Polini Flash starter problems & now a permanent fix
by Had Robinson
The solution to this engineering disaster
For some years now I and others have worked together to fix the Thor starter but it has all been for mostly nothing until now.
We collaborated to stop the flash from binding and jumping out of its seat. It no longer does this. We tried machining an insert that eliminated the flash entirely. Unfortunately, the vibrations of the engine caused everything to wear against the soft aluminum. In the aluminum insert we used steel roll pins to hold the pawls. Just the same, the pawls would still wear quickly, including the pawl holder.
One of the most frustrating failures is the unwinding of the starter cord which can happen at anytime, no matter how much attention and care a pilot takes of the starter. Anyone remember the Alfa Romeo? The pull handle and cord would inevitably go right into the propeller and yank the guts out of the starter and, sometimes, damage the propeller. This is the most serious flaw in the starter and is caused by the pawl holder setup and the pawls. If the pawl holder rotates (due to the intense vibrations of the engine) in a clockwise direction (when facing the front), the pawls will extend and catch the starter ring on the flywheel. Next, the starter pulley will rotate in the same direction, overcoming the spring in the pulley. Then the cord will come out of the starter and it or the pull handle will catch on the propeller. This design flaw often causes a lot of peripheral damage to say nothing of the fact that the pilot can longer start his engine.
Thankfully someone in the world accomplished a permanent fix to poorly engineered Polini starter: A complete overhaul of the starter design. Last December (2018) French ultralight pilot, Catalin Atodiresei, developed an ingenious method to adapt the Miniplane Top80 starter design (also used by the makers of chainsaws, BTW) to the Thor engines. His design eliminates the flash spring, making starting these engines more difficult but all of the other headaches go away. The bigger engines require a lot more strength to pull the engine past top-dead-center of the piston. Two hands are required which means the engine must be held by another or be on your back. Go to the above link for more information and how to purchase.
Nonetheless, it is recommended that all pilots implement the fixes given in section B below, #2-4. Of these, #2 is the most important.
If it were not the fact that the Polini engines are the quietest and smoothest of all the engines that I know of, I would have recommended long ago that pilots throw them in the trash and find anything else. Maybe Vittorazi or Simonini will made a quieter, smoother engine? If anyone in the world can help with this, please contact me.
Maintenance (for the OEM Polini starter)
- Use nitrile gloves with heavy work gloves. Working with springs can be dangerous. Wear eye protection. It will greatly help if you take your own photos or videos when
disassembling the starter. Especially note the orientation of the rewind spring and the direction that the cord is wound around the pulley.
- Remove starter from engine – The best way to do this is to disconnect the lower parts of the harness from the engine frame and then flip up the harness and hold it with some cord against
the front of the upper cage. Remove the (6) 5mm screws that hold the back-plate to the frame. You now have complete access to the starter. Remove the (4) screws that hold the
starter to the engine. If you have the special lower screw that has a nut on it, it is much easier to gain access to the rear of the engine if you drop the fuel tank six inches.
- Disconnect the lower and upper starter pulleys and pull the starter out. See the photo in section A below for the names of the parts of the starter.
- Relieve the tension on the rewind spring. You can disconnect the starter handle and let the cord be slowly pulled back into the starter, holding the pulley at all times until the
tension is relieved. Better is to pull the starter cord out about a foot and then a bit more until the notch in the pulley is just where the cord exits the starter. Hold the pulley from turning. Pull
the cord back into the starter so there is a loop between the where the cord exits and the pulley. Put the cord in the notch and gently let the pulley completely rewind with the cord in the notch. Be sure to hold the pulley with a rag or your thumb so that
it turns slowly. It is under tension. This way, the cord is not retracted but the pulley turns and the
spring tension is relieved. The cord and handle can remain attached to the pulley.
- Remove the center starter bolt. For flash starters the pawl holder and pulley are two separate parts. On non-flash starter, the pawl holder and pulley are a single piece. Pull the pawl cover up and out. Remove the two pawls and two springs.
- Carefully pull up the pulley from the starter housing while turning it a bit back and forth. The pulley with the spring inside should free itself from the center post. You do not want the spring to
pop out! The rewind spring may go everywhere unless you are careful!
- Thoroughly clean the rewind spring with a rag and mineral spirits to get every trace of grease off of it.
- Leave the Flash spring in the pulley (if you have the flash starter). If necessary, it can be removed but it is under great tension (see the next section). I recommend leaving it in the pulley unless you have had experience working
with very powerful springs. Clean the Flash spring as best as you can. A brush, mineral spirits, and air work the best. Get as much of the grease out of it as possible.
- If the Flash spring must be removed, secure it to a solid surface, as here. A bolt put through the pulley and held in a vise will hold it while working on the spring. Failure to do this can
result in serious injury if something gets loose. Use needle-nosed Vice-Grips to grab the inner
tip of the spring and carefully pull up on the spring. It will come up and unwind. Do this slowly. BE CAREFUL! WEAR EYE PROTECTION! WEAR HEAVY GLOVES!
Here is another way to safely hold the flash spring in the pulley while installing or removing it. If the outer end of the spring is firmly in the jaws of a vise, it won't go anywhere. Thanks to Tom Bird for this tip.
- Clean everything with mineral spirits.
- Look carefully at part #3a in the photo below in order to get the spring oriented correctly. The spring can go in the pulley either way but only one way works. Start with the outside end of the spring and work the spring into the pulley. The spring
must be held at its outside circumference in order to keep it from popping out.
If the flash spring needs to be installed, put the pulley in the vise (as in the photos above) and start with the outside of the spring in the notch in the pulley. Use the needle-nosed Vice-Grips to wind the spring enough to get in the pulley. This is a difficult job and requires strength, patience, and care.
- After the springs are installed, use fine machine oil (e.g. air tool oil) to lubricate them. MORE LUBRICANT IS NOT BETTER. Do not use grease except for a small amount around the
surface of the shaft in the starter housing and on the inside of the bushing of the pulley. Grease just attracts dirt.
- The threaded hole in the center of the starter housing center post must have all traces of oil and grease removed. Use brake cleaner and air to do this and to clean the bolt, as
well. The bolt must be installed with blue threadlock. If there is any trace of lubricant left on it or in the hole, the threadlock will not hold. If the bolt gets loose
while flying, the guts of the starter wind up in the flywheel and self-destructs along with some other parts on the engine.
- There is a small observation hole near the center of the pulley which is used to make sure the hook on the inner end of the rewind spring is properly installed in the slot adjacent to the inner shaft.
The slot can be seen just to the right of the starter shaft in part #1 in the photo below.
- Wrap all but the last foot (30cm) of the cord in a clockwise direction around the pulley when the rewind spring side of the pulley is facing up. The free end of the cord should be
about the distance from the cord exit hole in the pulley to the top pulley (where the starter handle is). If the OEM replacement cord is not available, the new cord should be 5mm Dyneema
approximately 66" (168cm) long.
- Put the pulley on the center shaft, making sure no grease gets in or on the threaded hole in the shaft. A cotton swab can be used to clean any grease away from the threaded
hole. Once the pulley is fully pushed down into place, it can be turned in a counterclockwise direction and the hook in the end of the spring guided into the slot adjacent to the shaft. A
small screwdriver can be used through the hole to push the hook into the slot, if necessary.
- Install the springs, the pawls, and the pawl cover in the pawl holder. Turn the pawl cover as you push it down so that the pawls are correctly engaged in the slots of the pawl cover.
You can check things by turning the pulley in a counterclockwise direction to see if the pawls will push out to engage the starter ring on the flywheel.
- Apply blue threadlock to the bolt and install it. Tighten to about 10 Nm. Check again to be sure the pawls push out when the pulley is turned counter clockwise and retract when
the pulley is turned clockwise. The pawl cover should not
turn easily – which is the purpose of the circlip around its split shaft.
- Tension up the rewind spring counterclockwise in the same manner as the tension was relieved. The notch on the pulley allows the pulley to be turned (and the spring tensioned) without unwinding the cord.
Turn the pulley (3) complete revolutions with the cord in the notch. There must be enough tension to prevent the starter handle from loosing enough to go back into the propeller. One pilot has suggested that the starter pull handle be fastened with Velcro to the frame after
starting so this cannot happen.
- Reinstall the starter on the engine. All the screws should be torqued to 4-5 Nm except the top screw which should be just snug. Threadlock must be used on all screws. DO
NOT USE THREADLOCK ON THE SCREWS HOLDING THE BACKPLATE TO THE ENGINE FRAME! If you do, you may not be able to get the screws out of the screw holder that snaps into the frame.
- Just remember that no matter what you do, parts of the starter will wear out fairly quickly. Read the details on this below. The starters on these engines are FRAGILE so be gentle with them.
A. The problems
As of April 2019, I recommend that pilots not waste their time trying to fix the numerous problems spelled out below but, instead, purchase Catalin's Thor starter kit. You will still need the starter housing, cord, rewind spring, and various minor pieces of hardware.
However, the fixes at the end of this article (#'s 2, 3, and 4) should be done as they correct the weak lower starter mounting screw, improve the starter cord, and the flimsy pulleys that the starter cord goes through, respectively.
1. Flash mechanism
The Flash starter on the Thor 130 and other models has various problems and a short life because of design and material issues. Rather than have a durable starter with few moving parts (Top 80, Simonini) Polini came up with a scheme that fails after a few dozen hours of engine operation. It has little to do with whether the starter is even used. The intent was to reduce the effort necessary to start the engine. In this regard, the Flash is a success. In fact, the Flash mechanism greatly reduces wear and tear on both the pilot and the starter mechanism, as a whole. With some design changes, the Flash mechanism could be used and the starter could also last much longer.
The Flash starter
Starter mounting screws (not shown) – (3) 5mm x 80mm and (1) 5mm x 25mm. However, the bottom 80mm screw should be replaced with a 90mm screws and locknut.
The failure of the Flash (including the standard) starter is primarily due to the extreme vibration that is created in lightweight 2 stroke engines. Anything that can bend or move against some other surface will quickly wear or shake apart – unless it is protected in some way.
Why are starters on some other paramotors much more reliable and durable? It is because as many moving parts as possible in the starter are attached to the flywheel so that they cannot move once the engine is running. The extreme centrifugal forces of the rotating flywheel prevents the starter parts mounted to the flywheel from moving, rubbing, and wearing out. The Miniplane Top 80 is an example of this design. This starter will last the life of the engine. The Top 80 starter housing and pulley that are attached to the engine housing has only one moving part (other than the spring) which rarely wears out.
The Flash starter has three issues:
- Rapid wear of the pawl holder [#4], the pawls [#7], and the pawl cover [#5]. The standard starter also experiences rapid wear of the pawl holder and its associated parts.
- Bunching up of the white anti-friction band that helps the Flash spring move smoothly.
- Movement of the Flash spring away from and out of the Flash pulley (As of February 2017, Polini has fixed this problem in new starters.)
The moment the engine is running, the starter begins to fail:
- The Flash spring begins its movement out of the Flash pulley towards the pawl holder. This has been fixed on the newer models.
- The white tape bunches up and begins to interfere with the operation of the Flash spring as well as helping it push up on the pawl holder. Newer versions do not have the tape.
- As the pawl holder is forced against the pawl cover, the pawls jam and are prevented from engaging the starter ring on the flywheel. This is largely cured on the newer models, thankfully.
- As the engine continues to run, the pawl holder wears badly where the pawls contact it, the pins break off, and pawls fail, and the pawl cover looses all of its grooves and ridges that direct the pawls. It appears that newer versions of these parts are better hardened and have less tendency to wear out so quickly.
After more engine time, the pawls will become free of the holder and cover. They then get sucked into the cooling fan, wrecking everything. I launched one time and a minute later I heard this awful noise. I landed immediately and saw what had happened. It was a mess that kept me on the ground for days. Even though the newer versions of the flash are less flimsy, pilots must keep their eyes on things, just the same.
The Flash starter (original, old style) in the photo below has less than 10 hours of engine time. The end hook on the Flash spring has already begun moving out of the Flash pulley – jamming the pawl holder into the cover. The white anti-friction band that is in the flash spring is bunching up and out. It, too, will eventually jam up against the pawl holder forcing it into the pawl cover.
Below, wear points on the pawl holder from the vibration of the pawls while the engine is running. The pawls have started to wear into the holder (red arrows). The yellow arrows point to the pins, now broken off, that held the pawls in place.
Below, the red arrows point to deep grooves cut in the pawl cover by the vibrating pawls. The presence of much grease only slightly slowed down the damage. The yellow arrows point to worn down rims of the pawl cover that aligns the pawls correctly. As a result, the pawls would not engage the starter ring on the flywheel and the unfortunate pilot could not start the engine. He had to pack up and go home.
The tang that advances the pawls into the starter ring when the starter is first pulled has been worn away. When these tangs wear away, the pawls will not be retracted when the starter rope is released. They will then hit the starter ring and the tips will grind away, quickly making the starter useless.
2. Weak mounting structure
Pilots in the normal course of starting the engine may also pull the lower starter housing mounting bolt right out. Sometimes, the bolt will shear at the threaded end, as on the right. As of 2018, this problem still exists.
The mounting points for the Flash starter. The top mounting point can twist in the plastic cooling housing and make the screw difficult to remove.
Below is a photo of the Polini Flash starter mount reinforcement. It helps prevent the movement of the starter when it is pulled – and the stripping/shearing of the existing bolts and mounting points. However, it does nothing to prevent the disintegration of the starter itself. This part is not available in the Western Hemisphere at this time. If the lower mounting screw is replaced with our special screw and locknut, the starter should not come loose as easily. So far, the starters on our engines have held steady without the addition of this reinforcing plate. But this is the least of the problems with the Polini starter.
3. Starter cord
The OEM starter cord wears out quickly.
4. Pulley failure
I do not know if other frame manufacturers use the same pulley brand (Viadana) as Miniplane does. This pulley is of poor quality. The starter cord can easily cut into the rotating part of the pulley if the bearings seize. They are guaranteed to fail after a short period.
Below is a photo of the OEM pulley that was destroyed by the starter cord on a Thor 130. The plastic ball bearings seized, preventing the pulley from turning. The movement of the cord around the pulley quickly cut a groove in it. This pulley was not designed for the load.
Replacing a failed OEM pulley with another OEM pulley is useless as it will just fail again.
B. Fixes for these problems
1. Flash starter modification
Note: If you have the newer versions of the flash system, these modifications have already been done at the factory. The pulley and the flash spring are joined together so that the spring does not work its way out and jamming the starter pulley. Here are the steps:
- Remove the white tape from the Flash starter. Grab it with some pliers and just yank it all out. The Flash, however, will require more maintenance i.e. fine machine oil to keep things slippery. The white tape will no longer be there to work its way out and jam things.
- Drill and tap for a 3mm (4-40) screw in the hook at the end of the spring and the pulley housing. Alternately (but not as durable), you can use a #4 or #6 sheet metal screw. However, you must still drill the correct sized hole but will not need to tap it. The screw will keep the spring from moving out of the pulley. The hole must extend through both sides of the cavity which surrounds the hook. You do not need to drill through the spring a second time (the back side of the hook on the spring). The threaded hole must be thoroughly cleaned with brake cleaner and air so that the threadlock will hold.
- Put blue threadlock on the screw so it will not work its way out of the housing.
Southwest Airsports can make this important modification, if needed. All we need is the intact starter. Contact us for more info.
Here is the modified Flash pulley and Flash spring with the screw holding everything tight.
Pilot Larry Koral sent me these photos of some new Flash starters from Polini with the flash spring secured (as of January 31, 2017). They added a small raised plastic extension for a screw and washer. However, I do not think such a small screw can successfully resist the lateral pressure from the spring. Our fix for this would require the screw to be sheared off – something that would not happen. Everything in the starter is subject to extreme vibration. Will it hold fast? Pilots can always do the modification detailed on this page if this fix from Polini fails.
As of 2018, Polini has added a second screw to hold the flash spring in place.
c.) Premature wear of the pawls, the pawl holder, and cover
There is no solution to prevent these parts from quickly wearing out but as of late 2018, the quality of the material used to make the pawl assembly has apparently improved. I suggest that pilots use only the smallest amount of grease – it just gums up everything and makes a sticky mess that must be cleaned up next time.
We stock a kit that includes the pawl holder and all of its internal parts for $15 (price subject to change) + shipping. Contact us to order. These parts should be considered consumable items, like the spark plug. We hope Polini will do a major re-design of the starter so that it does not wear out so quickly and more resembles the Top 80.
If modification [b.] above is done, pilots will only have to remove the starter from the engine, undo the center starter screw, and install the pawl holder kit from step [c.] The engine will be good to go for another 25-50 hours. How do you know when to replace the parts? The starter will no longer work.... It is a good idea to keep an extra kit around. Remember that you are wasting your time if you do not secure the Flash spring in step [b.] above.
Make certain that the center threaded hole in the starter is absolutely clean of oil/grease by using brake cleaner and air. If there is but a trace of grease/oil on the screw or in the hole, the threadlock will not hold. Here is what happens if you are not careful to clean things. You will be flying along and your engine will make a horrible noise as the cooling fan eats up starter parts.... It will continue to run but there will be no cooling and the engine will quickly overheat.
d.) Miniplane Top 80 style starter for the Polini Thor engines
An ultralight pilot in France, Catalin Atodiresei, has adapted the durable and simple design of the Top 80 to the Polini Thor starting system. It is somewhat technical to do but he has offered to help pilots with some of the more difficult aspects of this complete redesign of the Thor starter. I was hoping someone in the world would do this and Catalin has generously done the work and stepped forward helping all those who love the quiet and otherwise reliable Thor engine. His modification was for the Thor 100 but can easily be used on other Thor engines that utilize the Flash starter.
Please navigate to this page for the details on purchasing Catalin's kit. His redesign does not incorporate the flash mechanism so starting the Thor 130 and larger engines is more difficult. Taking them past top-dead-center without the flash requires both hands with the paramotor on one's back or secured in some other way.
2. Improving the weak mounting structure
The lower starter mounting bolt must be replaced with a longer one that is of higher quality along with a locknut. We can supply these items, if necessary. Contact us for more information.
3. Heavy duty starter cord
Use a Dyneema cord. It lasts forever and is designed for this sort of use. It is available from Miniplane-USA. Scroll down to "Top 80 Starter Cord, Dyneema 1.25m". It will also work in other Polini Thor engines. However, be sure to cut the new cord to the exact length of the cord in your starter. Having too long a cord can result in the main spring being yanked out of its anchors.
4. Better pulley
Pilots annoyed with the poor quality pulley from Miniplane can purchase the Harken 082 Single Bullet Block for about the same price and replace both the upper and lower pulleys. The best price is from APS (< $15). However, if you use the Harken 082 for the lower pulley, it is not as easy to remove as the Viadana because the Harken does not have a shackle. You will have to unscrew the anchor to disconnect the starter system from the frame. This is a small inconvenience compared to the expensive (2X) Harken equivalent to the lower Viadana pulley, the Harken 166 Bullet Block Single with Swivel (< $26 at APS) The Harken pulleys are particularly designed for high loads (136 kg/330 lb) and rough use. They will NOT fall apart like the Viadana pulleys.
The Harken pulley (block) should never wear out. If you purchase the OEM, it WILL wear out quickly.
The Polini Thor engines are among the quietest and smoothest running of all paramotors. That is why we created these pages to help improve them.