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Caution: Prop will bite!Caution: Prop will bite!

By David Jack Kenny

Pilots should be well aware that airport ramps pose serious hazards to the uninitiated. Outreach events such as Young Eagles flights, Learn to Fly Day, and Women Fly It Forward devote a large share of their pilot safety briefings to the procedures for keeping the guests of honor out of trouble. Among the safeguards commonly recognized as best practices: Don’t let any passenger on the ramp unescorted; don’t let anyone walk around the front of an idling airplane or the back of an idling helicopter; shut airplane engines down completely before loading or unloading; and make sure small children are held by the hand. Warning of the potential dangers of propwash, rotor wash, and jet blast is also a good idea.

Freed from the responsibility of watching out for aviation-naïve spectators, pilots can relax a bit. Still, there’s a limit to how much relaxation is healthy in the vicinity of an operating aircraft.

About 11 a.m. on June 4, an emergency call placed via satellite phone reached authorities in southwest Alaska. The caller was on a gravel bank on the Chitistone River in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve, where a flight of four Super Cubs had landed to practice backcountry off-airport operations. The instructor leading the course had been hit by a turning propeller. He died almost instantaneously. Damage to the airplane was classified as “minor.”

The victim was the 62-year-old owner and chief flight instructor of a well-regarded bush-flying school. He was an Air Force veteran who’d flown F-16s and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, then gone on to fly for Northwest Airlines before moving to Alaska nearly 20 years ago. By the time of the accident, he’d accumulated 40 years of teaching experience and was deeply respected in the community. Friends described an exceptionally aware and conscientious pilot who never stopped thinking about how to defeat the innumerable risks of bush flying. It’s possible, however, that he hadn’t accorded sufficient respect to the most dangerous animal on the planet: the mosquito. (By communicating disease, these pestilential parasites have caused far more human deaths than attacks by all vertebrate species combined.)

After landing on the Peavine Bar, the training group was swarmed by hordes of the biting insects. To keep them under control, they decided to start the engines on all four airplanes, using their propwash to blow away the infestation. Unfortunately, rather than leaving one pilot inside each airplane to hold the brakes, they merely chocked the wheels. While loading his Super Cub from its right side, the instructor saw that the airplane to its left had jumped its chocks and begun to roll forward. Dashing up to try to stop it, he apparently misjudged the arc of his own propeller and ran into it from behind.

Those of us who’ve had the privilege of spending a lot of time around running aircraft find it progressively easier to excuse shortcuts we’d chastise in student pilots: loading or unloading passengers or cargo (or, worse, pulling chocks) with the engine idling, tuning radios or programming the GPS while taxiing, even hot refueling. The fact that a single second’s distraction could cost the life of someone so careful and experienced should be enough to remind us that no one is ever immune.