As pilots, we have become accustomed to and familiar with the flying environment and the equipment we operate to the point we forget what impact it has on non-pilot passengers. Even though they may fly commercially, many are unfamiliar with general aviation and are amazed when we squeeze them into a Cessna, Cirrus, or Piper. Their anxieties, magnified when the motor doesn’t start on the first try, intensify when the motor does finally start and the whole plane starts shaking. Worse, you don’t seem to have a clue the airplane is about to fall apart because you keep smiling and acting like you’re having a good time, oblivious to the impending disaster around you.
As host and captain for the day, you must start alleviating your passengers’ fears before you ever get to the airplane. Brief them ahead of time that things will be close and “friendly” in the cabin, and their personal space will likely be burst. Let them know that various conditions (cold start, hot start, cold weather) can affect starting the engine so they won’t be surprised if it doesn’t start on the first try. Tell them about a sterile cockpit on the ground and in the air near the airport, but also advise them how to tell you if something concerns them. Most importantly, assure them that they still have a voice in and some control over the situation.
If it’s a local sightseeing ride and your passengers decide they have had enough and want to land, you will respect their wishes rather than forcing them to endure something they have become uncomfortable with. If it’s a cross country flight and nature calls before you reach your destination, they should speak up, and you should listen rather than pressing on to the planned destination or en-route stop.
A cardinal rule is no show boating! Don’t show people how great you are at stall recoveries. Remember how apprehensive you were the first time your instructor took you up and said, “Now we are going to make the airplane fall out of the sky”? Flying over people’s houses can be safe, but it’s no time to practice your skills at low altitude turns about a point. You need to conduct the trip as much like an airline flight as possible to keep your passengers’ comfort level as high as possible. Regardless of how bland you think it is, they will be impressed. Much more so if they don’t get air sick.
King Schools (www.kingschools.com) — as a matter of full disclosure, that’s my day job — has a course called “Practical Risk Management for Pilots and Their Reluctant Passengers” that discusses the passenger bill of rights in general aviation aircraft. It says you won’t do anything to scare them, lets them know how they can ask questions, and offers them parameters you won’t exceed; it also advises how they can let you know if they think you are close to or exceeding any of the agreed upon parameters.
In the Air Force, I frequently took crew chiefs (plane captains, for you Navy folks) for orientation rides in a two-seat F-15 as a reward for excellence and going the extra mile to keep their jets in top maintenance condition. I knew this ride was all about the crew chief and not about me showing off. The airplane took care of making an impression without any embellishment on my part. It was their ride, so I asked each one what they wanted to do and see, and that directed my mission.
The cockpit of a fighter jet is alien to someone who doesn’t see it regularly. Wearing all the equipment: helmet, visor, oxygen mask, G-suit; being tightly strapped in with a shoulder harness and lap belt; and occupying the small cockpit can bring out claustrophobia in anyone and is conducive to air sickness just sitting on the ground. I would explain this to the crew chief. Some were afraid of getting airsick and just wanted an airliner ride; some wanted to go supersonic; and others said they didn’t care if they got air sick or not, they wanted upside down and everything else. But, they all wanted the vertical departure.
A vertical departure is done by making an afterburner takeoff in about 2,000 feet of ground roll, retracting the gear and flaps, leveling off about 100 feet above the runway, and accelerating to between 350 and 400 knots by the end of the runway, followed by a 2- to 3-G pull to 60 degrees nose high and then a 20- to 30-second elevator ride at 1-G on your back to 15,000 feet. To level off, you roll 180 degrees to inverted to make a positive 2-G pull to bring the nose down to the horizon and then another 180 degree roll to right side up rather than doing a negative 2-G pushover to level off. No matter what they asked for, I always told them all they had to say was they were ready for straight and level anytime they wanted. Many of them got sick but we were prepared for that. The most gratifying thing for me was that every one of them had a smile on his or her face when the flight was over, even though some of them couldn’t walk without help.
Your goal for every passenger is that they should want to come back for another flight.
Some of you may know Dr. Janet Lapp, a clinical psychologist in Carlsbad, who volunteers her time and services as a pilot and nurse with the Flying Doctors of Mercy, also known as LIGA (www.ligainternational.org ), to treat needy patients in Sinaloa, Mexico. On a trip last June her granddaughter, Hayley, and two other volunteers were with another pilot on a short flight from the town where everyone stays to a nearby village’s clinic. The investigation is not yet complete, but what is known is that the pilot was following a river between the two airports at low level and flew into a power line suspended above the river. The plane crashed into the river killing the pilot, seriously injuring Hayley and another passenger, and slightly injuring the third passenger. It’s miraculous that any of them survived. Hayley is recovering and now wants to learn to fly herself. She is now on a mission of her own to educate pilots on how much trust passengers place in their pilot to take good care of them. I hope each of us is worthy of the trust our passengers place in us.