Pilot's guide to flying with first-time passengers

A pilot and passenger in a GA aircraft

Make your non-aviator passengers' first flight memorable for the right reasons with our guide to first time flyers - Credit: Caroline Mathon

This guide to making your first-time passengers feel at ease will help you introduce them to the wonders of the skies in a way that is memorable for all the right reasons...

It sometimes starts at work, with a casual chat by the coffee machine. “Have you been flying this weekend?”. “Oh yes, I went to a fly-in on a little airstrip in Norfolk and met some friends there. Quite a few interesting aeroplanes. Great burgers, too.”

If the conversation carries on with more questions about the subject, you might get a new passenger very soon. Either you will offer a flight, or you may be asked for one. In the first case, depending on your relationship, they may perhaps not dare to refuse, and it will be your job to make them feel safe. In the second case, passengers may seem more involved and knowledgeable, but remember that they do not necessarily know what is going to happen on a flight.  

So, a good idea is to begin with a short flight to build some confidence in the passengers before contemplating a long trip. Choosing an appropriate destination here is paramount: for example, if their main interest in life is medieval architecture, fly them to York or Chartres, not to a fly-in with lots of vintage aeroplanes! 

Remember that, for flights with passengers, you are flying for them as well, not just for yourself. Some possibilities here are: a sightseeing flight, if you live in an area of pretty landscapes; a visit to a museum or exhibition, depending on your passengers’ interests (plan in advance for the shuttle from airfield to town and back, and take it into account in your time schedule); and a good restaurant near an airfield−or you can follow your passengers’ suggestions, in which case you may end up learning about medieval architecture or about a rare species of orchids in the moors of Nowhereland. You may even get to fly over Wiltshire’s white horses.

If your passengers are somewhat familiar with flying, you might choose a longer weekend trip or an airshow as your destination. 

A woman standing next to a Jodel aircraft in a field

Caroline stands next to the Mathon’s Jodel, which has companionable side-by-side seating and was used in many of the flights described in this article - Credit: Caroline Mathon

The unforgiving car comparison 
Consciously or not, all ‘new’ passengers will tend to compare light aircraft with the other motor vehicle they know well: their own car. And that is rather bad news: our narrow and uncomfortable cabins will probably remind them of Grandma’s Austin A30, although more noisy and with even more vibrations and strange smells. So it is our job to make them feel safe and forget these little inconveniences. How can we do that? 

If you are lucky enough to live near the airfield and to fly your own aeroplane, it is not a bad idea to have her prepared the day before the planned flight. This way you will not have to make an appointment with your passengers at eight in the morning for a planned departure at ten, and you can perform some preflight tasks−checking oil, cleaning the canopy and the cabin (but yours is always clean, isn’t it?) and so on−without being distracted by questions.  

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Refuelling, in this instance, is one thing that requires some extra consideration. If you have just one passenger in a four-seater, usually you can safely go for full tanks. If you fly a two-seater, you’d better wait for the day of departure, because planning time is usually short and you are never sure your folk will not come with a big bag full of spare clothes, cameras, laptops and other gizmos which will force you to recalculate the mass and balance data. Do not forget to pack a good headset, chewing-gum and sick bags discreetly stored in a convenient place. That’s all you can do in terms of preparing the aircraft.  

Aerial shot of Alderney

Choosing a destination that is pleasant for your passengers goes a long way in making the flight a success. Alderney, with its pristine beaches and green/turquoise waters, is often a winning choice - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Prepare your passengers prior to arrival
Of course, though, you also need to prepare your passengers: tell them they need not be fasting before takeoff (a common mistake by ‘new’ passengers). It does not mean that they should eat more than usual, but a decent breakfast is essential to prevent air sickness. Insist on sunglasses and adequate clothing, including a cap and leather shoes which are safer in case of fire (best not to tell them this!) and stress the importance of carrying as little luggage as possible. Nevertheless, expect them to show up with too much baggage and to be ready to leave some of their stuff on the ground before boarding. Too bad if they are disappointed: think safety first. 

Most importantly, warn your passengers that making the destination is never guaranteed and that a diversion or a cancelled flight are always possible for any number of reasons (weather being the most likely). Unless you have planned a very large time margin, attending a cricket match, a motor race, a horse show or any other event with fixed times is definitely not a good plan: no ‘get-there-itis. please! 

What is the best departure time? In Britain and in Europe, mid-day often results in bumpy flights due to convection during the summer. Cumulus clouds delight glider pilots, but not novice passengers! A late afternoon flight is a good option for a short first experience, while an early departure should be preferred for a longer trip.  

A pilot and passenger in a small light aircraft talking

Passengers that are not familiar with general aviation can feel intimated by the noise and cramped space of a light aircraft. Explaining in simple ways what happens during the flight can go a long way in making them feel more at ease - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Things to consider before and during the flight 
And here are your passengers, just in time and, as you feared, with dozens of bags. At the same time inquisitive and apprehensive, they have obviously lots of questions. And, as you are a kind, helpful, proficient and smiling pilot, you will have answers. A pilot is expected to know everything on any aviation subject, so never say “I don’t know” if you do not want to scare your people. There is always a possible answer, even for questions that seem silly at first glance. A passenger once asked me why the windsock was not exactly in the centre of the runway, reasoning that in that way it would be less affected by adjacent buildings. Another one kindly reminded me that I was not keeping to the right on the taxiway (we were in France).  

I do not blame them: the world of flying is so different from their usual way of life. A lot of things seem obvious to us, but remember when you started flying and all the stupid questions you asked your instructor. So we have to explain, as simply as possible, why we check the Notam and the weather, why and how we preflight the plane, how we board, fasten the seat-belts and close the canopy, why we use check-lists, possibly what we tell to ATC and so on. One last tip which may seem coarse: do ask your passengers to take a pee before boarding. This is not only valid for kids, but for all persons on board. 

Now comes the time when first-time passengers are going to feel new sensations, so pilots have to be aware of that. Instructions are simple; fly smoothly! That starts with applying full throttle slowly and gradually for takeoff. (Your engine will appreciate it too.) Then, once airborne and clear of obstructions, you may consider adjusting your rate of climb to spare people’s ears. Climbing at 500fpm is usually a good compromise, greatly improving the forward view. The same rule applies to losing height: avoid falling from the sky like a dive bomber while popping everybody’s eardrums.  

Noise is also a big factor: do not close the throttle too quickly, as your passengers will fear they are facing an engine failure. In short, what is good for your engine is usually good for all persons on board too. And, as far as turns are concerned, avoid high bank angles unless they are absolutely necessary−if your braver passengers ask for a more impressive flight, never give in.  

When it’s time to land, keep in mind that inexperienced flyers tend to assess the quality of a pilot by the smoothness of the touchdown. This does not mean that your landing has to be perfect: they will not notice if the nosewheel is not exactly on the centreline or if you landed a few metres short of  the expected touchdown point. What they want is to feel nothing when the wheels come into contact with the ground. But we all know that a perfect landing is never guaranteed, so aim for the best and be content with what you get. (A wise instructor told me that the best way to make a smooth landing is to try not to make one.) As the French say: perfect is the enemy of good. This does not prevent you from warning your passengers with a reassuring sentence like: “You are going to feel a bump when the wheels impact the runway. Do not worry, that is perfectly normal.”

Aerial view of Stone Henge

An historical site is always thrilling to discover from the air - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Keep passengers busy with easy tasks 
During a long cross-country flight, passengers have nothing to do and some of them might find it rather boring, unless you ask them to perform a few easy tasks. A very useful one is to instruct them to keep a good lookout for conflicting traffic, especially in a crowded airspace. Map reading is also a simple job when you fly along a coastline or a motorway. I once instructed an eleven year old boy without flying experience to do that, and was impressed with his navigating skills. If an intermediate stop is planned, encourage your guests to stretch their legs and have a drink while you refuel and pay for the landing charges (those aspects of flying are necessary, but far from the most exciting for newcomers). 

When you have reached your destination, if you have something planned for the rest of the day, do your best to minimise time at the airfield. Visiting the hangars and chatting with other pilots is always pleasant for aviators, but not necessarily for passengers. So, all of you should jump into a taxi and head for the town, museum or exhibition 
that you have set as the goal of your outing. 

Things are a little different though, if this is the last flight of the day, either for an overnight stop or because you are back to your home airfield. In this case, most passengers will be delighted to help you take care of the flying machine which has faithfully and safely brought them where they are. An aeroplane needs the same tender, loving care as a horse after a ride, be it short or long, and even people who are not horsey can understand that.

Some simple chores can be done by novice passengers with minimal risk: putting chocks in front of the wheels, tying down the aircraft, removing bugs from the airframe or installing pitot covers will make your guests feel more involved. Supervise them though: well-intentioned people can unknowingly damage some parts of your pride and joy. I have seen willing helpers moving an aeroplane backwards by pushing on the spinner, and others moving an aircraft forward by pushing the rudder (not at the same time, fortunately). Even after landing, you are still the pilot in command, so give instructions and do not passively accept untimely initiatives from your passengers.  

Before everybody calls it a day, a diversion to a nearby pub is a generally an enjoyable option. With the first round of ales or stouts going, if one of your folks asks something like “Next time, can you fly us to such and such?”, you can feel content that you have done your job. Some people will be forever passengers because they are more interested in sightseeing than in the technical side of flying, while others might try an introductory lesson and later become pilots themselves. In either case, you will have helped them discover the magic of the skies. 

Aerial view of Plockton harbour

Plockton, with its airfield next to the harbour (and near the isle of Skye), is another example of a combined 'airfield+attractions' type of destination - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Talk to your passengers 
If I was a passenger in a light aircraft for the first time, I would not feel really safe if the pilot was entirely mute for the duration of the flight. So we pilots have to explain what we do, why we do it and what we are going to do next. And we have to be as clear and simple as possible. However, there is no point in giving passengers a lesson in aerodynamics while you are busy keeping your heading and altitude, looking for the next report point and chatting with ATC at the same time. Therefore, if you need to, do not hesitate to postpone your answers to complex questions to an on-the-ground discussion, by asking your passengers to remind you after landing. 

A pilot and young passenger, smiling, in a light aircraft

When everyone smiles after landing, it's a good clue that the first flight has been a success - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Some more points to consider...
Special passengers
 
All passengers require attention, but a few ones are inevitably bound to put more pressure on you...

  • Family members: ”Daddy, you had promised to fly us to Blackpool and spend the whole day at Pleasure Beach”, or ”Honey, is there an airfield near Aunt Debbie’s home in Devon? It’s been a long time since we have visited her and...” A promise is a promise, but there are many reasons that can stop a flight: a crack on the muffler discovered during the preflight check, inclement weather, a temporarily closed or restricted airfield, and so forth. Even on ground, before leaving, you are still the pilot in command. The general rule here is that it’s better not to make promises, unless you are sure you can deliver safely. 
  • Former pilots: Unless you are an instructor, you are not supposed to leave the controls to somebody else, even if today your passenger has thousands of flight hours with the RAF. and you are quite sure he would fly your aeroplane better than you. Nevertheless if you decide to do so, at your own risks, make sure to use the traditional sentences: “You have control” and “My control”. Too many planes have landed on their own, each person on board assuming that the other one was actually flying. This is true for all flying machines, but even more with tandem seating aeroplanes.  
  • Unwanted passengers: Never accept to fly with a person who you suspect, might get you in trouble. It is safer to find a reason to say a definite ”No”. Some pilots have even stronger views on this: Caroline’s revered instructor told her once “Never fly with someone who is physically stronger than you are, so you can easily knock them out if necessary!” 
An aerial view of chalk hill figures

Looking for chalk figures can make the flight exciting - Credit: Caroline Mathon

It happened to me  
Flying with passengers means encountering challenges, funny scenarios, not-so-funny ones, and anything in between. Here is a selection of a few of the things I witnessed over the years: 

  • Steep turns: It was a hot and bumpy summer afternoon. A young man came to the flying club and asked if he could fly for one hour. We departed in a Jodel D112 and, as expected, the flight turned out to be rather turbulent. But the guy was enthusiastic and seemed very happy.
    After a while, he asked me if we could do a steep turn. I was reluctant but did a modest one to the left. He asked for more, so I made one to the right, more aggressively this time. He told me that it was exhilarating and now wanted to try a stall. I executed a gentle stall and once again he asked for more sensations.
    After two or three additional stalls and steep turns, it was time to go home. The man told me he had a wonderful experience. But when I turned to him, I saw that his face had turned grey and, all of a sudden, his lunch was scattered on the instrument panel. That happened so quickly that I had no time to give him my cap to use it as a bag. After landing, the plane had to stay for two weeks in the hangar with the open canopy to help the smell vanish.  
  • Locked inside: The rented Cessna 207 was full of kids and we were ready for a 220nm cross-country flight. Right after takeoff, one of the back doors popped open and the little girl seating near that door felt really scared. We came back for landing and made a temporary repair by locking the door.
    There are two other doors, so we could easily evacuate, I thought. The flight was uneventful and when on ground, I told my little passengers that we could now exit the plane. ”But there is no handle!”, the boy on the right-hand seat said. He was right, so I looked to the other door on my side. No handle either. We were locked in the aircraft.
    The kids found it funny, not me. Fortunately we had landed at a controlled airfield. I called the Tower and, minutes later, a hilarious fireman came along and rescued all of us.  
  • Passengers and bad weather: A warm front was expected for the late afternoon. The CFI asked if I could take three persons on a pleasure flight. I was rather reluctant but the three folks absolutely wanted to fly at this time, as they had a party planned later in the evening, so the boss insisted that we had to go now.
    We took off in a Robin DR400 and headed for the peaks, but the warm front came quicker and stronger than expected and I decided to divert to a nearby airfield while it was still time to do so.
    On the ground, I called the club, the CFI was relieved because the weather had now turned miserable and he told me he was sending a car to pick us up. My passengers were upset, but what could I do more? Guess what happened later: the rescue car ran out of petrol, the driver had to walk for two miles to a gas station and to hitch-hike back with a jerrycan of fuel, eventually coming to us and driving us back to the airfield.
    It was late in the evening. The now angry passengers had missed their party and when I went to get my bicycle to go home, I found it with a flat tire.  
  • Details: A lovely sunny Saturday afternoon at the flying club. A lot of flying machines had gone for a couple of hours, for a day tour or for the week-end. On duty at the airfield, I was chatting with René, one of the most experienced pilots of the club. A car arrived and three nice old ladies jumped out of it. They seemed really enthusiastic about making their discovery flight.
    I welcomed them as usual and introduced them to René, emphasizing his flying skills. They seemed very relaxed and not afraid at all, even if it was their first flight in a light aircraft. René refuelled the Rallye and performed a very careful pre-flight. He smiled cheerfully at the three ladies, apologized because he needed a few more minutes to have a wee and came back with his favourite cap on his head, ready for the flight.
    At this time, all the smiles vanished at once. The ladies seemed quite puzzled, indeed worried.
    René didn’t notice and asked them politely to board. But none moved. René, who was used to dealing with new passengers, tried to soothe them, arguing that it was a perfectly nice day, that they would enjoy their flight and so on. One of the ladies, the most intrepid one, finally dared to say “We are very eager to fly and we don’t doubt at all about your skills but please, can you please be so kind to wear another cap?” I looked at René and saw that his favourite headgear was in fact an advertising cap for the local funeral company. 
Aerial vie of St Michael's Mount

Saint Michael's Mount and Cornwall make for a beautiful sightseeing flight - Credit: Caroline Mathon

Good destinations when flying with non-aviator passengers
It has been a long time since I flew in the UK and I know that some airfields have changed, but here are a few interesting places I remember which would make pleasant destinations for a trip with passengers:  

  • Old Warden: aircraft museum, Swiss gardens and restaurant on site 
  • Isle of Wight-Sandown: fun for all on the pier and in Shanklin  
  • Compton-Abbas: restaurant on site and gorgeous Dorset landscape 
  • North Weald: Battle of Britain atmosphere 
  • Blackpool: usually a hit with children  
  • Scillies: the mild climate makes of it the most Mediterranean destination in the British Isles 
  • Shoreham: the old-fashioned charm of the 1930s 
  • Plockton: an idyllic little harbour within walking distance of a lovely airfield 
  • Perth: a friendly airfield in Speyside, excellent stop after the breath-taking flight over the Spey Valley