Technique: Sit back and relax, it’s going to be a nice flight

Invoking your inner airline captain

November 1, 2010

TechniqueThe red light comes on. “Uh, oh, why is that on?” I ask no one in particular. Then I realize I’ve made a mistake. There’s nothing wrong with the airplane, mind you. It’s completely fine. My passenger, on the other hand, looks at me as if we’re about to spontaneously combust and die in a heap of twisted metal. Such are the joys of flying with inexperienced passengers.

Bringing passengers on a flight, especially those new to aviation, is a great privilege of being pilot in command. With the privilege comes responsibility, and it’s important to ensure your passengers are as comfortable as they can possibly be in your airplane. This means acting like Joe Cool pilot, giving a proper briefing, and attending to their very specific needs.

I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point. We judge our own landings aloud (Shoot!), get off the glideslope (Come on!) or misunderstand an ATC call (What the heck is he asking?) with some regularity. We are striving to be perfect, after all. Alone in the airplane or with other pilots, comments like these are fine. But with passengers, they often elicit strange glances and rising blood pressure.

The first rule of being a new-passenger chauffeur is to treat passengers as if they are always nervous. Your job is to calm their fears. Adopt your best airline-pilot voice—speak slowly, calmly, and confidently. Many people haven’t been in a small airplane before, so try to remember the first time you felt that way. It can be quite a shock. Put them at ease, and keep your running scorecard of the flight to yourself.

Every flight with a new passenger should begin with a thorough explanation of the ground rules. A good way to approach this is by talking about the flight before you ever get in the airplane. Let them do the preflight with you and ask questions. To avoid giving too much or too little information, ask what they’d like to know. Some passengers want to understand the control surfaces, the engine, the fuel, and everything else. Others simply want to know how safe the airplane is or information such as how the wings are held on. Tailor the information to your passengers’ needs, and take their questions as a cue to their comfort level.

TechniqueHowever, in all cases it’s a good idea to explain what will happen on the flight. If you’re going to circle their house, explain that. Talk about the weather, trying to calm any concerns over wind, clouds, rain, or other issues. Outside of the airplane is also a good place to point out potential emergency exits—reiterating that they are unlikely to be needed.

Once inside the airplane, a good tactic is to think like a mother or father. Are they comfortable? Make sure they know how to operate the seatbelt, which the regulations require. And explain operation of the door and other emergency exits.

Too often passenger briefings go on and on forever, explaining every possible emergency scenario, gauge, device, and action. Not only is this unnecessary and a waste of time, it can be scary for the passenger. Use common sense here. A good briefing can be as simple as explaining the seatbelt, the door operation, and the fire extinguisher. That’s it.

If you think more needs to be said, there are a few additions that can easily be adopted without causing undue stress to your passengers. They include making sure passengers know they should ask questions, how to communicate in the cockpit, and how they can help spot traffic. As with all briefings, these points should be positive. Instead of saying, “There are lots of airplanes around here. Point them out so we don’t hit any,” go for something positive. For example, “You’ll notice that GA airplanes offer much better visibility than airliners. One advantage of the better visibility is that we can easily spot other airplanes. If you’d like to help during the flight, point out the ones you see.” It may also be helpful to describe when it’s OK to talk and when it’s not, and the function of the intercom’s isolate button, if the airplane is so equipped.

Once in the air, it’s vital to continue your smooth-operator-style persona. Make gentle, deliberate control movements. It’s also not a bad idea to announce where you’re going to turn before you go there. Whether or not you want to do this is up to you and the comfort level of your passenger.

If your passenger is especially nervous, let him or her fly. It’s a great way to help them understand how safe and easy it is to keep the craft aloft. Use simple terms they will understand, describing left and right like a car’s steering wheel, and push down and pull up, and so on. This often helps calm nerves, and it’s the ultimate way to bait the hook of interest.

What not to do:

TechniqueRegardless of how the flight goes, there are a few things you should never, under any circumstance, do with a new passenger.

  • Don’t do aerobatics. It doesn’t matter if you are a world champion aerobatic pilot. Doing spins, or any other aerobatic maneuver, with someone looking to just experience aviation is a horrible idea. It’s usually a good idea to avoid stalls, steep turns, and other potentially “scary” maneuvers as well.
  • Don’t swear, or say anything that will make your passenger think you are anything but fully in control of the situation.
  • Don’t take new passengers up on windy or bumpy days. Just wait it out. You can make a few rare exceptions to this rule when you’re absolutely sure there isn’t an issue.
  • Don’t forget the airsickness bags or worry if someone does get sick. It washes out. Instead, make them feel like it’s totally OK and normal if they feel queasy.

Follow a few simple rules, remember to take your time and keep your cool, and consider your passengers’ needs at all times—and you’ll come out looking like a hero.

E-mail the author at ian.twombly@aopa.org.