by Jim Hanson
Most of us enjoy flying so much that we can’t wait to share it with others. We are proud that we can do something that most people cannot – fly an airplane! Do you recall the very first time you took a passenger up as pilot in command? It is a big responsibility!
What did you and your passengers do on that first ride? Was it uneventful? Did any of your passengers become ill? Did they like it? Being a “salesman” for General Aviation is also a big responsibility, and vitally important if you want family and friends to participate in your airborne adventures.
Many of us are participants in giving rides to kids through EAA’s Young Eagles program, and we’re glad to help introduce aviation to potential pilots. I’ve long advocated for a similar program for pilots to give rides to adults on the same basis. Older people usually have the money and the time to learn to fly…they just need someone to take the time to give them the nudge toward that first flight. EAA listens to their members—and EAA has started an “Eagle Flight” program to encourage pilots to “share the air” with potential pilots. The program is still developing, but it has much in common with the Young Eagles program. There are a couple of differences…
Eagle Flights tend to be a little longer, are conducted more “one-on-one” with the prospective pilot, and the Eagle (I call them “Gray Eagles”) doesn’t get a logbook. What EAA does give them is encouragement, and a six-month complimentary membership.
Whether flying “Gray Eagles,” or just family and friends, I’ve produced some guidelines for conducting that first flight that have worked for me in over 50 years of flying. Some – but not all – of these guidelines also apply to Young Eagles. Most of these guidelines are merely suggestions. The guidelines involve using common sense and common courtesy.
Giving initial air rides should be about salesmanship, smoothness, and making your passenger comfortable. I shouldn’t have to emphasize this, but it is surprising how often these courtesies are ignored. Your entire presentation should be about making your passenger feel safe, to provide an enjoyable experience, and to establish with your passenger that you are a competent pilot. (Aren’t those the things you want to do on EVERY flight?) Here are the elements:
1. Prepare for the flight. Tell your passenger what you will be doing, where you will be flying, and how long the flight will last.
2. Have your passenger follow you on the preflight. You can give a running commentary on what you are doing; just don’t make it into a ground school (the elevator trim tab goes down, forcing the elevator up, which forces the tail down, and the nose of the aircraft up). Your role is NOT to be the flight instructor. Having your passenger follow the walk-around gives reassurance, and establishes you as a careful pilot.
3. Assure your passenger that you won’t do anything dangerous.
4. When you enter the cockpit, show them how the seat belts latch, and how to work the door. (Note that they do this on the airline briefing…again, it will instill confidence that you are professional).
5. With passenger knowledge comes confidence. Take a minute or two to point out the aircraft instruments (most light aircraft panels look complicated to a novice).
6. Before starting the aircraft, call out “clear prop,” then make a point of looking around before engaging the starter. Once again, you want to be seen as being careful.
7. Let your passenger experience taxiing with a nose-wheel aircraft (probably not on a tail dragger as there is not an apparent “cause and effect” with rudder pedal application).
8. Let your passenger see you follow some kind of checklist on the run up.
9. Explain to your passenger before takeoff that you will fly the aircraft, explain what “follow me through” means, and most important, what “I have the aircraft” means. This is especially important in a tandem cockpit, where the passenger can’t see you. Explain that sometimes you will have to work with the radio. If you hold up your hand, they shouldn’t talk until you give the go-ahead.
10. Make normal takeoffs and turns. Make an exaggerated look in the direction of your turns so your passenger has a clue as to what’s coming next, and it establishes you as a careful pilot.
11. Upon reaching the practice area, have your passenger “follow you through” each of the maneuvers – roll, pitch, and yaw – and make the movements slow and gentle, but never take your hands off the controls! You are the pilot in command, but unless you are a flight instructor, do not take your hands off the controls.
12. Invariably, first-time pilots look inside the airplane during the flight. To combat this, point to a spot on the windshield to demonstrate where straight and level is. The passenger can use their new-found knowledge to make the small corrections needed, which is a confidence-builder for them.
13. With the aircraft trimmed up, gently roll the aircraft into a turn…tell the passenger that you will be releasing the controls, and demonstrate the natural stability of the aircraft as the aircraft continues to turn. Have them follow through with the rollout from the turn.
14. Tell your passenger that you will be gradually reducing power to establish a glide, just as you will be doing when you land. Bring the power partially back…not all the way off. Trim the airplane for a glide. Explain that the stability of the airplane tends to return it to its trim speed naturally. Have them follow you through while you increase the glide speed by 10 knots (no more) and watch as the aircraft returns to trim speed.
15. At least every 5 minutes, call out some point on the horizon. This keeps the passenger from getting sick, and gives them a break.
16. When you return to the airport, once again make deliberate (or even exaggerated) actions by looking for traffic and “signaling” your turn by looking in that direction.
17. Make a normal landing. This is not the time to show off.
18. As you taxi in, tell your passenger what you are doing to secure the aircraft, and let them know when it is okay to exit the aircraft.
19. Congratulate the passenger on taking the first step towards learning to fly. “We did turns, climbs, and descents.” Everything you do with an airplane is just a combination of these elements. See how we combined them for takeoff and landing? This will reassure them that they can learn to fly.
20. Bring your camera and make a big deal out of taking photos, then send the photos to your passenger immediately following your flight. They will be the center of attention.
21. Explain to your passenger that you are not a flight instructor, but that you are going to introduce him/her to one. Most people will be honored that you thought enough of them to make a personal introduction, and it is a nudge toward the next step.
22. Don’t leave your new Eagle alone. Answer questions. Give them your telephone number to contact you if they do have more questions. If appropriate, offer to help mentor them. Invite them to stop out to the airport. If it is a “Gray Eagle” flight, send in the paperwork so they continue to receive reinforcing material from EAA.
Most introductory rides are far too long (leave them wanting more) and poorly conducted. No “stalls,” no steep turns, no “negative G pushovers” or “training maneuvers,” no “buzz jobs,” no “Hey, let me show you THIS!” You should come across as careful, caring, and above all, safe! Why would you want it any other way?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time FBO at Albert Lea, Minnesota. In his 50 years of flying (including 40 years in the FBO business), Jim says “I may not have all the answers, but I have made most of the mistakes, and I try not to make the mistakes more than once!” If you have a suggestion for Jim, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at his airport office at 507-373-0608. Jim is still looking at new ways to make mistakes.