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Cockpit emergency readiness

Transforming passenger to co-pilot

In a gripping account of quick thinking and teamwork, the story of a Cessna Caravan’s near miss shows the importance of preparing passengers for emergencies.
Photography by Rebecca Boone.
Zoomed image
Photo by Rebecca Boone.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Real Pilot Story: Trouble Over Paradise unfolds with a pilot’s sudden incapacitation and passengers’ swift response, highlighting how knowledge and readiness can avert disaster. Through three fundamental strategies—simplifying the cockpit, preparing it for emergencies, and simulating crisis scenarios—pilots can transform their passengers into informed, capable participants, ready to act in critical moments.

Simplify your cockpit.

To your nonpilot passengers, it’s all dials, switches (or screens and data), knobs, and pedals. Introduce your passengers to the new environment they’ll inhabit for the next few hours while ticking off items on your preflight checklist, including the mixture, throttle, and landing gear lever. When you get to “flight controls free and correct,” don’t get technical; just demonstrate how the yoke (or stick) controls the airplane’s turns, climbs, and descents in flight. Remember the trim wheel/lever. Its importance to a nonpilot trying to manage straight and level cannot be overemphasized.

Put your finger on each flight instrument, stressing its name and importance in stabilizing the aircraft, especially with the big three plus one: the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, the vertical speed indicator, and the attitude indicator, noting its artificial horizon matches the Earth’s horizon. Even with frequent flyers, regularly remind them the pedals are for braking while on the ground. If you’re consistent, confident, and subtle enough, they’ll never know they’re learning to save themselves in the extreme unlikelihood that you become incapacitated.

Prepare your cockpit.

Imagine yourself a passenger with zero aviation background. What would you need to know if you had to land the beast? Educate your passengers about the basic emergency procedures, emphasizing aviate and communicate. This means that if you become incapacitated, your passenger should first calmly pause, next focus on flying the airplane (aviate), then transmit the emergency to ATC (communicate) or on the emergency frequency (121.5 MHz). Don’t skip the passenger briefing.

Simulate an emergency.

But be subtle. Once cruising at altitude, start with a casual introduction to the yoke and maintaining straight and level flight. Let the passenger try their hand, underscoring the finesse needed for smooth turns and steady altitude adjustments (aviate). Next, guide them through tuning the radio to various frequencies, making it an interactive part of the flight. Once they’re comfortable, introduce the concept of the emergency frequency, 121.5, explaining its significance (communicate).

By demystifying the cockpit, creating clear actionable emergency instructions, and conducting practical emergency coaching, pilots can elevate their passengers from passive travelers to active participants in ensuring flight safety.

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Terrie Mead
Terrie Mead
Aviation Technical Writer
Terrie Mead is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She currently holds a commercial pilot certificate, a CFI with a sport pilot endorsement, a CFII, and she is multiengine rated.

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