This is Your Captain …

Brief your passengers - for your own good as well as their comfort and peace of mind


As pilot-in-command you are responsible for the safety of your passengers. Although commercial operations specify that passengers be given a safety briefing, Part 91 is considerably less specific. That leaves it up to the pilot to ensure passengers are thoroughly briefed – and that includes much more than telling them how to buckle the seat belt.

The briefing should begin before entering the aircraft ramp. Have a means for positive control over your guests. Teenage boy scouts playing football on a ramp are not under positive control.

You need to ensure that your guests dont endanger themselves, nor do they block or impede other aircraft operations, nor distract other operators, nor block access for ground or emergency vehicles. Determine a safe walking path from the parking lot to the aircraft parking space, and keep your passengers confined to that area.

People, particularly those around small planes for the first time, love to go up to an aircraft and run their hands along its sleek lines. Pilots are educated about touching aircraft, but their guests generally are not. If you take someone out to the aircraft as a guest, it is your responsibility to keep them from damaging the machinery. Remember that a non-aviation person isnt aware of how delicate a fabric-covered airplane may be or how easily an antenna can be made to snap.

There is also the danger inherent with walking near airplanes. Pilots are aware of the power of a propeller, but passengers and bystanders may not be aware of just how careful you have to be around those spinning blades.

Before you take your guests near an aircraft, advise them how to approach it, how to avoid blind-spots so that they can be plainly seen by a pilot, and advise them to stay away from a propellers arc, even if the engine is stopped.

Try to appoint a ground marshal to be responsible for making certain that the group approaches and leaves the aircraft from the proper direction. You would think that the noise and turbulence near a turning propeller would be enough to warn anyone, but that is not the case.

The accident record is full of people walking into the prop while approaching the front of an airplane or even those who have gotten out of high-wing airplanes and walked into the still-turning propeller. In fact, the most common fatal accident in one common turboprop doesnt occur in the air but during passenger exits.

Passengers who walk into the propeller nearly always are killed, although a lucky few have only lost limbs. Its one thing to warn a passenger, but it is even more effective if you can appoint a responsible individual to guard and monitor the passenger loading and unloading so that they completely avoid dangerous zones.

An even better way is to simply shut down the propeller before deplaning passengers, or not starting the propeller until everyone is on board. That works well when it is just you and a couple of friends in a small plane. If you have a group and a larger airplane, you will need to appoint a ground marshal.

In the Baggage Hold
Before you load passengers, you need to find out what they are carrying in their baggage. This isnt directly stated in the FARs and yet it is extremely important to your safety. Passengers can inadvertently carry items that will compromise your safety.

If you ask the safety consultants to air freight companies to list their concerns about the freight they carry, they will rank undeclared cargo near the top. Undeclared and improperly stored cargo was the initial cause for the ValuJet accident and several others. You would be surprised to learn what sort of items can compromise the safety in flight.

Aerosol cans and other pressurized items can be deadly. As you climb, those cans or items will expand and can explode. But risks can arise from more mundane factors as well.

The editor was once victimized by a seemingly innocuous squeeze bottle of mustard. When a passenger preparing sandwiches during a long flight opened the container at altitude, sea-level pressure inside caused mustard to spew all over the windshield, instrument panel and headliner.

Granted, one can think of many things worse than mustard exploding all over the cockpit, but do you need the distraction in flight? Do you need to be heads-down preoccupied with the clean-up? Imagine a liquid beverage can exploding next to your avionics package and soaking into the electrical devices. Not only can you ruin your avionics, but you can potentially cause a short circuit, which can lead to worse problems in a real hurry.

If the substance is potentially debilitating, you are really headed for trouble. There have been several reports of pepper spray, commonly carried by outdoor enthusiasts to repel bears and contained in a pressurized can, bursting in flight. The cloud of pepper spray can temporarily disable those inside the aircraft.

The Department of the Interior, whose firefighters and wildlife biologists sometimes carry pepper spray for protection, are now required to carry the pepper spray in a large PVC pipe that is sealed by screw-on lids.

Consider also a recent episode in which an airline passenger checked two gallons of hydrogen peroxide packed in a cooler. The containers broke open in flight and, hours later, a baggage handler noticed smoke coming from the cargo bay. Two nearby bags were scorched en route.

The NTSB noted that hydrogen peroxide, in sufficient concentrations, can burst into flames when in contact with some common materials such as paper or leather. In 1998, a hydrogen peroxide spill caused a cargo fire in a commercial airliner.

Clearly you need to assure that every item brought on board by your passengers will not create a hazard. Seemingly innocent household items should be scrutinized and probably left behind just to play it safe.

In Canada and Alaska, pilots are required to carry survival kits, including a firearm. A few months ago an undeclared handgun discharged on an airliner and the bullet lodged in a diaper bag beneath a passengers seat. If your passengers are carrying firearms, the empty chamber should be double-checked to make certain it is empty, and the firearm stored in a way so that the action and trigger are secured. Check this personally if at all possible. You just cant risk having a firearm discharge in the aircraft.

After you have double-checked the contents of the baggage and made certain you are not carrying hazardous materials, then it is your responsibility to safely load the baggage. If there is any question in your mind about the weight of the baggage, you really should weigh it and do a full weight and balance calculation. Make certain that the baggage is secured in place so that it wont shift.

If you have the choice, its better to put cargo behind a bulkhead, sometimes termed 9 g bulkheads. This will protect yourself and your passengers better should you run off the runway or experience a more severe sudden impact.

Small aircraft usually dont have a bulkhead, so you are left with a cargo net. Make certain it secures the cargo in place. If there are liquids contained in the cargo, make certain they are constrained so they wont spill. Remember that spilled liquids will seep into the carpet and down into cracks and holes where they can encourage corrosion in locations that are difficult to detect and correct. Its better to prevent this from happening in the first place.

Safety in the Cabin
Even in the passenger cabin, there are dangers that many people would not suspect.

The use of supplemental oxygen can cause flash burns to guests wearing makeup. Never allow makeup, cosmetics or oily substances near pure oxygen.

In addition, you may want to provide suggestions to your passengers regarding the appropriate clothing. For instance, for soaring on a hot day, you might suggest loose fitting clothing and a white hat. For flying over a mountainous area, suggest warm clothing and footwear that would enable them to survive in the unlikely event of a mishap. Caution against polyester clothing of any sort, mainly because of the fabrics characteristics when exposed to heat and flame. Natural fabrics, such as cotton or wool, provide much better insulation and flame resistance should a fire occur.

Before boarding passengers, do a weight and balance for the flight to ensure that the aircraft is within limits and to determine which seats each person should sit in, based on their size. The main obstacle you will confront will be obtaining passenger weights. Some passengers may be reluctant or embarrassed to reveal their actual weight, so be prepared to politely and discretely explain why you need to know it.

Show passengers how to properly step into and exit the aircraft. Show them which surfaces are safe for stepping on, which surfaces they should not step on, and where to grasp for hand-holds. Remind them early that light plane doors do not need to be slammed like car doors.

Show them what they can touch in the cockpit and what to keep their paws off. Show them where to grab to adjust the seat, how to open the door and windows, and how to operate the emergency exit, if there is one. This is particularly important in airplanes where the door mechanism has something other than a single handle, such as Cherokees and pressurized airplanes.

It can be an awkward sequence for someone not accustomed to this maneuver, so have them try opening the door for themselves. Remember, in an accident, you may be unable to help, so they must be able to open the door under their own power and without guidance. If the aircraft sits high off the ground, show them other items associated with an exit, such as ropes or handles.

Show-Me State
If the aircraft is equipped with survival equipment, at least show them where it is stowed and outline what the kit contains. If the kit has an auxiliary radio, show them how to turn it on. If you are flying over water and require life preservers, discuss how to put on and inflate the life preserver.

The ability to put on a life preserver in a cramped cockpit during an emergency situation is going to be compromised at best. Some have suggested that it is easier and less risky to wear the life preserver for the duration of the flight over water. Others have warned to be careful about inadvertently inflating a life preserver in the cockpit because of its size and impact on freedom of movement.

Other emergency equipment to discuss includes the ELT, fire extinguisher and crash ax.

With that complete, its a good idea to run through some of the things that might happen in flight. This applies for first-time passengers, of course, but even people who have ridden in small planes before will get an education because few pilots bother briefing passengers about whats happening in the cockpit.

The sterile cockpit concept isnt required under Part 91 operations like it is in the air carriers, but its still a very good idea. Explain to your passengers about the important need to pay attention to aviation functions during ground operations, takeoff, climb-out, descent and landing. Tell them that during these phases of flight, conversation should be kept to a minimum and should deal strictly with urgent aviation matters, such as an aircraft in their flight path. You may want to point out what your signal for silence is, whether thats a raised finger or as my wife puts it, the look.

Warn your passengers about noises and motions to expect. You and I may realize that the marker beacon is just a navigational signal, but a passenger who hasnt been warned about the flashing light on the panel and the intermittent beeping may think it is a fire warning or some other harbinger of doom. Let them know that the blinking light on the transponder is just a signal that air traffic control is monitoring your position with radar. The stall warning horn can really be unsettling to passengers, so try to avoid activating it.

Definitely mention to your passengers that they shouldnt touch the flight controls. In several thousand flights carrying passengers, Ive only had two passengers ever grab the flight controls. Unfortunately one occurred during the rotation for takeoff. The passenger pulled back abruptly on the stick, causing the aircraft to over-rotate momentarily and forcing me to overpower him. If your passenger develops a death grip on the yoke, you can use a command voice to get them to release the yoke. If that doesnt work, use a swift motion at their elbow and wrists to break their grip.

Other anecdotes weve heard over the years: The mother-in-law who hung her purse on the mixture control, the back-seat passenger who opened the aft baggage door in flight – and then climbed back into the baggage compartment to close it, and the mom who kneeled backwards in her seat to deal with the kids in the back, pushing the yoke forward with her tush.

Sometimes control interference can be inadvertent, such as a tall front-seat passenger who stretches his legs and interferes with the rudder pedals or a passenger in a tandem taildragger who doesnt realize just how far back that control stick may swing. The controls free and proper exercise during the runup can help remind passengers how much room they must give the controls.

Fly Like a Pro
The concern you show for passengers shouldnt stop with the preflight briefing. Aviators may like banking the aircraft, but to passengers even a subtle bank angle can seem nearly vertical. Abrupt pitch and banking motions can readily frighten passengers, especially nosing over. Ive been guilty of doing this myself, and it doesnt impress the passengers. Theyd rather have a smooth, uneventful flight.

Apprehension can lead to motion sickness and it is far better to stop the development of air sickness at the very start. Handling the aircraft in a smooth manner really helps. Having a queasy passenger look out the window at the horizon will help, as will flying in smooth air. Keep a good flow of air in the cockpit. Ask them to help point out traffic as a way to keep their mind off of motion sickness. During the preflight, casually point out the location of air sickness bags, but dont make a big deal of it in case they are apprehensive to begin with.

Another effective means of keeping the motion-sickness prone passenger from thinking about getting airsick is to involve them in the flight. Ask them to help pick out major navigational features, spot traffic or look for the airport. Dont be afraid to use the passenger to help organize (or refold) charts or to retrieve materials from your flight bag. It allows you to keep the cockpit organized and keep your attention on the aircraft.

While it is great to share the joy of flying with your friends and other passengers, it is also your responsibility to take care of them.

Remember that your passengers are depending on your aviation skills and judgment to deliver them safely back to the ramp. A thorough briefing is one of the items that will start the flight on a professional note, and hopefully end with the same professional tone.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Passenger Briefing Checklist.”

-by Patrick Veillette

Patrick Veillettes passengers used to jump out of the airplane and into burning forests. Now he flies a B-727 full of things that cant jump.


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