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Fighting the Fear, Finding the Fun!

The Cockpit Companion’s Guide to GA Flying Enjoyment

Source:, By Susan Parson

So, there is this general aviation (GA) pilot in your life. He or she practically bubbles over with enthusiasm. Your pilot virtually disappears into flight training or just-for-fun flying for hours regularly. Large sums of money vanish from the checkbook. A seemingly endless collection of aviation-related gadgets and devices accumulates in the house. Your pilot speaks an odd jargon-y language punctuated by self-generated airplane noises and extravagant hand gestures.

You initially think (or hope) it’s just a phase. You might even experience a sort of five-stage progression through denial, anger, bargaining, and resignation before reaching a level of acceptance. At that point, you begin to adjust to these quirky, even amusing, personality changes. You accommodate the new habits. You find space for all the gadgets. You occasionally (if nervously) go flying on a few of the recreational jaunts. And, if your pilot uses the airplane for transportation, you can sorta, kinda see how, weather permitting, a couple of hours in a GA airplane can beat lots of hours fighting the ground-bound automobile traffic.

But now your pilot wants you to go the extra mile. With fervor akin to that of an ardent preacher, your pilot wants to convert you from mere acceptance, to avid enthusiasm, and maybe even some level of participation. You aren’t so sure about flight training, but you eventually realize that your pilot’s aviation addiction is not a passing phase. You also realize that while you may never share the addiction or reach your pilot’s extreme level of “gotta-fly” enthusiasm, there are benefits to vanquishing the fear and finding the fun.

If even some of this scenario sounds familiar, this article is for you. Read on!

Safety First

As an enthusiastic presenter of “cockpit companion” seminars over the years, I start by addressing several key points.

First, GA flying is not a death-defying activity undertaken by risk-loving daredevils. Yes, there is risk. And yes, GA pilots can certainly do a better job of managing and mitigating that risk. More on that point, and how you can help, elsewhere in this issue. Certification and maintenance requirements for both GA aircraft and GA pilots are a lot more demanding than most people realize. Certificated aircraft (as opposed to amateur-built) must meet stringent safety requirements, and they are subject to thorough inspections on at least an annual basis (hence the term “annual”). GA airplanes are also subject to a specific, structured preflight inspection that the pilot performs before each flight.

On the human side, most certificated pilots are intelligent, rational, and accomplished people — not daredevils. They get a lot more training than licensed auto drivers in order to earn even the most basic flying credentials, and then there are a number of recurrency requirements a pilot must meet in order to retain flying privileges. All of these factors contribute to safety.

Second, there is no way I can teach you to land the airplane in an emergency situation (e.g., pilot incapacitation) in just a two-hour ground session or from a magazine article. To accomplish this, I strongly recommend investing in a couple of hours with an instructor (NOT your pilot companion, even if he or she has flight instructor credentials!) to get some hands-on experience with manipulating the controls in-flight and landing the airplane from the right seat. Just two hours of practice could go a long way toward fighting any fears and, better yet, increasing your confidence and enjoyment of the experience.

Third, chances are very good that you will never even need those skills as a right-seat cockpit companion. Pilot incapacitation stories make headlines primarily because they are unusual occurrences — not because they are commonplace events.

Fourth, one practical thing you can do to reduce fear, increase confidence, and enhance enjoyment of the GA flying experience is to learn a little more about what the pilot does, how the plane works, and how you can participate — both in normal conditions, and in the unlikely event of an emergency situation. So here we go.

What’s the Pilot Doing, and What IS All that Stuff in the Panel?

You’ll find a great tour of the airplane’s structural anatomy in Sabrina Woods’ “WikiAnswers” article. The external surfaces — wings, fuselage, powerplant/propeller, and overall structure — contribute to developing what pilots know as the Four Forces of Flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. In a nutshell, the pilot’s job is to use the cockpit controls — yoke, throttle, and rudder pedals — as well as the array of cockpit panel instruments, to manage, monitor, and direct these four forces of flight.

The collection of controls and instruments can look very intimidating, but we can break them down into three categories that correspond to the three priorities that every pilot knows: Aviate – Navigate – Communicate.

Aviate: The top priority — always — is to aviate. That means fly the airplane by using the flight controls and flight instruments to direct the airplane’s attitude, airspeed, and altitude. The instruments directly in front of the pilot provide important information on how well the pilot is doing with respect to basic aircraft control. Starting from the top left and moving clockwise, the pilot gets information on airspeed, attitude with relation to the horizon, altitude, vertical speed and rate, magnetic heading, and turns and coordination (i.e., is the fuselage aligned with the direction of flight). Though presented a bit differently, the same information (and much more) is available to the pilot on the “primary flight display” of a so-called “glass cockpit” aircraft. The pilot uses controls such as the throttle and panel instruments to set engine power and monitor engine performance.

Navigate: The next priority is to navigate, which means pointing the aircraft in the direction you want it to go. This task begins with knowing where you are right now. In order to navigate, the pilot can use a combination of instruments that include the magnetic compass, the heading indicator, and navigation instruments such as the VHF omnidirectional radio range (VOR)—sometimes combined with the heading indicator to form an instrument called the horizontal situation indicator, or HSI. In many airplanes, today’s pilots also have the benefit of GPS-driven moving map navigators. In newer glass cockpit airplanes, pilots can get an unprecedented range of navigation-related information — including weather, terrain, and obstacles — from a multi-function display (MFD).

Communicate: The final priority is to use the radios to communicate as necessary and appropriate. In some cases, the pilot makes and receives transmissions from air traffic control (ATC) during all phases of flight. In other cases, the pilot might communicate with ATC only when approaching an airport with an operating control tower. When operating around non-towered airports, the pilot makes radio calls on the published Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) and uses radio calls from other pilots to remain clear of other traffic.

What Can I Do to Help?

There are lots of ways that a right seat passenger can help the pilot manage flight duties. Let’s look at a few.

  • Watch for traffic: The sky is a big place, but there can be a lot of airplanes enjoying it at the same time — and of course airplanes converge in the vicinity of an airport. One of the most helpful things a passenger can do is to watch for other airplanes and point them out to the pilot. If the pilot is monitoring an ATC frequency, you can also listen to traffic calls that the controller makes and try to make visual contact. Controllers use a combination of clock positions, distance, and altitude to convey the other aircraft’s position relative to yours. For instance: “traffic twelve o’clock, three miles, 5,000 feet” tells you that the other airplane is three miles straight ahead of you. If you know that your airplane’s altitude is 4,000 feet, the other aircraft will be above the horizon relative to your position.
  • Read checklists: Pilots at every level make extensive use of checklists to ensure that all necessary tasks are completed at the right time, and in the correct sequence. One way you can help is to read checklists for the pilot, and then watch to ensure that he or she completes the required task. In addition to being a big help to the pilot, performing this task will provide a big boost to your knowledge of the aircraft. Ask your pilot companion to let you run the checklists, starting with the preflight inspection. If the pilot forgets to call for a checklist (e.g., after takeoff checklist), you can provide a gentle reminder by asking whether he or she is ready for it. Another important checklist is the passenger briefing checklist.
  • Monitor progress: Even in the era of moving map navigators, there is no substitute for human situational and positional awareness. Learn to read paper charts, tablet navigation apps, or panel-mounted moving map navigators. You should be able to determine where you are, and where you are going. Follow the progress of the flight, and make verbal callouts when you see the aircraft crossing a named navigational point. For example: “Crossing Casanova; next waypoint is WITTO intersection.” Especially on a flight where ATC gives instructions, it is helpful to keep a written log of assigned headings, altitudes, and radio frequencies. Another way to monitor flight progress is to learn to read key instruments (e.g., airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, altimeter, heading indictor, RPM and/or manifold pressure gauges) and pay attention in order to develop a sense of the gauge positions and settings used for various phases of flight. Though you might find it useful to write down specific numbers and settings, a well-developed sense of what looks right from the right seat is more practical than attempting to read specific numbers on the left side of the panel. Finally, start paying attention to the sight picture for takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, and approach to landing. You will soon develop a sense of what looks normal and right, and you can call the pilot’s attention to anything that strikes you as abnormal or wrong.
  • Set/monitor radios: You can be a big help to the pilot if you learn how to set and change radio frequencies, which can change frequently throughout a flight. And, while aviation radio chatter may initially sound like a foreign language, careful attention will help you pick out words and phrases — starting with your airplane’s call sign, which is a combination of make/model and tail number (e.g., Skylane 1234Z). You can also learn to set the aircraft’s ATC-assigned transponder code, which allows ATC to specifically identify and track your individual aircraft on radar. Finally, learn to perform basic functions on the installed or hand-held moving map navigator(s).

What Do I Do in An Emergency?

As in any tough situation, advance preparation counts for a lot. Just remember your priorities:

Aviate – use flight controls and instruments to control attitude, airspeed, and altitude. Even a little bit of hands-on right seat flying with a qualified instructor will be a great investment if you ever find yourself in a bind.

Navigate – use the navigation instruments to help you determine where to go and get the aircraft pointed in that direction. That’s why it’s a great idea to learn basic functions now and practice them on every flight with your pilot companion. If nothing else, be sure you know how to set the moving map navigator to take you “direct to” the nearest airport.

Communicate – set the communications radio to 121.5 – the “911 of the sky” – and make a mayday call. Set the transponder to code 7700, which makes your aircraft very visible on the ATC radar screen. Again, learning and practicing basic functions on routine flights will ease your workload (and your stress level) in the unlikely event of a pilot incapacitation emergency.

What Do I Do Now?

Take the time to learn some of the skills described in this article. Make a point of using every right seat flying opportunity to pay attention, learn, and practice these skills. Ideally, you will spend a couple of hours getting hands-on experience handling the controls from the right seat. These practices will stand you in good stead in the unlikely event that you might have to land the airplane on your own.

Susan Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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