How to Politely Tell Your Passengers to 'Clam Up'

Nonessential conversation can be dangerous, but when?

Though it has largely faded from the discussion, much was made of the conversation between the two pilots of Continental Express Flight 3407. Their de Havilland Dash 8 Q400 crashed on approach to Buffalo on February 12. Mostly, people remarked on the subject matter -- for example, the copilot's discussion on her inexperience with icing and hopes for gaining more familiarity with flying in that area of the country, where icing is so much more than a theoretical problem. But some have raised the issue of why they were talking at all about anything not directly related to the flight. In this case, the conversation about icing never strayed far from what was immediate and practical (just some observations on their past experiences with ice), but there have been accidents in which cockpit voice tapes recorded distracting chitchat that was deemed at least partly responsible for the accident. What are your policies on conversation with passengers, or a second pilot in the right seat, for that matter? And how do you implement your policy?

One rule for jet crews is no nonessential conversation below 10,000 feet -- the so-called sterile cockpit rule. But for many of us, large segments of our flights rarely top 10,000 feet, even in cruise. So this is hardly a practical rule. And assigning some other random altitude -- even as a rule of thumb - is likewise not a practical solution for most piston aircraft. I prefer to think in terms of 'distance from the destination airport' as a more viable measure for determining when to zip lips. That distance will vary based on a lot of factors: the complexity of the airspace; how involved the approach is; the weather ("We're descending into the clouds, folks, it's time for me to concentrate on what I'm doing."); how busy the frequency is; and others. But the basic idea is that when the pilot's workload begins to ramp up, it's time to shut up.

A heads-up to this effect should be part of the preflight briefing, especially for first-time passengers. They'll intuitively know that you'll need to concentrate on 'playing pilot' during the takeoff and climb to cruise. But after hours of enjoying your sharp wit and insightful commentary during the cruise phase, it won't be entirely natural for them to realize that you need to focus on flying the airplane. It helps a lot if you told them before engine start that, at some point toward the end of the flight, you'll have to ask them to clam up. If you have an intercom that can exclude the pilot, they are welcome to continue talking among themselves. Actually, this is a good idea, since there's a greater likelihood of passengers getting nervous if they all of a sudden have to stop talking and 'realize' they're in a small airplane about to land. One solution is to assign tasks to passengers, such as watching for other aircraft, looking for the runway lights (for front seaters), and so on.

Finally, with iPods, XM radio and other entertainment options now a part of many avionics systems, we need to consider when to implement a 'sterile cockpit,' even on solo flights. Maybe you can fully concentrate on an instrument approach with a Bach fugue for background music. But a stirring political debate on talk radio, or the climactic chapter of your book-on-tape can be just as dangerously distracting as a gaggle of passenger friends cackling at you like a flock of magpies.