Unusual Attitudes: Propellers, Tattoos and Rope Tricks

A DC-3 is easier to hand-prop than you might guess.

How my confreres come up with ideas for their columns I have no idea, but the process is probably more studied and logical than mine. This may seem oblique, but I've been thinking about propellers since recently deciding it was time to quit talking and take action. So I presented myself at ­"Mother's," a tattoo emporium in Covington, Kentucky, where a nice guy named Brett etched little wings just below my waistline in back (known in some circles, I believe, as a "tramp stamp"). They looked great but we agreed the design lacked something. After three minutes of exhaustive thought and consultation, Brett added a propeller, and now, yes, it's perfect. I'd show you but I don't think the magazine would publish the picture.

Note: I totally understand if you stop reading this right now because, well, maybe you only fly jets or maybe you disapprove of girls with tattoos … as does my family.

Then, within a few days of that seminal event, I retested a private pilot applicant who had an interesting propeller story. I'd sent him home (which was some distance away) twice before, with problems first on the oral and then with the flight portion. In frustration his instructor "re-re-recommended" him to another DPE (designated pilot examiner) for the retest. Well, this didn't have a happy ending either; the day wore on and the examiner, late with another applicant, told him he'd have to reschedule. But then, oddly, he started quizzing him — sort of an "unofficial" oral — and charged a couple hundred bucks to boot.

He asked him what he'd do if the battery was dead on his PA-28-180 Archer when he was trying to depart an unattended airport at night. The applicant said he'd call for help — maybe he could rouse somebody to come out with a power cart or find a mechanic. If that didn't work he had supposed he'd spend the night at a motel or even in the airplane. The examiner, he said, was unhappy with this response and gave him hell for not knowing how to hand-prop his Archer.

He was back to me for the "re-re-retest" (this time successful) but I was surprised … no, I was appalled when I heard the story. I'm not seen as being overly cautious, but I think hand-propping tricycle-gear airplanes with relatively high compression engines (from Cessna 152s on up) is asking for trouble. OK, we all know people who've hand-propped their airplanes, but there's a reason it's called "The Ernest Hemingway Maneuver" — one slip and its "farewell to arms." The propeller is close to the ground and its plane of rotation requires that you lean down and forward into the engine to turn it. And the strength necessary to effectively turn the prop is far greater than with a C-65 or C-85 on something like a Cub that sits higher and is angled upward. Anyway, chances are you haven't propped an airplane in recent history — if ever.

Shame on any examiner — supposedly an expert in "risk management" — for that kind of advice.

When I worked in Indianapolis, I responded to an accident that happened late on a spring afternoon in northern Indiana. Two brothers, one flying a Mooney and the other a Cessna 182, made a fuel stop at Lafayette on a flight from the East Coast to Colorado to go skiing. Each had a nonpilot girlfriend on board, and after they "drained their sumps," filled the fuel tanks and had lunch, the Mooney driver immediately got into the air. But when the brother climbed into his 182 and turned on the master switch, he got only a "click" when he turned the ignition key to "start."

Many tries later he muttered, "Flat spot on the starter" (not correct but a hang-up that's sometimes fixable by "tickling" the starter motor inside with the key ignition). He got out of the airplane with nonpilot, clueless girlfriend in the right seat and turned the prop by hand. One blade and the engine roared to life at a rather robust throttle setting, and before he could get inside, the 182 was charging across the ramp with (soon-to-be-ex) girlfriend inside — terrified, hysterical and sure she was going to die.

Well, she nearly did. The airplane, headed directly for a row of three T hangars, fortunately embedded itself inside the middle one. "Fortunately" because, while the center T hangar was empty, the bays on either side were occupied by airport fuel trucks. So the Cessna and the middle hangar were pretty much history, but since it impacted and stopped straight ahead, the cockpit stayed miraculously intact. There was no explosion or fire and the (about-to-be-ex) girlfriend was fine … or, at least she wasn't hurt … well, at least not physically.

Within the past several years I've seen two friends, both working on ­airplanes inside their hangars, surprised by unplanned engine starts. One, a doctor, nearly lost his arm; the other lost his life. One failed to ground the magneto he'd installed and the other inadvertently left the ignition switch "on." In each case they moved the prop to squeeze by and the engine fired. Those tragedies — so close to home — made me realize, "There but for the grace of God … ." So now I quickly turn the mag switch "off" and back "on" at idle before shutdown to ensure the mags are grounded, and I have beaten myself into submission about taking the ignition key out of the lock and hanging it somewhere.

Propping a big, old piston airplane like a DC-3 may sound crazy, but it's easier and safer than propping an Archer. Here's a tale that's told by one of my all-time favorite DC-3 drivers, Kevin Uppstrom.

"Maybe I made this whole thing up because it's not in my logbook," he said, "but on the off-chance it happened …

"It was a dark and stormy night. … No, wait. … It was a gorgeous Saturday morning in the '80s, and we'd made a short run in the DC-3 from Hamilton, Ohio, to automotive mecca Detroit City Airport. On the return, I toggled the right engine start switch, but instead of the comforting clatter of an R-1830 coming to life there was deafening silence. I toggled half a dozen times more with increasing rapidity in hopes it would cure itself but finally accepted the reality that this starter was 'tango-uniform.' So I called back to the home planet for a rescue ship.

"Bill Hogan answered the phone and suggested a couple of the usual tricks, which I'd already tried. If only this had been one of the early Hogan '3's with original hand-crank inertial starters. If the electric starter would fail, the bigger, stronger crew member — more often, both — would get outside and, with brute force, laboriously turn the crank. When the flywheel finally reached the right whining pitch, one would scamper into the cockpit and signal to the guy on the ground to pull the handle that engaged the starter. It was incumbent upon the pilot inside to catch it on the first start since the cranker's enthusiasm tended to wane

"Bill said, 'Well, what you need is to get yourself a length of rope.'

"Now, it has been my experience that nothing good ever came from 'get yourself a length of rope,' but I let him continue. The longer he described a process of winding rope around the propeller dome and attaching the other end to a truck, the more I resisted. Finally he gave in and said he'd be up in a couple of hours. I hung up, congratulating myself on my persuasive abilities, and settled down for pop, peanut butter crackers and maybe a nap until the cavalry arrived.

"Bill pulled up on the ramp in a Bonanza stuffed with a starter, tools and — you guessed it — a length of rope. Before uncowling the engine he wanted to try the rope trick — easier in this case since it was the right engine and the rope could be pulled without the fuselage being in the way. Despite my skepticism I did as instructed and got the engine good and primed with the mags switched 'on.' Bill had tied the rope securely to the van and pulled away until it was just taut. Then he accelerated to a fast walk, the prop turned, and that big old Pratt lit off as advertised. He gave me one of those 'punk kid' looks but I pretended to be busy and avoided eye contact.

"I also maybe remember a truly dark and stormy night in Charlotte, North Carolina, when we had to shut down just before departing because the weather went below takeoff minimums," Kevin continued. "Fifteen minutes later the tower said it was back up, but there was no joy when we tried to start the right engine. So Bruce McSwiggan (who grew up playing with round engines) hopped out and, when I had the engine good and juicy and the mags hot, hand-propped it. It fired off with one pull."

Kevin, who nowadays flies very large jets all over the world, insists he misses "those good old days."

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Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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