As one who is sometimes asked to speak before pilot groups, I was struck by a column written by fellow editor, retired airline captain and general-aviation bon vivant Dave Gwinn in the February 2005 issue of Plane & Pilot. Gwinn was lamenting that some of the experiences we relate to live pilot audiences and write about to 300,000 readers each month may only serve to turn off non-pilots.
Although it’s questionable how many non-pilots read Plane & Pilot or attend pilot seminars, Gwinn probably is correct. He commented that he had only one full-blown emergency in his entire airline career and that most of the other problems he has had while instructing were a result of IPS, inherent pilot stupidity, either his own or that of a student’s.
Gwinn’s modesty is probably only exceeded by his experience, but he’s certainly right that those of us who are granted a soapbox on which to express our views need to make sure that our shoes are properly shined before inserting them into our mouths. I’m sure that I have far fewer hours than Gwinn, but in just under 40 years of flying, I’ve had 20 real emergencies, some of them undoubtedly induced by Gwinn’s IPS phenomenon.
That’s purely a function of the type of flying I’m sometimes paid to do. Guiding general-aviation airplanes across oceans, sometimes in mid-winter, often at 500 to 2,000 pounds over gross with temporary fuel tanks, an oil additive system, backup electric pumps jury-rigged to the fuel system and an HF radio on the right seat (if there is one) seems to invite problems. Similarly, testing aircraft just out of maintenance has resulted in a number of problems.
Fortunately, I’ve only damaged one airplane in 40 years of flying. It was a Piper Lance that threw a rod over the remote Ogaden Desert of southern Ethiopia on the last leg of a 9,800-nm, half-world circumnavigation from Santa Monica, Calif., to Nairobi, Kenya. (After we were rescued and airlifted to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian FAA asked me to summarize the accident on tape and to be succinct. So I said, “The engine quit. I landed.”)
My interface with the non-flying public has been limited, and I don’t talk much to non-pilots about the problems of flying little airplanes across big water. In conjunction with my work here at Plane & Pilot, however, I’ve given more than my share, probably 50 or so, of first flights to non-pilots. Those experiences have taught me a thing or three about how to carry out a flight with a pretty nervous passenger.
Recently, I had a chance to review those lessons when I took a friend and his fiancée, Liz, for what was her first flight in a light aircraft. My friend is a seasoned aviator and a former aircraft owner for years. His fiancée was young, intelligent, accomplished, enthusiastic—and frightened of anything smaller than a 737. She had flown before, but only on airliners and never on one of those “little planes.”
Like so many other non-pilots, she was a victim of the media’s misinformation, but to her credit, she was smart enough to know it. She had most of the stereotypical fears, notably about flying in a single-engine, propeller-driven airplane. I had a nice Beechcraft F33 Bonanza available for the flight, but to help allay her fears, I used a twin-engine, pressurized Cessna 340 instead.
Before departure, I spread out a Los Angeles sectional chart and showed Liz where we were and where we were going. We took some time to discuss the route and some of the things she’d see, and I emphasized that we’d be well above any nearby mountains.
I seated Liz in the right front bucket seat for most of the trip so she’d have the best possible view, both outside and inside the airplane. She could see everything I was doing, and I took great care to explain what was about to happen before it did, from power changes to gear and flap deployment to banks, climbs and descents. I deliberately limited the hop to a half-hour and flew to an airport only about 80 nm away. I also flew higher than I normally would, climbing all the way to 9,500 feet in search of very smooth air.
The day was relatively clear, and we departed fairly early, when the air was calm and the view was great. I dialed up the pressurization to the max so her ears wouldn’t give her any discomfort and kept climb and descent rates within modest limits.
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.
E-mail him at [email protected].