License to Learn: The backseat

‘You want me to sit where?’

July 1, 2013

Rod MachadoIn the early 1980s I was offered a trip by airplane to a speaking engagement by a fellow named Pete, who had hired me to speak. He had just purchased a Comanche 250. Given my assumption of riding right seat, I eagerly accepted. Upon arriving at the airport, I spied Pete and another fellow standing near the airplane.

“Hello, Rod,” said Pete. “This is my flight instructor, Tim. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve asked him to come along to complete my dual instruction requirement.”

I looked at Pete and said, “Dual instruction requirement? What rating are you working on?”

Pete replied, “I need one more hour of dual before I can take my private pilot checkride.”

Yikes! It was a Venus’ flytrap of my own creation, and the problem was that I wasn’t going to fly! By making every error of assumption possible in agreeing to fly with Pete, I ended up sitting in the backseat of a complex airplane, with an unfamiliar student pilot who was receiving instruction from an instructor about whom I knew nothing. It was an imperfecta trifecta. If there had been turbulence during that flight, the tension in my body would have cracked me in half.

Pilots like being in control, which is why they almost universally dislike being more than an arm’s length from the controls. You can do schtick from the backseat, but there is no stick. Put a pilot in an airplane but separate him or her from the flight controls, and you’ll get adrenalin and consternation in equal quantities at takeoff.

When forced to sit in the rear seat, pilots typically cope with the resulting anxiety by doing one of two things. They’ll contemplate the route needed to reach the flight controls in case they have to assume command of the ship, or they’ll imagine doing something that closely resembles the Jedi mind-control technique.

Several years ago my dear friend Ken, who is a highly experienced instructor and airline captain, was offered a trip to the Bahamas in a small six-seat twin-engine airplane. Given his experience, Ken assumed he’d be asked to sit up front. You guessed it—Venus’ flytrap. The low-time twin-engine pilot had previously invited his even lower-time friend to occupy that position.

Realizing what he had done, Ken quickly calculated the social discomfort he’d incur by arguing forcibly for the co-pilot position. Then he compared that calculation to his chances of successfully climbing over four seats, each hosting a warm body, in enough time to reach the flight controls and prevent an impending disaster. As Ken said, “The thought of the climb-over helped ease my discomfort, but only because I have a good imagination, was willing to entertain the irrational, and developed a sudden fondness for the non sequitur.” We call that rationalization by another name.

More than a few pilots have contemplated using the “Flying Wallenda mount and dismount strategy” to reach the yoke from the backseat. When a reality check identifies this strategy as being unfeasible, they’ll often default to the Kreskin mind-domination method of aircraft control. This technique allows them to physically move the controls by talking to the person who’s currently in possession of them.

One older, highly experienced pilot told me that if he were in the backseat and had to take over from that position, he’d use his persuasive (Kreskin-like) speaking ability to control the pilot. Hmmm, I wonder how that would sound? Hey, bud, get your nose down! Watch that speed! Don’t make me come up there with this bad hip! With the exception of already being “up there,” it sounds just like flight instruction, doesn’t it?

As a means of reducing our anxiety when we can’t be in control directly, we imagine how we might gain control indirectly. Sometimes this works, even when we know it won’t work. I think, however, there’s a better lesson for anxious pilots to learn here—and acquiring gymnastic or Jedi mind-control skills isn’t it.

If you’re one of those pilots who dislikes sitting in the rear seat of an airplane, then consider this simple piece of advice. Decide whether or not that possibility exists beforehand and make a preemptive strike. Say something like the following to the person offering you a ride in his or her flying machine. “I’d love to fly with you, but I want to be clear that I prefer not to sit in the back- seat. I do hope you understand.” I have yet to find a pilot who didn’t empathize with my disposition on position.

It’s been nearly 30 years since I made that mistake with Pete. I can honestly say that I have yet to re-peat it. Hopefully you won’t, either.

Rod Machado will be a featured speaker at the 2013 AOPA Aviation Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, October 10-12. Visit his website.