How to Start a Small Aircraft

Introduction: How to Start a Small Aircraft

Starting an aircraft and making it look easy is harder than you may think. Whether you're just curious, or looking to brush up on your piloting skills, knowing how to properly start an aircraft can come in handy. This guide will help you familiarize yourself with the most common steps in starting an aircraft, and will also go into details as to what is happening behind-the-scenes.

Starting an aircraft is not a simple task, and every plane is different. Do not use this as a checklist when starting an aircraft. When starting an aircraft in real life, be sure you are doing so safely (and legally).

NOTE: This guide assumes that you have already completed your pre-flight inspection of the aircraft.

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Step 1: Brief the Passengers

The passenger briefing is a crucial step that should not be skipped. By informing your passengers on essential information prior to the flight, you accomplish a few things:

  • Increased safety
  • Reassurance for passengers who are flying for the first time
  • Decrease in time spent answering passenger questions while you are concentrating on flying. Here you can give them your full concentration

Include the bold points below in your passenger briefing:

  1. Seat Belts - Verify that your passengers have their seat belts on and know how to tighten them. In an emergency you might not have time to show each passenger how to tighten their seatbelt.
  2. Emergency Procedures - Tell your passengers what might be expected of them in an emergency. The more informed people are, the safer the flight.
  3. Headsets - Help each passenger with their headset, most of them won't know how to adjust the volume. Definitely do this part while the engine is off.
  4. Flight Information - Give the passengers information about the flight, like which runway you'll take off on, how long the flight will be, etc. This will answer questions they are likely to ask you when you're flying.
  5. Questions - Questions are much easier to answer on the ground when nothing is going on, see if the passengers have any.

Step 2: Fasten the Seat Belts

Verify that your seatbelt and your passengers seat belts are all fastened and adjusted properly.

NOTE: As stated in the passenger briefing, make sure your passengers know how to adjust their seat belts on their own.

Step 3: Check the Circuit Breakers

Make sure that all the circuit breakers are pushed in. If a circuit breaker is sticking out, that means it has triggered and will not be supplying power to the component it is protecting. If this is the case seek help from a mechanic to diagnose what the issue is with that electrical component.

Step 4: Verify Avionics Master Is Off

Some aircraft are equip with a secondary master switch for the avionics. If your aircraft is like this, verify that the avionics master is off.

Having the electronic equipment off is imperative to check prior to engine start. When the engine is cranking, the system has very low voltage. As soon as the engine starts, the starter disengages and the alternator kicks in. This combination causes an electrical power surge that could fry your sensitive electronics.

NOTE: The master switch controls the power to all the electrical equipment. It is normally located on the bottom left of the control panel, where the key for the aircraft goes. In the above picture, it is red. This should also be off.

Step 5: Turn Fuel Selector Valve to "BOTH"

The fuel selector valve is typically located in the center of the cockpit on the floor. Placing the fuel selector on both means you don't need to keep track of how much fuel you use in each wing during the flight.

Step 6: Open the Throttle by 1/4 of an Inch

Most small aircraft will have a throttle as shown by the black knob connected to the push-pull rod in the image above. The color will almost always be black, sometimes however the throttle will be white (in older aircraft).

To "open" the throttle by 1/4 inch, pull the knob all the way out and push it back in about 1/4 of an inch back in.

Step 7: Set the Mixture to "Idle Cutoff"

This is a fancy way of saying "pull the mixture knob all the way out" to cutoff the flow of fuel to the engine. The mixture knob should already be in this position, but this step is to verify that. In the picture above, the mixture knob is (and always will be) red.

NOTE: We will soon begin turning on electrical equipment. The purpose of making sure the fuel is off prior to electrical equipment being on is so that an electrical fire (if one occurred) doesn't get intensified/fueled.

Step 8: Turn the Master Switch On

Flip the master switch into its on position. You should hear the satisfying hum of gyro's spinning up as soon as you do this.

NOTE: Avionics equipment should NOT be on at this point. Radios, GPS units, etc. should all be off. If they turn on, manually turn them off individually.

Step 9: Turn on the Flashing Beacon

The beacon that is located on the top of the tail of the aircraft should be controlled by a switch somewhere in the cockpit (every place is different on this). Most pilots leave this beacon on all the time and can omit this step as the beacon will come on with the master switch.

NOTE: It is good to verify that the beacon is on because it indicates to other people outside the aircraft that you will be starting your engine soon and to stand clear.

Step 10: Push the Mixture in to Full Rich

Remember that red mixture knob that we wanted to be at "cutoff" before? Now it should be placed in the "Full Rich" position by being pushed all the way in. This will allow fuel to flow into the engine.

Step 11: Verify the Carburetor Heat Is Cold

The carburetor heat control is normally a push-pull rod. If your aircraft is equipped with carburetor heat, you will want it to be set to "cold" (which is the off position, pushed all the way in) for engine start.

Pulling the carburetor heat knob all the way out will allow the carburetor to use hot exhaust air as intake which will lower your engine performance, but will stop the carburetor from icing over in certain situations.

NOTE: In the image above, the carburetor heat control knob is the knob furthest to the left. Yours will likely look similar

Step 12: Pump the Primer 1 to 5 Times

Depending on how cold your aircraft is as well as how easily it normally starts, you will want to prime it 1 to 5 times by pumping the primer. You do this by pulling out the primer slowly, and then pushing it back in (again slowly).

The primer atomizes fuel directly into the cylinder heads making the aircraft start easier.

NOTE: The primer knob is usually equipped with a locking mechanism. To unlock it, turn it until it pops out a little, then you can begin pumping it. Lock it when you finish.

Step 13: Clear the Prop and Hold the Brakes!

You're almost ready to start the plane!

Open the door or yell out the window "CLEAR PROP!". Then look around you and make sure no one is standing nearby, or behind your aircraft. Checking behind the aircraft is important because the wind generated once the engine starts can sweep someone off their feet!

You will also want to hold the brakes. The brakes in a small aircraft are located at the tops of the two pedals at your feet. Put your toes at the tops of the pedals and press on them to engage the brakes.

Step 14: Engage the Starter

The moment you've been waiting for!

This step is much like starting a car. Turn the key to the start position. When it fires up, let go of the key so it is no longer in the start position (you want it in the "Both" position).

Startings tips, tricks & info:

  1. Try not to crank the engine for long periods of time, if the engine hasn't started after 10 seconds, you might want to prime it more and check that your mixture is pushed in.
  2. If the engine is having trouble starting, pumping the throttle can help it to get going.
  3. Have your hand on the throttle when you are cranking the engine, this gives you more control once it sputters to life
  4. The "both" position on the key is referring to the magnetos. The engine is fully self contained, if there is a power outage or short, the magnetos will allow the engine to continue firing. The key allows you to verify that both magnetos are operational. For normal functionality use the "both" position.

NOTE: After the engine starts, adjust your engine to about 1000 RPM's with the throttle. Also, check your oil temperature and pressure, they should both be rising to green levels. This should be similar to what the checklist in your aircraft says, be sure to follow your checklist even after the engine is started!

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    4 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Thanks, good refresher from my single flight lesson.


    3 years ago

    if you find a circuit breaker button has tripped, you'd be well- advised to have the system checked out before takeoff, they are safety devices and when one goes off, there is a reason why, and you don't want to find out why inflight.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Thats a very good point, thanks for mentioning this! I think I overlooked this because I'm so used to flying in Cessna's where the landing light frequently trips its breaker.


    3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing!