Hand propping: A legal primer

There is no specific FAA regulation that applies to hand propping an airplane, either to prohibit it or to direct how it is to be done. It’s an action that can be accomplished safely. For many of us who operate airplanes without starters, it is commonplace and, of course, necessary in order to go flying. 

The FAA contends that hand propping is a two-person operation and has expressed this view in the Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3A) under the section titled “Hand propping.” Of course, this publication is not regulatory, but the NTSB was surely influenced by it in a 1983 legal decision. In that case, the FAA sought to suspend a pilot’s certificate for being careless or reckless when, while attempting to start a VariEze experimental aircraft, it “got away” and ran into a parked aircraft. At the initial hearing, the NTSB administrative law judge ruled in favor of the FAA and ordered a 40-day suspension. The pilot appealed the judge’s decision to the full board. 

The pilot testified that he was having trouble starting the engine because it was flooded. He sought the assistance of a nonpilot companion who was instructed to reach inside the cockpit and pull the throttle back when the engine started (yes, the throttle was in the full open position). Well, the engine started, the companion failed to close the throttle and the airplane indeed “got away.” The board affirmed the administrative law judge’s finding that there had been a 91.10 (now 91.13) violation. The board maintained that, “The standard procedures set forth in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Training Handbook provide that an engine should never be hand-propped unless a qualified individual is seated at the controls and the brake is set. In addition, the Handbook urges that chocks be placed in front of the main wheels and that if this is not possible, the airplane’s tail should be securely tied down.”   

There have been at least two previously issued NTSB (full board) decisions and one subsequent decision that refer to these generally accepted procedures and precautions for hand propping. The precedent has been set. So, hand proppers beware; if you fail to follow proper precautions and the airplane gets away, the FAA might pursue action against you for being careless or reckless.

Topics: Pilot Protection Services, AOPA Products and Services

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