Answers for Pilots: Holiday trip planned?

Don't be a turkey

November 1, 2013

It comes upon us so fast every year, and this year is no different—holiday time is here! Our busy schedules stretch to include celebration dinners, special events, and time spent with family and friends. It’s wonderful! It’s memorable! It’s exhausting! Our stress levels skyrocket. If you are planning a family trip, it’s natural to focus more on the family than on the flying, but that distraction can lead to accidents. So, take time to balance the excitement with extra caution.

Here, in no particular order, are some recommendations for pilots distracted with family and holiday excitement.

Double-check everything related to your flight: your flight planning, the weather, TFRs, and yourself. And then review it all, again, just before you go. Brief your passengers well in advance of the trip about Plan B and that you will use it should you decide not to go at the appointed time. Remind them it’s not a vote; it’s the pilot-in-command’s decision.

If you are too tired, don’t go. Have that Plan B in your back pocket and use it if you need to. I flew with a group of pilots in a small caravan of airplanes last summer on a long flight through interior Alaska. One of the pilots, flying a Cessna 152, was a very new airman, certificated just the day before our departure. She did great on the flight to our destination. But two weeks later, exhausted from the many days of continuous physical activity and lack of sleep, she said she was unable to make the flight home. She was terribly disappointed in herself at the time, but her decision-making skills were on the professional level. That five-star decision solidified the chief pilot’s trust in her judgment and, as a result, he has asked her to fly subsequent trips.

Talk to your passengers about sterile cockpit in ways they can understand. (After they are all briefed and strapped in, say, “Mom cannot talk with you for the next 15 minutes. I have to fly the plane now.”) Put the most responsible passenger in charge of passing out cookies, Kleenex, water, and back-seat games. If they are a noisy gang (like mine are), promise rewards for the quietest passenger, or if necessary, turn off the intercom for takeoff and landing so you can focus on flying.

Recalculate weight and balance. If your flight is a trip home from grandma’s house after Christmas, think carefully about what you can pack in the airplane. Mail everything else. Talking to the kids beforehand to manage their expectations helps. (“No, Sammy, we can’t bring your new work-out weights home in the airplane.”)  You might talk with Gram and Gramps way before the holidays and ask that they either give the kids pictures of the big things that Santa has dropped at their house, or keep the gift-giving pocket-sized.

Pack for in-air discomforts. Have plenty of gum to help with ear-popping, crackers for queasy stomachs, and some easily reached gallon-sized zip-lock baggies for those who “couldn’t help it.”

The Air Safety Institute has a new Pilot Safety Announcement (PSA) titled, “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N.” It’s entertaining as well as thought-provoking as to how to avoid being in the next PSA’s rhyme. AOPA has a subject report on Flying with Family, which includes a number of helpful resources. May your family time be blessed and safe this holiday season.



Kathy Dondzila

Kathy Dondzila | Manager, Technical Communications, Pilot Information Center

Technical Communications Manager, Kathy Dondzila, joined AOPA in 1990 and is an instrument-rated private pilot.