Aviation's Ambassadors

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All pilots are ambassadors for aviation, whether you want to be or not. How you treat non-pilots and aviation novices will have a big effect on whether you will get much support when someone wants to close your airport or put more restrictions on your flying.


The scene is played out over and over on nice, sunny weekend afternoons across the country. The proud and excited new pilot leads her passenger out to the airplane. As they walk across the ramp, the pilot assures the passenger the weather will be good for the flight. Using all of the weather terms she worked so hard to learn and understand, she rattles off a long dialog explaining, "Since high pressure dominates the region there will be clear skies and no rain. Also, we have a good temperature/dew point spread with light winds out of the northeast." The only item lacking in "Newpilot's" assessment is an explanation of thermal-induced low-level turbulence.

It's been a long time since our new pilot first started her training. Even though those first few lessons seem like only yesterday in some ways -- especially the more exciting and interesting moments -- now forgotten are the first few flights in rougher air and the slight anxiety and perhaps even queasiness that had resulted. Newpilot is long past worrying about a few little bumps in the air. Newpilot needs to be cognizant of the fact that her passenger has not had the same acclimation process and may become nervous or physically affected by even the lightest turbulence.

The aviation ambassador's way is to schedule first flights for morning or evening hours when the air is smooth.

Who are general aviation's ambassadors? Well, fortunately, there are many. What some don't realize, however, is that it's possible to be an ambassador for aviation and not a pilot, but not the other way around. For better or worse, every pilot is part of the direct link between aviation and the non-flying public: our friends, co-workers and relatives. Many pilots inadvertently provide a bad first impression of "those little planes" and end up turning away people who would otherwise enjoy -- and benefit from -- general aviation flying.

Preflight or Pre-Disaster?

Newpilot feels proud as she remembers all the weather concepts and terms she learned throughout the course of her training so many months ago. Having "comforted" -- and no doubt impressed -- the passenger with her weather dissertation, it's time for the preflight inspection. "I'm going to do a thorough inspection on the plane," Newpilot announces. So much work, so much learning and remembering went into Newpilot's training.

We're proud of our accomplishments as pilots, and it's tempting to make ourselves look better by using jargon and impressive terms. Be an ambassador for aviation by presenting flight as challenging, but not just for the "elite." Don't overwhelm newcomers with terms and complex ramblings that may scare them away from taking on the challenge.

To impress her passenger and make him feel safer she points out the many things she's checking for as she looks the plane over. "I'm checking this linkage to the elevator to make sure it's connected ... if one of these weights comes out of the aileron in flight it could lead to flutter and loss of control ... a nick on the prop can turn into a crack, then a piece can break off causing an imbalance which could tear the engine out of the airplane." These are all important considerations. It's good that Newpilot remembers her training and methodically checks the plane before each flight. But it's not necessary, or advisable, to point out to the passenger every potential for peril. Emphasizing what can go wrong may make the passenger worry that things apparently always go wrong.

The ambassador's way is to use the preflight as an opportunity to build confidence and trust within the passenger. "I'm going to take a few minutes to look the plane over and be sure everything's in perfect operating condition. It's normal with airplanes to do what's called a 'preflight inspection' before every flight." This shows prudence and builds confidence. It assures the passenger that it's a normal routine and you're not scrutinizing the plane because you think there's something wrong with it.

At the run-up area, Newpilot once again has an opportunity to showcase knowledge of the aircraft and its systems. "We're checking to make sure we have vacuum pressure, because we lose the attitude indicator and heading indicator if we lose the vacuum pump," she announces. "I'm checking both mags ..." ("What's a 'mag'?" wonders the passenger) " ... to make sure both are working. If we lose one, the engine will still run on the other ... now I'm checking the carb heat -- you use that if you get ice in the carburetor." Innocently, Newpilot once again continues right down the list of potential troubles that could happen during the flight.

The ambassador's way is to put a positive spin on the runup: "I'm just making sure the engine is running smoothly before we take off."

Unusual Attitudes for the Land Lubber

Even though the runway is 5,000 feet long, Newpilot wants to show her passenger how well she and the plane can perform by doing a short-field takeoff. The passenger involuntarily jerks as he hears the beeps of the stall warning horn during the climbout. The exaggerated pitch attitude combined with a very slow perceived speed is unnerving to say the least. The varying gusts of wind can not only be felt in the little craft but also heard: Alternating gusts with their resulting mini-wind shears cause the propeller to growl momentarily and the stall warning horn to chirp several times. The passenger tightens his grip on the armrest with his right hand and the front left corner of the seat with his left. The resultant fear from this improper introduction to the sky becomes one more nail in the coffin that will bury any future desire for flight.

The ambassador's way is to make every transition as smooth as possible. Extremes of pitch and bank should be avoided

"Isn't it beautiful?" Newpilot asks.

"Uh ... yeah," the passenger replies shakily, his voice jolted by a swiftly rising thermal. (It was then he realized he had not actually looked out yet.) After several more seconds the passenger gets the nerve to peek through the window and does indeed see a sight of splendor. But while the scene is breathtaking and intriguing, the ominous proportions of what lies out the window is an instant reminder of what a tiny, fragile craft he is in.

After flying around town Newpilot decides to head toward the practice area where she spent so many hours perfecting her skills. To "help" her passenger have more confidence and feel at ease in the plane, she decides to show just what it can do. Also, this will be an opportunity to showcase the skills she worked so hard to hone.

The nervous passenger is starting to settle down somewhat -- the fear is at least partially gone. However, the constant bouncing around -- and the hot air in the tiny cockpit -- has made his stomach feel ever more naggingly queasy. Newpilot thoroughly explains what an aerodynamic stall is, and then performs two: one power-on and one power-off. Some slow flight and steep turns round out the repertoire. The ghostly white color in the passenger's face and beads of sweat popping out all over his forehead tell the pilot it's time to head home, and quick! The rapid descent to the airport does the final number on the passenger's stomach, and the flight's finale, is -- well -- predictable based on the circumstances.

Start With Short and Sweet

All pilots need to remember that they, indeed, are ambassadors for all of general aviation any time they take a new passenger into the sky. Making sure you provide a good "first taste" of flight is an important responsibility. Try to anticipate the anxiety and nervousness the newcomer may experience. All that's so comfortable and familiar to the rated pilot -- the sounds, bumps, sights, smells, and other little things pilots don't notice anymore -- can be sources of worry and fear for new passengers.

A quick flight to another airport is a way to give the passenger a good ride without excessive turns and maneuvering. Also, the trip will showcase the utility of flight. Most effective is to let them realize this on their own. "We're at Bishopville already? It takes an hour by car!"

Pilots who want to impress their passengers will accept the responsibility and become an effective ambassador for general aviation. When the challenge is met with success, the pilot's satisfaction will come from the smile on the passenger's face at the end of the flight as he asks, "When can we go again?"