Alleviating a non-pilot’s fears of little airplanes
Liz was a good sport and willing to learn, but she had a tough time suppressing her fears. I explained every move I made, from engine start to shutdown, and I warned her ahead of time about any sound or movement the aircraft might make—the rumble and slight wallow associated with gear retraction or extension, the gear warning horn (which I carefully avoided activating) and the autopilot disconnect warning. I pulled the stall warning circuit breaker before the flight to avoid scaring her during landing. I had her wear the most comfortable headset I own and got rid of the confusing ATC chatter as soon as it was practical.
I pointed out the airspeed indicator and altimeter on her copilot instruments so she could keep track of speed and height, but I deliberately avoided burdening her with any other technical information unless she asked. By planning ahead, I kept bank angles to no more than 15 degrees, maintained a fairly level deck angle using gear and flaps to facilitate descents, made power increases and reductions very slowly and generally tried to make the entire flight as smooth as possible.
I tried to keep my explanations as short as possible to let her take it all in with a minimum of coaching. My comments were only intended to suggest that everything she was experiencing was normal and expected.
I’d love to report that my incredible skill and ability delighted Liz and she became so enthusiastic that she’s now working on her private ticket. That’s not exactly the case, partially because I’m not that good, but a combination of a reliable airplane and excellent weather made for an easy flight. Nothing I did confirmed her fears, and I apparently relieved some of them.
If you’re asked to give a first flight, especially if it’s with someone who may be apprehensive about flying, remember that you’re not trying to impress them with your super-human ability to operate an airplane. You don’t need a big, pressurized twin, either, although twins do inspire confidence in non-pilots. A Piper Cherokee or Cessna Skyhawk will do just fine. (Some pilots favor high wings for a first flight because of the better view of the ground.)
Pick a clear day, keep bank angles to a minimum, fly as smoothly as possible and attempt to make the experience as enjoyable as you can. Your primary mission should be to prove that small aircraft can be as comfortable and safe as airliners and a whole lot more fun.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.