Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Right Moment, the Best First

This is a story about newbies and flying. Sooner or later you may have the opportunity to give someone his or her first experience in a light airplane, and whether you realize it or not, that person will never forget you for doing that.

We all know that there are "memorable" experiences we cherish and "memorable" experiences we'd pay to forget. Your goal as a pilot is to make any person's first experience in a light aircraft one of the former memorable ones. For kids or adults alike, your best tack is good, but not TMI, explanations.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much information for a first timer. It may not look like it, but somewhere in each of us is a vast repository of primordial, instinctual fear of the unknown. So, a bit of information about the flight in general (say, "we are going to fly over your house today at 1,000 feet above the ground") is good. Getting into the detail of how a piston engine works, when and why it might break, and all of the emergency landings you or your friends have done over the years ("but look! I'm still here!" you say) — probably TMI. How to buckle and unbuckle the seatbelt, how to open and close the door, the right time (in flight) and the wrong time (on takeoff or landing) to talk to you—these are good points to make with your nascent fliers.

But what if those fliers are so young they can't really process this information? Well, then you'd better have room for a parent or adult guardian to come along and do the processing for them.

This is a pet peeve of mine when we are doing Scouting airlifts or EAA Young Eagles days. Some of the kids presented to me for their first flight in my little two-seater are just too young to be let loose unsupervised with a stranger. Now, I may be a responsible adult. Heck, I'm a qualified mom, having raised two of my own. But I'm not ready to take flying one-on-one a curious, possibly frightened four or five year old I have never met before.

That child really should be placed in a Cessna 172 or other aircraft with adequate seating for an adult guardian or parent to come along. After all, my job is to fly a good flight. I can't do that if I'm babysitting a total stranger, too.

If I've got my bigger bird available, will I put that little kid up front next to the controls, and right next to the handle of my door (sometimes the only exit in the cockpit)? It doesn't sound like such a good idea when you put it like that, does it?

So how old is the right age for a Young Eagles ride? If the child is to ride by himself in the airplane I suggest no younger than 10. If an adult guardian can come along, I'm game to take kids as little as three, but not in the front. Whoever sits next to my exit must be cognizant and capable of both guarding the door in flight (mine will depart the airframe if opened in flight) as well as getting it open in an emergency. They have to be mature enough to handle my cockpit briefing and strong and tall enough to both reach the door (mine is gull wing) for closing it, and managing the latch for opening it.

One more thing: I've taken many, many folk, young and old, on their first flight in a light airplane. On perfectly smooth days I can usually wow them with the ease and beauty, even intimacy of flight. I've learned, however, to scratch flights on windy, bumpy, rainy or low-ceiling days. Remember, you never get a second chance to make that first flight special. Bumps as a rule are freaky for those who have never been off the ground. Low visibility can give people claustrophobia, or just the willies. There is rarely a situation where the benefits of the pro bono first flight on a marginal day outweigh the cons. Go for sunshine and soft breezes.

If you take away anything from this diatribe know that I truly believe it is up to all of us pilots to be the best public relations and community outreach that general aviation can provide. One way we can do that is with our generous Fly a Controller, Fly a Community Leader, Fly a Kid, Make a Wish, you name it programs. Through them we can grow GA one new pilot at a time. That's why its so important to make those flights the best memories a person can have.