There’s a lot to like about flying a light piston-powered airplane for hire, beyond just getting a modest check in the mail for the effort. In fact, it’s that very effort that is central to job satisfaction. It’s honest work. The passengers make sure of it.
It’s not that my passengers are demanding. On the contrary, they are unfailingly cordial, deferential, and thankful for the service. I’ve never had a passenger insist that we’re going, weather be damned. Just the opposite. They are properly wary of the ability of a light airplane to take on Mother Nature when she’s having a bad day.
Bad days in Florida usually mean thunderstorms, and there’s no escaping them if you fly in the summer. I try to reassure passengers by pointing out the airplane’s weather-detection capability, and that I will not fly into anything that looks hostile on the screens or out the window.
That may sound like stating the obvious, but in the absence of communication, people assume the worst. I’ve found that if I don’t state the obvious—that we’ll take as much of a detour as needed to stay well clear of hazardous weather—some passengers worry that I may indeed put them in harm’s way.
It happened the other day. I had one passenger aboard on a three-leg, 2.5-hour flight from the Bahamas. She elected to sit up front with me, where she enjoyed the same view of the weather as me. And there was weather—big, red, bitmapped blotches on the Nexrad display, and confirming splashes of color on the radar screen. The Stormscope added its busy dot-matrix interpretation of the active lightning-producing convection happening ahead.
With the exception of a narrow alleyway, the storms formed a 50-mile-wide barrier across our direct, northwesterly course. I had no intention of trying to squeeze through that alley, and instead plotted a flanking maneuver—a westerly heading to clear the weather to the south, followed by a turn north and home. For the next few minutes, however, we continued on our northwest track, toward the storms.
My passenger sat quietly and stared at the great, gray wall of tumultuous cloud rising up before us. To her it must have been as magnificently frightening an image as a giant tidal wave bearing down on a tiny fishing boat bobbing on the surface of the sea.
Everyone I fly has been in an airplane before, but most define “airplanes” as “airliners.” This could be their first experience in a light airplane, which they may think is capable of flying no higher than the birds and jumping nothing larger than a puddle.
Cruising up high in the cabin of an airliner with nothing more than a two-foot-square sideways view of the world, they have no idea what the pilots are looking at out ahead of the jet. If they think that what they don’t know won’t hurt them, then there’s nothing for a sideways-looking airline passenger to worry about. When they fly with me, however, they have the same picture-window scene that I have. The ground is not too far below and the weather is not too far ahead, and that is something new, exciting, and maybe a little unsettling.
When I noticed the concerned look on my passenger’s face, I explained my avoidance plan. “Oh, that’s good,” she said, sounding relieved. “I was hoping you weren’t going to fly into that,” she added, nodding toward the storms.
We didn’t. The airplane hardly got wet, and we arrived home only a few minutes later than if we’d been able to continue on direct. Her husband and son were waiting, and all three shook my hand and offered their thanks for a safe trip.
That personal contact with passengers, and sometimes their families, too, is the distinguishing characteristic of light-airplane commercial flying. Usually there’s someone sitting next to me in the cockpit, and whether it’s one or five passengers aboard we’re all tied into the voice-activated intercom system. We wear headsets and talk. That’s not the way it’s done on a business jet or airliner.
Even though I frequently have to remove myself from the conversation to stay focused on the flying, I’ve talked enough with passengers to appreciate the enormous respect they have for the skills required to pilot an airplane safely and well. Even if they are nervous and confess that they don’t like to fly, they like the person who is flying them. They like pilots.
I’d like to think it’s all about me, but of course it’s not. It’s because of what they see and hear when they fly with an unobstructed view of the world and its weather, and eavesdrop on the patter over the communications frequency. The door that blocks the flying public’s view of airplanes, pilots, and the system is opened wide when that public gets in a small, low-flying airplane to go someplace.
It could be that the public’s interest in aviation is in inexorable decline. The discouraging long-term trend in new student starts would seem to bear that out. However, the cause may have more to do with the general assault on our attention, checkbooks, and time than it does with waning fascination with flying. Maybe we just need to take the world flying in a small airplane.
This is my last “Pilotage” column for AOPA Pilot magazine. Thanks for reading. E-mail me at [email protected].
Former AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Mark R. Twombly has written for the association since 1983.