We all joke about passengers getting sick in the plane, but what does this risk truly mean in terms of safety and airmanship? I just learned a valuable lesson about both on a recent flight with another pilot.
I was demonstrating high-performance maneuvers associated with single-pilot aerial photography (my hobby-business, which pays for my flying) to him when I realized that the relaxed conversation had evaporated. We had just completed a steep-bank orbit around the photo subject and I was returning in a moderate steep turn back to the site to make sure I had not missed anything. I did not think too much about the lapsed conversation, but continued with the next maneuvers. The conversation resumed but then quickly halted again after more maneuvers. I remembered thinking to myself that the other pilot might be uncomfortable with these banks and turns as he was not controlling the movements, but unfortunately I did not fully connect the dots between the silence and maneuvering.
I continued on to the next photo subject and, with a little more conversation, presumed everything was normal again. I entered my last maneuver-a very steep turn back to the photo subject-and, this time, noticed that the other pilot was sweating and clearly uncomfortable. I quickly relaxed the yoke and the bank, but the damage had been done. The pilot got sick on his side of the cockpit and, despite my attempts to steady the aircraft in level flight, he was not going to get well for a while. We were currently 30 miles from our home base and, because I was not attuned to passenger comfort as I should have been, we were now in a very difficult situation in a very uncomfortable environment. I found myself fixating and, just like in any emergency, I was now creating that domino effect of small mistakes leading to a serious incident. I took a mental step back and remembered the basics-aviate, navigate, communicate-just in time to catch myself staring at the right side of the cockpit evaluating the other pilots health while descending at 500 fpm in a 30-degree bank toward the ground. I quickly leveled the aircraft and began an immediate track back to the airport. I contacted ATC and requested the most direct routing and, when assigned a vector for spacing, requested a physiological priority for landing. By the time we reached short final, the other pilot was feeling better and, despite the obvious uncomfortable environment, the mood had considerably relaxed. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and it was my fault.
We landed and began cleaning up the cockpit, which, as any of you that have experienced this may know, continued some three weeks later. After parting ways and exchanging sincere, mutual apologies, I drove home to begin my assessment of what went wrong. The conclusion is the following three rules of maneuvering with passengers:
1. Demonstrate all maneuvers before executing them within the mission.
2. Call out each high-performance maneuver before you enter it, i.e., announce the direction, estimated bank and potential Gs of any turn.
3. Be vigilant for any changes in cockpit dynamics, in this case conversation and participation.
And, finally, no one flies without a complimentary sick bag on his lap, because, lets face it, airsickness is not the exclusive domain of non-rated passengers. It can happen to anyone at anytime, especially when the PIC does not properly prepare his occupants for the ride.