Eye of Experience #54:
The General Aviation Passenger
As the peak flying season begins, more and more pilots will be flying with their families and friends, some of whom are flying in a general-aviation aircraft for the first time since September 11. AVweb's Howard Fried presents some issues they may bring into the plane, and suggests ways to help them become more comfortable.
Having flown family and friends and done a substantial amount of on-demand passenger charter flying in singles and light twins, carrying all kinds of people (from babes-in-arms — to old folks who had to be assisted into the airplane — to invalids) over an aviation career that has spanned more than half a century, I have had an opportunity to observe and draw some conclusions regarding passenger attitudes toward general-aviation travel. It is said that the fear of flying in air-carrier aircraft is predominantly based on the lack of control one feels sitting crammed in a long tube while some yo-yo up front drives it through the sky with nothing to hold it up there but air. The air-carrier passengers believe that the slightest mistake on the part of that guy up front will result in that huge machine falling out of the sky and crashing to earth, killing all aboard. They feel that they are taking their lives and putting them in the hands of they-know-not-who to do they-know-not what. They expect the machine to crash and burn. They expect to die, and although there is no doubt an element of this feeling of having no control over one's destiny in general-aviation airplanes, the situation is really quite different.
By carefully avoiding insulting the listener's intelligence with oversimplification, while refraining from using technical jargon, you can pique the interest of your passengers. You can point out interesting landmarks outside the airplane and can explain how the navigation receivers work. The passengers can be shown how banking the airplane makes it turn, and how the elevator changes the pitch. In fact, you can explain pitch, roll, and yaw while demonstrating all three even though you are not an instructor. Given the right individual, you can even encourage the passenger to try maneuvering the airplane herself. Many people will tend to be somewhat timid about trying this, and they certainly should not be forced or made to feel any pressure, but rather gently encouraged. The key here is to emphasize the fact that all control movements are governed by feel (gentle pressure) and should be smooth and easy. No jerky movements allowed! Lacking coordination, the passenger is likely to slip or yaw the airplane, so it may be necessary for you to assist with yoke or rudder pressure.
If you don't know, or are otherwise unable to give a factual and accurate answer to a passenger's question, you should say so rather than attempt to bluff. You can tell the curious passenger that the question is better answered back on the ground. Then, after landing, you can look up the answer together. Having her questions answered this way, the passenger may never find out that you were unsure of the answer, and if she does, she can only respect you the more for your honesty. The passenger will feel a greater sense of accomplishment, having participated in the process of looking up the answer for herself, than if she had simply been told what she wanted to know, and the result is that both parties learned something. It is easy to convince the curious passenger that the world's worst classroom is the cockpit of an airplane with the prop (or props) going around out front, that all learning takes place on the ground and the airplane is simply a learning tool used to prove the accuracy of what has already been learned on the ground. The passenger's curiosity regarding whatever it is she wanted to know is thus completely satisfied. And, of course, if you're lucky, you have helped to recruit a new student for the flight school.
Fear of flying has been conclusively proven to be not related to the fear of heights. It is strictly fear of the unknown and should easily be treated with education; should be, but isn't. This fear is so deeply rooted that in most cases simply explaining the scientific principles involved is not enough. When the emotions take over, logic goes out the window, and fear is a very powerful emotion. In extreme cases, the best solution is to substitute another emotion; if possible, one of equal or greater power. Try pleasure. If flying can be made a pleasurable experience, perhaps fear will dissolve. How can you make it seem to be fun to the reluctant passenger? By putting him to work. If they feel needed, people's minds are too occupied with whatever task is thrust upon them that they tend to forget to be afraid. Remember, it is a lack of control that causes people to be anxious about their welfare, and if they have something to do, it gives them a modicum of control, or at least lets them think they have a degree of control over what is happening. Even if is only so much as tuning a communication radio, it is something to do. When people become involved and are interested, they lose their fear. It is much the same as handling a student pilot who is prone to airsickness. Generally, when the instructor turns the controls over to the nauseous student, the student becomes so involved with manipulating the controls that she forgets to become airsick. So it is with the frightened passenger. He becomes so occupied with his assignment that he forgets to be afraid. He is simply too busy. Somehow, being occupied seems to remove the insecurity of the unknown, and it is this lack of security, this uncertainty, that manifests itself in the fear of flying.
The Unnatural Act of Flight
But what happens when we do conquer the sky? We find ourselves in a totally unnatural environment. Nothing about flying is natural. It all has to be learned. Everything about flying is a learned experience. And the better we learn it, the more successful we are. Through constant practice and repetition, we acquire a set of conditioned responses that enable us to operate in this unnatural environment. And these responses are quite complex, which makes learning to fly such a difficult proposition.
The old CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration, the predecessor of the FAA) Flight Instructor Manual defined coordination as the utilization of more than one motor skill simultaneously to achieve a single desired result. It is like juggling two or more variables. And in the final analysis, that's exactly what flying an aircraft is all about. This kind of response can only be realized through constant repetition and drill. That's why flight instructors have their students go through each procedure and maneuver over and over again until they get it down perfectly, and then go over it some more. It finally becomes an ingrained habit, a conditioned response. And it is this series of conditioned responses that enable us to exist in that unnatural medium, the atmosphere around us.
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