Waypoints: Welcome aboard

July 1, 2008

Thomas B. Haines recently celebrated his twentieth anniversary with AOPA Pilot.

As I was up to my eyeballs in mandatory memory items, power settings, emergency procedures, checklists, and grappling with near brain overload on how to fly the jet, someone reminded me that I’d also have to brief the passengers before the flight. In this case, the “passengers” would be the designated examiner and the “flight” would be in the simulator. But at that moment it seemed that just remembering to do the briefing would put me over the top—never mind what it was I was supposed to say during the briefing. So I cheated.

Well, not really. In Internet parlance, I “borrowed.” I borrowed the text from another student’s briefing. I modified it to include a few things I thought important, grabbed a couple of other things from my sim partner, printed the whole thing, and put it on my kneeboard. Where in the regs does it say you can’t read the passenger briefing? It may not be as lyrical and clever as the one the Southwest flight attendants use, but it gets the job done. And there’s no reason you can’t “borrow” either. What’s important is that you do brief your passengers—even, and perhaps especially, if they are also pilots.

FAR 91.519 requires that pilots of large and turbine-powered multiengine airplanes assure that passengers are briefed before the flight. FAR 91.107 says all pilots must inform passengers about how to use seat belts and shoulder harnesses. So pilots of small airplanes need only mention the seat belts, but don’t you think passengers would think you more professional if you were a little more forthcoming? Airlines designate professionals to open the doors and help direct things in an emergency. The oxygen masks drop automatically from a compartment overhead. Not so in the Cessna.

AOPA member Eric Archer asked me via e-mail what makes a good briefing. I first thought the answer was easy, but it’s not. FAR 91.519 provides an outline of items to cover for the large-airplane crowd. Some of it works for those of us who routinely fly smaller airplanes, but some of it doesn’t. Among the subjects to be covered are smoking, seat belt and shoulder harness usage, emergency exits, survival gear, and use of oxygen equipment. Many light airplanes don’t have oxygen equipment, for example. And most four-place airplanes don’t have emergency exits. But just managing the regular doors may be worth a brief.

For example, when I brief passengers before getting into my six-place Bonanza A36, I tell them that except in an emergency, I will open and close the doors. Like about every other light airplane, the doors are finicky—press your left hand here, hold your mouth just right, and twist to get them closed properly. My airplane has two emergency exits—the windows just behind each cockpit seat will swing completely open if you push the big red pins forward and lift up on the polished bars just below the windows. I call them “over-wing exits” to impress passengers who have flown on the airlines.

Taking advantage of their knowledge of airline briefings helps put them at ease. I usually state, “Just as your flight crew does on an airliner, I’m required to give you a briefing about the airplane.”

I remind them that their seat belts must always be on. I figure if they don’t know how to use them, they probably shouldn’t be walking around in public. But I do confirm they get them on OK. I always help the person in the copilot seat with the two shoulder harness straps because latching them into the seat belt snaps is not intuitive.

I point out the emergency locator transmitter switch and the ELT antenna, noting that if we happen to “land somewhere other than an airport” (don’t use the “C” word!), they may want to make sure the switch is on and the antenna clear. The fire extinguisher is stowed on the floor behind the copilot’s seat.

I also remind them that immediately after takeoff and just before touchdown, they may need to be quiet while I concentrate on flying the airplane. One flight last summer, I had four boisterous teenagers on board. They were having a great time, pointing out their favorite shopping plazas and restaurants as we came in for a night landing. As we entered the pattern for landing, I had to ask them to be quiet until we landed. My daughter later apologized. “I should have asked them to be quiet. I know about sterile cockpits.” Not a big deal, dear.

Briefing a pilot can be a different process. Besides the usual passenger briefing, you need to make it clear who is the pilot in command and what responsibilities you would like the other pilot to assume—if any. You’ll want him to at least point out traffic threats. I like to ask them to manage the communications and navigation radios if they are comfortable and they know the equipment. If not—and the weather is good—I’ll use it as an opportunity to get them familiar with the gear. In the name of expediency, I sometimes do it all myself until we get established in cruise, and then I’ll go into instructor mode, pointing out the features of the equipment as we fly along.

The important thing is to make your passengers feel comfortable. If it’s a long trip, offer water and snacks. Show them how to follow along with the charts. Set up the nav gear so they can see how long it is to the final destination. If you’re calm and relaxed about the flight, it will be evident to them that you have things under control and they can sit back and enjoy the flight, which is what sharing the GA experience is all about.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.