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Flying Together: Couples in the Cockpit

Is the cockpit a bed of roses or a war zone?

Let's say your spouse is a gemologist and you spend all your vacations at gemology conventions. There are pretty rocks in your bedroom, in the bathroom, in the closet—every room. Books on the coffee table have pictures of gems on the covers. Socializing is with gem nuts who talk about carats—but you think they mean vegetables.

Now transfer that to the non-flying spouse in your family, male or female, and you'll see the problems faced by 100 of the AOPA members who responded to AOPA Pilot's call for spousal flying experiences. Among the e-mails are pilots aching for a spouse, male or female, to fly with them and wondering how to entice them, but there are those who are glad the spouse stays behind. There are marriages that came about because of flying, and ones that came apart. Some spouses are terrified of flying but fake interest, while others get the bug and become pilots.

Two-pilot couples—there were six who responded—ranged from those who enjoy flying together to those who wish for two airplanes so they can fly apart. Arguments in the cockpit covered the spectrum from battle royals to well-controlled, constructive criticism. Several e-mails ended with the word "Help!" and one asked for counsel on enticing a mate into the air.

Twenty or so writers provided the only analysis that has a chance for linking such diverse experiences: If a marriage is good on the ground, it can be good at altitude and compromises are more easily reached.

One woman wrote to say chauvinism is unfortunately alive and well. Penny Shiel of Palisade, Colorado, reports that in this supposedly modern time, she is not taken seriously when she taxis in as pilot in command with her instructor-husband and orders fuel. The lineman will watch the right door and wait for the male unit to concur. "You better do what she said," Gary Shiel once said. "It's her airplane!" He added an emphatic word before the word "airplane," but that can't be reported.

The writers offer heartfelt advice and it's all on the Web site for you to read. Here are some examples.

Con them, trick them

This is the advice that worked for Bobby Pittman of Monett, Missouri. "I have been a pilot for about 10 years, and my wife has been a pilot for about two years. I can say at this point things are great, but there was a time when it was tough (to say the least)." It soon became apparent that flying would not only be more fun, but that he would be able to "con" her into support for an expensive hobby if she, too, became a pilot. The airplane was bought under her company, allowing the couple to own an aircraft they couldn't have afforded any other way.

"I will say that teaching a spouse borders on trying to 'boss around' a spouse, but with several good arguments under our belts and a better understanding of each other, we have worked through this (for the most part)," he wrote.

"I don't think 'bribes' is the correct description; instead, I think that trying to sucker or con or (better yet) illustrate how fun and practical aviation can be is the real trick to getting her involved. I would not be flying today if she were not a pilot as well," Pittman said.

Husband is learning to fly

Julie Jones of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the pilot of the family, and her husband is working on his private certificate. Now that he is getting close to the checkride, the couple has jointly decided how to handle future trips. They will switch pilot-in-command duties on every leg of the trip. One will fly and the other will handle navigation and communication.

All pilot-in-command decisions will be made by the pilot in the left seat. Jones' husband, however, has asked her to have the final say, since she has the experience. "I'll keep my mouth shut, unless it would lead to something unsafe," she said. "He'll need to gain decision-making skills.

"We're best friends, both love to fly and both love to do other things together, so I'm sure this won't be any different—except he'll be stealing my time flying when he's in the left seat."

Airplane as date machine

Michael Meister of Indianapolis spotted a young lady at church whom he wanted to meet, and invited her to see her former school from the air. The flight went well and he was careful to explain what he was doing as the Piper Archer cruised through smooth air from Indianapolis to Marion, Indiana.

That was 1998, and the couple was married in the spring of 1999. Meister continued on to his commercial, flight instructor, instrument instructor, and multiengine instructor ratings, and his wife, Ivy, enjoys going along but does not want a pilot's certificate.

In the meantime they have a four-year-old daughter who loves to fly and a two-year-old son who, the couple thinks, will probably learn to fly when he is older.

Communicate, communicate, etc.

Dave Van Horn of Seattle offers some solid advice for dealing with the nonpilot in the family, and that includes what he calls a good "bedside manner." He notes his wife's list of "scariest moments" as related at parties have to do with times when he failed to communicate what he was going to do next. Like the time he accelerated on the ground during a short-field takeoff and climbed at minimum airspeed. His wife saw the end of the runway approaching and thought she was about to see it close up.

And the time he asked her to fasten her seat belt but said it quickly, and she thought the end was near. "Presentation is the key," Van Horn said. "Another common mistake is to rush to take your spouse flying as soon as you get your license, and in the airplane you trained in because it's the cheapest thing for rent on the field.

"To you it may be a tried and true classic but to a non-flyer it's an old beater. And by all means, do not share any of the maneuvers you've learned, like steep turns and stalls. I know one fellow whose wife won't fly with him anymore because on their first flight together he flew over water (a small lake)."

Leave 'em at home

Hey, maybe it isn't so bad that the spouse won't go along after all. Tom Hammer of Corvallis, Oregon, said his wife hates flying and has never been near, let alone in, his Ercoupe during the eight years he has owned it.

"She has picked me up at various airports to join family vacations, meetings, and such when I could fly in and she drove. Anyway, my point is, count your blessings.

"If she were into flying, I couldn't carry my bicycle and camping gear along. In fact, I would need more camping gear and two bikes, or face spending even more hard-earned money on rental cars and hotels.

"I would thus need a larger airplane, which would cost more to hangar, maintain, operate, insure, the works. Then, I would fly less because of economic constraints, mostly.

"So I look on the bright side of my Lone Eagle flying and am very thankful that I get to do it at all. I gave up trying to interest her in flying about 30 years ago—one reason we are still happily married!"

War in the clouds

Pete Tobin of Glenview, Illinois, found himself scud running at 200 feet on a flight made prior to getting his instrument rating, and wife Karen pointed out that since he got them into that mess, he needed to get them out. Nearby the buildings of Chicago towered above them. His version of what happened next is that he told her of his love, explained the situation was a little tough with the rainstorm and all, adding he would like to defer a proper explanation until after landing. Her version is that he reached over, unplugged her headset, uttered four words—none of which contained more than four letters—and flew on. Her version has had the most support over the years.

Now, Karen (yes, she's still with him) is a student pilot preparing to take her check ride. He shares duties with her and practices positive exchange of the aircraft this way—Pete: "Your aircraft." Karen: "My aircraft." Pete again: "Your aircraft." He notes that couples do fight as a natural part of being in a relationship with another human being. He offers these tips to couples flying together:

"Only one person can be in charge. Leave the challenges of the relationship outside of the cockpit. Maintain a sterile cockpit during all flight-critical aspects of flight. Don't nit-pick each other. Have fun! Enjoy your time in the cockpit together, and let aviation enhance your relationship."

E-mail the author at [email protected].

See more stories about flying together posted by members on AOPA Online.

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