Hand-Propping Hazards, Part 2 – When One Gets Away

YOU DON’T OFTEN HEAR ABOUT EVENTS LIKE THIS, BUT THEY DO HAPPEN. I happened to notice that there was a fleet of fire trucks headed towards the airport. It turns out they had good reason to be in a hurry, since one airplane had just plowed into three airplanes!

THERE WAS AVGAS ALL OVER THE PLACE, as wings were beat open by the flailing propeller of the Piper Archer that had been responsible for the event. All you had to do is look at the tail of the Archer to see what had happened, since there was still a piece of old, frayed, rotten nylon rope attached to the tail tie down point on the airplane.

OUR INTREPID PILOT WAS FACED WITH A DILEMMA IT SEEMS. When he went to get into the rental plane he had borrowed, the battery was stone-dead. Rather than go to the FBO on the field (which was open and willing to help for a small charge), he took matters (and the propeller) into his own hands, and decided to hand-prop the plane to life.

OUR PILOT CAREFULLY TIED DOWN THE TAIL, USING A HANDY ROPE, which was anchored into the concrete. He set the throttle, and with nobody at the flight controls, pulled the prop quickly through several times until the engine caught and started to run – at a good RPM. At this point, the pilot had tried to quickly climb into the cabin to get on the brakes (since nobody was at the controls), when suddenly, the rope holding the tail down to the ground broke, sending the pilot spilling to the ground behind the airplane. The unmanned plane was now moving west across the ramp, towards several parked planes!


In situations like this, the seconds seem to stretch into minutes. Time seems to stand still for the duration of the event, as this slow-motion ballet of aluminum and fiberglass came crashing together in a horrendous, horrific, heart-wrenching cacophony of tearing metal and flying parts!

The Archer made its way across the concrete and clipped the wing of a Diamond which was parked on the ramp. This deflected the plane through the grass between the east and west ramps, were it was headed towards the restaurant, more airplanes, and the line shack. The Archer subsequently hit a fire extinguisher or obstruction on the west ramp (nobody seems to remember clearly, but the fire extinguisher is the most popular choice), and spun around back toward the east ramp for another go at the planes there.

The Archer’s spinning prop made another close pass on the Diamond, and then hit the rear end of a Cessna 150 which was parked on the ramp with its wing, which caused the Archer to make a subtle course change, directing it into the final and most severely damaged victim of this event, a nice, recently purchased Grumman AA-1B. When it reached the Grumman, the spinning propeller of the Piper met with the wing of the Grumman, and beat itself into the wing and spar, making quite a mess of both in the process.


The Archer sputtered to a stop at the Grumman. The damage that was observed was mind-boggling in severity. The Archer’s wings and prop looked like someone had beaten them with a vengeance. The end of the wing tip of the Grumman looked as if it exploded, with the tubular spar inside torn and damaged. The tail of the Cessna 150 was bent upwards, indicating that structural damage had taken place. The fire department came and had all the fun of containing the fuel pouring from the wing.


What is the most troubling part of this costly mistake is that it all happened for the price of a jump-start. If you look for a root cause to this disaster, there are three big hitters that come to mind:

1. No pilot at the controls when hand propping the plane. That means nobody to cob the engine or hit the brakes, either of which could have successfully terminated this event.
2. A rotten tie down rope. The pilot put his trust in an old, faded, frayed yellow tiedown rope. The rope was faded and frayed after years of exposure to UV from the sun, and was no match for the power the engine was producing when it came to life.
3. The pilot’s mind wasn’t engaged in the “what if” part of this event. If the pilot had thought “what if the plane breaks the rope,” or “what if this tired-looking rope won’t hold” and asked for help, or got a jump-start, this wouldn’t have happened.

In gross terms, this event most likely resulted in nearly $100,000 in damage. The pilot got away lucky – nobody was hurt or killed by this runaway aircraft. His insurance rates will probably be a bit higher next year, as unfortunately, so will all of our rates, since we share the same shallow insurance pool!!!

FIGHT THE URGE TO SAVE $50. Got a dead battery? Get a jump – don’t risk losing control of your plane! If a jump isn’t available, don’t let get-there-itus drive you to a bad decision! It’s always better to walk away or call for a cab or a friendly pickup, than it is to make a mistake of this magnitude. When faced with this dilemma, remember that YOU as the PILOT IN COMMAND make the decision. Choose wisely. And since this type of event costs you (and all of your fellow pilots) in the long run by increasing everyone’s insurance premiums, keep an eye out for your fellow pilots, and help them avoid this trap! The money (and plane) you save may end up being YOUR OWN!