Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hand Props and Slow Flight

1/6/2010 C-150 N4655X GIF-GIF
4 Basics, stalls, traffic pattern entry, landing, practice approach.
2 landings. 1.3 hours.
Grand Total: 19.5 hours

Today was my third flight and second lesson with my flight instructor Brian. It is also my first flight of 2010, and another first for me: I got to see how to hand-prop an airplane.

Hand propping was more commonplace in the old-timey days, when the pilot would sit in the cockpit and turn the mags on while a crewman manually pulled the propeller through an arc in the hopes of starting it. With the exception of a very few very old airplanes still flying, hand-propping is uncommon these days. I never thought I would see it, until...

...I had preflighted the airplane. It was a cool morning for Florida with temps maybe in the high 40's. I was layered up good but a breeze was cutting across the airfield and I was fairly chilly. The plane looked ok: oil was good, plenty of gas, no major parts loose or missing, and despite a couple of missing screws on the epmennage, the vast bulk of the screws were still in place. "As long as most of 'em are in you're good to go" was the word from my CFI*.

We got into the plane, went through the startup procedure. Beacon lights on, master switch on, propeller area clear, turn the key. The engine whined, coughed, and ground the prop around once or twice before sighing and quitting. I pulled the key back and asked my instructor if I was missing something. He primed the engine, we re-tried, and still nothing. A few more tries while fiddling with the throttle and the primer led to nothing. "I'll go back and get a guy, and we'll hand-prop it," he said.

We left the plane and walked to the maintenance hangar to find a mechanic. A younger, gruffer mechanic came with us to the plane, complaining in a good-natured way that all of the planes needed a hand-prop in this cold weather. "First start of the day, every single plane, every single morning! All the batteries are frozen up. I can't wait until the heat gets back."

Hand-propping is dangerous. People have lost arms or died. You're grabbing and yanking on a large spinning blade driven by a large beastly engine that is designed to pull a ton of metal into the sky. The pilot turns the key and primes the engine while the mechanic grabs and pulls down on the propeller. Eventually, in theory, the pulling of the prop will act like the starter motor and bring the engine to life. I was lucky enough to be in the cockpit with my instructor, and I made darn sure that the brakes were locked before the mechanic pulled the prop through.

The first few pulls gave us nothing, but number four brought the engine to life. I roared alive and the mechanic ran back, pumping his arms in the air in the sign of victory, before the engine quit on us suddenly. "Awww, MAN! You killed it!" he said.

We repeated this sketch many times before the engine caught. Once it was fired up and running, we revved it a few times and watched it to make sure it wouldn't quit on us. As it warmed up it seemed to work better, and we began our taxi to the active runway.

Taxiing went a lot better this time around. Brian told me that instead of leaving no pressure on the rudder and then stomping it to go where I wanted, I needed to apply even pressure to both pedals and use differential braking to swing the plane around. It worked much better and the only issue was a wind pushing us to the right.

The engine runup was smooth. No problems detected, thankfully, so we taxiied to the runway and departed. Takeoff was smoother than before, and we flew North to practice some maneuvers. We practiced steep turns to a heading, and I was surprised by the difference in sight-picture between left and right turns. Right turns are harder to coordinate, at least for me, and maintaining an altitude while turning can be tricky to the novice like me. Brian mentioned that we would continue to work on those right turns but also told me I was doing well, which was nice to hear.

This entry is plenty long enough for now. Tomorrow: stalls, slow flight, and my experiences in the traffic pattern!

*This is consistent with what I've been told by other CFI's before.

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