This is a great guest post from Rich Wellner, of the Left Base blog.
A lot of people have never been in small planes and there is a certain apprehension about going up in one for the first time.
Some of this is understandable; these people have only been exposed to general aviation as a result of news reports when an accident occurs. They just don’t have the familiarity with the thousands of flights a day that take place without incident.
In a way, it would be like asking someone who was only familiar with driving cars from reading the accident reports of 30,000 fatal accidents in the US each year to sit down, strap in and have fun.
So, as pilots, we have to look for signs of nervousness and figure out how to put those fears at ease.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had a chance to take four airplane virgins up for their first flights. This is the story of those flights.
The day begins by gauging the mood of the passenger. This is always easier with someone you’ve known for a long time. Since I’ve known all three people for more than a decade, and one for more than twenty years, this was easy. All were talkative and laughing nervously.
One told me that he had gotten to edge of the airport property, seen the planes on the ramp and almost turned around to go home.
Like most general aviation airports, ours has some smaller, older planes on the ramp and he panicked because I hadn’t prepped him for what kind of airplane we would be flying.
Our plane is small, to be sure, but it’s a nice looking late model Cessna. If I had prepped him, then he wouldn’t have had trouble making the turn into the parking lot.
I’ve found that highly technical people like to be involved in the pre-flight. For them data is important. So for one of my passengers we spent nearly 30 minutes doing the pre-flight together. Other people want you to have an air of authority. Do you job quickly and efficiently and get the plane off the ground.
Sitting at the end of the runway looking out the window is stressful for a lot of people even when they are flying commercially. While I have always gotten excited to feel the jets push me back in the seat, a lot of folks worry about what can happen in the worst of circumstances.
Now take that same person and put them in a small airplane where they are looking forward so that the can see the end of the runway, the edge of the airport and the trees beyond and their stress factor is amplified.
Pilots are obligated to give a passenger briefing that includes things like keep your hands and feet off the controls, where the exits are and that there is a fire extinguisher between the seats. Many airports have marker beacons at the ends of runways and verifying VORs and such will create unusual noises. It’s great to make sure to give the passenger a heads up that they will hear those kinds of noises from time to time and that they are normal.
Aside from comforting the newbie, it also is good to let them know to expect those noises so that as you are passing the middle marker they don’t ask what the beeping is at the same time tower is requesting a turn or handing the flight over to center.
I like to add a few things that are designed to give my passengers something to keep their minds on. A panel has a dozen or more flight instruments on it. I’ll sometimes show the passenger the airspeed indicator and tell them they can watch as it rises and we’ll take off when it says 65.
Making sure people bring a camera is another fun distraction. Remind them to get it out and take photos or video as the plane leaves the ground.
Once in the air and established in cruise it’s good to match the flight plan against the time you noted before takeoff and give an estimated time to the destination. This lets people know that the takeoff phase is over and they don’t need to expect anymore excitement for awhile.
Ask again if they have any questions. Often people will have noticed something during takeoff and want an explanation.
Be ready for anything.
I’ve had people ask what various buildings are, how do wings work, questions about various instruments are, how does one become a pilot, how old is the plane and if I’ve ever had an engine fail. Just to name a few.
One of my recent three flights was IFR because I knew the persons personality and that the skies would be quite smooth despite the clouds.
This flight was extra fun as we took off on a dreary, modest visibility day and quickly popped through the 700ft ceiling into bright sunny skies at 2,000 feet with unlimited visibility.
On the way to the destination I showed him how the ILS would work and, as with the airspeed indicator on takeoff, told him about the crosshairs and how he could watch those and if we kept them pretty close to center then once we got below the clouds the runway would be right in front of us.
After the Flight
The last thing to do after the flight is to make sure to give people something from which to remember the trip. That same camera comes in handy at this point. If you can do so while stopped at an intersection, grab a quick shot while they are still excited from the flight. Then make sure to take more in and around the plane after you’ve parked on the ramp.
Those photos will be something that they look at for weeks to come, so make sure to take enough that a few of them turn out well and you’ll have helped them make a memory in more ways than one.
Well, that’s my introduction to introductory flights. Now find someone who’s never been in a small plane before and go out there and fly!