Pilotage: Cockpit conversations

June 1, 2008

Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot on a Citation II based in southwest Florida.

An airplane cockpit is a sanctuary, a respite from prying eyes and intrusive ears. The intimate dimensions, omnipresent background din from engine and slipstream, and shared experience of flying combine to cast a spell on the souls occupying the space.

It takes hold once the airplane is established in cruise flight. The hard work and concentration devoted to the takeoff and climb are over. Now it’s time to relax and enjoy the flight. It doesn’t matter if it’s a couple of friends flying together or a professional crew; at some point there’s a discernable transition from the start to the stretch. That’s usually when tongues begin to loosen, and the conversation turns to subjects other than the business of flying the airplane.

Last week I spent the better part of a day talking with someone about boats, fishing, people, islands, buying and selling airplanes, and a whole bunch of other unrelated subjects. The wide-ranging conversation took place in the Piper Aztec while flying to and from the southern Bahamas.

We went there to search for anchorages for my right-seater’s sport-fishing boat, and also to see if an Aztec would be a good airplane for him to shuttle back and forth between home, business, and boat during the summer fishing season. (Size up an Aztec for Bahamas flying? That’s like waking up before dawn to see if the sun rises in the east.)

We took off early, and I was still climbing to 11,000 feet msl when he became chatty. He’s not a pilot, so he wasn’t yet sensitive to the multitasking challenge of talking about boats and fishing while also listening to the communications radio. I had to hold up a finger to shush him each time I heard the Aztec’s call sign in my com radio ear. Once we cleared the coastline at Fort Lauderdale, Miami Center quieted down and we were able to talk about his favorite subjects with fewer interruptions.

We hadn’t known each other well before then, but at the end of the day each of us had a pretty good read on the other. We flew 8.5 hours together, bought 178 gallons of avgas, logged five landings (two of which he complimented), visited three customs facilities, explored one island (Crooked) by car, and shared a plate of cracked conch. Nearly 60 percent of the 14-and one-half-hour day had been spent in the Aztec, and most of what I now know and understand about him I gleaned during our talks a couple of miles above the sea. Such is the nature of cockpit conversation.

It’s an entirely different situation if your flying companion for the day is your spouse. In that case there may be little to no chatter over the intercom, and that’s OK. Sustained silence can become uncomfortable when it occurs between friends or colleagues, but it’s perfectly natural and acceptable—some might say welcome—when it involves spouses.

That said, there are a few rules to observe regarding what you say, and when and how you say it, in an airplane. The first rule is universal: Avoid nonpertinent conversation during critical phases of flight. This is the sterile cockpit rule, and it might require some preflight passenger education beyond barking, “Sit down, strap in, and shut up!” at them.

Rule two: If you are flying with your boss who is flying the airplane, avoid the temptation to capitalize on your captive audience to complain about a coworker or, worse, to pitch a raise for yourself. The boss isn’t interested. Flying is a release from the tensions of the workplace. Don’t screw it up for both of you by dragging the workplace into the cockpit.

Rule three: If you are the boss and the PIC, and there’s a subordinate in the right seat, consider using the pilot isolation feature on the audio panel. This is a handy way to enforce rule two.

Rule four: The same conversational etiquette you normally respect in everyday life also applies in the air. In other words, avoid broaching religion and politics until you’ve flown with someone a few times to build some rapport. Only then can Fox News and NPR coexist peaceably in the cockpit. I remember flying with a guy for the first time, and with barely four-tenths on the Hobbs he let loose with a rant that identified his politics as rooted somewhere to the far right of Adolf Hitler. I looked on slack-jawed, and resolved to never, ever talk politics with him.

Rule five: Think before you speak. On one flight in a Citation we were talking about the people in back when I noticed that a small toggle switch on the left side of the panel was in the Passenger Audio position. That meant that anyone in the cabin wearing one of the wireless headsets we had provided could hear our gossiping. I immediately flipped the switch to the Off position, then gathered some courage before looking back at the passengers. Fortunately, no one was wearing a headset. That switch is now part of my scan.

Rule six: Sometimes it’s better not to speak at all. If flying with your spouse, avoid asking rhetorical questions aloud. Questions such as “Wonder if that’s just a gauge problem?”, “Why is it doing that?”, or “What the heck?” will be heard as “Are we going to crash?”, “Why are we going to crash?”, or “Ohmigod, we are crashing!” I can guarantee it.