Engine Starting

Airplane engines vary substantially and specific procedures for engine starting should be accomplished in reference to the approved engine start checklist as detailed in the airplane’s AFM/POH. However, some generally accepted hazard mitigation practices and procedures are outlined in this section.

Prior to engine start, the pilot needs to ensure that the ramp area surrounding the airplane is clear of persons, equipment, and other hazards that could come into contact with the airplane or the propeller. Also, the pilot should check what is behind the airplane prior to engine start as standard practice. A propeller or other engine thrust can accelerate objects to substantial velocities, causing damage to property, and injuring those on the ground. The pilot should mitigate the hazard of debris being blown into persons or property. At all times before engine start, the anti-collision lights should be turned on. For night operations, the position (navigation) lights should also be on. Finally, just prior to starter engagement, the pilot should always call “CLEAR” out of the side window and wait for a response from anyone who may be nearby before engaging the starter.

When activating the starter, the wheel brakes need to be depressed and one hand kept on the throttle to manage the initial starting engine speed. Ensuring that properly operating brakes are engaged prior to starter engagement prevents the airplane from rapidly lunging forward. After engine start, the pilot manipulates the throttle to set the engine revolutions per minute (rpm) to the AFM/POHprescribed setting. In general, 1,000 rpm is recommended following engine start to allow oil pressure to rise and to minimize undue engine wear due to insufficient lubrication at high rpm. It is important to service an airplane engine with the proper grade of oil for the seasonal conditions and to apply engine preheat when temperatures approach and descend below freezing.

The oil pressure should be monitored after engine start to ensure that pressure is increasing toward the AFM/POH-specified value. The AFM/POH specifies an oil pressure range for the engine. If the limits are not reached and maintained, serious internal engine damage is likely. In most conditions, oil pressure should rise to at least the lower limit within 30 seconds. To prevent damage, the engine should be shut down immediately if the oil pressure does not rise to the AFM/POH values within the required time.

Engine starters are electric motors designed to produce rapid rotation of the engine crankshaft for starting. These electric motors are not designed for continuous duty. Their service life may be drastically shortened during a prolonged or difficult start as an excess buildup of heat can damage internal starter components. Avoid continuous starter operation for periods longer than 30 seconds without a cool down period of at least 30 seconds to 1 minute (some AFM/POH specify longer cool down routines). The smell of burning insulation from a starter may indicate that the recommended cranking time has been exceeded. After repeated unsuccessful start attempts, the pilot should seek advice from a qualified person to determine the cause for the difficulty.

Although quite rare, the starter motor may remain electrically and mechanically engaged after engine start. This can be detected by a continuous and very high current draw on the ammeter. Some airplanes also have a starter engaged warning light specifically for this purpose. The engine should be shut down immediately if this occurs.

The pilot should be attentive for sounds, vibrations, smells, or smoke that are not consistent with normal after-start operational experience. Any concerns should lead to a shutdown and further investigation.

Hand Propping

The procedures for hand propping should always be in accordance with the AFM/POH and performed only by persons who are competent with hand propping procedures. The consequences of the hazards associated with hand propping are serious to fatal.

Historically, when aircraft lacked electrical systems, it was necessary for pilots and ground personnel to “hand prop” an aircraft for starting. Today, most airplanes are equipped with electric starters, and the starter should be working if the airplane is airworthy. If not, a certificated Aviation Maintenance Technician should be called to make a repair. However, vintage airplanes may be encountered, and an airplane manufactured without an electric starter needs to be hand propped. Since a number of these airplanes have been produced, the procedures for hand propping are described in this section.

A few simple precautions help to avoid accidents when hand propping the engine. While touching a propeller, always assume that the ignition is on. The switches that control the magnetos operate on the principle of short-circuiting the current to turn the ignition off. If the switch is faulty, it can be in the “off” position and still permit current to flow in the magneto primary circuit. This condition could allow the engine to start when the switch is off.

Hand propping an aircraft is a hazardous procedure when done perfectly. Not mitigating the hazards associated with hand propping can lead to serious injury and a runaway airplane. A spinning propeller can be lethal should it strike someone. Persons not trained, not competent, or who do not understand how to mitigate the hazards associated with hand propping should never perform this procedure!

Hand propping requires a team of two properly trained people. Both individuals should be familiar with the airplane and hand propping techniques. The first person is responsible for directing the procedure including pulling the propeller blades through. The second person sits in the airplane to ensure that the brakes are set and to exercise controls as directed by the person pulling the propeller. When hand propping occurs, a person unfamiliar with the controls should never occupy the pilot’s seat.

When hand propping is necessary, the ground surface near the propeller should be stable and free of debris. Loose gravel, wet grass, grease, mud, oil, ice, or snow might cause the person pulling the propeller through to slip into the rotating blades as the engine starts. Unless a firm footing is available, relocate the airplane to mitigate this hazardous consequence.

Both participants should discuss the procedure and agree on voice commands and expected actions. To begin the procedure, the fuel system and engine controls (tank selector, primer, pump, throttle, and mixture) are set for normal start. The ignition/magneto switch should be checked to be sure that it is OFF. Then, the descending propeller blade should be rotated so that it assumes a position slightly above the horizontal. The person doing the hand propping should face the descending blade squarely and stand slightly less than one arm’s length from the blade. If a stance too far away were assumed, it would be necessary to lean forward in an unbalanced condition to reach the blade, which may cause the person to fall forward into the rotating blades when the engine starts. Allowing space for the person to be able to step away as the propeller is pulled down, and the engine starts, serves as safeguard in case the brakes fail.

The procedure and commands for hand propping are:

  • Person out front says, “FUEL ON, SWITCH OFF, THROTTLE CLOSED, BRAKES SET.”
  • Pilot seat occupant, after making sure the fuel is ON, mixture is RICH, magneto switch is OFF, throttle is CLOSED, and brakes are SET, says, “FUEL ON, SWITCH OFF, THROTTLE CLOSED, BRAKES SET.”
  • Person out front, after pulling the propeller through to prime the engine says, “BRAKES AND CONTACT.”
  • Pilot seat occupant checks the brakes SET and turns the magnetos switch ON, then says, “BRAKES AND CONTACT.”

The words CONTACT (magnetos ON) and SWITCH OFF (magnetos OFF) are used because they are significantly different from each other. Under noisy conditions or high winds, the words CONTACT and SWITCH OFF are less likely to be misunderstood than SWITCH ON and SWITCH OFF.

The propeller is swung by forcing the blade downward rapidly, pushing with the palms of both hands. If the blade is gripped tightly with the fingers, the person’s body may be drawn into the propeller blades should the engine misfire, “kickback,” or rotate momentarily in the opposite direction. As the blade is pushed down, the person should step backward, away from the propeller. If the engine does not start, the propeller should not be repositioned for another attempt until it is verified that the magneto switch is turned OFF. Excessive throttle opening after the engine has fired is the principal cause of backfiring during starting. Gradual opening of the throttle, while the engine is cold, reduces the potential for backfiring. Slow, smooth movement of the throttle assures correct engine operation.

Immediately after the engine starts, check the oil pressure indicator. If oil pressure does not show within 30 seconds, stop the engine and determine the trouble. If oil pressure is indicated, adjust the throttle to the aircraft manufacturer’s specified rpm for engine warmup, which is usually between 1,000 to 1,300 rpm.

Most aircraft reciprocating engines are air-cooled and depend on the forward speed of the aircraft to maintain proper cooling. Therefore, particular care is necessary when operating these engines on the ground. During all ground running, operate the engine with the propeller in full low pitch and headed into the wind with the cowling installed to provide the best degree of engine cooling. Closely monitor the engine instruments at all times. Do not close the cowl flaps for engine warm-up, they need to be in the open position while operating on the ground. When warming up the engine, ensure that personnel, ground equipment that may be damaged, or other aircraft are not in the propeller wash.

When removing the wheel chocks or untying the tail after the engine starts, everyone involved should remember that the propeller is nearly invisible. Serious injuries and fatalities have occurred when people who have just started an engine walk or reach into the propeller arc to remove the chocks, reach the cabin, or when moving toward the tail of the airplane. Before the wheel chocks are removed, the throttle should be set to idle and the chocks approached only from the rear of the propeller. One should never approach the wheel chocks from the front or the side.