Caution: Passengers on Board

Who you carry may have a big influence on the outcome of your flight


Consider the pilot – a creature of superior intelligence and drive who tires easily of the mundane in the search for new adventure. The pilot looks to the sky and sees romance where the rest of humanity sees only a place from which rain falls. The pilot is the quintessential lover and like anyone in love is completely blind to the reality of relationships. In our case its the relationship to our passengers.

We pilots havent a clue what passengers expect when they climb into our machines. We assume they share our passion for flying, but we forget that it was we who left the real world to gain our wings. Whenever we make that occasional foray back to share our gift, the recipients might not be as enamored with us as wed appreciate. Or, as a Cherokee Six owner once bemoaned, Jeez, I feel like a bus driver on an empty route; dont nobody wanna fly with me? Pilots have a double-edged requirement to promote aviation by treating passengers well, and at the same time watch the blighters so they dont kill us.

Did you ever notice how well the airlines segregate the passengers from the flight deck? As you board an airliner, you get a momentary glimpse of the crew. Its as if the airline is saying, Yes, we have a pilot, now go sit down! For the most part, the airliner is designed to keep passengers away from the pilots. In fact, before take-off, the pilots are locked inside the cockpit, where passengers cant pester them. They have a job to do.

Safety experts know that passengers have no business being anywhere near the flight controls or the pilots. For that reason, airlines hire mime artists – also known as flight attendants – to entertain the people in back. They wave their arms to simulate oxygen masks dangling in front of your face and demonstrate to passengers from remote Tibetan villages how a seat belt works. Frequent flyers completely ignore them. Thats airline flying, where passengers are cargo that eats peanuts.

For those of us flying stuff smaller than an MD-80, our passengers are usually relations who are constantly at our elbows. Even in the roomiest single-engine airplane we have a mere four feet from the pilots left shoulder to the passengers right. Youd better have a good relationship with the person to your right before beginning a four-hour IFR trip. The FAA regulates the pilots qualifications, but hardly a mention is made of passenger requirements. If the passenger isnt too drunk or too fat to squeeze into the seat (see FARs 91.17(b) – intoxicated passengers and 91.103(c) – weight and balance requirements), we pilots can haul them aloft. The FAA leaves it up to the pilot to educate the passenger as to their ride-along duties and responsibilities. Pilots who ignore this task will discover that passengers are always prepared to interrupt a flight. Lets look at actual examples of Passengers-In-Command. Well begin with: Helpful passengers who aid the flight back to earth.

Our first story takes place in Florida where, according to the NTSB report, the pilot and passenger had spent several hours practicing take-offs and landings in a SeaRey amphibious homebuilt. The following morning, they loaded the plane and set out for that Mecca of Aviation – Oshkosh, Wisc. They made it all the way back to the hangar. Unfortunately, it wasnt their own hangar, and furthermore, they entered through the roof, rather than the front door, which is odd even for EAAers.

The problem began on take-off roll when the PIC commented, It might be harder to get off the ground since yesterday. He was alluding, no doubt, to the extra travel gear one needs at OSH – cameras, sleeping bags, bales of cash. This apparently put the passenger, also a pilot, in the frame of mind to both worry and assist. The two occupants disagree on the actual sequence of events.

According to the PIC, the passenger wrongly assumed that the pilot wanted help getting the plane off the ground, so, the passenger assisted by hauling back on the yoke on climb out. In Stan & Ollie fashion this forced the PIC to push his yoke forward. The ensuing push/pull, push/pull teamwork left precious little time to review stall/spin recovery. They stalled and spun into a hangar on the field. Luckily their fall was cushioned by an ultralight inside the hangar. Both pilot and passenger sustained serious injuries and the SeaRey wasnt Grand Champion material anymore.

The passenger remembers the PIC commenting on take-off roll that, somethings wrong. Apparently interpreting that to mean, Save Our Ship, the passenger says he merely assisted in the impending stall recovery. When asked by investigators to encapsulate his philosophy about passengers touching the controls he said, Theres no way a less experienced pilot should touch the controls while the other pilot is struggling to keep the aircraft flyable. Sound advice, that. However, in this era of reconsidering testimony when faced with reality, he later amended it to, If everything is going OK, there is no reason to touch the controls. No-one in a sound mind (sic), if the takeoff is going OK, would touch the controls without advising the PIC.

While it is good to brief passengers about potential situations such as turbulence, ATC delays or heavily-loaded departures, it is also important to brief them on the etiquette of: Never, ever touch the controls, even if the pilot falls over dead. Let them play with the ashtrays if theyre nervous but watch for their hands and feet creeping toward important stuff like mixture, master, mags, yoke or stick, throttle, and rudder pedals. Ive noticed when giving Young Eagle rides to first time flyers, about every eighth kid thinks theyre supposed to take the controls on take-off. Even my seven-year-old daughter loves to change transponder codes on me. Surprise, were squawking 7500! Duct tape usually keeps their hands down.

With good cockpit resource management a pilot-passenger brings a second set of eyes to watch for traffic or a second set of ears to catch the missed ATC call. But, pilots in the right seat are like monkeys in the banana shop; theyre going to touch something. Well-intentioned kibitzers can interfere physically, as in the SeaRey accident, or mentally by exerting peer pressure to boldly go when the PIC might otherwise elect to divert. Extra pilots can make for committees when a leader is needed. A well-publicized crash in Illinois offers a chance to hypothesize what might have happened in this or similar situations where too many pilots spoil an aircraft in the soup.

Pressure Treated
The Piper Saratoga was IFR at night, bound for Casa de Aero, a private airpark west of Chicago. The airpark had VOR-A approach with 600-1 circling minimums. The private pilot had been instrument-rated less than a year with about 400 hours total time. One passenger, an owner, was also an instrument-rated private pilot. Two nonpilots were in the back. It was a long flight, originating in Muscle Shoals, Ala., non-stop to Illinois. Airmets were out for moderate to severe icing in a wide area including Chicago from 16,000 to the freezing level which was around 600 agl.

The pilot received several weather briefings and updates and seemed to be considering diverting to an alternate, most likely DuPage, which reported ceilings around 500 and visibility 4-5 in mist. DuPage also had an ILS. Nearby airports had similar reports; some with freezing drizzle. Surface temperatures and dew points were all around 1 C. In short, crappy winter IFR weather; not uncommon but no cake-walk.

He was cleared for an approach to Casa de Aero and given, …frequency change approved. He acknowledged, mentioned he might be back and that was the last ATC heard of him. Wreckage was found in a field the following morning; parts still coated with rime ice. All four on board were dead. The publicity came into play when it was learned that Chicago approach had forgotten the flight during a change in controllers at the ATC position. This situation, although rare, is not unheard of. Lack of ATC service would not have caused this accident, but it was reported that at least one person might have survived the crash – and possibly died while awaiting Civil Air Patrol rescue that came 13 hours later.

As tragic as that may be, we can learn something from the accident. A professional pilot who knew the pilot-in-command contacted us and offered a possibility. He had only the highest opinion for the deceased pilots IFR skills and, more importantly, his decision-making process. When hearing that another pilot was on board, he suggested that the PIC may have been influenced by the pilot passengers presence. This cannot be confirmed, of course, but it leads us to ponder the role of passengers who are pilots and their potential influence on the real pilot in command.

How many times have we pilots refused to do a go-around after a bad approach, knowing that other pilots were watching from either the ground or the right seat? The unspoken challenge: Get this baby on the ground! Could it be that the Saratoga pilot let his decision process deteriorate not from the threatening weather – he could have diverted to DuPage, shot the ILS and driven 30 minutes home – but from the pressure, real or imagined, of a fellow pilot on board? (Ah, dont let a little ice scare you. Or, Lets take a peek. Or worse, I think I can see the lights.)

This is pure speculation, because well never know what was said in the cockpit. We can, however, for our own benefit, consider what we would do if pressured by passengers to push on, to test our ego limits or simply distract us from that concentration needed in tough situations.

Problems Right in Front of You
Our next real life example involves an inadvertent engine shut-down by a passenger not rated in type. Again, this happened on the way to Oshkosh, bgosh. I know the story is true because I was there and misread the relationship with my passenger.

It was our first (and only) trip to Oshkosh in the 1946 Aeronca Champ. My wife, a veterinarian and not a pilot, pretended shed love to go, so we loaded the airplane with enough camping gear for extended rain forest exploration. I called flight service, which promised us clear skies. We departed beneath an unforecast ceiling on a hazy, hot, Iowa morning. The winds aloft were behind us at 40 knots, so we were lost in no time flat. Somewhere over a vast expanse of Americas dairyland, amid the heat and turbulence and leaking fuel cap spreading gas fumes into the cabin, my wife turned to me. Overcome by the wonder of flight (or the fumes), she was no doubt about to say, I love flying, darling! Lets do it more often! As she opened her mouth, though, the engine quit.

Immediately, I ran through my emergency checklist:

Step 1) Shout something unprintable

Step 2) Explain that no one had forced her to come along

Step 3) Lower the nose while picking out a landing sight.

After choosing the only rock-filled gully within miles, my mind ran through a troubleshoot list: Mixture – didnt have one in the Champ. Master – also didnt have one. Mags- had them and switch was on Both. Carb Heat – pulled On (Actually, I damn near ripped the knob off the cable). Fuel – one tank; valve on. The coat hanger fuel gauge read half full (or half empty, depending on the karma). Finally, I checked the throttle and wondered why it was closed.

Then, I noted that my wife, in the front seat of our two-seat tandem plane, had her elbow against the throttle in the front seat. In her enthusiasm for long bumpy flights in noxious airplanes she had inadvertently shoved the throttle closed. Possibly her subtle way of suggesting I land so she could take a bus home. I advanced the throttle and the crisis passed. Lesson learned: Even passengers intimately close to us will do their best to shoot us down when flying.

The Urps Files
Finally, we examine the most insidious of passenger interference – motion sickness. This sensitive topic has been swept under the transportation rug (or at least washed out the scuppers) for too long. Its time we analyzed its presence (if not its essence), causes and, until theres a cure, learn how to cull potential hurlers out of our airplane. Having personally decorated several categories of aircraft both civil and military – high wing, low wing, multi-engine, single and turbine – I can assure you that I am an expert in spotting the potential in-flight puker (PIP). Still, a few sneak by.

Experts say that air sickness is caused by inner ear sensors going haywire and sending panicky message to the brain, something along the lines of, I cant tell which way is up, so release stomach contents immediately! Its far more complicated. Even the fear of becoming airsick can trigger onset. Airplanes are an unfriendly environment at times. Theyre hot, smelly and noisy, a lot like a bar I used to work in and people got sick there, too.

Passengers are often confused or worried, and, suddenly, when youre at the farthest possible distance from any airport, their brain realizes how awful it would be to become sick at that moment. Graphed out, there is an exponential rise in the need to vomit in relation to inconvenience of place or the value of the instrument panel. Passengers figure this out all on their own with no help from the pilot.

Like volcanoes, they go through several stages of sickness before the eruption. The first stage is silence. Beware the passengers who suddenly shrinks, stares straight ahead or at their feet. They seem to lose the will to exist, certainly to fly. When you ask, Hey, partner, you fixin to woof your cookies? you push them into the denial phase.

Embarrassment causes passengers, especially pilot passengers, to deny the onset of air sickness. Whatever answer they mumble you should ignore, because youve already got a sick passenger and you must go straight to the cure. Get down now! The passenger, now an airborne patient, will not recover until reconnected to the earth. Unless theyre wearing a parachute, youll have to land. ATC will usually expedite your arrival if you explain your dilemma. If not, offer to bring proof.

You can nurse the patient along for a few miles by opening a window or vent. You can let the patient fly the airplane, just dont expect them to fly with any skill while their eyeballs are spinning. Tell them to look out the window. This has the effect of either re-establishing a reference to the horizon, or reminds the poor slob that hes still a mile up with his idiot brother-in-law and in grave danger. Tough call.

Short of landing, the only real solution is to stock your map pouches with a handful of plastic bags. I recommend the Ziploc Super Lunch Bag; after theyve tossed theirs, you toss it. For large passengers try Heftys 30 gallon Cinch Bags. Carry extras for other passengers (and pilot) because once the singing starts, everyone joins the chorus.

Prevention is the key. Make their flight experience pleasant with short uneventful first flights. Theyre impressed with just being aloft, not with your aerobatic skills. Dont break the spell with uncoordinated turns and unnecessarily steep banks. Tell passengers what to expect in a general way. Explain engine noise, flap functions and turn procedures – things they will see and feel. Passengers who see the transponder reply light flash or the gear lights change might assume pending doom. Ditto a stall horn or marker beacon lights.

Dont scare them with a detailed ground school lesson on systems, but casually mention the lights and horns before they go off. Keep the passenger anxiety level low. Never say, oops, even if youve screwed up. Dont plant the seed of airsickness. Avoid phrases like, …if you get sick… If youre suspicious, say something like, If you dont like anything, let me know and well come right back. But dont dwell on it. Tolerance to airsickness builds quickly with repeated successful flights. The smell of failure, however, lingers in the carpet.

Ultimately, flying, like other relationships, would be much simpler if we didnt have to worry about anyone else. But we fly to impress our friends without scaring them too much. Pilots who dont learn how to consider the passengers will be limited to flying a cropduster or for UPS, where the passengers come in boxes.

Pilots should act like hosts at a small party. Our passengers are treasured guests who can make the event a delight, yet these same scalawags are capable of stealing the silver when were not looking. Dont trust em! Remember, the passenger you turn off from aviation today could be the FAA Administrator of tomorrow.

Also With This Article
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-by Paul Berge

Paul Berge is a flight instructor and a former air traffic controller.


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