You are sitting in the FBO drinking coffee, half-reading a book and waiting for what seems like forever while your pilot readies the plane for flight. If you haven’t flown much as a partner or passenger, it is easy to assume that getting the aircraft ready for flight means the pilot unlocks the doors, checks the gas tank, looks at the gauges, kicks the tires and empties any trash from the previous flight. While you continue to sit there and more time passes, your mind wanders and you start getting antsy and nervous. What’s taking so long? Is there a problem with the plane that the pilot isn’t telling you about? Finally, you see the pilot enter the FBO and give a thumbs-up indicating that you can go ahead and climb in the plane. You ask yourself, why can’t the pilot just turn the key in the plane, start the engine and head out like you do in a car?
The above scenario is common and stems from an atmosphere devoid of good communication between a pilot, their partner and passengers. Creating this atmosphere is the responsibility of the pilot to initiate and foster.
“Pilots have to create a non-threatening communication conduit between themselves and their partners,” said Chris Prusak, Cirrus CSIP and CEO of PRP Aviation, LLC in Ocala, Florida (KOCF). He is also an A320 captain with over 20,000 hours in military and civilian aircraft. “The partner may not understand all the necessary tasks and as such, they may feel unprepared or ill-equipped to make a difference. Because the preparation for flight can be intense, it’s essential to create an environment that will alleviate anxiety and enable good communication for both pilot and partner. A partner who understands some of the processes involved can lessen a pilot’s stress and workload, making the flight more enjoyable. More importantly, a partner may see a potential threat, but needs the right environment to be willing to share their concerns without fear of judgment or negativity. That makes the partner a resource in the cockpit and gives them a sense that they are not just there for the ride but are a contributor to the increased safety of the flight.”
Mike Radomsky, a Platinum CSIP and flight instructor at Mike Romeo Flight Training based out of the North Las Vegas Airport (KVGT), aptly pointed out that airplanes are very different from cars. “They are complex machines controlled with many gauges, knobs and switches not found on other vehicles, and their ability to operate in three dimensions creates new factors to deal with. They are affected by air density, wind and temperature on the ground but also uniquely affected by these forces at various altitudes. Unlike a car, you cannot simply pull over and call AAA if there is a problem. That is why preflight planning is so important.”
General aviation and commercial aviation are similar in that most of the procedures necessary for flight planning, preflight of the plane and management of the flight systems before, during and after the flight overlap. However, the resources available and how they are managed differ in scope and magnitude.
On a commercial flight, passengers might assume they are simply marking time at the terminal gate until their pilots and flight attendants arrive. Then they are allowed to board, settle in their seats, hear the safety briefing, pushback from the gate, taxi and takeoff. In reality, that’s not how it happens. Two professional airline pilots manage the cockpit and work as a team. They coordinate and oversee the steps necessary for preflight and takeoff and continue that teamwork throughout the flight until landing. Behind the scenes, multiple personnel at corporate headquarters support them by reviewing the weather, briefing them and filing a flight plan with flight service. Ground support coordinates the aircraft’s weight and balance with passengers, cargo and fuel load while the line crew prepares the plane for pushback and taxiing. The pilots are given all the gathered information, which they are then responsible for reviewing and deciding if any changes are necessary and if the parameters are compatible with the flight characteristics of that particular plane. They then configure the aircraft’s avionics with this information and perform the necessary checklists to determine the plane’s airworthiness to complete the flight. Most of this occurs before the passengers are allowed to board the airplane. Simultaneously, the flight attendants ensure that the cabin is configured and safe for the onslaught of passengers and carry-on luggage waiting to rumble down the jet bridge.
Though it might seem like general aviation should be faster and easier with only a few passengers and a couple of bags of luggage, the truth is that the necessary processes to preflight, coordinate and initiate flight are much the same. In general aviation, all aspects of flight operations rest on one person, the pilot-in-command. They are solely responsible for guaranteeing that the weather is acceptable, the route chosen is satisfactory, and that the plane is ready to fly safely.
“We look at the current weather radar,” Radomsky said, “and the weather forecast for the particular route we want to take. We also look at the runway and taxi diagrams to and from unfamiliar airports. Every aspect of the flight must be checked before the engine is started.”
The preflight inspection begins with a walkaround outside the airplane to visually ensure there are no structural deficiencies in any component, that the tires are correctly inflated and external accessories like chocks and tie-downs are removed. The oil is checked, and the fuel tested to ensure no water or contamination is present.
“Then the preflight moves to the inside of the plane,” Radomsky continued, “all the systems have to be checked to confirm that they are working as they should.”
In general aviation, it is up to the pilot to calculate the plane’s weight and balance, accounting for passengers, cargo, luggage and fuel on board. The weight must be appropriately distributed to balance the entire load, enabling a safe takeoff and stable flight. At that point, passengers can board and settle in before the pilot gives them a safety briefing. The safety briefing includes using the intercom, noting the location of emergency equipment such as the red CAPS handle in the Cirrus, correct buckling of seatbelts, proper door closure and securing loose items. If applicable, partners and passengers are shown where, when and how to use the onboard supplemental oxygen. The safety briefing in general aviation is essential since the passengers must know how to assist themselves in case of a problem.
“All these tasks take time,” said Radomsky, “Once the passengers are onboard, the engine can be started, and the pilot checks that the sound and feel of the engine are normal. The pilot must be confident that the engine and the airplane are working as they should.”
The pilot communicates with clearance delivery, ground and tower control to get approval for taxiing, run-up and clearance for takeoff. As such, the pilot may first call for flight following if flying VFR (visual flight rules) or flight plan clearance if flying IFR (instrument flight rules). All of these steps may take several minutes. The pilot then programs the altitude, radio frequencies, and initial heading and inputs the flight plan with various waypoints into the flight management system and possibly their iPad for a backup. These waypoints define the route of flight.
“To avoid distractions,” explained Radomsky, “I tell my passengers that having a sterile or quiet cockpit is necessary during high workloads, such as during takeoff and landing. If children are onboard or people get airsick, it helps to have the partner take care of those kinds of distractions.”
“Distractions are the No. 1 killer of pilots,” Prusak emphasized. “Creating a pre-agreed upon phrase such as “I am concerned” can benefit the pilot and partner,” Prusak continued. “Using a safe phrase, the partner can immediately get the pilot’s attention and express their concerns. Then, the pilot knows to thoughtfully address the issue without feeling threatened or becoming aggravated by the partner’s question. If the pilot is not receptive to this two-way communication, partners may become unwilling to fly with them.”
“We call this crew resource management (CRM),” Prusak said, “which has nothing to do with flying airplanes. Instead, airlines teach CRM to assist captains in listening for keywords so crew members can express their concerns openly and without fear of retribution.”
“I do feel that good communication is important,” said Jamie St. Clair, whose husband Dave flies a 2002 G1 SR22. “Sitting in the back seat and not paying attention to what is happening in the cockpit would not work for me. I like to listen to air traffic control and, if necessary, can even talk on the radio. I am not interested in being a pilot, but I can help assist with various things, like looking for traffic. It comforts me to know where we are and that I can be a part of it.”
“It also makes me feel better,” said Jamie, “to know that if I tell Dave that we need to stop or that the turbulence is bothering me, he listens.”
Lisa Shembekar concurs. When she and her husband, TJ, fly their 2017 G6 SR22T, she considers monitoring fuel use one of her jobs.” “I like to watch the gauges and pay attention to the air traffic controllers on the radio,” Lisa said, “and tell TJ if he misses an instruction to change frequencies or headings. He finds that very helpful. It does help to have some understanding of what is going on should something happen.”
“Knowledge is power,” added Radomsky. “No pilot gets on the runway, turns the key, pushes in the throttle and takes off. Safety is about repetition and following checklists. It takes time to check that everything works properly. These are things that pilots must do before and during every flight.”
Ultimately, the more a partner understands the importance of these tasks, the more comfortable they feel with the whole process. This may make the partner a more willing participant as a “crew resource” and take their flying experience to new heights.