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#126 The Deadly Propeller

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How often have you heard that old wheeze, “Familiarity breeds contempt”?  It’s a good one.  It warns us against the dangers of complacency.  There used to be one giant sign on the wall of the huge hangar at the Coast Guard Air Station in San Francisco.  The sign must have been 100 feet long.  It warned, “COMPLACENCY KILLS”.  It’s sure true.

Learning to Prop
Hand-propping is a perfectly safe operation when done properly.

That propeller which graces the front end of most of our aircraft is perhaps the greatest danger that we wield, sometimes unknowingly.  Coupled with our own complacency, it is doubly deadly.

I’m sure that virtually all of us have heard the story of Lauren Scruggs. Here’s a link to an interview with her. The young woman was given a ride in what appeared to be a Husky.  The purpose of the flight was to look at Christmas lights in the Dallas, Texas area.  Upon their return, Ms Scruggs got out of the airplane.  Evidently, the pilot was momentarily concerned that she might approach the prop and he held her back.  Then, satisfied that she was safely clear or at least aware of the propeller, he turned his attention to his next rider.  The fact that he had an additional rider is evidently the reason that he did not stop his engine.

While the pilot was distracted, Lauren Scruggs walked into that propeller.  Her injuries were nearly fatal.  She lost an eye, had severe head injuries and the loss of limbs.

Let’s not let the suffering of this young woman or the agony her pilot must still feel go wasted.  Let’s learn from it.  And whatever you do, don’t for a minute automatically assume that you would never make such a mistake.

A lot of fliers will blame the pilot.  I don’t.  Could he have prevented this accident?  Perhaps.  But one thing is sure:  You and I can more easily prevent his misfortune from befalling us!  How can we prevent prop/people strikes?  Naturally, shutting down the engine when people are either embarking, disembarking or simply near the airplane is certainly one possibility.  Perhaps having a series of riders is not a good enough reason to leave an engine running.  That’s a decision every pilot will have to make.  As a former ride-hopper, I can certainly understand the quandary in which this can put us. Perhaps the lesson of that accident in Texas will affect some of our decisions.

A passenger briefing is another measure we can take, but it is not nearly as effective.  Many airmen have a rule about keeping people clear of the prop.  Sometimes it’s to stay behind a strut; sometimes to keep a hand on a leading edge (that one’s not too effective).

Vigilance is a good idea.  The thinking is that if you are watching people outside the aircraft, you can be prepared to shut down if they approach the prop.  That one often fails to pass the test of time.  It simply takes too long for an engine to be stopped just by turning off the mags (forget about the mixture… too slow).

I’ve often stated that “if you don’t get in the arc of a prop, you can’t get hit by a prop”.  That is true.  What is also true is that a prop that is not turning will not present a major danger to anyone.  I’m afraid that’s the bottom line.  Perhaps we simply need to shut ‘em down.  Those with starterless engines may have someone who can prop them AND serve as a ramp escort, keeping strangers to aviation clear of that whirling prop.

One of my readers once criticized me and some of my associates for certain pictures that featured pilots posed with a hand on a prop.  Admittedly, they were in the arc.  But when’s the last time an engine spontaneously started and smacked someone?  Such pics don’t really present a real hazard.

I teach most of my students how to hand-prop an airplane.  Symbolically, this operation would be fraught with hazard if we didn’t do it intelligently and while exercising a few cautionary rules.

We’ll all have to decide for ourselves how to handle this deadly danger we fly behind.  I’m convinced that, no matter what measures you take, you’ll be more successful at keeping others safe by simply not falling victim to complacency.