Hey! No Scaring The Passengers!

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We see it too often: A pilot's spouse and family refuse to fly with the pilot. It may be because the pilot unconsciously does things to frighten the passengers. We've got some tips to avoid panicking the people most important to you.

One of the comments made by some pilots when a group of them gather is that their spouses or significant others and family members won’t fly with them. While riding in little airplanes is certainly not to every person’s taste—and rising above the planet does generate a concern about returning to it less than gracefully—some of the time it’s the pilot’s own behavior that has caused the problem. Most of the time the pilot doesn’t realize what he’s done to cause those nearest and dearest to decline to go aloft with him.

It’s bad enough that some of the terms we use in aviation imply an unpleasant end to a flight—we’ll depart from the “terminal,” we’re on our “final” approach—there are a lot of things pilots do that are technically safe, but that scare the stuffing out of their passengers. To make matters worse, they are things to which most pilots are utterly oblivious.

Running A Tank Dry

In general, there is nothing wrong with running a fuel tank dry on purpose, at altitude, in cruise. It isn't going to suck any impurities, dirt or small children into the fuel lines.

There are legitimate times in which a pilot wants to run a tank dry. For instance, in airplanes that aren't equipped with a "both" position on the fuel selector, a pilot may desire to get all of the fuel out of a tank, particularly on older airplanes with numerous tanks. Switching to a tank containing fuel and turning on the boost pump (if the POH/Owner's Manual calls for it) usually means the engine gets noisy again once the air in the fuel lines is replaced by fuel. While it can take a fair amount of time in some circumstances (and it may be over a minute—worst case—in a few airplanes), it's usually not a big deal, technically.

From the point of view of a passenger as the engine cuts out, it's bloody terrifying. A pilot has been through it all before and is in control—those two words are hugely important when considering your passengers. The passenger is not in control, it's a heck of a long way down and that loud silence up front—even briefly—is no fun whatsoever. I’ve had pilots tell me that they hate it when they are a passenger and the pilot runs a tank dry. It never comes when they expect it—even when they know it’s going to be happening—and it makes the adrenaline spray out their ears.

One of the very worst fears we humans have is of falling. So, where are our passengers, those humans with virtually no control over their fates? Way up high. And you, the pilot, are in charge, and allowing the engine to quit. Think how that makes them feel.

Shrinks explain that anger is a "secondary" emotion. It is the product of a primary emotion, usually fear. Anger only comes out when a more basic emotion triggers it. When you scare a passenger, there's a healthy chance that the result will be anger at you. It may not be expressed directly, especially at first, but it will be expressed in some fashion, be it a refusal to fly with you, nasty comments behind your back or other actions against you in your relationship, especially if the passenger is your spouse. If it is a first-time rider, he or she may decide to never fly again and may actively work against airports and little airplanes. A number of the "Stop the Noise" anti-airport folks have stories of flying in a little airplane and being frightened by an arrogant or sadistic pilot. If the passenger is your spouse or child—the most important people in your life—you are telling them, through your actions, that when they are in a position of no control you will consciously do something that scares the $#@! out of them. So don't act puzzled because your spouse or kids are not excitedly leaping up to go flying with you when the opportunity is offered.

Do you really need to run that tank dry?

When carrying a passenger, do what you can to avoid running a tank dry. On those very rare occasions where you need to do so—it had better be rare otherwise something is really wrong with your flight planning—let your passengers know well in advance. Tell them what is going to happen. Explain why. Then, when the engine first coughs, change tanks right away. Get it running smoothly again and apologize to them for the power interruption, for doing something that scared them.

Not Telling Your Passengers What's Going On

Remember when you were a kid going to the doctor’s office and there were all those terrifying instruments on in the examining rooms? You didn’t know what they were, but you knew about shots and that other stuff—the clamps, and gauze and black cuff thing—had to be bad and probably hurt. Passengers tell me that virtually everything in a little airplane and its operations are without compare to what they have experienced in life. Cars don’t move in the third dimension and are one heck of a lot quieter inside. Then, when they’ve been riding along for a while and have gotten used to how things normally are, the pilot does something different—such as use more flaps on takeoff and pull up at a much steeper angle or starts demanding things from an air traffic controller or flies through clouds that are terribly bumpy rather than fly around them—and the uncertainty, discomfort and fear show up once again, front and center.

When I’ve listened to passengers tell me what concerns them about flying, I also think about the pilots I know who hate riding as passengers, especially in the back seat—out of reach of the controls. Not surprisingly, the issue boils down to the lack of control felt by the passenger on top of not knowing what is going on and why. The extra flap on takeoff question came after a flight the couple had made into a short strip with obstructions. The pilot had, correctly and safely, followed the short-field takeoff procedure for the airplane. He didn’t tell his wife what he was going to do and what to expect. It didn’t help that he snapped at her when she asked him about it afterward.

While there are portions of any flight that demand the pilot’s full attention and the sterile cockpit rule applies, when carrying passengers pilots shouldn't sit mute. There’s time to explain what is going to happen before it does—before the runup, takeoff, climb, power changes … you get the idea. Following flights with first-time passengers I’ve had several tell me that the brief explanations of what was going to happen next lowered their apprehension levels significantly.

So talk. It's not necessary to explain how to make a watch when your passenger simply wants to know the time. Before the flight, provide an estimate of the length of the flight, what the potty break and food situation will be. It doesn't hurt to make the estimate about 15 minutes longer than the flight will really take—then your passengers are happy that you arrived early.

Mention that you are doing the runup to make sure everything is working correctly before you take off. Keep it positive; your passengers will love you for your caution and concern for their well-being. For crying out loud, don't say you are looking for something to break. Explain briefly why you are using a checklist—yes, I've had passengers tell me that they thought it was because I didn't know what I was doing. (OK, there are several possible comebacks to that remark; I'll let them all pass.)

Tell your passengers that the nose will be up kind of high during the climb and that it is necessary to bank the airplane to make a normal turn—while it seems basic, new passengers don’t know that and may be convinced that the airplane is going to turn over. The noise level will change when you level off and set cruise power—let them know it's coming. Communicate with your passengers, not just with ATC; although from a safety standpoint, do as you usually do and follow the “aviate, navigate, communicate” priority hierarchy.

Taking Risks with Passengers

I’ve heard spouses express fury over things the flying spouse would do in an airplane with the family aboard. The examples I heard included flying at low altitudes over large bodies of water without any flotation devices in the airplane, buzzing someone or something, flying with a radio inoperative or with a weak mag or low on fuel. To me as a pilot, flying on a nice VFR day with one of two radios inoperative is no big deal, but passengers don’t know that it’s no big deal. Passenger spouses have told me that the message they got from the husband-pilot who flew with inop equipment or minimum fuel or a rough mag was that he didn't care about his family's well-being.

With your family aboard? Really?

The points non-pilots made to me over the years were pretty clear: If it's not working, get it fixed before you take up a passenger. Make sure everyone has clothing enough for an extra day if the airplane breaks and has to be repaired. If you are flying over water, carry flotation gear; have appropriate survival equipment for your route. It's all a matter of control—the passenger has none other than to refuse to fly. If you are willing to fly an airplane in questionable mechanical condition—and your passenger considers anything that is not working as significant although pilots may not have that point of view—then don't be the least bit surprised when your passengers are unwilling to fly with you a second time.


Years ago I flew with a pilot whose wife had said was a “fiddler” and it drove her nuts. It was true. In level flight he couldn't sit still. He was constantly futzing with this, adjusting that and tapping on the other thing. He couldn’t stop tweaking the mixture, often to the point of causing the engine to run rough or cut out. After about 15 minutes of it, I just want to smack him. While sitting there, I was reminded of pilots who have told me that they try to impress their passengers by constantly adjusting things, so they can see how on top of the terribly difficult world of flight their pilot is. Passengers aren’t impressed by fiddling. They want well-enough left alone. To them a pilot who fidgets and fiddles causes anxiety. Once something's set, unless it's broken, don't mess with it. You keep your passengers more comfortable if you set things and let them be for the remainder of the flight (or at least into the descent) if possible.

Try something: On your next cross-country flight with a passenger, see if you can sit still—other than scanning for traffic—for two minutes. If you feel compelled to touch a power control or play with the GPS, you're one of those who transmits a sense of unease to your passengers.


Passengers despise and fear turbulence. Pilots get used to it and often don't notice it. There is a major disconnect between pilots and passengers on this topic, especially when dealing with headwinds. Most pilots will willingly fly low to avoid headwinds and accept turbulence as a consequence.

I'll spell this out as clearly as I can: Your passengers would willingly wring your neck if you choose turbulence over a smooth ride. While the flight lasts a shorter period of time down low, in lighter winds, the full story is that time is relative. A one-hour flight in the bumps is far longer to your passengers than a 1.5-hour flight in smooth air. Yes, it costs more for the airplane rental to go slower, but that's not an expression of the total price you are paying for your decision to make your passengers miserable.

Not only do you as the pilot flying not feel the pure physical discomfort of turbulence as intensely as a passenger—even a pilot who is a passenger—turbulence is scary because it very often feels to the passenger as if the airplane is about to go out of control. I'm not kidding. When you took your first few lessons, turbulence scared you when it rolled the airplane without you doing anything to the controls. With time and experience, you learned what to do and have gotten so used to turbulence that you've forgotten what that felt like in the beginning. That very early stage of your learning is where your passengers are now. Do your utmost to find smooth air when you are carrying passengers, especially those who are the most important to you in the world, your family.

Weather Decisions

How's the ride going to be?

A fair number of passengers have told me that they don’t like flying in little airplanes in weather where they can’t see anything out of the window of the airplane—in clouds. They are uncomfortable if they can't see the ground or a vista of clouds. If you are going to be in actual instrument conditions, say so ahead of time and give a brief explanation about what to expect. I've had some pilot friends indicate that their spouses were so uncomfortable with being in clouds that they always flew VFR with them, even if it meant delaying a departure for a couple of days. Those marriages seem to last—and the spouses are still riding along as passengers.

One of the best axioms of military aviation is, "There is no excuse to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime." Even the most aeronautically nave passenger knows that thunderstorms are horribly powerful monsters that can destroy houses and airplanes. You know better than to fly through a boomer when solo—there's no reason to subject passengers to one.

Ice worries passengers in varying degrees. Some know how truly treacherous it is, but even those who don't will be curious about why the windshield became opaque, the wings look like a freezer that needs to be defrosted and you are suddenly sweating even though it's cool in the cabin.

Out of consideration to passengers, make weather decisions even more conservatively than when you are flying alone. Hey, the airlines and corporate pilots do all they can to give a wide berth to weather because they want repeat business from their passengers. Running your private flight department in such a way as to cause passengers to want to come back for more is sure to make any good capitalist happy, even though you aren't charging for the flights.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Your passengers do not like a dirty airplane. They don't know how to evaluate the safety and condition of the airplane, so they use cleanliness as a measuring device. (Just like you do when wondering whether an unfamiliar maintenance shop is any good: You look to see if the floor is clean. You've learned that it's a pretty good indication of the overall quality of the shop.) If it's a rental, demand that the FBO provide you with a clean airplane. You're paying the bill. Plus, part of a 100-hour and an annual inspection is to wash the airplane. If it's your airplane, clean out the gum wrappers and soda cans and used tissues.

Respect the fact that some people get motion sickness. The victim honestly doesn't want to be sick. He or she isn't doing it to spite you. Being sick is no fun at all. If you can do something about it, you're a hero. Have sick sacks available. Land before the heave-ho takes place—tolerance increases if you do so; it goes down if the person actually does the technicolor yawn. If the person is a regular passenger—you know, a family member—make a determined effort to see if any of the airsickness remedies will work for the person involved. Our family has had great success with the ReliefBand. It’s pricy, but for the family members who had previously been miserable, price wasn’t the first concern. You'll be amazed at how grateful a family member will be when you get something that helps with motion sickness.

A portable urinal - we're all adults here. Make sure you have some in your flight bag.

If you were in a situation where you badly needed to use a restroom, none was available and the person in charge refused to do anything to help you out, how would you feel? Would you willingly place yourself into that situation again? So be considerate of your passengers. Carry piddle packs of some sort. Keep flights short enough that they don't have to be used; it's embarrassing for any passenger called upon to use one.

In the little thing department: Keep the black humor among pilots; don't use it on passengers. The "cheated death again" comment some pilots seem to need to make after a flight has scared passengers out of flying again. They don't know it's not true. I've heard passengers say how much they hate it that their spouses habitually say it after a flight—especially when they thought it was a nice flight, so there may have been something really bad that happened and they had just lucked out and landed safely.


Student pilot training programs don’t provide much information on the care, feeding and comfort of passengers. I’m of the firm opinion that we’d have many more willing and happy general aviation passengers if pilots were more attuned to keeping their passengers comfortable and avoiding doing things that scare them. Be solicitous of them, recognize that it’s scary to be suspended way up in the air in a little, tiny machine, communicate with them and, as the placard on the panel of my friend’s Stearman says, “Don’t Do Anything Stupid.”

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.

Comments (1)

Excellent advice. I'll just add that passengers should be actively encouraged to ask questions -- at the right time of course. I've been on flights where the passenger said nothing the whole flight only to pepper me with questions long after landing (e.g. "Why were you constantly twisting that red knob? Was something not working?" etc.) Those post-flight questions made me realize that the passenger was suppressing anxiety the whole time and thinking that asking a question would make me lose control (of the airplane, that is).

Also, find out how your front-seat passenger feels about helping before you ask; for some, being asked to keep an eye out for traffic or tap in a transponder code means you can't handle things by yourself.

Posted by: Harry Saddler | April 2, 2018 8:25 PM    Report this comment

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