Hand Prop Mishap: I Was Careful But it Still Happened to Me

Before today, I never knew anyone personally who had an airplane get away from them while hand propping. I knew of the reports where loss of aircraft or life resulted, so I always had a plan A, B, and C if I was ever faced with such an event. I always made sure I took proper precautions in securing my aircraft and where to position myself when hand propping. I was convinced I had the safety aspect in place, and if for some reason that failed, then I knew I could access the mags and quickly shut down the engine and avert becoming a statistic. Boy, was I fooling myself. I wouldn’t exactly call it complacency, but it was more akin to not listening to my gut.

A quick little background on myself and then I’ll fill you in on my story. I’m in my low 40s, strong, in good shape, and I’ve been hand propping regularly for the last 17 years. I have more than 10,000 hours and people come to me for advice. Wow, I’ve got skills and I can do or fix anything! If anything happens, I AM the person that can save the day! I’m such a good pilot! I don’t know how anyone can have any ground handling issues; they must really lack something that I inherently have — right? Ok, so I really don’t think or act that way but I must admit, I really did think that if something happened, I could handle it and it would be a nonissue. On a side note, whenever anyone says, “I sure saved the day! There I was, flat on my back and if it wasn’t for what I did, bad things would have happened!” Be sure to ask that person who tells those stories to back the story up 30 minutes, and you more than likely find the links in the error chain that led up to the event, and more than likely it had to do with their own decision-making.

On to my story. Finally a nice winter Midwest flying day! We haven’t had the snowfall as in previous years, so I opted for bush wheels instead of skis. We just had a small snowfall, enough that the plow trucks had to come out a few days prior and plow the taxiways, creating a small berm (maybe 8 inches) along the taxiways. I plowed my hangar and the snow pile was about 6 feet high. The sun was shining, winds were light, and it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect! I pushed my airplane out and positioned my truck to be used as an anchor point to tie down my tail. I like to use the ratchet ropes that have a locking pulley on one end and a hook tied on the other end. I looked in my truck and saw the two I had. Out of the two I had in my truck bed, I chose to use the smaller hooked one because it felt like it hooked onto the tail wheel fork better. I thought, “This will do, it hasn’t failed me yet!” Not that I have ever actually tested it under these conditions. 

That was poor decision No. 1. 

Next, I grabbed my wheel chocks, good enough for my 6.00 x 6 tires in the past, and I knew my bush wheels would be able to jump them but I hadn’t seen the need for bigger chocks since, well, I tie the tail down so why bother. 

Poor decision No. 2. 

After priming and swinging the blades through, I selected “both” on the mags and cracked the throttle. Since it was cold, I left my gloves on. The gloves inhibited feeling the “sweet spot” that I have come so use to feeling with bare fingers. 

Poor decision No. 3. 

I walked around to the front of the airplane and gave it a big tug and was confident it was secured in place. I then walked around to the back of the propeller on the right side, looked at the right-hand door, and thought, “I should pop that open if I need to access the throttle or mags in a hurry … nah, she’ll be alright.” 

Poor decision No. 4. 

Ready to go, I had my left foot in front of the right-hand tire and facing the cowl. I flipped the prop. She lit instantly, and the tail came up in the air, and I let out an, “OH, S***!” I was in front of the strut and reached back to unlatch the door handle, and I started to move behind the strut to reach in and kill the engine. My trusty rope was saving the day! Yay for me! I then felt instant movement and my right foot was run over by the bush wheel. The aircraft forward movement was much quicker than I ever would have expected, and I was instantly hanging onto the strut and running to keep up with it. 

The aircraft started a gentle right turn and came against the 8-inch berm the snowplow had left a few days earlier. It was enough to slow the aircraft and brought the tail down enough for me to reach inside the door. My hand went for the throttle — the only thing I could hope to reach in the moment — and then the mighty bush wheels did their job, easily traversing larger-than-normal obstacles. I then felt my body lose its position while the aircraft pulled away from me. My fingertips caressed the side of the throttle as they and me were pulled away from the cockpit and down to snowy mother earth. The aircraft tail back in the air, I’m now being dragged on my back and holding onto the strut to keep me from becoming detached from the plane I love so much. 

At this point time kind of compresses and you have a lot of time to think. I tried to pull myself up and climb into the cockpit — that attempt was futile and unless you try and pull yourself up while being pulled, you have no idea how hard that is without being a Hollywood stunt person. That wasn’t going to work and I knew if I let go, the aircraft was going to be totaled. Hanging on and trying a different tactic was my next move. Maybe if I could swing myself around to face forward, I could shimmy in that way. Nope, that didn’t work either — I couldn’t get myself forward. I decided to dig my heels in as much as possible. That didn’t slow it down either! As luck would have it, the wheels went into a little deeper snow and the tail came down and I was able to position myself forward and dig my heels in a tiny bit. That’s when I noticed my course. The little airplane did a complete 180 and was pointed back at my truck and the big snow pile I had created two days prior. Visions of imminent destruction flashed through my head but I was still going to fight as much as I possibly could. 

As I was feeling quite helpless, the aircraft suddenly came to a stop. Not by anything I did, but by the sheer luck that the momentum was slightly slower due to that slightly deeper snow that brought the tail down and the snow berm left by the plow truck included a 10-inch frozen sod ball directly in line with one of the tires. All these factors gave me the crucial seconds that allowed me to spring up into the door opening and shut off the mags. Not a scratch was on my aircraft, and I was just left with a cold butt and sore shoulder. Wow! Did I luck out or what? Oh, and why did the rope let go in the first place? Well, it was more of a nylon rope and it slipped its knot. If I had a ratchet on both ends, tied a better knot like I learned in Scouts, or chose to use both ropes, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. 

As I look back, I can see the errors in my decision-making and hubris. You can make your own decisions about where I screwed up and you are probably right. I do feel the one smart thing I did was stand behind the prop while hand propping. I’m not sure if I would have been at risk of being struck by the propeller, but being behind it enabled me to be in a better position on the strut where I could eventually get to the cockpit. 

I’ve shared this story with a handful of experienced pilots, and to my surprise, every single one has either had a similar experience or has witnessed this happen firsthand. It’s not something we like to talk about, that’s for sure. The reason I’m writing this though is not for a pat on the back, sympathy, or whatever, but to make you think. What would you do? Do you think you can handle any situation with ease? Do you listen to your gut? Maybe it’s time we all do a little self-reflection and make 2020 the year we change and take that one or two extra steps to ensure a safer operating environment. Fly safe and hand prop safer!

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