I became a private pilot 20 years ago, not long after my 19th birthday. Like every new pilot, I couldn’t wait to take my first passenger for a ride. The day after the check ride, I called one of my best college friends and invited him to the airport for a sightseeing flight in a Cessna 152 around Cincinnati. He didn’t hesitate and appeared at the airport a few hours later.
We departed from the Clermont County Airport in the middle of the afternoon. It was a typical Midwest winter day with a steady breeze and choppy turbulence down low (strike one). I didn’t provide any guidance on what to wear, so like any normal person preparing for an outdoor activity in the winter, he bundled up in a snowsuit like Ralphie from A Christmas Story (strike two). After takeoff, I quickly modified the sightseeing plan, climbed up to 3,000 feet, and asked him if he wanted to see something cool (as if flying in a Cessna for the first time wasn’t cool enough). He said yes. So I proceeded to show him a maneuver that my flight instructor once demonstrated to me during training called the “pen trick” (strike three).
This is where I add the disclaimer, “Don’t try this at home,” but I had him hold a pen in his hand and aggressively pushed forward on the controls to create a reduced G-load environment, leading to the pen floating in front of his face for a second or two. I was grinning ear to ear and chuckling like a little kid, but then I looked to see his face turn 50 shades of green. He couldn’t have been more uncomfortable dealing with turbulence, now nausea—on top of burning up in his expedition-ready mountain attire. Recognizing that he wasn’t feeling well, we headed back to the airport and called it a day.
The learning experience from that flight really didn’t sink in until several years later, after flying with lots of new passengers and seeing what worked well and what didn’t. The college-aged version of me walked away from that flight thinking my friend just wasn’t cut out for flying, without consideration for his comfort. It never crossed my mind that he had no experience with turbulence in a light airplane or was dressed to overheat and had no desire to have his stomach turned upside down by my pen trick.
Twenty years and 3,000 flight hours later, I still think back to that flight and use it as a reminder before every personal and professional flight to plan every detail for the best possible experience, factoring in the mission, passenger backgrounds and their expectations.
The ultimate test of this preparedness came this past year during a flight that determined the future of GA travel for my family. Up to that point, my wife had been apprehensive about taking a trip in a small airplane, but I decided it was time to help her conquer that fear, allowing me to fly us to our next vacation. I thought that if it went well, she might instantly fall in love with the freedom and flexibility afforded by personal travel. If the experience was uncomfortable or frightening, we’d likely be back on the airlines.
The timing for this opportunity worked well in summer, with COVID-19 making airline travel less desirable than normal. I set the stage for us to fly to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a long weekend on the beach.
My airplane of choice is a 1963 Piper Aztec, which is a great cross-country airplane—if it fits in the airplane, it can go. The Aztec cruises at 165 ktas and carries 900 pounds with full fuel. The downside is, it can come across as a bit intimidating to a new passenger because it’s a twin-engine airplane that is quite loud even by airplane standards, with a cockpit full of screens and switches.
The day before the trip, she assumed she’d be limited to a small backpack, in light of the airplane being small. When I told her there was room for several bags and unlimited shoes, she was thrilled. This was a small victory but reinforced a key point to always try to exceed expectations (even if done so unintentionally).
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Thinking back to the not-so-great experience with my first passenger in the Cessna 152, I crafted a plan to make the flight as comfortable as possible. It started with spending a little extra time analyzing the weather the day before to ensure the smoothest route at the best time of day. Barring an early morning cold-front passage, the air in the Midwest is always smoother in the morning, so we planned for a sunrise departure. This also makes for some great views to help distract a nervous passenger from all of the new sensations and sounds introduced during the departure.
The forecast indicated some instability near Tennessee, with a stationary front just south of that, so an early start would also help get through the affected area before the buildups developed into full-scale thunderstorms. I also filed a conservative route to help stay well clear of forecast convection. The route added just five minutes to the time en route and would eliminate the talk with ATC about deviating around thunderstorms while she was in the front seat for the first time, listening to the communications.
The next step was getting quality pilot and travel gear assembled for the flight: Bose noise-canceling headsets (did I mention Aztecs are loud?); an iPad with books and movies; a portable battery backup and USB charging cables; a small cooler with water and snacks; and a pillow and blanket within reach in the back seat. I started sharing the flight details the day before, outlining the three-hour flight time and lack of bathroom on board, so no coffee stops before the flight.
The next item I grabbed was more of an experiment, and it worked out really well. We’re both snow skiers and typically pack a couple of small Boost Oxygen cans in our jackets when skiing at higher elevations in Montana. I don’t own a portable oxygen system (and didn’t need one legally for our cruise altitude), but I anticipated these might be a worthy substitute to use when flying at 10,000 feet to help reduce fatigue.
The flight went better than I ever could have hoped. Right on cue, we had to make some small deviations around buildups in Tennessee, but we had music playing through the Bluetooth headsets, which helped calm her nerves. We had to climb to 13,000 feet for a few minutes to clear the fast-rising cumulus clouds, so having the Boost Oxygen really paid off.
We each had our own canister and took a few deep breaths every 15 minutes. You can’t beat the price and convenience—and I was really surprised how well we felt back on the ground after flying at and above 10,000 feet for three hours. They may not be a substitute for a true oxygen system when flying in the teens, but it’s now a standard item in my flight bag when flying at night or below the legal limit for oxygen.
By the time we were about an hour from our destination, we were in solid IMC, muddling through the warm section of the stationary front. By then my wife had found her groove in the airplane and was loving every minute of it, listening to her favorite playlist. We broke out from a stratified cloud deck to reveal a nice view of the ocean during the approach and made it to the beach shortly after landing. The additional preparation paid off, and now she’s counting down the days until the next Aztec flight to Florida this summer.
This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine