The Pilot's Lounge #87: Etiquette Isn't Just Raising Our Pinkies

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Just because you can take a 3g turn and handle turbulence with hardly a butterfly doesn't mean you should make your passengers deal with all that. And we all know not to fly low over noise-sensitive areas. AVweb's Rick Durden points out a few more items to make flying more enjoyable for you, your passengers, and those anti-airport folks on the ground.

The Pilot's Lounge

It was a sodden, April Saturday afternoon in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport. The first unseasonably warm days of spring had brought out the tulips, hyacinths and optimistic pilots in droves. Frustratingly, on this weekend the weather had reverted to the precipitation that has been reputed to bring flowers in the subsequent month. When some geek quoted the hackneyed phrase, Old Hack -- with wide-eyed innocence -- inquired, "What do we need Mayflowers for? They just bring Pilgrims."

It was not a good start to the afternoon. After the groans, silence reigned for nearly a minute.

When the conversation restarted, it ranged from the upcoming Space Shuttle mission and our collective desire to be aboard, to the power and volume of the shuttle engines at takeoff and then to airport noise. That led to comments about consideration for others and some remarks about the jerk who had made the spectacularly loud arrival in a Cessna 185 the prior weekend. He'd shoved the prop forward as he entered the downwind leg and went screaming around a very wide, low pattern at 2,700 rpm. His actions triggered over a dozen angry phone calls to the airport, destroying the old record, which we'd hoped would never be equaled. Some complaints were from people who lived more than two miles away. It was one of the very first warm evenings of the year and a lot of folks were on their decks. The 185 pilot managed to give our little airport a black eye that is going to take some time to overcome.

One of the student pilots who has been diligently working on his private rating and has become a regular in the Lounge interjected, "I keep hearing you guys talk about noise and things a pilot should or shouldn't do when it comes to pattern operations, talking on the radio and other stuff. When I look in the books I've got for the things you talk about, I can't find any mention of lot of it. Is there some sort of unwritten code of etiquette for pilots that I don't know about?"

I thought Pete, one of our more macho regulars, was going to hurt himself trying not to laugh. "Etiquette? Are you nuts? We aren't dealing with china tea cups and doilies; etiquette doesn't have nothin' to do with flyin' airplanes."

Old Hack glared at Pete and then spoke in a surprisingly reasonable manner, given that he's often our resident sourpuss. "Think about the real definition of etiquette," he began. "I'm old enough to remember what it means, before TV and comedians made fun of it and got people to think that it was only for wimps. Etiquette is what we do to minimize the friction between people when we interact.

"When you walked in here, Pete, you sat down and listened to see what folks were talking about before you spoke up. You complied with the etiquette we follow here in the Lounge, even though no one ever talks about it in those terms. I've watched you. You practice some of the best aviation etiquette of anyone around here. Now calm down, I wasn't insulting you. For example, when you pull your airplane out of the hangar, you always turn it 90 degrees before you start it. How come?"

Pete said, "Of course I do. That way I don't blow dirt into my hangar or my neighbors."

Hack, smiled, "Hey, no matter how you slice it, that's etiquette; and no one here would ever accuse you of being a wimp. Those who know you would never confuse courtesy with weakness"

Pete laughed and said, "Hmm, I never looked at it from that angle. OK, but I ain't raising my pinkie when I use the tow bar on the nosewheel."

With that everyone started coming up with what he or she felt was appropriate behavior around aircraft. I took notes because I thought there were some pretty good ideas, and I tried to sort them out by stages of a flight. Interestingly, some were things that can be found in the Aeronautical Information Manual, but a lot were the sorts of ideas that might just help us reduce the number of complaints from the anti-airport crowd and reduce stress among pilots, and maybe even controllers.


Old Hack talked about increasing concerns over the nasty effects of letting avgas run onto the ground. He pointed out that one quart of oil can contaminate 200 square yards of soil, so that cup of avgas we drain from the quick drains and strainer, and dump on the ground again and again, is polluting our airports more than we like to consider. More and more it is providing ammunition to those who urge their closure. It was one of the points used by the crowd that pushed to close Meigs Field in Chicago. If the sample is clean and the collection container is as well, pour it back in the tank. Fuel is expensive stuff. Otherwise, it's not a bad idea to do as a number of airports do already: Each hangar has a container to collect fuel samples and the fuel is then added to the lawn tractor used to mow the place.

Whether it's your airplane or a rental, don't let anyone inside with dirty, greasy clothes. Have some respect for the interior and the others who will be using the airplane after you.

If possible, find a comfortable place for your passengers to wait, in warm or cold weather, while you do the preflight alone. It helps you avoid being distracted and it makes the experience much more pleasant for your passengers when they don't have to stand around the airplane, doing nothing other than shiver or sweat. After all, you like flying; make it a good experience for them as well. While at the airplane, get the cockpit completely organized -- charts arranged, headsets plugged in, portable GPS wires stowed -- so that when it's time to board you can do so expediently and start up without roasting your passengers in hot weather or fogging up all the windows in the cold.

Treat your passengers with the utmost consideration; after all, most of them are the ones in your life who are nearest and dearest to you. Use a little creativity in finding ways to make the flight truly enjoyable for them. Cater the flight; or at least bring snacks, sandwiches and munchies, the way the top-notch airlines used to treat their passengers. Make the general aviation experience several notches above what they have experienced on the airlines. It certainly won't take much effort.

Toss a Relief Band in your flight kit (see Aeromedix for details); the things work extremely well for motion discomfort. The passenger you save may be one of yours.

Pull the airplane out of its hangar or tiedown and turn it so that it is not going to blow dirt and small children all over other airplanes or into hangars.

Wipe your shoes before getting into the cabin.

Avoid putting things on the glareshield that could scratch the inside of the windshield.

Recognize that your passengers may not have the intense enthusiasm for the upcoming flight that you have and may actually be frightened and doing their best not to show it. Be considerate of them and have sick sacks handy as well as piddle packs. Make the briefing one that recognizes and soothes their uncertainties. Emphasize your concern for safety in a positive way. Above all, don't present a parade of horribles that you conclude with an explanation as to how your passengers should then fight their way clear of the wreckage when the hulk comes to a stop and bursts into flames. It may sound silly, but have them show you that they can unbuckle the seatbelts. Despite all of the positive head shaking, I'm still amazed at the number of passengers that do not know how to unbuckle an aviation-style seatbelt buckle. Plus, if the pressure is on, a frightened person reverts to "early learning" and will try to "push the button" as they do in cars; so have them show you that they actually can open the buckle.

Tell your passengers that you will be reading a checklist, and that it's a normal procedure. You'd be surprised how many folks who are unaccustomed to aviation get scared when they see a pilot reading a checklist and are convinced that he or she doesn't know what he's doing.


Check behind you before you hit the starter to make sure you are not going to ruin someone's day or sandblast their paint job.

Holler "Clear!" Then wait a moment to give someone who might be in the way a chance to move or shout. It has been said that the scientific definition of a microsecond is the period of time between when a pilot yells "Clear" and then hits the starter. That one time you shout "Clear" and someone outside yells "No!" will change your outlook forever.

Get it done. Little airplanes are extremely uncomfortable for passengers in hot weather. Be organized before you let them in the airplane so you can get it started and get air moving through the cabin sooner rather than later.

Be considerate of the engine. Immediately after starting it doesn't have any oil pressure, so there is a lot of metal-to-metal grinding happening. The higher the rpm, the more damage that is being done; therefore, set the throttle for low idle, not 1,500 rpm on startup. Engines do run at dead idle, although they may feel as if they won't. Good pilots impress those around them by starting at low rpm. One sure way to be considered a novice is to have the engine immediately go to run-up rpm when it lights off after cranking.

Idle the engine while you are waiting to taxi. Prop noise travels a long distance, especially on quiet evenings. Be thoughtful of those who are around you; they may be trying to carry on a conversation or may be in their back yards with their families and might not appreciate your engine noise.

Out of consideration for others, leave the strobes off (day or night) until taking the runway.

For your passenger's sake in hot weather, try to keep the time on the ground before takeoff to a minimum.


Look way ahead when taxiing, planning so as to avoid potential nose-to-nose airplanes on a single taxiway. My favorite such situation culminated in one pilot (the one who caused the mess) snarling over the Unicom, "I never shut down for an idiot." The other replied, just before pulling the mixture and getting out to push his airplane back, "That's OK; I always do."

In a tricycle-gear airplane, if you are on anything but smooth pavement, taxi with the control wheel all the way aft. Whether it's your airplane or a rental, you want to maximize the life of the prop. The erosion you are causing affects your rate of climb over those trees after takeoff.


When positioning the airplane for the runup, consider where the propwash is going to go and the effect of the noise on the area.

If possible, leave room for someone to taxi around you while you are doing your runup.

Avoid pointing the tail of the airplane at the runway during the runup. Your propwash is stronger than you realize and it may affect someone who is landing or taking off. Yes, it has happened.

Tell new passengers what you are doing during the runup, keeping it positive: "We're checking to confirm that everything is working properly before we take off," as opposed to, "We want to make sure the engine isn't going to quit." You'll be amazed how many fearful passengers will tell you that they appreciate being told what is going on.

Don't dawdle at high rpm during runup. If you can't do the engine-runup portion of the pre-takeoff checklist (mags, prop, carb heat, check oil pressure, temperature, suction and ammeter) in less than 30 seconds, something is wrong. Think of the erosion occurring on your prop as you sit there at high rpm, and keep the time to a minimum.

Cycle the prop once. It either works or it doesn't; there is no need to do it three times, and noise and prop erosion really do matter.

When ready for takeoff, ask your passengers if they are ready and if they have any questions. Not only is it consideration for them, sometimes you'll get a question along the lines of, "Is that stuff supposed to be flowing out of the wing?"


Set the standard for your passengers early: Make the takeoff as smooth as possible, with the nosewheel lifted at the right speed so the airplane flies off smoothly; no bouncing and hopping because the airplane is still on the ground 20 knots above rotation speed.

Climb at Vy for at least the first thousand feet to keep the noise footprint small, then set up a deck angle that is comfortable for all aboard.

Climb high enough to get reasonably cool and smooth air for your passengers, even if it means a stronger headwind. The turbulence and heat bothers them a lot more than it does you. (Do you want them to say they enjoyed the trip and want to fly again?) Yes, the flight might take a little longer up high in a slightly stronger headwind; but down low, in the bumps, that "slightly shorter" time is going to be absolutely interminable for your passengers. They will be thinking that they can't wait for this miserable flight to end and vowing that they'll never go with you again if they can avoid it.

Use maximum continuous power in the climb so you don't remain in the heat and turbulence any longer than necessary. For the vast majority of engines, there is no reason to pull them back to "25-25." Check the POH; full throttle and max rpm, if allowed, is better for engine life and cooling than a partial-power climb and it gets your passengers to the cooler air more quickly. In the airplanes where the prop makes a heck of a lot of noise, such as a Bonanza or Cessna 206/210/185, pull the prop back to max. continuous as soon as it's safe.

En Route

Make an effort to find smooth air when carrying passengers.

Keep banks relatively shallow.

Keep your passengers informed about the trip, without babbling constantly.

Don't buzz your friend's house. It really aggravates the other neighbors; plus there are so many towers nowadays, and the accident rate from untrained pilots engaging in low flying is so high, that it's just plain stupid besides being inconsiderate.

Da Radio

Listen before making a transmission.

Keep transmissions short.

Never argue on the radio, especially with a controller. Get a phone number and sort it out on the ground.

If you are going to chat with someone, change to a plane-to-plane frequency and don't tie up Unicom, especially on a Saturday morning.

Make position reports in the pattern.

Avoid the moronic phrase, "Any traffic, please advise." Advise of what? Stock prices? If you are approaching the pattern, give a position report and then just listen; if someone is in the area, he or she will tell you.

Think before you key the mic.


Plan the descent so you can keep the speed up and the rate at no more than 500 fpm so as to keep your passengers' ears happy. Ask in advance if anyone has any problem with their ears. If so, plan the descent even further in advance and at a lower rate.

Check with your passengers to see how they are doing in the descent.

If you have babies or small children aboard, give them something to suck on or drink starting just before the descent is to begin. The swallowing will help immensely with equalizing pressure inside of little ears.

Do not make last-minute, power-off descents to the airport. It's hard on the engine as well as your passengers, and simply demonstrates to everyone that you can't think in the third dimension because you don't know when to start down.


Enter the pattern expediently and predictably. The 45-degree entry is not always appropriate. By the same token, don't do a long straight-in if the pattern is busy; enter on an upwind and fly the pattern so as to fit in with traffic.

Above all, avoid barging into the pattern as if you own the place. Start listening to the calls on Unicom early, look around and fit in.

Keep the pattern tight. Flying a wide pattern is a good way to aggravate a lot of people. It's also a good way to get yourself cut off by someone who is flying a reasonably sized pattern and either doesn't see you way out there or is upset by your arrogant, big, fat pattern and won't put up with it.

Wait until on short final, when doing the last GUMP check, to move the propeller control forward. That way the neighbors might not even notice your arrival and you don't have any risk of a momentary prop overspeed.

After Landing

As you turn off the runway and take care of the flaps and other assorted tasks, again consider the passengers: Open windows, and maybe even doors if it's hot, and keep as much air flowing through the cabin as possible. There may be that one passenger who is on the verge of being airsick and the extra airflow may hold the eruption at bay.

Turn off the strobes upon exiting the runway.

Once back at parking, shut the airplane down. Unless you need some time to let a turbo spool down (which probably isn't necessary if you've reduced power on the approach) don't sit there idling and fumbling around. Turn off the radios, and pull the mixture. Then let the passengers get out and stretch. You can get back in and do the paperwork while they are unloading bags or rushing to the rest room. (Yes, they do have to go; be considerate.)

Please, please, please, don't make some stupid, black-humor comment after the flight if there are non-pilots around. "Well, we cheated death again," has caused a lot of people to decide not to ever fly in little airplanes again. You are the pilot, the person with expertise in this flying thing. You just gave a great ride, the passenger liked it and then you make some comment that tells your passenger that it was all dumb luck; that you really had no control over things and the passenger should be grateful he escaped with his life.

Scaring passengers through inconsiderate action is foolish. Doing it on purpose is contemptible.

Secure the Airplane

Double-check that you shut off the master switch. It's embarrassing to forget and run the battery flat.

Return the trim tab(s) to the takeoff position for the next person. Arrange the seatbelts and shoulder harnesses neatly and put the checklist where the next pilot can find it.

Clean up your mess. Get all of the candy wrappers and soda cans out of the airplane. If someone spilled something or got airsick, it was your passenger: You are responsible, so clean it up.

Do a brief walk around of the airplane to see if something is leaking or broken. If it's your airplane, you may save yourself a lot of trouble on your next flight by finding something now. If it's a rental, it's a courtesy to the next pilot to have the FBO start to fix whatever's wrong now, rather than later.

Even if the airplane is going right back out, tie it down securely or put it in its hangar and close the door. The next pilot may cancel. A squall line may come through. Do your part to protect that vehicle of the sky that you like so much.

As the discussion spooled down, I couldn't help but think that aviation etiquette is pretty much what we learned in kindergarten, applied to airplanes. Do things for other pilots and handle airplanes the way you would like other pilots to behave toward you. It makes the experience that much better for all of us and reduces the risk of alienating people from general aviation. In this day and age, we need all the supporters we can get; which means we've got to treat everyone with respect and dignity if we expect any in return.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.