Family and friends

As we emerge blinking into what remains of one of the best summers General Aviation never had, the temptation to immediately get airborne with friends and family will be irresistible for many private pilots. But what are the potential pitfalls of flying with passengers, and what precautions should you take with your own proficiency?

If you are going to take others flying, you need to be at your best; in fact, you need to be better than that, because your passengers will erode your capacity. Here’s why:

Passengers are like children

Fans of James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ may remember the alien character admonishing her human companion for his hapless missteps in the Pandoran jungle. ‘You’re like a baby, making noise, don’t know what to do,’ she chides, beating him with a stick. 

The cockpit may not quite be light years from home, but it is an alien environment for the uninitiated. Actions which are second nature to you as an aviator will be no such thing to your passengers. In the early stages of my flying training I was advised by an instructor to spend a morning getting accustomed to securing and releasing my harness. I thought this was ridiculous, until the first time I got myself wrapped up so badly I was unable to start the aircraft. The point here is that you are responsible for everything your passenger does and every situation they get themselves into. My instructor just watched me suffer and called it a learning experience, but you will need to be very careful to ensure harnesses and doors have been secured correctly. Even worse, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I once passed an enjoyable afternoon flying expanding-square searches over the mid-Atlantic looking for an emergency exit jettisoned from a Merlin helicopter. The (experienced) photographer embarked in my colleague’s aircraft had thought he was opening the cargo door to get a better shot; he wasn’t.

Your passengers probably shouldn’t be trusted with small items either (potential ‘loose articles’ to you and me). Unless you actually are flying a toddler, it is unlikely that pens, bulldog clips or chinagraph pencils will end up stuffed in anyone’s nose, but they regularly find their way into control runs. Your average Bic Stylo should give way without actually causing a control restriction, but cameras and smart-phones are another matter altogether.

In most cases, a decent pre-flight brief and cockpit familiarisation should ensure your passengers are well behaved, but they will still require supervision and that will reduce your capacity for tasks related to the operation of your aircraft. The absolute classic example of this is talking over radio communications. Worse still, your spouse/mum/dad/pub landlord is unlikely to respond well to a clipped “zip-it” as you fight to ‘do aviation’ over their excited ramblings. Flying your parents as passengers is the kind of situation Human Factors instructors salivate over – the ultimate negative cockpit gradient. It is important that your pre-flight safety brief covers the fact that you are in charge of the aircraft and may need to be directive at times; if you have any doubts over how this will be received, the flight may not be viable.  

Currency does not equal competency

If you are flying passengers for the right reasons, you will have two priorities: their safety, and their enjoyment, and that order of priority is important. The overarching influence on both of these factors is your proficiency. To qualify to fly passengers you need only hold a current licence and have conducted 3 take-offs and landings on type [class for fixed-wing types, Editor] in the last 90 days. As lockdown started on 23 March, most people will need to get their take-offs and landings back in date; in theory that requires only three quick circuits.

But think critically about how well placed such meagre recent flying practice leaves you to offer your passengers the experience you want to share with them. I could cite numerous studies on the correlation between pilot recency and performance, but I need only ask you to recall the last time you went flying after several months off. Did you feel competent? Moreover, would you have appeared as such to an onlooker? How easy was it to pick your way around your local area without wandering into whatever controlled airspace had sprung up during your hiatus? (Cheers, Farnborough.) Now imagine your passenger picks up the impression that you are behind the aircraft and starts to get nervous. Is that a situation that it is likely to rectify itself? It might – until your engine starts running rough.  

The solution, of course, is to re-familiarise yourself with your aircraft and local area before taking passengers airborne, and to go through your emergency drills a few times on the ground. Most flying clubs and self-fly-hire operators stipulate a check with an instructor after 28 days out of flying. In the case of the post Covid return, the CAA are recommending this last 30 minutes, but there is no guidance on what exercises should be covered. Professionally minded aviators will see this as an opportunity rather than a formality, using the time to cover emergency procedures and the exercises they are least comfortable with. If you’re planning a longer trip, you may also wish to fly a few nav legs to rehearse your work-cycle.

Even after a check, you may feel more comfortable flying solo initially to consolidate without distractions. Once you are ready to take passengers, consider your sortie profile carefully and pick a decent day for weather. Most people take a pleasure flight to enjoy the view, so fighting your way around a nav route in marginal conditions will impress nobody. Personally, I have a few standard routes for flying family and friends for the first time. They take in all the local sites of interest, and I know them well enough to engage with my passenger and fly the aircraft as sympathetically as possible. If they like it, I can always take them further afield on their second flight.  

Everyone’s at it

Oh, you thought you were the only one? With the exception of those who own their own aircraft, the overwhelming majority of the GA community has been grounded for three months, and Netflix does nothing to improve your flying. It’s not just pilots, either. Most airfields have been operating limited services at best, coincident with the reduced traffic levels. This means everyone is going to be rusty – including air traffic controllers.   

And lockdown hasn’t made us any more patient either. Like the pubs, everyone will be keen to get back to it as soon as they can. If the weather is good, expect airfields to be busy and controllers to be extra cautious. A fifteen-minute hold in a sweltering cockpit might put your passenger off flying before you even get airborne.  

Threat and Error Management

The good news is that, as a PPL holder, you are a competent operator and have been trained to identify and mitigate risks. The suggestions above are exactly that – suggestionsSome will not apply to you, and there will be others I have not mentioned that do. The overwhelming majority of us will seek refresher training prior to getting airborne and will conduct our own study on the ground. As part of this, it is definitely worth thinking through your own procedures for flying passengers. It may be that you know someone who is desperate to get in the air with you at the earliest opportunity. Putting them off until you are able to offer the best experience is all part of your development as a professionally minded aviator. 

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