Eye of Experience #54:
The General Aviation Passenger

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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.

Eye Of ExperienceHaving 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.


  Cessna with tail number FEAR
One substantial difference is in the fact that the passengers can actually speak to the pilot — converse with you. This frequently takes the form of questions. "What are you doing that for?" "What does this thing do?" "Why are we tipping like this?" These are questions that almost every pilot hears at one time or another from first-time passengers, or even those who fly frequently. Questions like these do not necessarily mean that you've got a nervous passenger on your hands. Perhaps he is just curious. In either case, it is best to answer all questions as fully as possible without resorting to technical language. We can replace fear and satisfy curiosity with simple knowledge. But, remember, keep it simple! This kind of frank answer tends to replace fear and superstition with science and knowledge. It is in this context that you should answer whatever questions your passengers ask. And if they don't ask, explain anyway. It has been said that fear kills reason, and I'm certain that this is an accurate statement. It is the unknown that people fear, and flying machines are filled with gadgets that are totally unknown to the average individual. And let us not forget, the machine is doing something "impossible" — it is "defying" gravity, and everybody "knows" you can't do that. There are some people who fly regularly as passengers in light airplanes who, every time they arrive safely at their destination, have the distinct feeling that they have successfully cheated death. In fact, I had a regular charter passenger, the CEO of a very large operation, who refused to disembark from the airplane until I turned to him and said, "Well, we cheated death one more time." This was a sort-of joke between us, but I suspect he was semi-serious. I have also actually seen people get out of an airplane after a routine landing and kiss the ground because they are so happy to once again be down on dear old mother earth. We in general aviation can at least explain lift, weight, thrust, and drag to our first-time passengers so they'll at least have an inkling as to why the thing doesn't fall out of the sky and crash to earth. And for the benefit of the passenger who is lucky enough to sit up front, we can explain what each of those mysterious gages on the panel does.


Explaining Instrument Panel
Conversely, such questions as, "What does that do?" or, "How does that work?" are likely to be prompted by simple curiosity. This provides you with an opportunity to show off your knowledge. Everybody likes to feel special, and pilots are no exception. To a greater or lesser degree we are all flattered by being asked to explain something that we know and understand and that the other person doesn't. This situation presents you with an opportunity to enlist another aviation enthusiast, and should most definitely not be wasted. After all, how often do you get a chance to show off your knowledge and skill while at the same time sharing your pleasure in aviation?

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.


  Pinch Hitter Course
I recall a man, a United States congressman, whom I used to fly around on business trips. This was a man who spent considerable time on air carriers, traveling between his district and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. His air-carrier travel was apparently without a qualm, perhaps because he knew there were a minimum of two qualified pilots up front, but he seemed to be quite concerned in a light twin or single with just me at the controls. Do I inspire confidence or what? This fine gentleman expressed his concern by repeatedly asking what action he should take if I should suddenly become incapacitated while there were just the two of us in the airplane. I must have appeared as if I was about to expire at any moment. I attempted to put him at ease by explaining how the controls worked, what each of the instruments does, and how to navigate to an airport. Fortunately, as an instructor, I was able to replace his superstition and fear with science and knowledge. He gained confidence and finally came to enjoy flying in a light airplane. In fact, he went so far as to tell me that if his busy schedule permitted he would undertake flight instruction. He did complete the Pinch Hitter® course, following the curriculum as published by AOPA. This case was no doubt a combination of both Fear and Curiosity.

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

  Flying High over a Landscape
Flight is one of the most unnatural activities in which human beings can engage. Understand, the sky is not our natural environment. Even those who sail the oceans are not in quite as unnatural a situation as those who traverse the sky. We know that for as long as humans have walked the earth, from that time beyond which our memory runneth not to the contrary, we have always envied the birds as they soared through the sky.

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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