If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to give someone their first airplane ride.
In fact, flying passengers can be one of the real highlights of becoming a pilot.
(And I’m thinking of pure passengers, the kind who have no clue how to do what you’re doing in the cockpit. Pilot-rated passengers don’t count, especially when they try to “help,” which often creates more problems than it solves.)
Whether family members, business associates, next-door neighbor or the proverbial kid at the airport fence, a passenger puts a lot of trust in your judgment and skill as a pilot.
And that should make you proud, since you’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money to acquire the skills necessary to conduct a safe, predictable flight.
Somewhere along the way you should have gained some judgment, too. And that judgment should tell you carrying passengers in a personal airplane is a huge responsibility.
For example, there’s the obvious duty to conduct the flight safely so that the passengers emerge from the airplane in approximately the same condition as they boarded. If you’re doing it right, they’ll be congratulating you on the smooth flight and your excellent landing, and remarking on the airborne sights and the overall experience you gave them.
These days, of course, air travel is common, and it may be unusual to come across someone who’s never been in an airplane, even a Boeing or an Airbus, much less a Cessna or Piper. But it’s not at all unusual to know someone who’s never been in a personal airplane. Therein lies both opportunity and challenge.
It’s very common for non-pilots to express both wonderment and suspicion upon learning you’re a pilot. It’s likely all they know about personal airplanes comes from the general media, which for years has been treating them to a steady diet of plane-crash porn on the evening news and via click-bait on their favorite websites.
The misconceptions from such exposure are many and can include needing “permission” and a flight plan before taking off, that airplane engines “stall” all the time, and that passengers must go through TSA-style security before climbing into your Skyhawk.
Explaining that these things simply aren’t true can soak up an evening at your typical cocktail party or neighborhood barbecue.
If you feel strongly enough about setting the record straight, the only real solution is to take them for a ride. But before you do, think about what you’re trying to accomplish and how best to achieve it.
You want a good-weather day, and you want a squawk-free and presentable airplane in which to do it: Launching into low ceilings or thunderstorm-filled skies in an airplane with torn seat fabric, inoperative equipment and bare metal showing through the paint will only serve to reinforce the misconceptions your passenger has picked up over the years.
Ideally you want to provide a smooth, trouble-free flight to some nearby destination unreachable or impractical to visit by car.
Sure, you can introduce your passenger to personal airplanes on a strictly local flight – the kind that departs and returns to the same airport without landing anywhere else – but a 30-minute hop to some nearby destination for lunch can be ideal.
But pick that destination carefully. Choosing an airport surrounded by higher terrain on a gusty day might not be the best choice, for either your passenger or your upholstery.
Once at the airport, take a few moments to describe what the passenger should expect on the flight, how long it will take, the altitudes at which you’ll be flying, etc. Narrate what you’re doing during the pre-flight inspection, also, and be sure you conduct a passenger briefing that goes well beyond what’s required.
You want this passenger to come away with confidence in your abilities, but also with a new-found realization that personal airplanes aren’t the death-traps they’re often portrayed as.
Once the engine’s running, continue your narration all the way through the run-up and takeoff roll. Once you’ve climbed to your cruising altitude, set power and trimmed for level flight, offer the controls to your passenger, with the suggestion of trying some gentle turns.
Ask them to look for potential traffic and advise you if they see anything. Point out landmarks on the way, and show them where you are on the chart, allowing them to correlate what they see out the window.
As you approach the destination, again narrate what you’re doing as you maneuver to enter the traffic pattern, reduce power, extend flaps and gear and touch down (smoothly!) on the runway.
One thing you never want to do with someone new to personal airplanes is show off. They’re used to sitting in the back of the ‘Bus with a soft drink, not doing steep turns or Chandelles.
Never intentionally (or unintentionally!) demonstrate a stall or a spin, and never simulate an emergency, even if they ask.
And unwarranted low flying is just that – unwarranted. If the passenger wants to see where they live from the air, do so at the minimum altitude allowed, 1,000 feet AGL. Don’t even think about “buzzing” something or someone on this introductory flight (or others, for that matter).
Once you’re on the ground safe and sound, your passenger likely will have a bunch of questions. Answer them directly. Never respond with “It’s complicated,” or “You wouldn’t understand.” Be sure to get a couple of pictures of them standing next to the airplane, or sitting in the cockpit wearing a headset.
The bottom line is you have a unique opportunity with a first-time passenger to introduce him or her to the flexibility and utility of personal flying. If you do it right, you may turn out to be a new student pilot’s mentor. If you don’t, there will be one more voice echoing how “dangerous” and “uncomfortable” personal airplanes are.
Doing an introductory flight like this can be an awesome responsibility. Don’t screw it up.