Not very happy returns

Beech Sundowner aircraft
Hand starting aircraft engines is a task not to be taken lightly.

A much-anticipated first flying lesson ends badly in this close call, first published in 2012

Name withheld by request

I was 18 years old, and each day I drove past the airport heading to work. From the road you can see the hangars and the aircraft parked on the apron, with at least two or three aircraft flying circuits above. Sometimes I counted up to six aircraft, sometimes more.

My birthday was a few months away. What better present to give myself than flying lessons?

The following weekend I went to the airport, where in those days every second building housed a flying school. For no particular reason I chose a school that used Beechcraft Sundowners–four-seat, low-wing, fixed undercarriage, with a Lycoming 0-360 engine.

The staff were friendly, and after a brief chat, we scheduled a trial instructional flight for the next day. Less than 24 hours later, I was back at the school meeting the instructor who would take me for the flight, and just minutes after I was airborne and heading towards the local training area.

Yes, I thought, this is definitely for me.

In the next few weeks I attended the necessary aviation medical, filled in forms, bought text books and booked my first lesson.

Then the morning arrived.

The weather was calm, blue sky, and a mild temperature for that time of the year. It looked like a great day for flying. I was scheduled for the first lesson of the day and it was the first time that day the aircraft would be used.

I met my instructor and we had a pre-flight briefing. Then it was out to the aircraft, where I was shown how to perform the pre-flight inspection and check the fuel for water. My anticipation and excitement were growing with every passing minute.

Finally we climbed into the aircraft and I sat in the left seat. We made ourselves comfortable, adjusting seats and seatbelts.

My instructor then commenced the start-up procedure, while talking me through it. I sat as an interested observer taking in as much as I could.

Everything was going to plan. My instructor flicked the master switch on and turned the key. I expected the dials to come alive, lights flash and the engine burst into life, but nothing happened. Everything was quiet and the dials were still. No response from the aircraft at all … silence.

‘Dead battery’, said the instructor. My anticipation and excitement evaporated in an instant.

Just as he spoke, another aircraft from the school was taxiing into a parking position close to our aircraft. Its pilot was a student who was about to obtain his PPL. My instructor then said, ‘I will show you how to hand start an aircraft’, and called the other student pilot over. He explained the dead battery situation and his intentions to hand start the aircraft and asked for help to start our disabled aircraft.

I was now an interested spectator with absolutely no idea of what was about to occur.

The student pilot sat in the aircraft and instructor gave him instructions about the start-up procedure.

The instructor stood directly in front of the aircraft, grabbed hold of the propeller blade on his left-hand side and proceeded to turn the propeller several revolutions opposite to its normal direction. He gave more instructions to the student pilot in the aircraft and then, with his right hand, pulled down forcefully on the right propeller blade in the normal direction. The propeller turned and the engine coughed briefly but did not start.

More instructions to the student pilot, and the process was repeated. The instructor performed his previous procedure of turning the propeller in the opposite direction, then grabbing the right-hand blade of the propeller with his right hand and forcefully pulling down on it.

What happened next took place in a split second at high speed.

When the propeller blade was at about four o’clock, the engine spluttered then backfired, and the propeller blade went in the opposite direction to the instructor’s forceful pull. The suddenness and speed of this change of direction caught him completely by surprise and he was still hanging onto the leading edge of the propeller.

His arm extended upwards and he only managed to release his hand when he appeared to be at full stretch.

He was still able to stand, but was pale and slumped over, grabbing at his bleeding right hand with his left one and grimacing in intense pain. In that split second he had suffered deep cuts to four fingers on his right hand.

His right arm was hanging limp and he said he thought that his arm was broken, indicating an area close to the shoulder. Blood was dripping through his fingers onto the tarmac and his pain level appeared to increase. He did remain conscious and was able to make his way to the office some 25 metres away with the assistance of the student pilot. The staff gave him first aid help and an ambulance was called. I stayed with the aircraft until another instructor came over to lock it up.

Needless to say, my lesson and the instructor’s other lessons for that day were cancelled.

This incident certainly did not put me off learning to fly, or off that flying school. My first lesson was rescheduled for the following week with another instructor, who turned out to be the CFI.

I never saw the injured instructor again and the incident wasn’t discussed with me or ever spoken about again.

I have often wondered why the instructor decided to show a brand-new student a complicated, high-risk, dangerous procedure that had claimed many victims. Why didn’t he just ask the LAMEs who shared the school’s hangar to investigate the flat battery?

Fast forward to the present day: had this accident occurred now, I imagine I would have been debriefed, required to fill in incident reports and offered access to counsellors. How times have changed.


  1. Pretty scary story.
    I don’t know the procedure for hand starting a 150 HP Lycoming but I always started my Rotax 447 2 cyl, 2 stroke by hand because it was the only way. I stood behind the prop, and beside the cockpit where I could reach the throttle and ignition switch. It usually took 3 or 4 two based pulls. No brakes or chocks, but with choke and a tiny bit of throttle it would just cough over roughly until I reached in to adjust. If doing any ground testing, I would tie it to a tree.

  2. Reminds me of what happened to me, but I only had a severely bruised hand.
    Our company (In Holland)was asked to do a joyflight in the middle of winter. It was very cold and there was snow on the field.
    Under the cold conditions it was our practice to hand turn the propeller before a battery start. The pilot would sit in the aircraft, holding the key up for me to see that it was safe to proceed. Our aircraft a Cessna 172 was only less than a year old.
    As I was the maintenance engineer who had plenty of experience swinging props , we had a few Austers and aTiger Moth, I didn’t expect any problems. However on my first swing of the prop the engine started, without a key in the switch.
    If you would intentionally try a start like that under those friezing conditions, it would never work. As the engine did not backfire I was hit by the blunt end of the prop and my hand was saved. The problem turned out a fautly ignition switch. Had I had less experience I might have stood closer to the prop. The lesson, never ever stand close to a prop when swinging it.

  3. Given the reversed rotation and the injured instructor, a serious and often-forgotten rule with hand starting really leaps out of the page in the above article.
    Here it is: Only hand start on the impulse magneto – never on “BOTH”.
    The timing of the non-impulse magneto is much further advanced. It is therefore trying to turn the engine backwards while your fingers are wrapped around the sharp trailing edge of the blade.
    A typical key type starter switch takes care of this automatically during normal starting: only the impulse magneto is working when the key is in the START position.

  4. A good story, lots of lessons to be had here. NEVER hand prop an engine (unless that’s the usual method) whilst there are options! The instructor (term used loosely) was very lucky indeed & obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed!
    Many years ago I stopped a young guy from trying to hand prop a hot C210! I actually got out of the jet I was about to start to go have a word wth him! We nearly went fist city he as so angry with me! All the while there where two maint organisations on the airfield, I hope I averted a disaster that day. Utter stupidity!

  5. as a royal air force trained engine mechanic I was taught to grasp the prop with the trialing edge located in the second joint of the hand and to pull the prop by RUNNING to the side of the aicraft, if it started I was well out of the way.

  6. Reminds me of my first lesson. Except it was a tiger moth and swinging the propeller was the only way to start the engine.

  7. I was asked once to help out an elderly engineer as he checked the starter motor on a BN-2B. Gist of it was, I was to sit in the cockpit and activate the starter switch while he tested the (unattached) terminal for voltage. I suppose a moment’s inattention resulted in the probe tip touching the intake manifold, the electrical short somehow blew a hole in said manifold (all i saw was a stream of sparks like an angle grinder) and I suppose ignited whatever mixture may have still been lingering there but whatever went on – the prop rotated and struck the chap square on the forehead… He bled quite a bit and was fairly dazed and confused, but that was the last time I helped out in the hangar…

  8. This story reminds me of a dicky Starter motor in a Piper either Cherokee or Comanche about 1984, I was working at a remote Aboriginal Community 600 Kms west of Alice Springs and the aircraft had been sent out to pick up myself and the Vice President of the Aboriginal Council for a meeting in Alice.

    The day was stinking hot 40 c + we got into the aircraft with the young pilot and he went to start the engine but the starter motor was not throwing out and engaging on the flywheel, no Lame’s lying around out there so the chap says ok I am going to have to hand swing it ( it was a three blade Prop, we all got out he sat me inside the aircraft & then gave me a briefing on what to do when the engine started, When being the operative word!

    This poor guy swung and swung and swung and the motor just didn’t want to start I think the heat wasn’t helping at all it was just way too hot, he swung it from behind the prop standing next to the nose so his throw probably wasn’t as efficient as if he was in front but way safer, eventually the motor caught and fired into life the pilot got inside scrambled over me into the pilots seat and said to me ok grab your mate we are off!

    I turned to where I had last seen Cameron the Vice President and he was gone! I yelled to the pilot it looks like he has gone back to his camp i’ll have to go get him, the pilot said ok but please hurry it’s so hot this thing will overheat if we don’t hurry, I hopped into my Toyota and raced back into the community and sure enough there was Cameron sitting at his fire calmly sipping a cup of tea, i said come on quick we have the plane running we have to go!

    He calmly looks at me and shakes his head no boss i’m not going in dat plane, I say but why not Cameron come on we have to go and its ok it’s running now, he then says to be yeah it’s running now but what if dat motor stops up in the air? that bloke can’t just get out and pul that propellor can he now? (Perfect logic! haha ) I said to him umm ahhh ok yes you have a point there but i promise you Cameron It will not stop trust me otherwise i would get on that plane either.

    To his credit he trusted me and we went and hopped on board and had an uneventful flight into Alice Springs, but its something i still laugh about today when i remember it.

  9. I’m an old timer, now too old to meet the physical requirements but I enjoyed flying as a private pilot for many years.

    In my youth, “propping” the aircraft was routine and a basic skill most new pilots learned early on, but I was not much too young to learn that dangerous skill at the outset of my flying experience.

    My father was an active pilot and instructor for more than 50 years and he was also my instructor.

    I remember my first flight as a passenger when I was only two years old, and a few years later the first time my dad introduced me to the controls. I was to small to reach the rudder pedals when he introduced me to the stick and throttle in a Cub.

    When I was ten years old I could finally reach the pedals and my dad introduced takeoff and landing. I started keeping a log book then.

    In my youth I flew with my dad in various types of light aircraft, all with conventional gear. Right after the war, many of them didn’t have electric starters or two way radios and could only be started manually.

    Dad continued to hand start airplanes occasionally, even as an older man, never having an incident or close call.

    The last time I saw him crank one by hand he was about 70 years old. And that one was a six cylinder fuel injected engine will a three blade propeller.

    Flying has become a very different experience during my lifetime.

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