BETHAL, PA (WHTM) – You see it in a lot of World War One movies. The intrepid flying ace gets into his trusty fighter craft, and yells “Contact!” Someone yanks on the propeller, the engine roars to life, and the squadron is on its way.
It’s not quite that simple. It can take a lot of steps to get a World War One airplane motor running. At the Golden Age Air Museum, which houses a lot of original and replica airplanes from “The Great War”, museum president Paul Dougherty walked us through the parts the movies leave out, using a replica Sopwith Pup, a British biplane.
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“There are there’s lots of things we have to do to get an old engine started if you’re going to ‘prop it’ by hand,” he explained. The first step is to get some gas into the engine cylinders, “priming” the engines. This is much like priming your lawn mower- except the plane engines had as many as twenty cylinders. “Several of these engines you will actually turn it through, one cylinder at a time, actually pump gasoline through the exhaust valve right into the cylinders. So we put gas by hand with a little hand pump in every one of the cylinders.”
The next step involves distributing the fuel. “We’d pull through backwards a couple of times just to suck a little bit of that fuel into the induction and do things like that. We might rock it a little bit,” Mr. Dougherty said, moving the propeller in one direction and then the other, “But then we’ll pull it through to get some of that fuel moving into the cylinders. And the idea is to build a little compression, get things ready to go.”
Once primed, it’s time to actually start the engine. Once again, it resembles starting a lawn mower, except instead of pulling on a cord, you pull on the prop – and step back fast.
“It’s actually about a five-man job,” says Dougherty, “Because you have people holding the airplane because the airplanes don’t have brakes. You’ll have a pilot that will be controlling the fuel and be controlling the spark or the ignition on the inside.”
“Once we’ve got all the priming sequence finished, we’ll communicate back and forth, we’ll yell over to the pilot “Contact.” He comes back as “contact” and then we test it out. We’re good. Grab a hold of (the Propeller), get your body under, and just pull. And that’s how we start. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
And if the engine won’t catch after a few tries, it’s time to start over.