It Hasn't Always Been So EAsy

Pilots of today have it way too easy, especially when it comes to getting the engine started. Back when I first soloed, only a few of the really nice airplanes had electric starters and the rest had to be cranked by hand, usually by pulling the prop through. My first half hour of instruction was in how to hand crank an airplane. The little 65hp engine on Cubs and other light airplanes of the day was easy but as the size of the engine increased, so did the difficulty in getting one started.

Today the electric starter is so commonplace that perhaps one out of every fifty pilots has ever called out "Contact" gave a push on the spinner to be sure the pilot was holding the brakes and pulled the prop through to start the engine. They are no more complicated than the average car; put in the keys, turn them all the way to the right and let off when the engine fires.

The big change came during WW-II when a million pilots came out of the military where they had become accustomed to the whine of an electric starter. That only happened after they graduated from primary training and moved into the larger airplanes. None of the primary trainers had electric starters; in fact, few of them even had a generator, battery or lights. They all had a socket on the left side of the nose where a crank big enough for two people to get hold was inserted and ground crew members would crank the engine. In some cases, the crank turned the engine directly but most had what was known as an inertia starter. That was one where the person (or people if they were available) on the crank got a flywheel spinning as fast as they could and then pulled a "T" handle to engage it. The inertia of the flywheel would spin the engine five or six revolutions during which the pilot was supposed to get it running, which was no small thing to accomplish. It was the custom that if the student pilot failed to get the engine running in two tries, they had to get out and man the crank themselves.

Probably the nicest looking primary trainer was the Fairchild PT-19 which had wood wings, a fabric covered steel tube fuselage and a sleek, long nose covering the inverted six cylinder, 185hp Ranger engine. As the war progressed, Fairchild was able to turn out airplanes faster than Ranger could produce the engines so some of the later versions were fitted with a seven cylinder radial engine of 220hp and designated as PT-23s. In comparison, the PT-23 with the big, uncowled round engine was truly butt ugly up next to it's sleek cousin with a Ranger engine. Even with something like 40 more horsepower, it was heavier and with all that extra drag, a full 10mph slower.

The War Assets Administration began selling thousands of surplus aircraft to the civilian market and naturally, when there is a surplus of anything, the price goes down. Flying schools teaching under the GI Bill, began to snatch up the PT-19s for trainers while the ugly cousin PT-23 went begging. I bought one for $100 in 1947, during my last year in high school.

At first, I could get one of my buddies to crank it in exchange for a ride in the back seat, which during cool weather wasn't nearly as much fun as they had expected. For some reason, when the big engine was installed, it changed the slipstream to where it tumbled down into the rear cockpit, forward through the fuselage and out through the front cockpit. The ship was flown from the front seat and if you didn't stuff your pant legs in your boots, they would be shoved up to your crotch in a few minutes.

It was possible for one person to get the engine started but it was a rather complicated operation. First, I need to describe the cockpit. On the left side just below the level of the coping was the throttle and mixture control. Forward of that on the instrument panel was the ignition switches with Off, Left, Right and Both positions. Just below that was the primer pump which pumped raw gasoline into the intake pipes of the top four cylinders for starting. One had to prime the engine to get it started because the intake pipes from the carburetor to the cylinders were about three feet long and it took several revolutions to suck the mixture from the carburetor to where it would fire in all cylinders.

Further down was the fuel valve with Off, Left, Right and Both positions. Then down below the seat on the left was a handle which operated the wobble pump, called that because you pumped the handle up and down to pump gas from the wing tanks up to the engine where the engine driven pump would take over once the engine was running. As soon as the engine was shut down, gravity would carry the fuel in the lines back down into the wing tanks.

The normal procedure for starting the engine while the ship was in the military was for the pilot to get in the front seat and fastened his belts, then make sure the ignition switches were off so the ground crew could pull the prop through about half a dozen revolutions to purge any oil that had seeped into the lower cylinders while the engine was shut down.

Before the crank was inserted, the pilot would place the fuel selector in the Both tanks position, move the mixture forward to full rich, the throttle open about half an inch and operate the wobble pump till the fuel pressure showed 5psi. Then he would call out "Contact and Brakes" to indicate that the ignition was on and he was holding the brakes so the ship could not move, then turn the ignition to Both Magnetos and give the primer two full strokes of prime. He would have to continue to operate the wobble pump to keep the pressure up.

The ground crewman would insert the crank and begin to crank the starter flywheel up to a high scream. As soon as he had the flywheel up to speed, he would stop cranking and pull the T handle to engage the starter and the engine would turn over. If everything had been done properly, about the second revolution the pilot would hear Brrt Brrt as two cylinders fired and a second or so later, the other two at which time he would give the primer another shot so there would be fuel the next revolution to keep it running. He had to keep the engine spinning by using the primer until sufficient fuel had been sucked from the carburetor to take over with a fart of blue smoke as the lower three cylinders joined in. The throttle had to be pulled back to idle the instant full power came on. The ground crew would return the crank to where it was stowed in the baggage compartment under a door behind the rear cockpit and pull the wheel chocks so he could taxi away.

When I wanted to go flying by myself, it was a bit more involved. I'd have to stand on the wing beside the cockpit where I could reach in with my right hand to set the controls, work the wobble pump and operate the primer. I could reach the crank with my left hand but using only one hand on the crank made it impossible to get enough speed for more than two revolutions on the engine. Getting it started on the first try wasn't always successful and I often wondered if it was really worth the effort, but at 18, I loved to fly my airplane and would do just about anything to get in the air.

It must have been a sight to behold with all the cranking, pumping, priming and throttle adjusting it took to get that big, round engine firing on all seven cylinders. Once it was running smoothly, I still had to step off the trailing edge of the wing and stow the crank behind the rear cockpit. I used pieces of 2 by 4 as wheel chocks and would just add power and taxi over them.

The military surplus Fairchild PT-23 I bought during my last year in high school.

Home  |  Remembering  |  Cycling  |  Flying  |  Misc

Copyright 2005 by Jim Foreman