At any airport social gathering, you can expect to come across a group of grinning avgas burners in one room, enthusiastically telling tall hangar tales, their hands weaving imaginary flight paths through the air over their heads. They’re comparing fancy “must-have” equipment, optimistic “true” airspeeds and brilliantly heroic escapes.
In another room, you’ll find the nonfliers comparing notes. Their conversations might include unhappy accounts of show-off pilots, teeth-rattling turbulence, insane escapes from disaster and lengthy layovers in various backwater antechambers to hell.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll admit, there still might be rural overnights and bumpy air. With a little preparation, though, they can be part of the adventure and taken in stride.
As a pilot who loves to share the sky, may I offer a few right-seater survival hints? General aviation flying is such a glorious privilege that everybody with access to an airplane should be able to relax and relish it.
1. FIRST & FOREMOST Best idea of all for any flying spouse: take a “pinch-hitter” course offered from time to time around the country. Or get your local airport’s calmest instructor to take the left seat and give you basic instruction as a copilot. Under the guidance of a trusted expert, learn that if push ever came to shove, you could land the airplane yourself. It’s a great confidence builder. The best way to beat your fear of flying is to learn to fly, at least a little, maybe a lot. Once you have the feel of the airplane, if the going gets rough, you can cure queasiness like magic, by confidently taking the controls yourself.
2. ARMCHAIR AVIATORS DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WEATHER Embrace the joy of flying by reading good aviation books—from classics like the memoirs of Beryl Markham and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and the poetic musings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to more modern aerial adventures such as Rinker Buck’s entertaining account of his cross-country Cub flight with his older teenage brother, or almost anything by Richard Bach. Knowledge is power. For a nonsedating introduction to flying, pick up a book by humorist/flight instructor Rod Machado, who combines memorably corny jokes with real pearls of aviation wisdom. Spend some time learning about the physics of flight, basic navigation and the rules of the road. Learn some geology and meteorology, so you can enjoy the spectacular view with a new appreciation. Learn basic communications procedures and begin to decipher controller-speak. The professional vocabulary of aviation is actually more limited and more predictable than that of the average three-year-old child. Once you understand the few phrases and instructions, it’s not nearly so tiresome to listen to the controllers. Besides, sometimes, when you least expect it, you’ll hear some really funny repartee.
3. DON'T READ, WRITE, NEEDLEPOINT Don’t do anything that requires close-focusing, head-down time in the airplane, at least when it’s even a bit bumpy. Don’t reach down, turn around or move your head suddenly. The more you can “keep a level head on your shoulders,” the less the fluid in your middle ear will move around and mess with your equilibrium. When you’re feeling woozy, open the cabin air vent a bit, look out the window, take a deep breath, relax and focus on the midhorizon.
4. LISTEN TO YOUR FAVORITE SOOTHING MUSIC Here’s a nice gift idea for the pilot in your life: a new audio panel or portable intercom that lets you listen to whatever you like—CDs, XM radio, books on tape, etc.—while the pilot listens to the controller’s rapid-fire instructions. You can still use the intercom to talk to each other, of course. (If you’re a country-western fan, you can just turn up the volume and imagine that you’re bouncin’ along in the ol’ pickup truck on a muddy mountain road. Yeehaw!)
5. QUEASY? Some people find that the electric wristbands are a good idea. Many passengers swear by the scopolamine patches or old standby OTC seasick remedies—Bonine (easy-to-take chewable tablets) or Dramamine—which help combat nausea and take some of the edge off jittery nerves. For maximum effectiveness, both patches and pills should be taken well before you take off. They’re not much good once you’re reaching for the sick-sack. By then, your best bet might be candied ginger, which many people say is a miracle cure.
6. DIET'S A BIG CONSIDERATION Mints, hard candies, granola bars and bite-sized crackers are nice. Stay away from things with strong or salty odors, or that leave you with smelly garbage. Seedless grapes make great airplane snacks—our kids used to like them frozen as mini-grapesickles. Ease off the preflight coffee, colas and other caffeinated products. Taking sips of cold water or sucking on ice chips might be easier on belly and bladder, not to mention nerves. It goes without saying that at lunchtime, it’s a good idea to forego the sauerkraut/chili dog with everything, in favor of something nice and bland, like a milk shake or fruit smoothie.
7. TAKE YOUR MIND OFF YOUR TROUBLES Practice some Zen meditation, self-hypnosis or slow Lamaze-type breathing exercises to help ease the tension. Do some in-your-seat isometric exercises to ease the fidgets. Revert to your childhood and find animals and faces in those pretty cauliflower clouds. Watch the passing scene, help spot traffic in terminal areas, enjoy the changes in vegetation and topography and try not to be smug as you pass the cars crawling, bumper-to-bumper, on the interstate below.
8. GET ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN PLANNING AND NAVIGATING Know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and what you really want to see along the way. Flying is more fun if you have a destination that’s your own idea. Try planning shorter legs at first, if you’re okay with the takeoffs and landings, and work up gradually to longer flights. You won’t experience the “tiny bladder” tension nearly as much after you’re more at ease in the airplane. (By the way, when you’re 12,500 feet up and desperate for a pit stop, those disposable funnel-like gizmos with attached gel-filled plastic bags offer easy in-the-air relief. Unfolded sectional charts provide a measure of privacy. The author is reluctant to admit firsthand experience, but…er…they work fine, and at about $2 each at aviation supply shops, they’re a lot cheaper than an unscheduled landing.)
9. TWO LAST THOUGHTS TO LIFT YOUR SPIRITS Count how many tedious and stressful hours you would have spent dodging automotive idiots and watching for speed traps if you had driven the same distance. Think about commercial aviation, the crowded terminals, overworked attendants, endless queues and security-inspired indignities. What a glorious freedom it is to depart on your own schedule, from your own little hometown airport, with its free, close-in parking lot. You won’t be wanded, X-rayed, questioned and hurried—your shoes and nail clippers won’t be confiscated. Your baggage will arrive intact at your destination at the same time you do, guaranteed. Not only that, but in your little airplane, you may well beat the big-iron guys from door to door.
10. WHEN STUFF GOES WRONG Have a suddenly inoperative transponder, crackly radio or other worrisome equipment situation? Remind yourself that airplanes fly very well without radios, gauges and other gizmos. It does help to have wings, but almost everything else is optional. An airplane will glide nicely even if the engine quits. All that’s really necessary, in that very unlikely case, is for the pilot to lower the nose a little, stay right side up and pick a decent place to land. Keep your cool. Your quiet readiness to participate in a solution just might save the day.
Good luck and happy flying!