane, keep in mind that the prop is capable of killing you. Treat every prop as if it is about to start turning. When you pull the prop through, NEVER allow your body to enter the prop’s arc of travel. Don’t let your need to get somewhere outweigh the risks of an unfamiliar plan of action. Take the time to do the job right. Better yet, if your battery is dead, get it charged. There’s more at stake than your embarrassment or your airplane.