Ground Handling 101

Before and after each flight, we taxi, push and pull the airplane. Doing it right means paying attention to detail and watching for the unexpected.



Each flight of a land-based airplane begins and ends at the tiedown, or in the hangar. Even if you’re flying a seaplane, glider or helicopter, some degree of preparation, care and feeding of your aircraft occurs on the ground/water, where it actually spends most of its time. How we operate an aircraft on the ground doesn’t carry with it the same levels of risk as when we’re airborne, but like anything involving aviation, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things.

When considering ground operations—which may or may not involve an operating engine—we always want to ensure the aircraft’s safety and security, plus that of any persons and property around us. In our experience, many pilots have forgotten various practices and recommendations they should have picked up during their primary training. The results can increase the risk of being on an already-busy ramp or mean we can’t use the airplane again soon.


We can’t count the number of times we’ve seen someone pull their airplane out of a hangar for a short flight, forget to close the door and proceed to blow everything on the ramp into it when the engine catches at 2000 rpm. Even worse is starting an engine with people, vehicles and other airplanes close enough behind it to cause damage or injury. (And we won’t even discuss parking large helicopters near light airplanes on a ramp.) Adhering to some simple procedures can enhance the safety of everyone and everything around you during engine starts.

The first thing we should do before even climbing in the airplane is ensure the area behind it is free of loose materials or anyone not necessary for the start and initial taxi operation. Of course, we’re also going to check to see if any tiedown ropes remain attached, if any chocks are still in place and everything we need for the flight is aboard. Then we take a close look to ensure any towbars are disconnected, stowed and/or back in the hangar. This also is a good time to ensure all baggage, engine-access and other compartment doors are closed and secured. Only then should we get aboard and run the pre-start checklist.

A final word involves the actual starting of the engine. Most of us are flying a piston engine. When starting one, there’s no need for the throttle to be anywhere near the full- or even half-open position. Only enough throttle for idling is necessary. Don’t be one of the dweebs whose engine starts at cruise power. It’s not good for the engine to be running at that high a power setting without being warmed up with plenty of circulating oil and won’t endear you to anyone an otherwise safe distance behind you.


Many relatively inexperienced pilots look at taxi operations the same way they drive a car. Nothing could be further from reality. For one thing, the brakes we have on most airplanes aren’t nearly as good as on the car we drove to the airport. For another, we don’t have wings sticking 20 or so feet out on either side. Finally, taxiways are bi-directional—someone easily can be coming from the other direction.

In 2006, the FAA was forced to issue an airworthiness directive, AD 2006-21-03, against Cirrus SR20 and SR22 airplane brake systems. The AD was issued after “several reports of airplanes experiencing brake fires and two airplanes losing directional control,” according to the FAA, and requires replacing O-ring seals or brake calipers along with trimming the wheel pants and installing temperature stickers.

One of the reasons the AD was necessary is pilots were taxiing too fast. In fact, online sister publication AVweb reported at the time “Cirrus Design argued that the best fix to avoid overheated brakes (or brake fires) is to taxi more slowly.” There’s rarely a good reason to taxi at more than 20 knots (check your GPS-derived groundspeed…) and we’d argue even that’s too fast. Some pilots seem to be in too big a hurry, or they forget they usually have a tailwind when taxiing to the active runway’s departure end.

Instead, we should be using just enough power to keep things moving at a good pace, one allowing us to maintain control without riding the brakes. In airplanes like the Cirrus, which have a castering nosewheel instead of a steerable one, we may need a dab or two at the brakes to stay on the taxiway’s centerline. The way you know you’re taxiing too fast, with too much power? You need constant brake applications. Slow down. You’ll save your brakes—for when you really need them—prolong your tires’ lives and drastically reduce the chances of losing control. (You’ll also be able to log more hours for the same trips!)

One occasion in which you’re completely justified in using the brakes, of course, is after landing. Even so, you should be using them in a coordinated fashion to stop while maintaining straight-ahead directional control on the runway. Too often pilots come steaming off a runway as they try to make the first turnoff. Unable, to slow down enough to turn gracefully, they’ll try initiating a sweeping turn even as they’re still slowing down. Instead, we should be slowing down on the runway—or high-speed taxiway, if available—and not at the intersecting taxiway.

Another place where too much speed is both obvious and inappropriate is when entering a ramp parking area. There’s no good reason to be cruising around a ramp at anything more than walking speed. Slowing down affords us better ability to stop quickly, more time to see and avoid hazards and gives the lineguy more time to get into position to marshal us to parking.

The bottom line? You’re not driving; you’re taxiing. Especially if you want to use the airplane again anytime soon, slow down.


Often, before we can taxi out for takeoff, we need to tow the airplane somewhere. It could be out of the hangar or across the ramp, sometimes even to the other side of the airport. Towing can be an art; it’s always an operation in which we risk damaging the airplane due to a faulty towbar, failure to properly attach it to the airplane or exceeding the landing gear’s limitations. In slippery conditions—rain, wind and/or snow and ice—the situation can get out of control quickly.

A lot of people have made a lot of money over the years developing and marketing towbars and related equipment to general aviation. The best solution to it all? Let the FBO do it for you. (Slip the line guy a $20 bill to ensure he does it right.) In any event, using a towbar to pull or push your airplane demands three basic things.

First, the towbar has to be properly attached to the airplane. Each manufacturer has its own recommendations for how the towbar is attached and how the airplane should be towed. Learn them. Second is to ensure the towbar is properly removed and stowed—either in the airplane or on the tow vehicle—before you even think about starting the engine. Third is to not exceed any turning limitations many manufacturers impose for good reason. Such limitations usually are marked on the nosewheel strut with indices beyond which the nosewheel should not be turned. Of course, these marking need to be visible and in good condition if they’re to be used.

Anytime we’re towing or pushing an airplane, we need to ensure it’s clear of any obstructions. Often, the only way to be sure is for someone with aircraft handling familiarity to be watching the space between the airplane and where we want it. Yes, that means towing or pushing is a two-person job, but a successful outcome is more likely. The only time when a second person may not be necessary is when pushing the airplane back into its own hangar, where we “know” it’ll fit. Striping on the hangar floor and the ramp in front of it can be invaluable here. Presuming the striping is correct for your airplane, keep the nosewheel on the centerline and position the mains between the other two stripes and you should be good. Watch the back wall, though. Ideally, mounting a chock on the hangar floor or painting a “do not cross” stripe will prevent any damage when pushing the plane back into its hangar.

On The Ground

Ensuring proper ground handling of the airplane will help prevent any recurring mechanical issues—like worn or defective brakes—while ensuring safe and courteous start, taxi and shutdown operations. One of the keys is to simply take things slowly, especially when taxiing downwind. Crowded ramps, narrow taxiways and unfamiliar airports can be accidents waiting to happen unless we’re constantly looking outside the airplane and paying attention to what we’re doing. It’s not fun, but it’s a necessary part of getting into and down from the air.




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