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Our first passengers

In every pilot’s life there are milestones: first solo, passing the checkride, and the first passenger. Once you’re a newly minted pilot, it’s exciting to show off your newfound skills to family and friends. Unfortunately, the concept of flying passengers is seldom part of flight training. Those first passengers represent an entirely new operating environment, both psychologically and aerodynamically.
Your First Passengers
Illustration by Jan Feindt

If you’re taking your flying buddies up for the first time, that’s one thing. A pilot knows what to expect. However, if you’ve talked family and friends into riding along and they know nothing about aviation, that’s something entirely different.

In the public eye, all light aircraft are Cessnas (back in the day, they were all Piper Cubs) and are often looked at with suspicion, if not downright fear. When taking people up who are new to the concept, it helps to think back to your first flight in a small airplane. There you were, entombed in a relatively tiny, strange space, and when you slammed the door, it didn’t have the solid sound a car door makes. In fact, it sounded a little tinny. Then, the engine started, but it didn’t sound like any engine you’d ever heard. The feeling of being a guinea pig is hard to shake.

I took basically my whole family on trips around the pattern at Bay Bridge Airport in Maryland at sunset in a Cessna 152 at 18, two days after I passed my checkride. My mom, two younger brothers, grandmother, and aunt. Most of them their first time in a small plane. —Justin MooreTry to remember that first takeoff. The pilot pushes on a knob in the panel, it gets very noisy, and suddenly the runway is streaking past on both sides. Then the nose comes up, and the world ahead disappears. You turn your head and suddenly realize the ground is falling away. It’s not like taking off in an airliner, where you’re sitting in a long living room with lots of seats and kindred souls. An airliner speaks loudly of solidity and strength. Not so the light airplane. Here, everything is more personal. And to many people, it can feel unnatural.

Then, without warning, the world tilts to the side and, for a second, you’re confused. Your eyes and your brain are doing their best to catch up. You’re still dealing with the takeoff and climb and then a turn is tossed into the mix. The strangeness continues.

A person’s first ride in a light airplane can bring on sensory overload, and reactions will vary. Some passengers will be wildly excited. Some will be stone-faced as they struggle to comprehend. A few will clearly be out of their element and not happy about it.

The day after I got my pilot license in 1966 at Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport I took my wife and two kids up for a sightseeing ride. Since then I’ve given many friends and relatives their first airplane ride, including one of my young grandsons who wanted to stay up all day... —Rob AndersenWe were the same way when we tasted small airplane flight for the first time. And we should keep those images in mind when we’re in the pilot’s seat and our first passengers occupy the other seats.

Unknowns build apprehension

Fear of the unknown is a universal and natural human trait. When we’re giving first rides, the best thing we can do is let everyone on board know what’s about to happen so there are no surprises.

As you’re taxiing out, mention that you’re directing the airplane around the ramp and onto the runway with your feet. Your passenger may not even know feet are involved. This also sets the stage, letting everyone on board know they’re going to be kept abreast of everything during the flight.

I got my private pilot certificate in high school and most of my friends’ parents wouldn’t let them go up with me, saying that at 17 years old I “shouldn’t be driving, let alone flying an airplane”! So the first people I took up were my parents. Scottsdale Airport circa 1978. —Jill MeyersAs you line up for takeoff, give a brief explanation about what to expect: “You’ll hear the engine speed up as I push the throttle in. Then, at 60 mph, I’ll bring the yoke back, the nose will come up, and the airplane will leave the ground shortly thereafter. I’ll be holding 75 mph, and full power while we climb.”

When airborne, before the first turn is made, let your passengers know it’s coming. “I’m going to drop the left wing and turn while still climbing.”

As you level out at altitude, point out that the throttle is going to be coming back and they’ll hear a power reduction.As pilots, we hardly hear the noise level changing when we’re moving the throttle. To a passenger, any change in sound signals something is happening, but they don’t know what.

First one as a licensed pilot, got to fly left seat around Kauai in paradise with a tour company and my wife was in the backseat photoing her brains out. —Jason McCoyThe approach needs special attention

An ongoing dialogue is especially helpful to passengers when coming into the pattern and making the landing, because this is when the most changes take place. Plus, it is probably the area where the passengers are most likely to question the new pilot’s ability.

First, paint a complete picture for them: “We’re going to parallel the runway, then, when we’re opposite where we want to land, I will reduce the power and lower some flaps. We’ll fly straight ahead then turn, and, when we’re lined up with the runway and down low, I’ll bring the throttle all the way back, so the engine is idling and we’ll glide down to the runway.”

Never pull the power back without letting passengers know what and why you’re doing it. Explain every move before you do it: “Now I’m lowering the flaps and you’ll see the nose go down a little.” It’s never a good idea to assume passengers know what’s going on.

In 1974. Passed my checkride and had returned to the home airport. First passenger was my wife in a Cessna 150. The start of many years of family flying. —Robert ShortAnswer questions, but don’t be afraid to enforce a sterile cockpit rule as you turn final.

Watch this!

It is our job as pilots to try to sell passengers on the concept of flight, not to try and impress them with what we see as our superb piloting skills. Besides, they have no point of reference and can’t begin to judge whether we’re terrific or we stink. Our goal is to finish the flight with them begging to do it again, not kissing the ground between lingering dry heaves. We are aviation’s salespeople and should act accordingly.

Too often, when a new pilot takes up passengers, he wants to inject excitement into the flight. This is not a good idea. Among the “watch-this” moments many new pilots subject their passengers to are:

  • Stalls. Think how you felt the first time the instructor stalled the airplane. Besides the fact that the engine suddenly seemed to quit, and the nose came up then abruptly fell for no apparent reason, the soundtrack for the entire disturbingly quiet episode is the stall warning indicator screaming. Do not perform stalls with nonpilots on board.
  • Negative/zero G. Getting light in their seats is a sure way to spook a first-time passenger. This is not a familiar feeling and is a great way for someone’s breakfast to find its way into the cockpit. Plus, the engines of most GA aircraft with carbureted fuel systems stand a chance of coughing when they touch zero G. They are unlikely to quit entirely, but having an engine make disquieting sounds won’t instill confidence in your passengers.
  • Positive G. Rolling into even a 45-degree bank almost always makes passengers less than happy. And pulling into 60 degrees and putting positive G on the airplane via elevator force is doing a lot more harm than good. Leave your Top Gun fantasies on the ground.

My first passenger was my father-in-law, a WWII B-24 pilot. He had been shot down multiple times and had many great stories about how he “won the war.” (He said I did a pretty good job, and fell asleep on the way home). We recently laid him to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  —Jan Ashton SchumerHandling concerns: Gross weight and gross situations

An airplane carrying an instructor and student, no baggage, and half fuel in Long Beach, California, is an entirely different entity than the same airplane in the same location with all four seats filled and full tanks. Fly 79 miles away to Big Bear, California (6,752 feet msl), with the same load, and the performance difference can be dangerous. The majority of students go through training without flying an airplane at gross weight, well aft in the center of gravity (CG) envelope, or at high density altitudes. So, their first passenger flights can present them with airplane stuff they’ve never experienced.

When the newbie pilot steps out into the sunshine with his freshly signed certificate looking for someone to take up, it’s unlikely he’ll see his friends and family in terms of how they affect the weight and balance. But he should. At the very least he should have a rough idea of what each prospective passenger weighs and think about that before inviting them to go flying. If, for instance, Uncle Al weighs 275 pounds, he is not going in the backseat.

There is no more awkward situation than standing around the airplane and having to tell Aunt Nadia she can’t go because she won’t fit. Or the airplane won’t carry her. Make that assessment before inviting passengers.

My young Navy wife, of course. Once I earned my certificate, she was my first official passenger. We flew out of NAS Moffett Field where I was stationed with a P-3 squadron. I gave her the Bay Tour around San Francisco. She was a tad bit nervous at first, but she soon learned to love flying and has been doing so ever since. I’ve had my certificate for 30 years come this October. She now flies with both me and my son, who is about to get his commercial certificate. —Gordon FelicianoThe fact that weight degrades an airplane’s performance is understood by most. However, the effect of density altitude is often lost on students because there are few instructional situations where a student gets to experience takeoffs and landings at different altitudes (density altitude or topographical altitude) without doing some traveling. In parts of the western United States, that’s not the case.

In a few places, such as Phoenix (1,500 feet msl) during the summer, pilots get to experience the dramatic effects of density altitude on the same runway on the same day with the same load. An early morning flight will be at 2,500 feet density altitude and a late afternoon hop may be as high as 5,500 feet msl. Plus, within a 70-mile radius, there are numerous airports that are at 5,000 to 7,000 feet msl and almost as hot. In the West, density altitude and its effect on performance are a fact of life. In the East, it is difficult to duplicate the same pronounced changes in an instructional environment because there are fewer high-altitude airports and temperatures seldom get extreme.

Passengers are a responsibility

When we’re going through flight training, the instructor is responsible for us. When we’re out there solo, we’re responsible for ourselves. However, as soon as we put someone else in the airplane, we’re now not only responsible for their well-being, but we’ve also taken on the well-being of their spouses, their kids, their siblings, and their friends, as well. When we invite someone into our world, we should do everything we can to keep them safe and comfortable.

First passenger stories from

Budd Davisson

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S–2A.

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