Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Runaway Aircraft

Back in the woahgie days, most small aeroplanes did not have electric starters.  The onliest way to start the engine to internally combust was to spin the propeller by hand.   Early on several techniques were developed to do this little chore safely.

The most common method required at least two people - one to sit in the cockpit and handle the controls, and the other to spin the propeller.  The routine went something like this.  The man at the propeller called, "Switch off, throttle set, and prime." The cockpit man called back, "The switch is off, throttle is set, a couple shots of prime."  Whereupon, the propeller man would grab the propeller and pull it through several blades in the proper direction, thereby filling the cylinders with fuel-laden air ready to be ignited.  Then the prop man called, "Make it hot."  That meant the cockpit man was to turn the magneto switch to the "on" position. The cockpit man called back "Switch is on."

The man at the prop carefully took the upward slanting blade in hand, swung his left leg forward and up, then heaved his body and leg downward and back as he pulled the prop blade through a revolution.  This maneuver hopefully cranked the engine as it also took the prop man safely clear of the spinning blade.  Sometimes this had to be repeated several times before the engine came alive and started running.

Now, ya got the picture?

I have observed several incidents where one or more of these parts of the above mentioned procedure were not carefully observed or were somewhat modified with - shall we say - interesting results. There were times when one had to crank the engine with no one else around to help. The procedure then was slightly changed. The airplane was securely tied down to the ground with ropes or straps, usually to a concrete block with a metal loop on top to receive the tie-down rope.
In one instance that I recall, the tail-wheel tie-down was not fastened and the right wing tie-down came loose.  When the lone individual cranked the engine by the prop, the plane launched a quick circle around the left wing tie-down and struck the twin-engine aircraft tied down next to it, and chopped the twin nearly in half.   Hope the pilot had liability insurance!

Another occasion that I witnessed, the plane was prop-started with no tie-downs at all.  The throttle had been set about half open.  The plane was completely out of control and loose!  It cut three or four quick circles with several men chasing it.  If it wasn't so serious, it would have been highly comical.  The men were chasing the plane and then whoops! The plane, after a sharp change of direction, was chasing the men!  This chaotic scenario was repeated several times until the wayward Aeronca Champ slammed into the side of a hanger.  Ouch!  What a mess!

George (name changed to protect the guilty) and I were spraying brush out in West Texas.  We were using a landing strip out on a ranch which sloped downward to a small lake on the south end.   We were flying Piper Cub-type aircraft, neither of which had an electric starter.  I was tall enough to stand on the right side of the engine cowling behind the propeller and with my right hand-prop my plane.  I could set the throttle at a low setting and when the engine started, I could quickly reach into the cockpit with my left hand and reduce the RPM.  No problem.

George was a small fellow and could not do this so I usually did the honors while he sat in the cockpit.  For some reason this particular morning he decided to set the parking brake on his ship and went round in front of the plane and cranked it by propping it himself.  He had set the throttle a leetle too high.  The brake didn't hold.  The plane began to move forward. Being very agile, George quickly jumped to the side and then made a leap for the cockpit.  He didn't make it.  Instead he tripped on the wing strut and tumbled over and landed on his back just in time for the tail wing (stabilizer) to pass over him.

He did manage to grab the tail-wheel strut as it passed by.  The plane dragged him quite a ways as he struggle to regain his feet.  The little Cub seemed bent on taking a dip in the lake at the end of the runway.  George hung on and, after clawing his way up the length of the fuselage, scrambled to the cockpit and closed the throttle.  The plane rolled to a stop about fifteen feet from the lake.

About that time the boss-man came driving up to find me lying on the ground laughing my head off.  He wasn't laughing.  It was a wonder he didn't fire the both of us.

Over the years I witnessed a number of these runaways. With the advent of electric starters, this excitement seldom happens anymore. These incidents were very serious, of course. But almost always long as it wasn't my plane!   


  1. LOL! I got a couple of hilarious mental images out of this one. :D

    1. Being the kid who got to go along to the airport many a time, I got to sit in the cockpit several times whilst pappy did the hard work out front. It was big important stuff for a kid. Last time I recall doing that, I was in highschool and pop needed to start a Cessna Ag-wagon. That was a pretty big engine to hand-prop, now that I think about it (equivalent to hand-cranking a 500 cubic inch Cadillac V-8). Worked, though.