The Pilot's Incapacitated — Now What?
A recent Cessna 414 crash in Georgia offers a tragic reminder of why non-pilots who regularly occupy the right seat should prepare themselves for such a contingency. Tens of thousands of non-pilots have gone through such "pinch-hitter" training, which typically requires just four hours of flight and four of ground school. Non-pilot Sue Ritter reluctantly took the course a few years ago, while pilot/husband Doug (AVweb's news editor) hid in the corner and took notes. Here's a play-by-play from both Doug's and Sue's viewpoints. Sue's advice: stop making excuses and just do it!
Flying over Fairbanks Alaska in their Piper Super Cruiser with his wife Joan, John Chalupnik suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Joan suddenly found herself Pilot In Command. She wasn't really a pilot, but providentially, she had attended the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Pinch-Hitter program just the day before. After regaining control of the plane she called for help on 121.5. With assistance from controllers and another pilot she was able to fly to the airport and safely land the plane. She credited the Pinch-Hitter course with saving her life. Often non-pilots can make it safely back to terra firma even without Pinch-Hitter skills, but many flying companions and passengers have perished when the pilot quit flying. Somehow it doesn't seem very responsible to leave someone you care about with no backup when there is a very viable alternative available.
In the thirty five years since the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF) first offered the Pinch-Hitter course, over 11,000 non-pilots have taken the full course, which until recently included flight training. An estimated ten times that number have attended the four hour ground school portion of the course. The Pinch-Hitter name is a registered trademark of the Foundation, but despite that, the term has come to be widely used when discussing similar courses offered by flight schools and other organizations. Among the organizations that offer, or have offered at various times, a similar course are the 99s, Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (Mooney Mate) and the American Bonanza Society (Cockpit Companion). When we think "Pinch-Hitter," we think of a non-pilot taking over when the pilot is incapacitated and safely landing the plane. While that is certainly the primary objective, the course has many other benefits for both pilots and their non-pilot companions.
More than Just Emegency Skills
Many of us regularly fly with another non-pilot. Most often it is our spouse or SO (significant other — not second officer) Others regularly fly with business associates or other family members or friends. Some fly with you because they enjoy it, but many are uncomfortable with flying to some degree or another. One important benefit of a Pinch-Hitter course is that it nearly always allays non-pilot's fears, spoken or unspoken, about flying. It is probably worth it just for that alone.
Your flying companion can be a tremendous asset. With training they can make your flying safer, easier and more enjoyable. The Pinch-Hitter course includes basic instruction in aircraft control, navigation and radio usage. It's great to have some knowledgeable assistance when you need it. With a little effort on your part, your companion can take over some of your routine jobs and you can better concentrate on flying. It's also great to have someone able to understand and double check what you're doing. In the event of an emergency, wouldn't it be nice to have someone in the right seat who can help rather than panic? I've provided some tips on how to make sure you do your part to make their job easier, in case such an emergency occurs.
Flying In Four Hours
All this sounds like a lot to accomplish in four short hours of ground school and about an equal amount of flight instruction, spread over two days. Did I say learn to fly in just four hours? Say again? Well, maybe we left out a few important details.
AOPA Air Safety Foundation has, indeed, taught thousands to fly in only four hours of flight instruction. However, instead of a pilot's certificate, they receive a Pinch-Hitter certificate. They aren't a full fledged pilot, but they are fully prepared to perform as an emergency replacement pilot. Most other organizations giving such course take about the same amount of time, some a little longer than others, depending upon the experience of the CFI and organization involved.
Still, it boggles the mind. With only four hours of flight instruction and four hours of accompanying ground instruction, Pinch-Hitter students are ready to fly in case of an emergency. They won't actually solo except in the unlikely event something goes terribly wrong during some future flight, but they are prepared.
Not Just For Singles
My wife took the course a few years back and I was impressed. The results speak for themselves. She relates her experience in the accompanying article. The course is broken down into four primary areas; controlling the airplane, navigation, radio navigation and emergency communications and airport arrival and landing. The instruction is obviously not the same as that received by someone going through a private pilot course. The emphasis and objectives are very different.
The range of age and experience, as well as aircraft is also impressive. Using the ASF Pinch-Hitter course as a gauge, the youngest were a brother and sister, age ten and eleven, who flew their father's Cessna 172. As long as the student can reach the rudder pedals, they can fly. The oldest Pinch-Hitter graduate was a 79 year old grandmother flying her husband's big twin, an Aero-Commander 680.
Having your flying companion take the Pinch-Hitter course can have a significant impact on your own flying enjoyment. Many who regularly fly with us do so under duress, never really enjoying the experience. Some are really scared or maybe a bit frightened, others just nervous and uncomfortable. For many, it just isn't much fun for them as it is for us. When it isn't fun for them, it probably isn't as much fun for you. Becoming a Pinch-Hitter will change their attitude. Those who already enjoy flying will also benefit, as will you.
One very legitimate concern expressed by many attending the course my wife took is what will happen if you keel over from a heart attack or are somehow incapacitated? Said one mother, "I worry about the kids if their father is flying and something happens. I finally realized I could, must, do something."
Getting to that point, when your flying companion realizes they should do something, isn't always easy. Most pilots report it took plenty of encouragement to get their companions to sign up. The results are well worth the effort. Participants heaped praise on the course. "Should have done it years ago" was a frequent comment heard after completion.
I can speak from personal experience. It took ten years of trying to get my spouse to take the course. While she never voiced any concerns about flying, I was the one who worried about what would happen, if something went wrong. Turns out I am typical of many pilots. I saw the need, but couldn't easily persuade her to do it. Despite her initial reticence, she was all smiles by the time she was done.
The course isn't just for female spouses or "significant others," though they do still make up a majority of the participants. About 20% of the students are men. Many business associates are also taking the course. Any non-pilot who regularly flies in General Aviation aircraft is a good candidate.
Most students fly their own aircraft, though a fair number fly rented aircraft. Students have flown everything from simple Cubs to heavy twins like the Cessna 414. Dual controls are required, of course, but brakes on the right side are not.
While the ASF has gotten out of the actual flight training business, they still offer a "Pinch-Hitter Instructor Guide" to be used by whomever gives the actual instruction. Traditionally, the two or three day course is comprised of two ground school sessions of two hours length and four one hour flying sessions, two each following each ground school. AOPA ASF still offers the four hour ground school portion of the course, which is immensely popular. It costs $99, except at AOPA Expo, when it is included in the normal Expo registration fee. Last year in Orlando, 300 took the course in three classes of 100 each. The Pinch-Hitter classes held by the Air Safety Foundation in 30 cities around the country every year are much smaller, usually just 10 - 25 attendees.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has also produced "Pinch-Hitter The Video" which is available for $29.95 from Sporty's Pilot Shop and includes the "Pinch-Hitter Pilot Training Manual." This 40 minute video is a pretty good introduction to the Pinch-Hitter concept, though the four hour live course is far better, in our opinion. The video serves as an excellent review for Pinch-Hitter recurrent training.
The Pinch-Hitter Curriculum
The initial ground school leads off by covering the basics of flight and navigation. Before beginning, the instructor, an experienced CFII, will ask the pilots who inevitably accompany the Pinch-Hitters to class to leave the room. This allows the students to ask questions freely, without intimidation. Students are first encouraged to ask questions, not only about the technical side of flying, but also about those things which bother them, their fears and anything else on their mind. Once the instructor puts the students at ease, answering their most personal questions about flying and their fears, it is time to get into the meat of the course.
The skills required to safely pilot a plane are distilled down to only the basic necessities. Using slides, an overhead projector and the ubiquitous model airplanes the instructor explains how to control the aircraft. Correct terminology isn't stressed, everyday language is often used to convey the information. If a student uses "steering wheel" instead of "yoke," they won't be rebuked. Students have been known to "steer" instead of "turn." "Gas" gets the message across just as well as "throttle." Whatever works for the students. Control inputs and results are often related to driving a car and riding a bicycle. Every effort is made to keep it as simple as possible.
In this session pilotage is emphasized and students learn how to read a sectional and how to keep track of where they are so they will know where they need to go to find an airport in an emergency.
The second half of the ground school deals with radio navigation and emergency communications and airport arrival. Amazing as it sounds, they manage to make VOR navigation understandable and practical in one short session. The emergency frequencies are planted firmly and permanently into the heads of the Pinch-Hitters. Practical communications are stressed. For these pilots, "HELP!" works as well, maybe better, than "Mayday." ASF provides a checklist for the Pinch Hitter, which I have modified slightly for my own use.
Into The Air
When it comes to the flying portion of the course, instructors follow a prepared syllabus, modifying it as necessary to fit the student's needs. After a comprehensive walk-around, reviewing what was covered in the ground school, it's time for the first flight. Pinch-Hitters fly from the right seat, just as they normally would. The first hour of flying emphasizes aircraft control. Simple power setting rules are demonstrated. Students are generally taught that a good cruise power setting is between 20 and 25. That works whether you are using MAP or RPM to set power. Precision is not important. It is rare that such general guidelines doesn't work, in which case the instructor will give the student a special one.
The student learns how to control altitude and direction of flight. Turns are limited to no more than 15 degrees bank. The importance of trim is taught. Stalls are avoided, students are simply taught to never get closer than 15 mph/kts to the bottom of the white arc until ready to touch down. Every effort is made to ensure the student has a successful first flight and acquires the basic skills to fly the aircraft safely, maintaining control at all times. Pattern entry and landing is demonstrated with the instructor emphasizing the visual clues, power and trim settings. Once in a position to set down, the student pulls back the power and the instructor allows the aircraft to settle onto the runway and roll out to a stop.
After a break, the second flight begins with the student performing the takeoff and then pilotage is introduced. The student learns to transfer the basic piloting skills from the first lesson into purposefully flying to where they want to go. The student also starts to handle more of the communications with ATC, easing into that necessary skill. This time the student follows the instructor through on the landing.
The Tricky Stuff
The third flying session is spent mostly practicing VOR navigation and ATC communications. Students gain control experience while tracking radials and complying with ATC instructions. The session finishes with additional practice approaches, emphasizing positioning the aircraft over the runway and setting up the landing.
The final hour in the air pulls everything together. Students practice emergency procedures; assuming control, contacting ATC and navigating to a strange airport and landing. By the conclusion of the day the student will have made a number of landings entirely on their own. Students returning from their final lesson emerge from the cockpit with wide grins and that same self-satisfied, triumphant expression as do regular student pilots who have just completed their first solo.
For the flying portion, the choice of an instructor is key to successful completion of the course. Experience counts for a lot, this isn't the place for a young CFI just starting out or building time. With rare exception the ones used in the past and recommended by ASF are mature, often greying experts with decades of instructing in their logs. Making the student, who may well be very nervous and who may well not really want to be there, feel comfortable is vital and experience has shown that most feel more comfortable with an older instructor. Moreover, all that experience gives them an important edge when they have to teach so much in so little time.
A Better Intro Flight
Here is an interesting statistic for those who have tried, without success, to interest their flying partner in learning to fly. According to the ASF, about 45% of Pinch-Hitter students have gone on to regular flying lessons. This, despite the fact that most never professed any interest in, or were opposed to learning to fly. While a lot more expensive, this is a much more effective introduction to flying than the typical 30 minute intro flight.
Bottom line is that pilots do become incapacitated and if and when they do, the fate of any other passengers is likely in the hands of whomever is sitting in the right seat. If that person is a non-pilot, then their having taken a Pinch Hitter course, even just the ground school, could mean the difference between life and death. So, I urge you to have your non-pilot companion read my wife's accompanying article and then just go do it!