November 13, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

How do you say you’re sorry to a passenger who just walked into the prop? It happened this week at our airport when the pilot/CFI of a Cessna 172 neglected to shut down before dropping off a passenger. Our local paper, of course, put the story on top of Page One which doesn’t help GA’s image. The lady walked forward and her arm was partially severed – I probably don’t need to be any more graphic.

This happens about twice a year on average, often with a fatality, but always with serious injury. I will admit to having boarded and dropped off other pilots without a shutdown but always with a briefing beforehand. No one ever approaches or disembarks ahead of the wing – I make that absolutely clear and in retrospect, it’s probably not such a great idea. With non-pilots there is no question that the engine(s) will be shut down.

As instructors, and pilots it’s a sober reminder that the business end of the aircraft is just that and we should discuss it with those less aware. Please be mindful. Here are a few links to ASF materials on the subject.

Online course:
Safety Advisor:
Real Pilot Story:

This will be more than you wanted to know about the oft neglected, very reliable and very dangerous propeller. Ramp safety is just as critical as flight safety.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • paul adler

    I also wrote an article about this subject, originally publishes in AOPA in January 1996. see at

  • Bill Lavender

    Prop injuries can happen to anyone at anytime. Earlier this year, our agricultural aviation industry lost one of its own who had thousand of hours and many years of ag-time when he walked into the idling prop of his own aircraft.

    For ag-pilots, the culprit can be a momentary distraction during a ‘hot’ loading/fueling. The lady in MD was very lucky, as bad as her injury was, death is usually the outcome.

    One safety measure that is common among ag-pilots during ‘hot’ loading/fueling ops is to keep one hand on the leading edge of the aircraft at all times in the prop area.

    Bill Lavender / Publisher

  • Dick Branick

    Some thirty or more years ago, I was pulling the prop through prior to engine start on a Piper Cherokee. My commercial student was in the left front seat monitoring the engine status. Non-the-less, the mag switch was on. During one pull, the prop missed my hand by a quarter inch when one spark plug fired.

    That gets your attention.

  • Lou Whitaker

    Many guys are well acquainted with hand propping old airplanes with no electrics. However – some pilots flying electric start ships are not. Be sure when you help out the “guy with a dead battery” that he understands the process. Watch your littany. Switch off does not mean mags off to some people. That mix up recently occurred here and the pilot was turning the master on and off while leaving mags hot all the time!! No injuries but sure gets your attention.

  • Gilbert Pierce

    I will never understand the need to drop off a passenger and keep the engine running while doing so, even after briefing the passenger. How long does it take to shut down and restart the engine AFTER the passenger is safely clear?
    This is a totally preventable occurrence.

  • Richard Magnan

    Can you tell me, who, in his / her right mind would come close to a spinning prop? Come on!!! It’s like on my lawnmower, I have this sticker saying: “Be aware that while the engine is on, the blade is turning and could inflict injuries”. Hello??? Are the people that dumb?

    Richard Magnan
    Linden, New Jersey
    AOPA member# 054493107

    P.S. I’d like to have an answer from the editor on this.

    [email protected]

  • Harlow Voorhees

    In the late1970s I witnessed a lady get out of a single engine cessna at Oakland International Airport (at the old GA gate) and walk forward into the spinning propellor. She was wearing a heavy coat and carrying a camera bag. The bag literally exploded sending film and other stuff in all directions. She went backwards and was uninjured. The pilot of the aircraft taxiied away, apparently unaware of what just happened. Someone chased him down and he stopped. I will never forget running over to the woman to see if she was ok and observing the total panic and shock in her expression. She was not an aviation person and had simply gone on a flight with a private pilot to take pictures.
    I worked in the regional airline industry for many years and I will never forget Zelda, a gate agent at SFO who started with Swift Aire in the seventies and ended up with Wings West Airlines. She was ramping in a Beech C99 one night in the early 1980s, and after setting the chalks walked into the left prop and was killed. She was an aviation person who suffered a moment of inattention that cost her her life. Neither of these victims were “dumb”. Spinning props are nearly invisible and are a hazard to any person nearby. It is incumbant on all of us pilots to recognize this and follow S.O.Ps that will minimize exposure.

    Harlow Voorhees
    AOPA 01567926

  • George Wilhelmsen

    Everyone probably has a story, or has heard a story of this happening. We had a similar event in Dwight, Illinois, with a woman who got out of a Cessna 177 (no strut) and walked straight into the prop. The contact was fatal.

    Yes, shutting down the engine is always an option, and would be effective at preventing these events.

    Equally effective would be pilots who brief passengers that they need to go towards the back of the plane, and then monitor the passengers – if they change direction, pull the mixture.

    Still, when you look at this, it is part of being smart. I was ferried back yesterday after dropping my plane off at an avionics shop. When the pilot started up the plane, I ran through my “AOPA pilot-in-command” mantra, telling the pilot that this was HIS aircraft, and that I would not touch the flight controls, panel, or avionics unless specifically directed to.

    When we arrived at my destination, I didn’t want the pilot to have to shut down the Cessna 210, since big engines can have hot starting issues. I told him what my intentions were – I would get out, hold the door shut so he could latch it from the inside, and then go towards the back of the plane.

    Even at low power, the prop wash was impressive. I’m wondering how someone would think nothing was there – I could feel it for 20 feet behind the plane.

    Anyway, the fact I’m here writing this indicates that with the right intelligence, this can be safely done. Perhaps additional caution is needed when dealing with non-pilots, but we have already transitioned as a government as one providing governance to more of a ($*^*)(#&^$#)*& “nanny state” trying to tell you not to be “bad,” so as much as this is an occasional issue, I’m not sure further regulation is warranted.

    George Wilhelmsen
    AOPA 01004652

  • Bruce


    I think you can see from the responses this far that Murphy’s law applies. Call it dumb or low situational awareness or whatever you like. People have lapses – unfortunately it is part of the human condition. We see it regularly on the highways and skyways.

    As I’ve gotten older, and having made a “just a few” mistakes myself, it’s just encouragement to see if we can defeat our own shortcomings. Nobody said it would be easy.


  • http://AOPAASF George Colombe

    Terrible thing to have happen. In reading some of the previous responses I noticed that people are walking forward. As everyone knows or should know, IF IT CAN HAPPEN IT WILL HAPPEN. Most folks will not walk toward the front of the airplane if they do not have a reason to, i.e. the closest way to get to the FBO or terminal. On occasion, and I say again on occasion I will let a passenger off, usually another pilot, without shutting down the engine but I ALWAYs do the following. When I park to let the passenger out I ALWAYS park so the passenger must walk toward the rear of the airplane to get to the terminal or FBO. If the business end of the engine is pointed away from all of the buildings the passenger does not have a reason to walk forward or around the front of the airplane. I also tell them before they get out that the engine is running and they should walk toward the rear of the airplane.

    geo c.

  • Joe Killian

    All the comments on avoiding walking into a prop are right on. The “Real Pilot Story” makes a brief mention of mag check on shutdown. I don’t see any further comments on this, but it’s important, especially in a hand-prop world.
    I’ve been around long enough to have learned on a hand-prop aircraft (Aeronca), and hand-prop’ed my 200HP Mooney with a weak battery too many times (that’s a little more scary than the Aeronca).
    My CFI started me on doing a mag check upon shutdown. It’s quick & easy. It’s on both, just turn to L, R, off and immediately back to both before pulling the mixture. You don’t have to wait to observe the drops, you’re just looking to see that it still is firing on L & R and that it DOESN’T fire on off. Every shutdown.
    Then when hand-propping, or pulling it through to spread the oil before starting (which I do religiously), you know that at least the switch was working at last shut-down. (And if it fails to fire on L or R you have time to get it fixed instead of discovering it at next flight’s runup.)

    Of course, and the other lesson my CFI emphasized, one still best treats the prop as though it’s ALWAYS live. Stand close, lean back as you pull, so that if something unexpected happens you’re already leaning away instead of towards. Every time you pull it through, think — are you ready if it should fire.

    Joe K.

  • Harlow Voorhees

    A few more recollections on prop accidents. The passenger at Oakland had been directed by the pilot to walk towards the back but was not told why. She reported walking towards the front to wave to the pilot to express her thanks for a great flight.
    The gate agent at SFO was responsible for checking in passengers and meeting the airplanes. She was responsible for all ground activities except loading and unloading bags. I worked for brand X, not Wings West, but I can tell you that as the regionals expanded, gate agents stayed at gates and ramp work was accomplished by trained “rampers” who only worked the airplanes. I recall that Wings West and the rest of us changed SOPs to have the pilots shut down engines prior to installation of chalks on prop aircraft.
    I do not pretend to be an expert, but I believe that aviation safety is best achieved by carefully thought out standard operating procedures that are trained and exercised with consistency. In other words, think through hazards and take steps to control them. This is not a nanny state and anyone who is interested in promoting a good image for GA should understand what I am saying.

  • Joe Romson

    There is a free webinar and /or printable article entitled, “Dangers on the Ramp” that discusses the risks of being in the ramp area, around aircraft. The research for this presentation is based on accident information present in the NTSB and OSHA databases.

    The presentation can be found at:

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