Sunday, January 04, 2015 1:38 PM | William J. David

Is This Clear?

I started flying, "real," airplanes when I was 16 years old. Before that I flew model airplanes. I credit my father for teaching me how to fly because he got me started flying model airplanes when I was just a small boy. I used to sit in the basement shop for hours just watching him build model airplanes. I was so young if I told you how old I was you would not believe me so lets just say I was young.

First it was small balsa wood hand launched gliders, then gas powered U-control or control line models. I remember hanging on with both hands, arms out stretched, struggling to control a .45 Fox powered stunter. My dad would kneel behind me with his hand around my belt so the screaming machine didn't drag me with it.

later when I was about 12 years old I built my first radio controlled airplane. It was a K&B .45 powered Goldberg Sr. Falcon with a "full house," set of Orbit reeds in it. I doubt but a very few of you know what I am talking about here but if you do a web search you can find out, if you are interested. Little did I realize that all of this model airplane building stuff would prove to be so beneficial when it came time for me to learn how to fly full scale airplanes. I can't say enough good about learning how to build and fly model airplanes. It put me miles ahead of the average student pilot.

You see, I knew from the time I started kindergarten that I was going to learn how to fly when I got old enough. I was too young to figure I would end up doing it for a living, which I'd did. I got a job at Colts Neck airport about 1970 and have worked at airports in one capacity or another ever since. Oh there were a few short stints as a factory worker, a waiter, and a nursing home during school but for the most part it was line boy, mechanic's aid, instructor, right on up the ladder. Honestly, the first flying job I ever applied for was with the majors. Compared to now there where lots of jobs. I always knew somebody that was leaving a job for a better one and would take over for them. In one case I didn't meet my boss until I had already started!

Those days are over with. Airports like Colts Neck are rapidly disappearing from the landscape. Nowadays the chances are a new pilot will attend one of these, "aviation universities," that advertise a fast track to the airlines. The military has cut back too and drones are replacing some of the flying there. I am not making any judgement here but, going from one of these schools to a commuter pilot, and then a job with the majors (if you are lucky) limits one's exposure to the complexity of other forms of flying. Corporate and charter flying expose a pilot to all kinds of experience and perhaps more importantly, mentoring not found in the airlines. I include flight instruction in this too. Chances are a newly minted instructor will work for the same university they graduated from, just like their instructor did, until they get a job at the commuters. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, I'm just saying.

So what I will attempt to do in this article is to shed a little bit of light on how this may be effecting our ability to improve judgement in view of the fact that it has to be taught rather than experienced. The time honored tradition of becoming a line boy or girl is gone. It's probably not even politically correct to use the term line boy or girl. The path through a military flight career has been reduced greatly too. Typing skills for the FMS are replacing stick and rudder skills. Again, I make no judgement on this, the way things are it is inevitable. The vehicle of choice for attempting to teach judgement is senecio based training. Although it is a good way to learn, in my opinion it is no substitute for the actual experience of being in the, "battle" so to speak. Many times the core reasons for doing what we have been taught to do get, "lost in the sauce," so to speak. In today's flying environment whether it is amateur or professional, procedural compliance reigns supreme and will continue to do so as our base of experience shrinks. Here is an example of what I am talking about, something we have all been schooled on, and most probably wrong.

So, where do I start, with the chicken or the egg? I choose egg.

When you hop in your airplane you have been taught to shout, " clear!," or, "clear prop!," about one the tenth of a second before you turn the key or push the button. Is this a question or a statement? Chances are you will say that it is a statement and if you do you are wrong. It is supposed to be a question not a statement. I know, I know, "but my instructor says..." Believe it or not your instructor is wrong. I know because I am an instructor and I make mistakes all the time.

The next response in usually something like, " but everyone else does it too." This is a great position to take. One thing I desperately tried to teach my children was to do what others do before you think (sarcasm). That way you achieve group acceptance and for me that is very important no matter what the activity is. I am being facetious of course.

Everybody has been doing it wrong, like other things in flying and that is the point of this article. We have been doing it wrong because we don't understand the fundamentals in this case, and that includes instructors. Over time the right way has evolved into the wrong way as generation after generation have come and gone. A long time ago when I was a line boy at a small grass strip, I remember my very first job clearly, clean the toilet. There is a story there too but let's stay focused. I learned many other things too, how to tie down an airplane, change the oil, cut the grass, work the unicom, start a cold engine, start a hot engine, all kinds of things that they don't teach at these flight schools. And I was taught by experienced mentors that didn't go to a pilot school either. They all learned from the school of hard knocks. As a sixteen year old kid I was not aware they were trying to keep me from attending any classes at that school. One of the guys that I was around was a fellow by the name of Cecil Cofferin, had his license signed by one of the Wright Brothers! I don't know how old he was but he must have been in his seventies at the time and he was still a very active professional pilot.

One of the jobs I learned was how to hand prop an airplane. This didn't scare me either because I had experience propping all kinds of model airplanes. My boss went over the basics with me, the proper stance ( no pun) the proper grip, stick back, fuel off, and so forth, all of the things that lead to a safe and successful prop job. I also remember reading and discussing the evolution of how to prop an airplane with guys like Cecil.

You see, when airplanes first started showing up in the skies there was no such thing as an electric starter or electric system for that matter. All aircraft needed to be hand propped and all pilots had to know how to hand prop an airplane. It was common place, normal, and routine to do so. This is what an average propping event might have gone like, let's say Bill is the pilot and David is the propper. (Armstrong starter).

Bill: "Hey David, do you mind giving me a prop? (Today we might say, "do you mind flipping me off?")

David: "heck no Bill, I don't mind at all, I would be happy to help you get started."

David walks around to the business end of the airplane and starts giving orders. The propper is in charge of this process, not the pilot. "Switch off?" "Switch off," Bill replies. "Brakes set?", "brakes set," and so on goes the exchange until David is ready to yank on the propeller.

I neglected to tell you that Bill is considered somewhat of a pompous twit around the airport and David was sheathing with joy when he walked around the front of the airplane and discovered Bill left a small steel stand right were it was when he checked the oil. The nose of the airplane completely hid it from Bill's sight and when David was just about to yell "contact on left," he stuck his head out to the side of the cowling and said, " you want me to move this steel stand first Bill...Captain...Captain Bill?"

The folks around the airport loved to hear the story about Bill's screw up but the fact is that because there was somebody out in front to start the airplane the propeller area was automatically made clear by the person that propped the airplane. It wasn't until later when the electrical system came along that things start getting caught in the propeller. I'm sure that a some folks were taken by surprise when somebody hit the starter button in an airplane they were standing very near. I bet some airport dogs learned not to sleep near them too. There were probably a few cases where somebody was struck by a prop when the button was mashed but by far and away it was ladders, stands, and tow bars that bore the brunt of the negligence.

This of course would take it's toll on the airplane damaging not only the propeller but, fabric and sheet metal as we'll. It wasn't too long before they came up with a system, the system that I was taught so many years ago. If a pilot was about to start the engine, he or she was to yell to the mechanic or pilot closest to them, "clear?" Notice the question mark? That is because they were asking a qualified person if the propeller arc was clear when they yelled out, "clear!" The second part of the procedure required that a knowledgeable person in the vicinity of the airplane would survey the situation, make sure there was no dog, stool, or civilian standing in the way and would reply, "clear," a response to the question of, clear? meaning it was safe to hit the starter button at that time.

That my friend is in fact how it is supposed to be done but that is not how you were taught and that is not what you do. The proper procedure has been replaced with a shout of "clear," with the simultaneous pressing of the starter button. No external replies from a qualified observer are offered even though there may be plenty of them around. This is because nobody knows they are supposed to respond with, "clear," if nothing is in the propeller arc. The procedure was taught to you wrong but, you are complying with the procedure you were taught. "Procedural compliance," right?

If you think about it, you and I know what clear means but do you think a person that has never been to the airport knows what it means? Does a child know what it means? I think something like, "get out of the way, I'm going to start the engine!," might be the better thing to yell, and then give them more than a second to respond. Of course a stool can't respond and I'm sure most dogs can't either.

The wrong way has become the right way, it is the new normal and starting the engine is only a small part of the way things have become "different," with flying.

While we are on the subject of hand propping, I doubt that you have ever hand propped and airplane but, I am sure you will tell me that it is dangerous if I asked you. Even though you have never propped one you are sure that it is dangerous because your instructor told you or you read about it in some book somewhere. Let me let you in on a little secret, flying is dangerous. If you don't believe me ask John and Martha king. I could fill a big room with pilots that I know that are dead. Do a web search and see how dangerous the job of pilot is. Compare that to policeman or fireman.

In all my years around flying and airports I cannot recall anyone getting hurt while propping an airplane. I read about some guy in a Cherokee that was killed when he propped his airplane after it quit taxiing out for departure but like most, "news," they left most of the details open for speculation. The fact is most people that have been injured or killed by a propeller strike had nothing to do with starting the engine. They simply walked into a propeller that was started with an electric starter. Sometimes the airplane gets away after it is hand propped but the lion's share of "propping accidents," have nothing to do with getting caught in the propeller. They have all to do with what happens after the motor is running, even though more often that not it was started by an electric starter. Am I saying propping is safe? Just like shooting an instrument approach to minimums it can be, if you know what your doing, and you do it right. Never confuse those two elements, the latter being the most important of course.

An interesting observation I have made is that when I am teaching an experienced pilot the proper (get it?) procedure for propping, they invariably yell, "clear," before they yank the prop through. What's up with that? Procedural compliance perhaps? That's what I'm talking about.

Another aspect that goes along with this story is the way that pilots will defend the way they have been doing it wrong all these years. I think this stems from a group mentality and I think this is because the basis of their experience is very limited compared to what it used to be. The only anchor to their knowledge is what they have been taught. I find this in the cockpit all the time and I am not passing judgement on it, or at least trying not to, it is just the way it is and will continue to be however, some things are bound to get mixed up on the way and starting an engine is just one small example of how that is taking place, clearly.


  • Wednesday, January 07, 2015 8:40 AM | Joseph Deaton (Administrator)
    Fun article Billy! It reminded me of a funny day at the airport.
    I was walking out of the FBO one sunny day and I notice 4 people climbing aboard a Cherokee. I can't remember how I knew this, or if I did, but I think pilot was fairly new and was taking some friends for a ride.
    I watched with amusement as everyone climbed into the airplane, buckled in, the pilot making adjustments, turning knobs and flipping switches. With passengers fully impressed by his cockpit prowess, they we all set to blast off!
    Then the pilot noticed me, walking straight towards him with my finger in the air. (no, not that one...the one that says "hold on a minute). As I approached I could see the look on his face. It was that "What the #%&@! does this guy want" face. As I walked up the pilot, who for the moment had a very cross look on his face, opened up the little Cherokee window. As I took the chocks away from the nose wheel I said, "hold on, I'll get those for you".
    He must have been a nice guy. As his passengers were cracking up, he just smiled and said thank you. He probably realized I had saved him from an even more embarrassing situation.
    This kind of thing happens to us all at one time or another. The best we can do is try to minimize the mistakes and hope they don't have serious consequences.
    By the way, I plagiarized that "let me get that for you" comment from some smart a-- flight instructor named Bill. (last name withheld) At that moment I learned why he derives so much enjoyment out of using it!
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  • Wednesday, January 07, 2015 1:42 PM | Tom Park
    And if you don't think people have tried to start their airplanes with the tow bar still attached......

    Well.. I can show you many a paid insurance claim (big ones) that indicates otherwise...


    Your Friendly Insurance Professional
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  • Wednesday, January 07, 2015 2:27 PM | Ryan Weaver
    I have a fond memory of my father teaching my mother how to hand prop our Taylorcraft. I realized at a young age that spouses teaching spouses how to do anything is not the ideal teacher -- student relationship. For some reason, mother felt the need to push the prop hub multiple times to make sure the brakes were, in fact, on. Hand propping does make for an interesting trust exercise.

    Around that same time, I think I was around 7 or 8 years old, I grew up a bit. That was the first time that my father put me in the cockpit to hold the brakes, NOT push the big white knob in, and turn the key all the way to the left if something bad happened. It never did and I took holding those brakes very seriously. I can still remember bracing my back against the front of the seat and digging into those heel brakes like the world depended on it. My world did depend on it.

    It wasn't until I was 16 that I made it to the prop. I was a tiny, tiny 16 year old. That 85hp continental on that Aeronca had about as much compression strength as I had. My biggest worry was not being chewed up by the propeller, it was facing the chuckles in the cockpit after I failed to turn the engine over. The proper technique for getting all of my strength into that propeller without then falling down (which I also did once) became very important. Since then, I have to be mindful of my desire to prove myself. Part of me can't wait for the day that I can come to the rescue hand propping some huge plane full of people with a gigantic engine and propeller with a very dead battery -- a very bad idea so I have been told.

    Why am I sharing all this? Can someone else learn from it? I don't know. Maybe I'm just in that generation that feels the need to talk about themselves on the internet.

    I did get to hand prop a Fokker DVII once. That was pretty cool!
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  • Wednesday, January 14, 2015 2:12 PM | Anonymous
    The last paragraph in this article is something I have become particularly cognizant of. It applies to everything and airplanes are certainly no exception. I can think of countless instances where a person stated something to me as a fact or even just as a passing comment and it was then placed in my mind as fact. The next person could come along (with equal credentials to the first) and tell me a statement contradicting that which the first person told me and I will almost always assume the latter person is the one in the wrong. I might question the first person but it will take an unreasonable amount of solid evidence, research, etc. for me to replace the notion the first person gave me. Even if the incorrect notion has been replaced in time I may forget this and revert back.

    This is particularly risky when I have little knowledge of the subject or it isn't something at the time that is of particular concern to me so I never really make an effort to question it. The more I become aware of this I'll look back and think "why did I ever really believe that in the first place". It was simply a first impression. It is particularly effective when time cements this incorrect impression.

    I could go on and on listing examples of this and It don't think I'm special or especially stupid enough that this only applies to me. Think about how many times you have had to explain to a person that an airplane won't just fall out of the sky if it were to lose engine power. Usually they explain to you how "you better hope your engine doesn't die" (in a tone expressing there superior intelligence and reasoning skill for not subjecting themselves to such an obvious risk and certain demise). Who knows where they get this notion but it certainly wasn't from a qualified person and, despite the fact that you have a piece of plastic proving your firsthand experience in this area, it generally takes a lot of convincing for them to believe otherwise.

    The point is it isn't just pilots that do this and it isn't just from information told by instructors. We all fall prey to believing unreliable information and we all fall prey to doling out unreliable information, not recognizing how people may take it.
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  • Thursday, January 15, 2015 9:58 PM | Deleted user
    Oh boy! I wish I had a dollar for each time a reluctant motor failed to pop on first flip..........
    Of course these were small 'diesel' engines on my models but they could really bite! Back in the good ol' UK I made my own fuel - a 30/30/30 + magic blend of kerosene, castor oil, and ether, Yes friends, ether! and anytime I get a sniff of starting fluid from Autozone I'm right back in the meadow with me pals flip/flip/flippin' those buggers 'til I had blood on the props. It wasn't all fun though. Sometimes they'd start and off the plane would go - never to seen again! Yup - forgot to turn on the timer - AGAIN!!!

    Ah - reminiscing. The delight of the retired.

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