Finding Your Ideal Aircraft: Keep Your Passengers Informed

Letting family and friends know what to expect in flight can put them at ease even when surprises occur.

Checkouts are common across all types of aviation and they vary depending on the situation. Airline pilots have checkouts when transitioning among aircraft types. So do GA pilots who want to use their flying club’s new Piper PA-28 after years of flying only its Cessna 172.

Aircraft rental companies may require pilots to demonstrate a certain set of skills for an hour or so with an instructor before allowing them to rent an airplane.

Insurance companies often require private pilots who buy aircraft to log a number of hours in their new machines before flying solo and more before carrying passengers. This is especially so when moving from a relatively simple aircraft to a complex model with higher performance. In my case, I needed at least three hours of dual instruction before soloing our 1992 Commander 114B, and a total of 15 before passengers could join me.

After accumulating the hours recently, I felt ready to take my wife on a lunch flight farther afield than our typical $100 hamburger jaunt. We agreed on Northampton, Massachusetts (7B2) because we had heard nice things about the airport, and we knew we could easily walk into town after landing. We have also driven past the field for years on Interstate 91 and felt it was about time we visited.

We blocked out a recent Saturday and made plans. And you know what they say about plans. The day arrived with stronger winds and an overcast a bit lower than forecast. We also were slower getting out of the house. Our morning departure turned to early afternoon. Still, conditions were pleasant, and we enjoyed a smooth, fast flight to our destination, reveling in the Commander’s speed advantage over the rented 172 we have flown together for years.

Northampton is a picturesque old college town with so many points of interest that our day trip could never do it justice. But we took in as much as we could, and everything took a little longer than we had anticipated. Back at the airport, after returning a few calls from family members—something you must do when flying—we departed. It was clear we would arrive back at Sussex (KFWN) after dark.

My wife had never flown with me at night, so I explained that we could use the radio to turn on the runway lights as we neared the airport. I also reassured her that flying VFR at night is a completely legal, normal part of GA operations. I might have even patted myself on the back for making such a seamless update to the usual passenger briefing. But there were a few more curveballs headed our way.

Clicking the microphone two miles out from Sussex failed to activate the lights. Further attempts over the airport and in the pattern brought the same result. My wife even called my instructor on the phone to make sure we were not somehow forgetting a step in the procedure, but no luck.

I decided to divert to Essex County Airport (KCDW), a larger, towered field that was 10 minutes away, closer to home, and rideshare-friendly. The only difficulty there was spotting the relatively dim runway lights among the surrounding highways, strip malls, and parking lots. The Commander spent the night on the ramp tucked between a TBM 900 and a Piper M600, both sparkling, and I flew it back to Sussex the next day. It is a nice airport.

The episode reinforced the “when in doubt, divert” mantra I learned as a student pilot, but this was my first diversion, and there are a couple of things I will do differently the next time. For starters, I will not utter “Now what?” the next time something unexpected occurs. I do not recall saying this, but my wife is certain I did. I will also emphasize the possibility of diversions when I brief passengers. While I always discuss the potential need to divert to alternate airports en route, I don’t think I ever really considered being unable to land at my home airport.

This week I will update my briefing—and I might call KCDW to see if its infamous waiting list for hangars has gotten any shorter.


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