The Pilot's Lounge #89: How We Scare Our Passengers Without Realizing It

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Sometimes it's obvious why our friends and relations enjoy -- or don't enjoy -- flying with us. But sometimes the reason they quit going is more subtle, and we may need to remember those things we felt back when we first learned how to fly. AVweb's Rick Durden reminds us to put ourselves in our passengers seats.

The Pilot's Lounge

Summer finally arrived, so someone stuck up a notice in the Pilot's Lounge here at the virtual airport that stated we might as well have an airport cookout before Mother Nature changes her mind. On the appointed date the weather cooperated and there was an excellent turnout. It provided an opportunity to chat with some of the pilots we don't get to see as frequently as we like, as well as to let family members associate a pleasant time with the airport.

After having a couple of brats, some potato salad and baked beans splatted onto my paper plate and fishing a soda out of the cooler, I found that most of the picnic tables were already full. I located a chair at a mildly wobbly card table where Harry, his wife and son were just starting to eat. We exchanged pleasantries and settled down to enjoying the food and light conversation. I was pleased to see the three of them, but more than a little surprised, because of Harry's family situation when it comes to aviation: They've got a cottage on a lake about 55 minutes flying time from here in Harry's Cherokee, but his wife Millie and son Kevin get there via a two-hour drive. That is despite the fact that Harry flies to a very nice, grass airstrip about a 10-minute walk from their cabin. Millie and Kevin absolutely will not fly with Harry, and have refused to do so for several years.

I like Harry, Millie and Kevin. We got to solving the various world problems as our plates steadily got lighter, until Old Hack walked up to Harry and said, "The keg just got here and it's got some sort of new-fangled tap that no one can figure out. I was sent to bring the master." We all laughed and Harry got up to help with the project.

The Problem: Scaring Passengers While Clueless

The moment Harry was gone, Millie said to me, "Kevin talked me in to coming out here. He really likes the folks at the airport and thinks some of the airplanes are hot and he wants to learn to fly. The trouble is that Harry has scared me so damn many times I don't know what to do. I think flying is dangerous, but I don't want to stop Kevin when he wants to learn something. I know computers, I know electronics, I don't know airplanes; but I think Harry is just plain dangerous. I love the guy, but he's made me just too scared to fly with him. On top of it all, we can't talk to each other on the subject without having a fight. Maybe if you talk with him about what he's doing and the example he's set for Kevin ..."

"Millie, I'm foolish enough to try almost anything once. But, before I talk to Harry, you've got to tell me what's going on. His rep. around here is that he's just inconsiderate, and he'll fly low in turbulence to avoid headwinds because he's cheap; but no one has ever said he was a dangerous pilot."

Rather than try to recount the entire conversation, I'm going to hit the points Millie raised. I'd touched on Harry's flying some years ago in a column suggesting things a pilot could do to make passengers happier. And while I'm a believer in teaching by saying what one should do as opposed to saying, "Don't," there are times that it's necessary to outline the things not to do.

What I learned in listening to Millie was that there are a lot of things pilots do that are "safe" (or at least pretty 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

I'll start out by saying this: 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. Most of the time the engine will quit, restart, quit and restart a couple of times before completely ceasing operation. The minority of times it doesn't go through any belching and carrying on -- it just stops.

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, especially a spouse who has long flown with the pilot, may have been through it several times; but even so, 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 for your passenger.

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.

The 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.

When carrying a passenger (even a pilot-passenger), do what you can to avoid running a tank dry. On those very rare occasions where you need to do so, and 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. Don't do it over water. 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

Millie told me that there were numerous times that Harry had done something in the airplane that didn't make sense. Some times he'd use extra flaps on takeoff and pull up at a steep angle, would change altitudes suddenly, pull out the checklist and start reading it ("I thought he knew how to fly"), start demanding things from the controller or fly through clouds that were bumpy rather than climb over them or go around them.

As I listened, it seemed to me that again the issue was the control felt by the passenger. When I asked Millie about the times Harry used extra flap on takeoff and pulled up sharply, she said it was at a strip they used to go into for breakfast. It was short and had trees all around it. When I explained a short-field takeoff, Millie said that it made perfect sense, but that Harry never said a word about it. She watched what he did and because he was doing something different, was worried. (By the time that issue came up in their flying relationship, Millie had quit asking Harry questions about what he was doing because his response had been to snap at her.)

What I learned as the conversation continued was that pilots shouldn't sit like bumps on a log when they have passengers. While it's possible to be way too loquacious, few pilots are. Millie said she'd ridden with one of the pilots here one day and that pilot had briefly explained what was going to happen before doing the runup, takeoff, level-off at cruise, descent and landing. She recalled that it lowered her apprehension level 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. 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, recognize the priorities: aviate, navigate, communicate.

Taking Risks With Passengers

Millie was furious with Harry for doing things with her and their son in the airplane that she did not consider to be safe. Harry would fly at low altitudes over large bodies of water without any flotation devices in the airplane. He would fly with a radio inoperative or with a weak mag or low on fuel. She said that the loud and clear message he was sending was that he didn't care about his family's well-being.

The point she made was 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. (If in doubt about what's appropriate, check this out.) It's all a mater 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.


Harry is a fiddler. In level flight he can't sit still. He constantly tweaks the mixture, often to the point of causing the engine to run rough or cut out. Naturally, when the engine coughs, it frightens his passengers. It's also not necessary for normal operation of the airplane. If running rich of peak, lean slowly to peak and then enrichen the 100░ degrees or so to get the temps and pressures down. If lean of peak, perform the "big pull" smoothly, but don't go to where it quits. Once it's set, unless it's broken, don't mess with it.

I've had pilots tell me that they try to impress passengers by constantly adjusting things. Passengers aren't. They want well-enough left alone. To them a pilot who fidgets and fiddles causes anxiety. Harry can't sit still. I've flown with him and I've seen it. After about 15 minutes of him futzing with this, adjusting that and tapping on the other thing, I just want to smack him. There may be a personality disorder involved, but no matter what, 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. Your movements should be directed to looking for traffic, changing radio frequencies as needed and refolding the map as you make progress.

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 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, 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

Millie doesn't like weather where she couldn't see anything out of the window of the airplane. She isn't alone; I've heard that from a lot of passengers. They are uncomfortable if they can't see the ground or a vista of clouds. Harry, naturally, didn't care. 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.

One of the best axioms of military aviation is, "There is no excuse to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime." Even the most aeronautically na´ve 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 and why the wings look like a freezer that needs to be defrosted and why 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 vomits). If the person is a regular passenger -- you know, a family member -- log onto Aeromedix and buy a Relief Band. The things work. You'll be amazed at how grateful a family member will be when you get something that helps with motion sickness.

If you were in a situation where you badly needed to use a restroom and 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.

About that time, Harry came back carrying a couple mugs of beer, obviously in a good mood, and passed them around as several other folks arrived to talk. Millie gave me a level look as if to say, "Tell him soon." I just nodded in response.

Now I've got to figure out how I'm going to give a copy of this to Harry.

See you next month.

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