Going Direct: Is Hand Propping Stupid Or Not Stupid?


I’ve seen it. You’ve seen. Our kids and grandparents and dogs have probably seen it, that viral video of a poor guy who hand propped a Cirrus SR22 and struggled against to odds to scramble back inside of it and stop it before it crashed into who knows what. Hangars? Porsches? Well, you know the punch line. Everybody lived and the Porsche stayed shiny and new. The same cannot be said for the Cirrus or the hangar it impacted at a goodly rate of speed.

Immediately the social media world started piling on. And if we know anything about social media, we know that when someone screws up in a big way, and this one was spectacular, the digital world isn’t shy about weighing in. I know one person who openly mocked the pilot for his lack of common sense and ability to foresee the outcome of his actions. Yeah, that was me.

But was there anything useful to be gained by the online burning at the digital flame of the hand-propping guy? (whose name I do not know and wouldn’t publish if I did know it). And the answer is, yes.

But did we have the right question? I’d say, the answer to that is, no.

The question was, should we ever hand prop? Yes! I went through my seaplane rating at good ole Jack Brown’s in Winter Haven Florida without an electric system on the J-3 Cub on straight floats. It was a blast. And in case I need to point it out, no electrical system, no starter. So, it had to be hand started. I did everything but beg my instructor to let me go to the end of the float and hand prop it at least one time, but he was resolute. Insurance and his job were fairly big concerns to him. But the point is, if nobody hand starts an airplane without a battery, it isn’t going flying.

There’s nothing wrong with hand propping, and I have to admit, I’ve been educated these past several days about hand propping big bore engines. It works. I’ve never hand propped anything more than an O-200, and I believed the tale that big engines were impossible to hand prop and dangerous to even try. Well, apparently this isn’t necessarily true. I stand corrected.

Is hand propping safe? No! But then again, neither is flying! But it’s a blast. And without taking to the air, you can’t go flying. So without some risk, there’s no fun. Is hand propping a plane fun? It is. Should just anyone do it? No, just as not everyone should be a pilot.

With all that said, here’s the real question: is the way the sad sack video guy hand propped his plane smart? Duh.

So the right answer to the right question is very simply this. If you’re going to hand prop a plane, know what you’re doing and take all the appropriate safety precautions, of which precautions our unwitting video guy did none.

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Going Direct: Why Runaway Planes Happen

So far as I can figure, I’ve done about half dozen things in my life that I should not have survived, and, no, even though I have done both a few times, running marathons or climbing thousand-foot-tall granite walls are not on the list. The things I did and survived weren’t the ones where I trained for months or years and undertook only with a clear plan of action. The close calls were dumbass ideas I thought about for a few seconds and did anyway, despite the thousand things that could have gone wrong. Well, in truth, only one or two things could have gone wrong, but, one, the chances of those couple of things happening were, in hindsight, pretty high, and, two, the consequences of them happening were terrible, potentially fatal, such as the time I decided it might be a good idea to use a plastic bag to slide down an icy, snow-covered, steep, heavily treed slope in the Sierra Nevada. The snow was really sticky and I didn’t get far, thank goodness.

But what does this have to do with hand propping Cirrus SR22s? Everything. And not only that but so many other things we do while we’re flying.

Here’s the mindset behind such asinine antics. (And I only say this as someone who’s done a few of them, a couple in airplanes shortly after I started flying, many moons ago.) Before you do something like this you need to want something, a thrill, getting out of a jam, finding out some delicious tidbit of info, and that desire drives the entire decision-making process. There is, as clinical psychologists would say, a failure of the inhibition loop, that your smarter, more cautious side never weighs in on the issue because you’ve already decided what you want and reasonable side can’t help in that quest but only derail it. So why ask the wet blanket side of your brain. It’s never any fun.

That kind of thinking, which is closely associated with the defense mechanism known as invulnerability, or in other words, the “nothing bad could happen to me” mindset. First, wrong. It could. Second, did I mention how wrong it was and how those bad things could!

In the case of the hand propped Cirrus, I do not know the details and in a way don’t want to know them. I feel bad for the person, which I’m certain is prompting many of you to whip out your nasty note keyboard telling me why no one should feel bad for this guy. I get it, but I still do. Not only did he wreck a perfectly good airplane and who knows how much damage the runaway Cirrus did to those defenseless hangars, but he could have killed somebody. It was incredibly irresponsible. And unlike in some accidents, I have failed to come up with mitigating factors here. There was no good reason to do this. Call somebody to bring out the starter cart. Call the mechanic. Do something other than this.

But with any hand-propping of an airplane in which it feels like a really bad idea to hand prop it to begin with, one can safely assume the reason for the manual action was that the starter was kaput. Which is a bad feeling to have. After all, airplanes are for flying. One with an engine that won’t start isn’t really an airplane at all. Would I have hand started this airplane? No way! High-performance planes with high-compression engines are difficult to hand prop—so I was surprised to see the engine catch and delighted that the guy wasn’t ground up into mincemeat. Nobody deserves that fate.

So these impulsivity created accidents start with that desire to do that thing you really want to do. Get home. Not fly a missed approach. Get that engine started. Pack in those last couple hundred pounds of cargo.

The key with all of these is this. Stop. Think about what bad thing/things could happen? How likely is it that? Just how bad is that bad thing? And only after you’ve examined the risk, ask, how much do I need to do what I want to do, you know, the thing that’s inviting risk into the house. In short, is what you want right now worth taking the risk that you just calculated?

Just getting to the point where you need to ask yourself these kinds of questions implies that the answer is, don’t do it. Find an alternative. Yes, changing plans could be inconvenient. Ask the guy who got tossed from the Cirrus that wrecked into those hangars making him an instant internet star, just how bad a fate inconvenience is compared to that.

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Going Direct: The Shortest Reflection on the 9-11 Attacks You’ll Read This Year

Image courtesy of EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

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The weeks following the attacks of 9-11, which killed thousands of innocents on the ground and in the four airliners that were hijacked to use in the attacks, were bleak. I was about 25 miles away from Manhattan when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, and before long people in our town could see the smoke rising on what should have been simply a spectacular blue-skies day in New York.

And the aftermath of the attacks was brutal. A number of kids in our oldest child’s school had parents who worked at the World Trade Center. Not knowing what additional attacks might occur, we rushed to the school to get our kid, to hold them close and be ready to do something, who knew what, if more attacks were to follow. In the aviation world, it was equally bleak. In my logbook I crossed out the entries for each flight I’d have likely taken had it not been for our airspace system being shut down after the attacks. And like every other pilot who first went flying again after the airspace was reopened, it was one of the most bittersweet but liberating moments of my flying life. You could hit us, but you couldn’t stop us. We would rise again, just as new towers have risen in the hallowed ground of those that fell.

Today, 17 years after the attacks, I remember. I will always remember that day. But a deeply ingrained part of those memories will be that day some time after the attacks, when the airspace was open again and me by my self in a Skylane, lifting off from Sikorsky Memorial in Bridgeport, Connecticut, seeing the Long Island Sound below me and as I climbed seeing the skyline of New York and knowing that despite the horror, we would endure.

And we have. While we have struggled with finding a balance between security and individual freedom, that struggle is a part of the American experience and always has been. And the personal liberty that we most love, flying, is one that has come back stronger in our hearts than ever and has a great future, no matter what hits it might have taken and no matter what challenges it might face. Because once you taste the freedom of flight, anything but that freedom just isn’t free enough.

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