How Good Are You At Reassuring Nervous Passengers?

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At least weekís Aircraft Electronics Association show, famed aerobatic pilot Sean D. Tucker was the keynote speaker. The connection? Heís head of the EAAís Young Eagles program and a perfect choice for recruiting pilots. Heís enthusiastic, animated and knowledgeable. Iím not sure AEA was the right audience for the pitch, but it was interesting to see what he brought.

Frankly, I was drifting a couple of dots left of course when my 10-second mental playback recorder said ďlost the propeller.Ē Did I really hear that? Up, on the giant screen, popped a video, shot point-of-view so you had a good view of the front seat passenger in his Pitts S-2 and glimpses of Tucker in the rear. As far as I can tell, this video isnít posted online anywhere, although Iím sure others have seen it in his presentations. Itís also not a recent event, but that didnít make it any less riveting.

The basic set-up was this: Tucker was giving his niece a ride in the S-2, with some basic aerobatics. People who teach aerobatics have to become sensitive to how their charges are doing after a few minutes of pulling Gs. Tucker has an interesting way of doing it. ďAre you okay?Ē he asked? ďReally okay, or just medium okay?Ē He had a couple of other phases he used to cleverly probe the limits of encroaching nausea. He was persistent about it, too. This is something I donít think Iíve ever done to that extent and probably havenít thought of, either. Nice little lesson.

It got better. The prop loss part occurred later in the video when, in the midst of an inverted spin, the prop departed the airplane along with the crank flange and spinner. Someone told me you could see it corkscrewing off in the background, but I missed that. Now Tucker had a real problem. For a solo pilot, that would be a no-brainer bailout, since the aft shift in CG might make the airplane uncontrollable or at least unlandable. But Tucker figured he didnít have that option with an inexperienced, young passenger and with weight in the front seat, the CG shift was evidently manageable.

He was over a short crop dusting strip, so he set himself up for an engine-out landing to a very short runway. But that didnít look like the hard part, actually. His young passenger wasnít exactly freaking out, but you could sense through the audio link the potential for rising panic. Yet while he was setting up the landing, Tucker kept up a steady patter of confident assurances that this was going to come out just fine. Happens all the time. (Well, not quite.) If youíve ever flown a Pitts, youíre probably familiar with the hair-on-fire approach speeds and this looked faster than that, viewed through the camera toward the rear. It looked the Millennium Falcon in reverse. As his niece cooled below melting temperature, Tucker allowed himself a relieved laugh and both emerged unharmed. For as impressed as I was with the landing, the passenger care part was even more impressive.

I canít really remember why Tucker showed this video in service of his efforts as a pilot recruiter. Iím not sure I heard what lesson was intended. But I know what I took away from it. As most of us do, I pay lip service to reassuring nervous passengers, but Iíve never been any good at it. Iíll confess to a certain lack of commitment. With this exceptional example of how it ought to be done, I hope to do better next time.

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Comments (20)

Thanks for the defocusing from grammatical errors. I carry 3 gal. opaque plastic bags and I caringly supplicate my passengers to open them wide and used them.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 18, 2014 5:51 PM    Report this comment

You know, I've found that giving the passengers opaque plastic bags to be a very bad idea - invariably they WILL use them. Instead, I try to keep them talking - as long as we're having a good conversation all's good - if they stop talking, pull one of those opaque bags from your shirt front pocket and give to them. In 3000 hours of flying, which includes lots of instruction, I've only had about 4 people barf, and those were either really bumpy days, or we were out pulling some G's, doing spins, or other stupid pilot tricks.
As far as impressing someone, if they want a fun ride, pushing the stick over and giving them -1 G is usually more than enough. Go further than that with an inexperienced flier, and if you're cleaning out the airplane, you get what you deserve.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | March 18, 2014 7:10 PM    Report this comment

"caringly supplicate" LOL! two funni, Raphayell!

And I have to add that "Frankly, I was drifting a couple of dots left of course when my 10-second mental playback recorder said "lost the propeller." is equally brilliant! When senior moments become seconds, keep that recorder in top shape...

I probably fly more dogs than people, and don't fly aerobatics, so I can't comment other than my wife knows if you spill it, you clean it up.

Posted by: David Miller | March 18, 2014 7:12 PM    Report this comment

On a summer afternoon, I was loading passengers for a short flight to the islands. Among them was a somewhat frail older woman. I latched the door and was making my way through the cabin, when the woman asked: "Excuse me. I don't want to be a bother, but could you tell me how often little planes like this crash?" The entire cabin now was silent; all eyes upon me. After a full beat of silence, I replied: "Ma'am, usually only once." Another full beat of silence was followed by uproarious laughter - led by the elderly passenger. It was an uneventful flight.

FYI, I can attest to the lost-propeller corkscrew effect. More than 30 years ago, I lost a prop just after takeoff. The sight of it screwing itself slowly through the air remains a vivid memory. BTW, we found the prop; it still hangs above the entrance door to my office. One of many "conversation-starters" in my lair.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | March 19, 2014 6:46 AM    Report this comment

Levity rules!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 19, 2014 7:01 AM    Report this comment

When I first started flying, my instructor told me to have first time flyers watch the horizon and not look down (watching the horizon may not work when doing aerobatics). I always tell them if they feel at all queasy, let me know and we'll go back and land right away. Seems to work, I haven't had a single barfer toss it in the plane in forty years, though a couple did let loose as soon as they got out. One I really thought was going to lose it suddenly turned pasty white, I asked him to hold the yoke and make some gentle movements with it to turn us back to the airport while watching the horizon. He did and within moments he was much better and enjoying himself. I'm pretty sure if I'd offered him a plastic bag instead of the yoke, he would have filled it. He still flies with me occasionally as long as I let him do most of the flying.

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 19, 2014 7:31 AM    Report this comment

"Pushing the stick over and giving them -1G is usually more than enough" ....Josh, I would agree that is more than enough, but zero G works fine for us :-)

Paul, "drifting a couple dots left of course" is hilarious; I find myself doing this during most sit-down meetings unfortunately. Then I start imagining the soft "dah-di-dah" of the identifier...and my eyes glaze over...zzzzz.

Posted by: A Richie | March 19, 2014 9:35 AM    Report this comment

" It was an uneventful flight."

Hardly. Short of losing a propeller, in my world, diffusing or alleviating fear with humor for not one but possibly many ranks much higher on the event list than a go-around, bounce or filled, opaque plastic bag does any day. ;-)

Posted by: David Miller | March 19, 2014 6:05 PM    Report this comment

I don't do aerobatics, and I try to fly very smoothly with first time passengers. I think that keeps the nervousness to a minimum. I'm afraid I have had a few barfers over the last 41 years, but everyone hit the bag, and none of them were from overt nervousness. True that some rowf due to being nervous, but some folks are just motion sensitive, especially in the back seat, even in relatively smooth air.

I've learned that the usual barf bags are less than great, so I have a supply of quart sized zip lock bags--and the only thing that would make them better is if they weren't clear. I haven't found any that were opaque, however.

Keeping up the patter as Sean described is a good idea, though--never really thought of that.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | March 19, 2014 6:07 PM    Report this comment

I had one rear seat passenger lose her breakfast over the southern Sierra Nevada on a bicentennial flight from Santa Monica to Tahoe. It was her first flight in a small plane. It was bumpy and she was probably staring too wide eyed at the beautiful scenery below. She kindly made use of a ziploc bag and we continued on our way. After celebrating the bicentennial in Tahoe we flew on up the mountains to Seattle and then came back down the coast.

She went on to join the flying club, took lessons, earned a 4.0 GPA at Long Beach state in an aviation management program while earning her ratings, and then flying jumpers out of Perris Valley. She then continued on to a Captain's seat in 747's for a cargo container. For some, the love of that view from the air conquers all!

Posted by: Rol Murrow | March 20, 2014 9:51 AM    Report this comment

Rol, can she cook?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 20, 2014 10:28 AM    Report this comment

I found a few things helpful in reassuring nervous passengers about their mistake to fly with me. First, I let them attend the preflight inspection, mumbling "Jesus Christ, what is this?!" and "God, who signed this crap off ?!" remarks. This is obviously easier if you have a "pretend mechanic" close by who will fall into a heated argument about why this plane should have been scrapped after its last crash. I then proceed to point out the lack of floating devices and parachutes (my backpack says PARACHUTE on it and I keep it on at all times). Generally, you can always help by taxiing just a tad bit fast using your brakes harshly to get full attention back on track. During flight, several things can help. (1) Rush stuff and work the controls real fast. (2) If you announce the possibility of turbulence, assure to do it with a panicky undertone and (2a) don't forget to wiggle the controls in case there isn't any turbulence occurring naturally. (3) Never skip the "did you hear that?" question - (4) use of phrases such as "holy cow" and "I didn't think that would snap", "I didn't think it would do that?!" and "Oh Dang, we should have taken on more fuel, this is going to get close". Lots of power changes on final, possibly a flyby or two just to make sure the 172's gear is fully out. If nothing helps and they still sit calmly, a flask with ice tea or having your pax read you the checklist (forgotten spectacles) will do. If none of this rocks the boat and the pax looks very nice and is female, ask her to marry you (obviously a keeper). Grumpy passengers can be persuaded to renegotiate your pay for this flight prior to determining if you will be capable to get the thing back on the ground... god knows we only fly today because it didn't kill us yesterday. Oh... and if you buy a Commander, DON'T BUZZ residential areas while low and slow...!

Posted by: Jason Baker | March 20, 2014 9:12 PM    Report this comment

Devilishly hilarious, Jason, manic imagery! I was on the floor so long after reading #1 my wife nearly called LifeAlert.... :-)

Posted by: David Miller | March 20, 2014 11:21 PM    Report this comment

After 19 years flying (13 as a CFI) you tend to learn a little about human nature and how non-flyers react in airplanes. Just a few years ago I flew with a local CFI on a Veterans Airlift Command mission in a borrowed SR22 Turbo. We picked up two army vets on Long Island for the return trip to Manassas, VA. After helping both heroes into the back seat (both had prosthetic legs) we strapped in for engine start. I could tell one of our pax was a bit nervous about flying in a small plane, but kept quiet. As the engine was still warm, it was a bit of a challenge to get it going due to vapor lock (the warm day didn't help). The engine sputtered and caught, then died and my partner's response was to say "F***!" and not at all quietly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw our nervous passenger's head snap forward to see what happened. (mental note: hold your tongue in such a situation)
We got started, and after an uneventful takeoff climbed to 10.5k for the trip. At some point midway we start discussing the airplane (he owns an older SR20) and he started going on about how the owner of the Turbo had had all kinds of problems with it and was pissed off at Cirrus. Realizing we were on a live intercom (the passengers had headsets) I reached over and hit the "crew isolate" button on the audio panel. I said "Dude, you really gotta watch what you say on the com - the guy sitting behind you is pretty nervous about flying in a small plane". He blew it off like it was no big deal, which floored me. You'd think an instructor would know better and be a little more sensitive to the fact that these vets probably had never flown in small planes before.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | March 21, 2014 8:27 AM    Report this comment

Early in my flying instructing career I was scheduled to conduct an intro flight in a C172. When the passenger and I reached the aircraft we discovered the words, "I'm BROKE" scrawled in dirty oil on the side of the cowling. Much like the word "CROATAN" carved into the tree on Roanoke island, it was clouded in mystery. The potential student (unbeknownst to me a practitioner of spiritual arts and crystals) felt it was a sign from above and refused to get in the airplane. The line attendant had written the message as a joke. Too late, the damage was done.

Posted by: SHANNON FORREST | March 21, 2014 9:13 AM    Report this comment

Nothing gets them going like finding out the plane is covered in FABRIC! Egads! This can't possibly be airworthy!

Posted by: A Richie | March 21, 2014 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Unrelated to topic. Question of the week: Did your flying skills atrophy over the long winter? In Palm Springs we fly the most during winter.

Related to topic: Therefore,we carry the most opaque plastic bags during winter.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 21, 2014 10:14 AM    Report this comment

I too have seen this video at a local EAA Chapter and, like Paul was absolutely blown away by Sean's ongoing calming talk. If you ever get a chance to see this video you'll see exactly what Paul and I are talking about.
Think about it; flying some soft aerobatics and in the next instant 60 pounds flies off the front of the airplane; oil all over; instant W & B problem--and while I don't know, I doubt even Sean had ever been confronted with that problem before but he knew that he had to maintain a lot of speed to keep control of the airplane. And then, in the midst of all that he has enough confidence and awareness to talk very calmly and reassuringly to a young woman who is freaking out. The man is absolutely my hero

Posted by: Steve Ells | March 21, 2014 10:58 AM    Report this comment

Jason, one item you forgot is to tell the passenger to "snug that belt up, the ambulance attendants are too lazy to look for the bodies."

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 21, 2014 12:52 PM    Report this comment

It's actually pretty simple; if you don't load it, it won't fire.
That is; keep the 'pre-flight' brief, too the point & factual; sans emotion.
Then you won't 'set-up' the scenario. But, be prepared (like the Boy Scout) anyway.
In an emergency, if you're calm the passengers will be also. One of my trainees had a genuine engine failure (separated engine value). He kept it 'cool' and out-landed safely with little airframe damage (hit by a calf - yes, the calf ran into the airplane in its final landing roll & dinged the Cherokee's fuel tank). His passengers were his future wife & her parents. How 'loaded-up' would THAT be?

Posted by: john lyon | March 21, 2014 6:59 PM    Report this comment

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