It’s More Than “Fasten Your Seat Belt”

By David Jack Kenny, ATP ASEL, Commercial AMEL and Rotorcraft Helicopter, 2,200+ hours combined

September 2018

If you’ve been flying a while, you might be amazed at what new passengers don’t always know.

Our departure had been safe, but a bit tense. On the Friday before Labor Day one of my two passengers wasn’t able to beat rush-hour traffic. As Edith crawled out Interstate 66 towards Manassas, Virginia and my brother Jon and I killed time in the FBO, a line of thunderstorms was converging from the west. It reached the field before she did. We waited two more hours for the storms to drift far enough east to allow us to take off IFR, flying southeasterly through the clouds past the end of the system and breaking out an hour later. At 5,000 feet over the lights of downtown Norfolk, Jon leaned back in the co-pilot’s seat and stretched.

The airplane yawed hard to the left. I kicked my right foot and said, “Uh, how about letting me handle the rudder?” He acknowledged that this might be a good idea.

It wasn’t his fault. He’d flown with me once or twice before, but I don’t think I’d ever told him that those shoe-shaped things down by the floorboards were more than footrests. Pushing against them was entirely natural. In level cruise it wasn’t a big deal, but if we’d been on short final in a crosswind, things could have gotten interesting.

Since then I’ve taken family, friends, and hundreds of strangers on introductory flights, many during organized outreach events – Women Fly It Forward, International Learn-to-Fly Day, and EAA Young Eagles. That experience has helped refine my sense of what folks who’ve never been in a small airplane don’t just need but want to know. With the fall sightseeing season approaching, it’s worth trying to remember how strange and intimidating everything seemed the first time you strapped into a cockpit and anticipate the questions and answers that will make your guests feel more at home.

Beyond the Regs.  Passenger briefings are one area where the regulations (specifically, FAR 91.107(a)) don’t impose much of a burden on pilots. All that’s specifically required is to instruct them in how to fasten and unfasten the seat belts (and shoulder harnesses if so equipped) and direct them to secure their restraints during taxi, takeoff, and landing. This fits the airline world, where you don’t necessarily want everyone to know how to open the doors in flight, but passengers on light aircraft deserve more information.

At a minimum, anyone seated by a door needs to be shown not just how to close and secure it, but how to open it again. Neither should be considered “obvious,” especially in models that use more than one latch per hatch. Practicing once or twice before taxi could save having to return after takeoff to close an open door (and if that happens, please don’t try to secure it in flight; either live with it, or land and address it on the ground). It could also save lives in the event of an accident. If the aircraft has one or more emergency exits, brief passengers on their locations and operation, too.

This brings up a delicate issue: how much precautionary information to give new passengers, especially if they already seem nervous. Those next to a door really should be told that in an off-airport landing they’ll need to open it before touchdown and then close any latches to prevent impact forces from jamming it shut. However, the prospect of a forced landing isn’t calculated to reassure someone who’s already worried.

My solution? Treat it as part of the required safety briefing, even if that isn’t technically the case. I like to begin, “Now, before we go anywhere, FAA regulations require me to go over a few things.” (True.) I can then raise the matter of an off-field landing by saying, “And if we have to land anyplace other than an airport, I’ll have you open the door before we touch down and then close the top latch again. I’ve never had to do it and don’t plan to start today, but I’m still required to let you know.” It usually doesn’t ratchet up the tension.

It’s also good to get passengers looking for traffic and teach them how to call it out. When it comes to collision avoidance, the more eyes looking, the better. And I make a point of stressing that if I hold up one hand, I’m trying to listen to ATC and need everyone to keep quiet.

More is More.  Seat belts and doors are the necessary minimum. How much more to go into depends on the length of the flight, whether it will cross inhospitable landscape, the ages and personalities of the passengers, and whether you’ll be strictly VFR or potentially flying through clouds. A 20-minute intro probably doesn’t warrant going over where to find the fire extinguisher and first-aid kit, while a night cross-country over mountains probably does. For a longer flight far from possible rescue, a description of all relevant equipment – ELT and personal locator beacon, satellite phone if you have one, back-country survival kit, and emergency supplies – makes sense.

Prior to taxi, I like to demonstrate the flight controls, directing attention to the control surfaces being moved. This is also helpful if you want to offer whoever’s in the co-pilot’s seat a chance to take the controls in flight. (It’s perfectly legal even if you’re not a CFI – but don’t be surprised if the offer is declined.) Descriptions of the flight instruments and radio gear will interest the generally curious and those thinking about pursuing flight training of their own, but not passengers who just want to look around.

People who’ve never flown in a single-engine airplane tend to be especially worried about engine failures, and therefore intensely focused on any possible indication thereof. Telling them what to expect helps defuse that anxiety, especially if you fly a complex airplane: “After we lift off, I’m going to raise the landing gear. You’ll probably hear a whirring noise. About 500 feet above the ground I’m going to adjust the engine controls; it’s kind of like shifting into second gear. You’ll hear some change in the engine noise. I’ll adjust them again once we level off at our cruising altitude.” Unless I’m tied up on the radio with ATC, I’ll also announce those changes when they happen.

Remember the first time you felt a bump while on the controls? My response was to ask the instructor, “Did I do that?!” A few words on weather conditions will allay a lot of anxiety: “It’s sunny, so the air isn’t going to be smooth. It’s likely to feel like driving a car over railroad tracks. If you get uncomfortable, just let me know and we’ll land.” Geographic references don’t hurt, either: “It’s always a little bumpy crossing those ridges west of town, but usually smooths out over the valley.”

Flights in IMC require additional assurances, starting with the fact that their pilot is properly trained, appropriately licensed, and well-practiced. Some passengers may not want to know how to read the attitude instruments or PFD and GPS display, but offer to explain them anyway. Announcing waypoints as you pass will help reassure everyone that you know where you are and what you’re doing, and that you’re making steady progress toward your destination. And if you’re re-routed or given a hold, explain that as well.

Don’t Forget the Obvious.   Friends whose previous flight experience is limited to the airlines should be told that your Cherokee doesn’t have a lavatory. Encourage everyone to make that the last errand before boarding. And even if the weather seems benign, tell everyone where to find the air-sickness bags and how to open them for use. You never know.

Above all else, remember that since you’re not running an airline, your goal is NOT to make your passengers miserable. Anticipating what they want to know (but may be too nervous to ask) goes a long way toward making the flight fun for everyone – or at least not terrifying to anyone.

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David Jack Kenny is an aviation writer and recovering statistician in Frederick, Maryland. He has been a statistician twice as long as he’s been a pilot, but enjoys flying more than twice as much as analyzing data – particularly flying long cross-countries IFR, rescuing dogs as a volunteer for Pilots N Paws, and taking friends and neighbors up for introductory flights. He ascribes his helicopter certification to a characteristic lack of impulse control.


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