Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Art of Not Scaring Passengers

It sometimes surprises other passengers when I deadhead in the back of an airplane in my uniform. "Isn't it weird being back here instead of up front?" they ask. Well, no. Between the normal schedule and equipment substitutions, we deadhead quite alot. I don't particularly care whether I fly or deadhead; we're paid the same. I've had situations where I was scheduled to deadhead but was able to get a FO off their trip early by flying the leg, and I was happy to help them out. I've also sat in back when I was scheduled to fly.

Sitting in back does afford some good opportunities for people-watching. It's interesting to watch different persons' reactions to various maneuvers and sounds. One thing becomes apparent: there are still a lot of nervous flyers out there, and more than a few that are outright fearful. You see white knuckles clenching armrests on takeoff, the worried crane of the neck on every change of engine speed, the snap to attention on gear extention. Add a little turbulence to the mix and the mask of serenity slips from a few more passengers.

Seeing all this is a bit of a revelation. Flying is so utterly commonplace to me that I make little distinction between being in the air or on the ground - either way, I'm simply at work. It is easy to forget that for many of my passengers, flying is not at all commonplace but is an utterly unnatural act that goes against all other human experience. People can be conditioned until almost anything can seem normal - but where flying is concerned, many remain decidedly unconditioned.

Seeing these fearful flyers react to utterly normal flying made me reexamine my own techniques. I tend to be obsessed with efficiency to the point of being somewhat aggressive on the controls. As an example: if I'm taking off to the east on a Boise-Seattle flight, I will climb quite steeply until I get the westbound turn from Air Traffic Control. When they give me the turn, I roll directly to 25-30 degrees of bank and hold it. As soon I'm within 30 degrees of rollout heading, I'll pitch down to accelerate to cruise climb airspeed.

Now there's nothing wrong with this technique; it does save time and fuel. Efficiency, however, is but one consideration when it comes to airline flying. The peace of mind of my passengers must be another. If climbing at a less steep pitch or using a shallower bank angle makes a difference for a fearful passenger, that's well worth the extra few seconds and drops of fuel expended.


My cousin Amanda and her friend Eli are staying at my house right now; I have the entire week off work. Tomorrow I'm taking them flying in a C-172 if the weather is decent. Amanda hasn't been flying in a light aircraft in a long time; hopefully there won't be much turbulence for our Mt Hood tour. I haven't told her how badly flying the MegaWhacker screws up your ability to land Cessnas - but the landing comes last, so it's OK if I scare her then!

One interesting last note. Before taking Amanda and Eli up, I'll be flying with an instructor for single-engine landing currency. When I called him tonight to set it up, he found out I was a MegaWhacker FO and asked if I was the guy with the FL250 blog. That was a surprise! Thanks for the nice comments, Kurt, and I apologize in advance for my first few landings tomorrow...


clint said...

i was up in your neck of the woods not too long ago delivering a Turbo 182 to a guy in Bend. After being up there it made me want to move there. but property values are a little high there nowadays.

Neil said...

Being recognized by check ride pilots? You're a celebrity! : )

Scott said...

Hey Sam is Kurt with Gorge Winds? If he is, he did my complex and I hope he will be around in the spring to do my IFR.

Sam said...

Yup that's the one. I flew with him today, nice guy.

Ted "Mr. Las Vegas" Newkirk said...


Been reading and enjoying the blog since I found it a few months ago through the FL390 blog. Have worked my way through all the back posts over time.

I'm in Las Vegas, but born and raised in PDX until my mid-20's (I'm 41) when I left to get some sunshine. And also left to get out from behind the "iron curtain" as my politics don't generally mesh with the common thinking of the Portland area.

I used to be a reasonably scared passenger, worried about the noises and bumps. Then something interesting happened: I bought FlightSim '95 thinking it would be a toy game kind of thing. Obviously it isn't. I won't pretend it is close to the real thing, but you do have to learn about flight, navigation, ATC, fuel mixtures, and tons of other stuff to fly the sim properly. And being a Type A personality, I was determined to master the thing.

Funny thing happened: I went from being slightly fearful of flight (although it never stopped me from going anywhere) to really, really enjoying it. Now I know what all the noises are and how everything seems to work, I love to fly. In fact, I find mild to moderate turbulence kind of a fun ride (staying buckled in) and getting slam dunked into airports with pitch down and spoilers up to be a cool experience in real life.

Having said all of that, some general thoughts:

With modern aircraft, I think passengers are used to steep climbs and descents. Unless are are really staring out the window, it isn't always easy to tell how tight a turn is. And if anything, I'm guessing that safety alone (provided all other factors are equal) would be in favor of a quick climb out of the many airports your airline regularly serves because of surrounding terrain.

I think more people are worried about noises. When hearing reduced thrust or pitch (on climb), did the engines simply stop? When they hear the flap noise, is something falling apart? When the gear drops and flaps are down, you hear more wind noise and the ride gets a little more rough.

I think those are the thoughts in people's minds. Stuff that is simply part of flying an airplane and can't really be changed.

Strictly speaking as a layman and outsider, I would suggest that you simply continue to fly the airplane as you always have:

1. If the company is happy with how you handle the aircraft, that is concern #1.

2. Thinking about trying to provide a more gentle ride might be distracting, and get you out of the groove you need to be in. I can drive a stick shift, but generally have not done so regularly in years. I guarantee you I'm more prone to an error (missing a stop sign, bad lane change) when I do because part of my mind is on thinking about driving with a different mechanical procedure.

3. You are probably more likely to have regular customers on board who are mostly used to flying, unlike Southwest or other carriers who move a lot of "mom and pop on vacation" people around. If anything, you are more likely to have people who are at least used to all the bumps and noises. I know that sometimes I fly PDX-SEA-LAS (the first leg with you guys). When I sit in your passenger area bar in PDX, the majority of people I talk to are regulars on the various routes.

4. Keep in mind, that your non-regulars simply might not be used to the MegaWhacker. New noises, new feelings, new bumps. Nothing you can do about that.

Sorry to write a book. Enjoy the blog big time. Once again, don't pretend to think that flying on the computer means I know much of anything. Please take my thoughts as coming from a passenger who has been on both sides of the coin: Worried about all the bumps and noises before I understood them, and now actually soothed by them. If the gear doesn't move or the flaps don't come down, that would be a problem!

Ted Newkirk

Aviatrix said...

The technique thing I see in everything from a C152 to a B767 is the way the pilot handles the airplane with the addition or retraction of flaps. Some pilots letthe airplane drop a little as they bring up departure flap and climb with approach flap. I always try to bring the flaps up with acceleration such that I can raise the nose just slightly and have increased angle of attack compensate exactly with the lift lost from the flaps coming up. No sinking feeling for the passengers.

Rhea said...

I tend to be a nervous flyer so it feels good to hear you reconsider your techniques so that passengers don't freak out. Enjoying your blog.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that Mt. Hood has so little snow? I am more familiar with her northern siblings and perhaps it is the altitude difference or perhaps the shape (Hood seems much steeper and conical) so maybe it's just me.

I'd love to hear your insight on the following:

Do you think people are more apprehensive of flying on prop-driven aircraft as opposed to jet-powered aircraft? Or does it bother many people that the aircraft they are about to board seems so small when compared to the larger jets flown by mainline airlines?

Personally I like flying on the smaller planes and enjoy the variety of relatively "rare" aircraft types that regularly fly in and out of the pacific northwest- types that are very difficult to fly on in other parts of the country. But I am probably not your typical airline passenger.


Sam said...


Thanks for the comment, sorry it took me so long to respond.

The company's only take on normal flying technique is no more than 30 degrees bank and avoid abrupt maneuvers (don't have the FOM in front of me, I'm summarizing.) Of course when terrain is a factor that takes precedence and I'll often climb at 15 degrees and 150 kts until clear.

Using a slightly different flying technique in an airplane you fly all the time is not at all like driving a stickshift for the first time in several years. It's simply using a slightly different combination of attitudes, speeds, control inputs - the very basic things you do almost instictively. Believe me, a gentle ride isn't my overriding preoccupation. I've turned hard when ATC gave me a late turn onto a localizer with parallel traffic, and I've darn near sent people into the ceiling while responding to a TCAS RA. But when everything is normal and there aren't other considerations, making the flight easier for nervous flyers is important and isn't a distraction.

Sam said...

Norman - You should've seen Mt Hood last year at this time. There was NO snow thanks to a very dry 04/05 winter.

You know, we get a lot of comments about the props as passengers board, and occasionally even get people that refuse to fly once they see it's a turboprop. But we also get a lot of compliments as passengers disembark - "It's a lot nicer / newer / quieter / faster than I expected." Size is definately an issue, but even that is a matter of perception. The MegaWhacker is actually bigger than the CRJ700 in length, wingspan, and cabin size. Yet people who regularly fly on RJs exclaim that they've never been on an airplane this little.