Taking non-pilots up for their first flight in a light plane is one of the rites of passage for pilots. While we're eager to show them all the
March 19, 2000
|About the Author ...
Rick Durden is a
practicing aviation attorney who holds an ATP Certificate, with a type rating
in the Cessna Citation, and Commercial privileges for gliders, free balloons
and single-engine seaplanes. He is also an instrument and multi-engine flight
instructor. Rick started flying when he was fifteen and became a flight
instructor during his freshman year of college.
He did a little of everything
in aviation to help pay for college and law school including flight
instruction, aerial application, and hauling freight. In the process of trying
to fly every old and interesting airplane he could, Rick has accumulated over
5,400 hours of flying time. In his law practice, Rick regularly represents
pilots, fixed base operators, overhaulers, and manufacturers. Prior to
starting his private practice, he was an attorney for Cessna in Wichita for
He is a regular contributor to Aviation Consumer and AOPA Pilot
and teaches aerobatics in a 7KCAB Citabria in his spare time. Rick makes it
clear he is part owner of a corporation which owns a Piper Aztec because,
having flown virtually every type of piston-engine airplane Cessna
manufactured from 1933 on, as well as all the turboprops and some of the jets,
he cannot bring himself to admit to actually owning a Piper.
wasn't really a bad day, just a little challenging. The wind was gusting to
about 15 and it was bumpy. The clouds were solid at 3,000 feet, but the
visibility was great. Students were working hard in the crosswind and the gusts,
and a couple of pilots were sitting here in the Lounge drinking coffee rather
than spending money to go get bounced around. About that time Harry landed, put
his airplane away and came in to complain about life in general. We listened to
him as he said the family had spent the weekend at their lake cabin but the ice
was breaking up so he couldn't do any fishing, and his wife won't allow a TV in
the place so he couldn't watch professional wrestling. Then he discovered he
hadn't winterized the toilet correctly and had to spend hours cleaning up that
mess. On top of all of that he still couldn't get his wife and kids to ride up
and back in the family airplane. He'd made it back in 55 minutes, while they
would be on the road for at least two hours. His wife would arrive home in a
terrible mood after fighting the Sunday afternoon traffic. He just couldn't
figure out why none of them would ride with him when the flight was so short.
our friend left, Everett, one of the instructors, gave a timeworn grimace and
commented that nobody at the airport would ride with Harry, anywhere. I hadn't
flown with him so I asked Everett if Harry were dangerous. Everett's response
surprised me. "Harry isn't dangerous at all, in fact he's a heck of a good
stick and rudder pilot and he flies instruments well, but he has absolutely no
consideration for his passengers. He scares the bejabbers out of them with steep
turns, rapid descents and bores on through turbulence down low trying to save
time and gas when he could give them a smooth ride by climbing a few thousand
feet. On top of that, he has taken them through terrible weather he could have
avoided but he won't divert even 20 miles. They think he has no respect for
their feelings, he thinks they just don't like airplanes."
There were several folks present, some of whom nodded knowingly in the
ensuing silence. Tina, about to take her private pilot checkride, spoke up,
"Okay, hotshots, I want to give my husband and kids rides after I get my
rating. I want them to like flying so that we can start using airplanes for
family vacations. Is there some secret to it? It seems that a lot of your
spouses won't ride with you. What's the deal?"
As is often the case here, the question posed started a discussion. There are
some pretty knowledgeable folks who generally contribute, so I sat back and
listened and tried to keep track of the suggestions that were made about how we
can best share the passion we have for flight with others.
The First-Time Passenger
The unanimous consensus was to keep the first ride short. Whet the appetite
rather than overwhelm your passenger. Especially for new pilots, there is a
tendency to try and show all the wonderful things that have been learned in 60
or 70 hours in the air to the brand-new passenger/victim in one flight.
first flight, particularly in little airplanes where the passenger can see quite
a bit, involves a huge number of new sensations. Depending on the passenger and
his or her personal wiring, the new sensations vary from scary to fabulous. Some
of the sensations may induce nausea. The result can be a passenger who begs for
a longer ride or one who wants it to end right away. Keeping the ride short
works well for all types of passengers if they are nervous, they get back
safely, quickly, so they can start to realize it wasn't all that bad. The next
ride can be longer. If they enjoy the ride they land wanting more, which is what
you wanted in the first place.
If your passenger is one who may become nauseous, the short ride is best.
Interestingly, there has been significant research into nausea. Those who are
victims of motion sickness can build up a surprisingly high tolerance if the
pilot will land before the person actually revisits lunch. The opposite is also
true. If the person does the Technicolor yawn in flight, his or her tolerance
drops on the next flight. I have a vivid memory of an aerobatic student of mine
who had suffered severe motion sickness all his life. On each of his first three
lessons all we could do was climb to altitude, do some Lazy-8s and then one
loop. He started feeling lousy, so we would immediately return and land before
he was more than just uncomfortable. On lesson four we got in three loops. On
lesson five we did a full lesson for the first time. After that, we were always
able to complete the planned lesson.
Time Of Day
You want the ride to be smooth, with minimal interruptions, so try to
schedule it first thing in the morning. (Don't let delays push the flight into
the heat of the day, you'll almost always be sorry.) The next-best time is about
an hour before sunset. Most of the time the turbulence from the heat of the day
has dissipated by then.
Prepare For The Flight
If possible, get to the airport/FBO well before your passenger. This will
give you time to sort out problems that may have arisen. Okay, who has the keys
to 04Q? Why was the airplane tied down with less than quarter tanks of fuel? Who
left the master switch on? You know, the stuff that happens when you really want
to fly. Arriving early gives you time to make sure the airplane is serviced and
to do the things that need to be done at the airport before you take someone for
a flight. It may be difficult to precede your passenger to the airport, however,
one idea is to go to the airport, make sure things are in order, and then go get
sure the airplane is clean inside and out. Do not present a grungy, run-down
looking airplane to a first-time passenger. It presents the image that you don't
care. You want to show your friend that you are a safe, competent, concerned
pilot. An airplane that is clean outside and in goes a significant distance to
convey the message. The converse is also true.
Clean out the seat-back pockets. Get rid of the dirty paper towels, the
ancient magazines, the gum wads. Make sure sick sacks are present and can be
reached easily. Be realistic, they may be needed. Have them handy. That shows
you are concerned for your passenger and plan ahead.
People have grown accustomed to cars that look attractive inside and out.
They have the vague concept that airplanes are expensive. If it is expensive, it
better be nice looking. It's a perfectly reasonable assumption. Act accordingly.
For most airplanes you will have to run a weight-and-balance problem.
Tactfully ask your passenger his or her weight, explaining why. On occasion a
prospective passenger will ask if you want her or his weight while clothed or
unclothed. It is considered somewhat poor form at that point to inquire, with a
straight face, how the passenger intends to dress for the flight.
Once you have determined the runway you are going to use, think of a route
for a brief sightseeing flight. Cover an area that may be of interest to your
passenger and will allow you to smoothly enter the pattern at a 45-to-downwind
without a lot of maneuvering. Again, plan to keep the flight to about 20 minutes
If you are going to use any charts or books or anything that you must keep
handy during flight, get them all ready before you even go to the airport. New
pilots tend to carry all sorts of junk to the airplane with them. Fumbling
around in chart bags to get the masses of paperwork that seems to reassure new
pilots does not reassure passengers. Have all of your stuff organized so it can
be in place within a minute of getting into the airplane.
if you haven't been able to get to the airport before your passenger, you want
to prepare the airplane for flight in an efficient manner. As you do so, explain
generally what you are doing and why. Your passenger will watch you do your
preflight inspection. Point out that you do this to assure everything is working
properly. Keep the tone positive. There is nothing in aviation we love more than
black humor. We happily say things such as "gotta check the ailerons to see
if they are going to fall off during this flight." After all, we willingly
tell our passengers to meet us at the "terminal" and when flying we
turn onto our "final approach." That's fine between pilots but it does
nothing to reassure the passenger. We are looking at the airplane to make sure
everything is working correctly, rather than looking for something wrong. There
may be no difference in the action itself, but the semantics mean a lot to a
passenger where everything is new, different and who has seen on TV all about
how these little airplanes will fall out of the sky with the slightest
Don't take a half hour to preflight the airplane. Explain briefly what you
are doing, but avoid getting interrupted in the preflight. Don't worry about
keeping your passenger amused while you divert your attention to making sure the
airplane is in proper condition. He or she will watch with some interest. We all
know of accidents that happened because a passenger interrupted a pilot as he or
she was about to find out that the big bolt that held the airplane together had
been removed. That's why the commentators in the Lounge suggested getting to the
airport ahead of the passenger and taking care of things. You can explain you
did the preflight before the passenger arrived and proceed to boarding.
We are used to the gyrations involved in boarding little airplanes; the first
timer is not. Take a moment to show where to step, what to avoid and why. Warn
your friend about head and shin knockers. If the airplane involves some
maneuvering to enter, say so, and point out that no one enters gracefully the
the weather is cool and your passenger will be in a back seat, remember that the
airflow in a general aviation aircraft is from the tail cone forward into the
cabin. Yes, it really is, you can measure for yourself. For that reason it is
always cooler in the back seat than the front. If your heater isn't up to snuff
for the rear seat riders, arrange for blankets. Make sure you have ridden in the
back seat to see just how comfortable it is so that you can empathize with your
Once in the airplane, show your passenger that the seat belt buckle works
differently than that in a car. Believe it or not, that is a significant matter.
There have been some incidents that called for rapid egress and one or more of
the passengers sat stabbing at nonexistent buttons in the buckle, as if they
were trying to get out of an automotive belt. Show how the doors open and close.
You are used to them, they are a mystery to your passenger. Show where the sick
sacks are stashed and be professional and adult about explaining that if the
urge expresses itself, use the sack. Glossing over this topic may cause you to
be rewarded with a little present from your passenger, especially if your lack
of consideration for his or her comfort also manifests itself in aggressive
handling of the airplane.
Make sure your passenger can see out. Youngsters and shorter adults cannot
see well out of general aviation airplanes. Be prepared with some pillows or
some sort of a booster seat.
If you anticipate needing your passenger to participate in the flight, from
holding a map to passing snacks, let him or her know prior to departure so the
need does not come as a surprise once in the air.
You don't look like a hero in a headset. The combination of the bulging ear
muffs and wires all over the place make all of us look pretty silly to the
nonflying public, so explain that the headset is to protect your passenger's
ears and make it easier to talk to each other. Unless you really don't want to
hear from your passenger tell him or her that the microphone has to be kept
close to the lips when speaking.
If you do not use headsets, be considerate and provide earplugs.
communication over the headset will be confusing to your first timer. Take a
moment to explain that it's not necessary to know what is going on, but talk
about it, in general, as is appropriate for your flight and the type of airport
from which you are flying. Keep in mind that your passenger will be pretty
alert, and, not knowing what the communications mean, will listen to the tone of
your voice when you make radio calls. If you get excited you are going to worry
your passenger. Keep all communications calm and professional. Waving your arms
and flailing around as you reach for knobs and dials doesn't do anything to
reassure your passenger either. Keep your movements smooth and unhurried.
Use the checklist as you normally do. Don't bury your head in the cockpit
using it as a how-to-fly book. You'll terrify your passenger. Use it as the aid
it was meant to be and briefly tell why you use it. Some years ago, my wife ran
an FBO and was puzzled that the wife of one of her renter pilots would ride with
every pilot at the airport except her own husband. The husband had a reputation
as a very, very good pilot for his experience level. My wife finally asked his
wife why she wouldn't fly with her own husband. The response was that she didn't
think her husband knew what he was doing because he had to read the instructions
on every flight and none of the other pilots had to do that. My wife suppressed
her laughter, explained what a checklist was and why its use was an indicator of
a good pilot. The couple began flying together. I hope it added to marital
Explain briefly what you are doing and why, but don't tell someone how to
make a watch when the only question asked is the time. Don't take ten minutes to
start the engine, and then dawdle while doing your run up. Do let your friend
know about the noises that are being heard and why you "rev up" the
engine before takeoff (hey, that's what all the hot shot reporters say). Again,
tell why you do what you do in a positive fashion. Finish your chores in a
reasonable time and go fly. I never have figured out the reason why some pilots
take ten minutes to do a simple run up in a light single other than perhaps to
give the passengers time to really get nervous as they watch the pilot
repeatedly fiddle with this and that and drop their paperwork four or five
Once in the air keep it smooth. Make your banks shallow, no steeper than
standard rate turns. Keep it smooth. Limit your descent rate to 500 fpm. Keep it
smooth. Keep the ball centered all the time. By the way, really work at flying
your passenger before you make power changes. Just reducing power from climb to
cruise will cause some to think the engine is failing. Let your friend know that
you are just reducing power for cruise and the sound level will change. Do the
same thing prior to power reductions for landing.
There are a several things to avoid: While it is a good idea to fly over your
passenger's house if you can, do it at well over 1,000 feet and don't roll into
a steep turn right over the mansion. Under no circumstances demonstrate stalls.
They scared you enough when you were learning them. Do not demonstrate the
ground reference maneuvers for the private rating. Do not do steep turns. Do not
try to show what a hero pilot you are by showing how to dogfight or strafe or
buzz your passenger's house. All of that sounds pretty basic, but, over the
years, idiots have done just those things to first-time passengers. In most
cases, they caused the passengers to walk away from a miserable flight despising
aviation. In some cases, they and their passengers were killed.
By the way, if you are the sort of person who blurts out an expletive from
time to time while flying, make a serious effort not to do it any time you have
passengers. It simply does not promote their peace of mind.
Remember, the passenger you scare today may be on the community council that
votes to shut down your airport tomorrow.
Once back in the pattern fly normally. Don't extend the pattern over the
horizon or do a power-off spot landing. Do your best to grease the landing, as,
no matter what, that seems to be the thing the passenger remembers.
on the ground resist the urge to say something along the lines of "Cheated
death, again." Such comments bother a surprising proportion of passengers,
and some will take you literally, thinking that they just got lucky this time
and won't want to fly again.
Afterwards, thank your passenger for riding with you and answer any questions
you can. Secure the airplane and escort your passenger safely off the ramp.
Even if all went perfectly you may not have a new convert to aviation, but,
if you did it right, you provided a very pleasant experience to someone and may
have planted the seed for her or him to learn to fly.
What About The Family Trip?
I noticed that because of our friend Harry there was some additional
discussion regarding how to travel with your family when going somewhere in an
airplane. I think I caught most of the points that were raised.
We all know deep down inside that our families are the most important group
of passengers we will ever fly. We just don't always keep that foremost in our
I cannot get over how many pilots, mostly male, treat their spouses as cargo
when they fly. It is unforgivable. If you want airplane travel to be a valued
part of family life, it is essential you make it an experience to be looked
forward to, rather than dreaded.
You As The Pilot
Are you current? Are you really current? Can you handle the crosswind that is
inevitable at the short strip near Aunt Emma's place without scaring your family
as you gyrate down final? Can you keep the needles inside the airplane when you
shoot the ILS into Burke Lakefront when you take the family to Cleveland for the
weekend at the Rock and Roll Museum?
extremely conservative with weather. If the weather is such that you would
probably go alone, but is below the comfort threshold for family members,
postpone or cancel the trip. They are relying on you to carry them safely and in
comfort. The airplane is expensive; it should not be an uncomfortable place for
your family. Why would your family willingly put up with you spending part of
the family fortune on an experience that is unpleasant? It doesn't make any
sense to a rational person, so, as a pilot, be rational. You have control over
the situation. Do your weather planning from the perspective of not only
"Is it good enough to go?" but also with the approach "How can I
make this the most comfortable for the people I love the most?" If you are
inclined to fly down low in the bumps to avoid headwinds and get there faster,
climb up to the smooth air with your family. Yup. It will take a little longer.
But you will be a hero for being respectful of your loved ones.
Treat your family as if they were chartering you and your airplane. You will
never fly greater VIPs. They deserve the best treatment and care you can
provide. Make sure that all the details have been taken care of ahead of time.
They should not have to sit around while you flight plan. When you get them to
the airport turn them loose for a potty break while you preflight and load the
airplane. Carry your spouse's bags and load them. Cater the airplane with some
snacks and drinks for the trip. I'm not kidding. You'd do it for a business
associate, make it a treat for your family by picking out a favorite food or
snack for each member.
some piddle packs and keep them handy. Be solicitous of your family members'
comfort in all things.
Make sure the headsets for your family members are comfortable. You don't
want to put your head in a vise for two hours. Neither does anyone in your
family unless it's Uncle Fester, but we won't even try to figure out his
If your flight involves flight over water beyond gliding distance of shore,
have your passengers put on life jackets before getting to that portion of the
flight. Have your raft handy. Over water flight scares a lot of people. Some of
them are bound to be in your family, so show your respect for their concerns by
having the over water gear handy.
the departure to avoid the hot, bumpy afternoon weather. Either leave early in
the morning or in the evening, but try to arrive at your destination before
If anyone in your family has problems with nausea, buy a couple of ReliefBands
from Aeromedix.com; they
Stay out of thunderstorms, ice and turbulence if at all possible. That may
seem as basic as it comes, but I cannot get over how many pilots willingly
subject their families to just that kind of weather when they would never do so
with a business associate on board.
Keep your valued passengers advised of what is going on. If there is going to
be some turbulence, say so and explain what you are doing to minimize it. If you
are going to fly through rain or clouds, let it be known ahead of time.
smoothly. Don't make heading corrections with just the rudders or the ailerons.
A lot of little airplanes wag their tails in turbulence. Any uncoordinated
maneuver just makes it worse. We pilots are used to yaw, so it usually doesn't
bother us. We tend to forget that the center of that yaw is usually about at the
pilot's seat so we don't feel most of its effects. For those seated behind us,
it can be just plain miserable. So, keep the ball in the center all the time and
use your hands and feet together to make all corrections.
If the trip is a long one, break it up and try to avoid flights in the
afternoon on hot summer days unless you are willing to go high enough to find
cool, smooth air. I've met some folks who do long flights by starting early in
the morning, making a quick stop for fuel about 10:30 a.m., then landing again
by 1:30 p.m. for a very leisurely lunch and a chance to sightsee in the area for
a few hours in the heat of the day. They take off again about 5:00 p.m. for the
last leg of the day after the turbulence has started to die down. They get in
three pretty long legs, avoid beating themselves up in the hot afternoon weather
and enjoy themselves in the process. If you are going to be flying in the
mountains, it's long been an axiom of aviation that only fools fly in the
mountains in normally aspirated airplanes during the afternoon hours.
It's Really A Matter Of Respect
The overall impression I gained from listening to the discussion in the
Lounge was that the pilot who winds up with happy passengers is the one who
takes their well-being into consideration in all facets of the flight. Let's
hope you have many good experiences giving rides to first-timers and that your
family clamors to fly with you.
See you next month.