Uneasy riders

December 1, 1994

You remember what it's like the first time. Maybe it's everything you thought it would be or perhaps it was a lot more — terrifying. The first flight can be the beginning of a wonderful love affair or a miserable experience that negatively colors your whole perception of flying. Those with a burning desire may gamble a second time even if the experience was wretched. For the less adventuresome, the closest they'll come to a cockpit will be when making the right turn off the jetway into the cabin of an airliner.

As pilot in command you can make those early flights a wonderful exposure to the third dimension, but it has to be carefully done. We won't delve into psychology too deeply here, but most people harbor a strong curiosity about flying in light aircraft and will take you up on the invitation to fly. Remember that they are trusting you to look out for their mental and physical well-being. There are some obvious precautions that will make the experience a positive one.

First, pick your weather carefully. A calm, clear morning before the winds and thermals pick up is the best time. With calm air the new passenger will feel only the effects of the controls and not the energy that the atmosphere imparts to the aerodynamic equation. Consider delaying the flight if there is likely to be much turbulence. This is a judgment call based on the passenger, but the experience will always be better in smooth air.

If you and your passenger decide to go and turbulence is likely, explain it in advance. Describe what the air is doing as it spills over trees and buildings or rolls off nearby terrain. Driving a car down a bumpy road is always a good analogy.

Next, have your companion join you on the preflight inspection. Show the various parts of the airplane, but don't get into all the details of what can happen if something doesn't work right. Many non-flyers, having succumbed to media hype, have overactive imaginations — so don't feed them. When asked a question, answer it honestly and downplay the constant what-ifs. If you thought it was going to be that dangerous you wouldn't fly yourself. I've found a basic explanation of the flight controls using automobile analogies works very well.

Once in the cockpit, help them to get comfortable and run an airline-type safety briefing on safety belts, seatbacks, and exits. It helps to break the tension, and it's required by the FARs. Let them try opening the door and when they finish practicing, you close and secure it so there are no grand openings on takeoff. Likewise, be sure the windows are snug. Having a window pop open is startling for a pilot and may petrify a passenger.

Seat security is essential. There's nothing more unsettling than to be in the early stages of the climb and start slip-sliding away. If your passenger is short, a cushion that will allow them to see more than the instrument panel is highly appreciated. Before starting the engine, point out the instruments and controls, again using automotive analogies. The more we can eliminate the unexpected and the unknown, the better the experience will be.

Explain about the sterile cockpit. That's a term coined by the airlines to limit conversation topics to flight operations when pilot workload is high. The carriers generally declare a sterile cockpit below 10,000 feet. I've found that within 5 miles of the airport in VFR conditions works well. High-density airspace will be an exception where you may need to be concentrating 20 miles out. Having a sterile cockpit doesn't mean that you won't continue to talk to the passengers. It simply means that you'll be telling them what's going on and discouraging discussion on how small the houses look.

Intercoms and headsets are considered standard equipment these days. I've given instruction by hand signals, shouting, and electret mic. The latter is, by far, the best. If either party needs solitude, simply turn the volume down on the headset or unplug for a bit. Even in the classic taildraggers, battery powered intercoms will dramatically improve the experience even if they are an anachronism. Just wear your leather jacket and nobody will notice. The key to making flying companions feel at home is good communication.

Involve the passenger in the use of the checklist by pointing out the items that you're checking. This will build their confidence that there is a plan and that this is a highly disciplined process. In your enthusiasm, be careful not to overlook anything, and if you get distracted, run the checklist a second time to ensure everything's ready to go.

I've found on takeoff that a running commentary helps to ease the tension. Talk about where you're looking, airspeed indicator, engine instruments — now we're ready to fly, we'll ease back on the yoke — you get the idea. The key to keeping passengers comfortable is to tell them in advance what you're going to do and what it will look or feel like. If there's going to be a sound change — landing gear or flap retraction or engine power reduction — describe it.

Bank angles should be gentle at first, perhaps 20 degrees max until the companions are used to looking at the ground through a side window. Steep turns are definitely not "uneasy rider" maneuvers.

What about doing stalls? Intuitively you know what's right for newcomers. It's not an opportunity for us to show off, or to spit in the face of death. The purpose is not to show how brave we are or how foolish they are. It's to introduce someone else to the joy of flight. By showing the ease by which we can control the aircraft and how comfortable it can be, you'll soon have a convert and friend for general aviation. There will be plenty of time to liven up the adventure with some more advanced maneuvering after there is a higher confidence level.

For someone who flies with you occasionally, a Pinch-Hitter course is highly recommended. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation pioneered this program more than 30 years ago, and it has no doubt saved countless marriages, relationships, and lives. The stated purpose is to fly the aircraft to a landing if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Fortunately, that is an extremely rare occurrence.

The real benefit is for uneasy riders to become real cockpit helpers. ASF offers the ground school programs more than 30 times a year in various locations around the country. In the introduction to the class, many cockpit companions share their reluctance to fly or to even talk about it. At the conclusion of the four-hour program, there is a far more positive reaction to flight. The Air Safety Foundation has just produced the Pinch-Hitter on video. It's a 45-minute tour that takes the new passenger through the basics of flight control, instruments, and communications. It will acquaint them with the cockpit and help them to feel good about flying with you. The video, including the Pinch-Hitter manual, is available from ASF for $29.95, plus shipping and handling, by calling 1-800/638-3101.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.