The Adventurous And The Anxious: Thoughts On Passengers

I’ve had my licence for a little while now, and that means I’ve had some time to take a variety of passengers out flying with me now. I’ve obviously been a passenger in a plane before, but being the pilot and having a passenger is a little different perspective. Because then you’re recognizing that this person you’re taking flying is someone who cannot take over flying like your instructor could.

And believe me, they know it too. They know very well that they’re putting their life in your hands. It’s a huge gesture of trust and confidence.

Some ask lots of questions, some were very quiet. Most passengers are fairly quick to clue in when someone says something on the radio, that the pilot needs to hear it, and they stop talking. One interesting observation: when I say “Okay, I’m gonna be concentrating on landing for a couple minutes,” suddenly passengers are dead silent. In the plane, I’m the boss and most people seem get that pretty well. I’m a pretty laid back person, and don’t often take charge, so people are often surprised when I’m put in a role where I’m in charge, and have no trouble telling people what to do. People have observed that my whole demeanor changes. Being the pilot makes people in the role of passenger automatically look to you for direction, and taking that role has come more naturally that I thought it would. 

Some friends were terribly excited to go flying with me. There’s certain things (things that are still perfectly safe) that you can do with an aeroplane, that you’ll never see done in a commercial flight, like demonstrating the rudder by wagging the tail, or what our aerobatics instructor calls a “seat-belt check” (nose up hard for a second or two, then nose down hard to pull negative G’s. If your head hits the ceiling, your seatbelt isn’t tight enough.) Things that would frighten a nervous flyer, but for someone comfortable with it, can be fun. I’ve had some of my friends giggling like kids in the passenger seat.

Of course, not everyone’s happy to hear you say “Hey, you wanna see something cool?” I’ve been upfront about asking what my passengers are comfortable with, and explaining what we’re going to do before I do it, and what they’ll experience. Also, when you get your licence, your instructor is very clear on what you’re allowed to do with passengers and what you’re not allowed to do. Spins, for example. They’re an aerobatic maneuver – Harv’s 152’s are all insured for spins and we spin them in training. I’m allowed to do spins solo – in fact, as far as I’m aware, there’s no restriction on aerobatics maneuvers when a pilot is flying solo, with no passengers, as long as the plane is capable of it, you recover before 2000ft AGL, and the owner of the plane has it insured appropriately and is okay with you doing it. But you can’t do aerobatics with passengers unless you’ve done ten hours of aerobatics with someone who has an aerobatics instructor rating, or twenty hours of aerobatics solo.

Generally nobody gets caught doing things they’re not supposed to unless they crash. But quite frankly, I don’t see any point in doing anything I can’t brag about. Like, when my instructor said I should practice spins solo, even, I guess no one had ever actually said I couldn’t go do spins solo, but if I was going to, I would have wanted her to know before I did it, so that I knew I wouldn’t get a finger wag or anything. When I was taking one passenger out early on, and it was one of the ones who was comfortable with flying, and I wanted to demonstrate a stall, I even checked before hand with my instructor to make sure that would be okay.

I think I was a little bit afraid at first, when I got my licence, that my friends and family wouldn’t have enough faith in my competence as a pilot to go flying with me. I needn’t have been though – anyone who knows me, the better they know me, the more they have confidence in me. This is in fairly stark contrast to some of my family that I’m less close with, and who knew me better around ten years ago. In the last ten years I’ve blossomed as a person, and since moving to Winnipeg, made a lot of new friends, so most of my friendships are less than ten years old. There’s one main exception, and he was happy to go flying with me.

Family who knew me better before – strangely don’t seem interested in going flying. Some (a lot) of them cite being afraid of flying, some won’t even talk about it. There just seems, you know, to be a disproportionate number of people in my family who are now afraid of flying. My mother, off in Australia, tells me she worries about me flying, that I’ll end up getting myself hurt.

My husband reminds me that the people who know me, are the ones who have confidence in me, and it’s true. Nathan, as in a previous post, was my first passenger, but it was also his first time flying, so he was understandably nervous. He made sure he told me several times that the anxiousness was over the flying thing, not over any lack of confidence he had in me. After all, he was coming up with me, wasn’t he?  As much as I sometimes wonder if they’re saying “I have complete confidence in your piloting ability” as much to convince themselves, actions speak louder than words, and they are in the plane with me of their own volition.

And then there’s one friend who’s afraid of flying. She’s been on big jets, and I know that’s a lot easier for people afraid of flying to deal with. She says she has an easier time of those, considering she can remind herself that most plane crashes involve small planes. So going up in a small plane – she hasn’t quite got there yet, was how he put it. It wasn’t a hard no, though. She said maybe someday, if she can screw up her courage. And seriously, that someone afraid of flying would even consider going up with a relatively new pilot, is a huge vote of confidence.

In conclusion, taking passengers is fun. To all my passengers, I love sharing this mad little dream with you and it’s been an honour to be your pilot.

Trip Downtown

One of the things that made me nervous about starting to fly was the number of rules of airspace, and the level of control over it. I’m afraid of getting in trouble for screwing something up. And then when I got started, and learned how much there is to rules of airspace, there was ten times as much to know as I could have imagined. My school has an online ground school and the presentation on airspace is a solid two hours long. My mother in law was listening from the other room as I was watching it, and at the end said “Do you actually have to know all that?”

And yeah, there’s not really any way around it – I do have to know it.

And with my social anxieties, interactions with ATC make me far more nervous than the actual flying, for the most part. My instructor says I never had trouble with the radio work – it helped a lot that I’m used to talking to people on the phone a lot at work – not having faces to deal with makes it a lot easier, actually. And it’s not talking to them that makes me nervous, it’s the fear of screwing up something and them getting mad at me.

The first time I was in Class C airspace was on my second dual cross country, and I was definitely anxious about that. I can’t remember if my instructor made sure I was doing all the radio calls that day or not – they might have done that for me to let me focus on navigating and working out how to join the circuit without disrupting traffic. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of. Then a few days later, I was in terminal airspace on the solo long cross country – that was the first time in class C airspace solo, for me, and that went fine.

Aside from a short Class C Advisory north of the city for my preflight, I wasn’t in Class C airspace again at all until after I got my private license. I’m pretty good at pushing through anxiety though, and since it was something that made me nervous, I knew I had to get myself more comfortable with it. So anytime I was flying far enough to make it worthwhile climbing above 3000 feet into terminal airspace, I filed my flight plan with an altitude that would take me there.

So when Winnipeg and St Andrews Towers had a presentation and they mentioned they were inviting people to come fly over Winnipeg in the control zone, for sightseeing, I was ready to take them up on it. I took a friend with me and we flew over downtown, and North Kildonan – I got him to call my husband and tell him when we were overhead, and Nathan was able to spot us from the ground. Then we went for a touch and go at CYWG – another thing I’ve done twice before, but never solo.

The most amusing part of that flight was when we went over to Oak Hammock airpark for a touch and go on their little grass runway. I did kind of a crappy assed turn to final – it had been a few months since I’d practiced on that runway, and the turn to final on 36 there is a tad unforgiving, because you have to turn before the highway or you end up in St. Andrews airspace. Come to think of it, I may have never actually brought a 172 into Oak Hammock Airpark, though I did a half hour of circuits in a 152, and a ton in the citabria. That runway’s too short to dick around with though, and I figured fairly early in  the final approach that I was going to have to do an overshoot. I did, and came around for a second try, and second time was perfect. The amusing part though was when my passenger asked why ATC had stopped responding to my radio calls.

I was suddenly reminded how much procedural stuff there was to know about flying. I couldn’t begin to explain to a passenger all the rules to the three different airspace classifications we’d passed through in the previous half hour or so. But from Winnipeg control zone (class C), we’d passed through St. Andrews control zone (class D) and into uncontrolled airspace (class G). A passenger couldn’t possibly be expected to know what it meant when St. Andrews tower addressed us, saying “November India Quebec, radar services are terminated, cleared to enroute frequencies.”

Anyway, I gave him the short version “We’re in uncontrolled airspace, there’s no tower here – radio calls are basically made ‘to whom it may concern.'” It was kind of neat though when I had Nathan with me on the flight to Gimli, Dauphin and Brandon, because he has an amateur radio licence, and he can follow a lot more of what’s happening on the radio. With the amount of exposure he’s had, just from living with someone learning to fly, he understands a lot more than the average passenger would. Hopefully I’ll get up with him again soon.