Young Eagle in right seat

Don’t say that! 5 phrases to avoid when flying with passengers

Flying is simply too good to keep to ourselves. Whether it’s a friend, family member or neighbor, bringing a passenger along is a great way to make your next $100 hamburger flight more fun. It’s also a wonderful way to welcome a new person into the amazing world of aviation.

Young Eagle in right seat

Flying a young person? It’s especially important to watch what you say.

But with that fun comes some responsibility. For most non-pilots, it’s a big step to go flying in a general aviation airplane – filled with excitement but also fear. We need to respect that, and do everything possible to make flying less stressful. That means flying in good weather, being smooth on the controls and landing as soon as it’s not fun.

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things that matter most. A great example is the words we use in the cockpit. Talking is a great way to dispel some fears for a new flyer, so I make it a point to discuss some of the most commonly asked questions before and during a flight. But be careful here: casual statements can have a powerful effect if you’re not thinking.

Here are five things you shouldn’t say in the cockpit when you’re flying with passengers. Trust me, I learned these the hard way.

  • “Fire!” One day, while droning along over central Georgia at 7000 ft., I noticed a huge forest fire off the left wing. When I excitedly pointed it out to my non-pilot passenger, I only said “Fire!” My friend assumed I meant the engine was on fire, and looked at me with panic in his eyes. Note to self: the correct phrase is, “Look down at the ground and notice the forest fire.”
  • “I think we can make it.” Passengers don’t like to hear doubt from their pilot. Whether you have 50 hours or 5,000 they assume you know exactly what you’re doing. So instead of wavering, summon up your best airline captain voice and declare confidently that “we’ll be landing in 10 minutes.” Better yet, if you only think you can make it, you probably need to reconsider what you’re doing.
  • “Uh oh.” Another one that is loaded with meaning you probably don’t intend. I said this once after dropping my pen between the seats in a Cessna 210. Hardly an emergency, but my right seat passenger (who had been dozing) bolted upright. Better to say nothing at all.
  • “I’ve never seen that before.” This is one we’ve all thought before, but it’s best to keep this as just a thought. Engine gauge start acting a little odd? GPS flash a message you don’t recognize? Pay attention, and find out what the root cause is, but do it in a very calm and thoughtful way. Again, the idea is to make your passenger feel like you can handle anything (we pilots know it’s a lie).
  • “Watch this!” Far too many pilots think their passengers are looking for a thrill ride when they jump into the right seat. They’re usually not. Showing off with steep turns, stalls or buzz jobs will only scare your flying companion, and “watch this” is how many of these bad ideas start. You’re not on stage when you’re flying.

When it comes to flying with passengers, the best advice is to be boring. Simply leaving the ground and seeing the world from another perspective is exciting enough for most non-pilots; there’s no need to push the envelope or add stress.

In other words, don’t be like the pilots in Monty Python:

Any mistakes you’ve learned the hard way? Add a comment below.

14 replies
  1. Greg says:

    Those are great. Once when I was a younger pilot coming in too high for a landing, I proclaimed “We’re not going to make it” and then proceeded to put the plane in an aggressive slip to lose altitude. I made the landing just fine, but for a minute or so my passenger was thinking his life was over.

    Of course, all I meant was that at our current decent rate we weren’t going to make the field and that I needed to employ a slip to lose altitude. This was something my instructor had said to me on occasion when I was too high or fast on approach and I just simply said his words out loud.

    That friend never went flying with me again and I learned a valuable lesson to keep my thoughts to myself. :-)

  2. Mark Taylor says:

    What about the traditional, as you shut down the engine following a nice flight with a new to flying passenger, “Well, we walked away from another one!”.

  3. Terry R says:

    I had a Passenger say ” look at those planes ” when we were nearing an airport once … gave ME a scare ..thinking I was closer than was supposed to be and I was flying into a busy pattern . Turned out ..Those Planes were on The Ground !!

  4. GWK says:

    Only scare that I can remember putting in someone was returning after a football game at night with my brother. It was severe clear. At altitude I leaned the mixture (before the days of engine monitors or even EGT gauges) and went just a hair too far. When the engine speed sagged a bit, he stiffened Right up. Now, I explain what I am doing.

  5. Andy says:

    Clearly you guys have no sense of fun. My dad was an Air Force and airline pilot. He actually was a commercial pilot when he was still in high school, and my uncle told me the story of the first time my dad ever took him flying when they were in high school. Apparently the words “So, just so you know, the flying part I’m pretty good at, but the landings really give me trouble,” are the most terrifying words in the English language.

    I got to pull the same trick on my best friend a few years ago. Even better was the fact that I just happened to be in Austin, TX and didn’t have time to do a rental checkout so a CFI agreed to ride with us. Well, for only being a class C, Austin really should be a class B. It was exciting enough for my friend getting to take pictures of the Delta MD-88 that took off on the parallel runway to us and the tower had us turn under him while he turned over us, but when we returned to land the tower put us on a base leg and then gave us a command that the CFI chuckled at and said “I knew they were going to do that.” So suddenly it’s gear up, full power, and manuevering to join final behind a falcon that’s landing. And the tower wants us as close to him as possible because there’s an MD-88 and a 737 waiting to take off.

    On final I look my best friend in the eyes and with a look of concern I tell him the same thing my dad told his best friend and get back to flying. At this point even the CFI is a bit startled at the information I’ve just offered. We were going about 140kts at the threshold, thanks to the tower and the busy airport. Oh and they’d like us to turn off at the first taxi way. Suddenly I’m dropping the gear, slipping the plane wile turning it and scrubbing off as much speed as possible, flaps are going in, the sink rate alarm’s going off. It was the 2nd most perfect landing I’ve ever made. No one in the plane even felt the main gear touch. Just made the first taxiway with just a bit of tire squealing, the CFI is laughing and saying how perfect it was. I turn around and my friend, who has been convinced he’s about to die, is drenched in sweat and giving me the finger. Could not have ended better. He still tells people it’s the smoothest landing of any airplane he’s ever been in in his life.

    • Me says:

      Andy, good flying and cool story! Many times when challenges arise, skill shines. Nice greaser, man!

      You flew safely and well. CFI was local and familiar with Austin. No biggie.

  6. Doug Tomlinson says:

    I second the comment of telling the passengers what we are doing, but somethings we are so used to we overlook. My sister who had been in small planes a few times before commented that it aleays startles her when it suddenly gets quiet when throttling back for landing. I always warn new passengers now.

  7. Jim Macklin, ATP CFII ASME says:

    Never say, “Fasten your seat belt, we’re going down.”
    Better, “We’ll be landing soon, fasten your seat belt.”
    Best, “For your comfort, keeping your seat belt fastened all the time will keep you in your seat in case we encounter some turbulence.”

  8. Scott Doss says:

    To Andy

    You want to be a bully, go back to jr high. its a good thing I wasn’t in that plane. Once on the ground, one of would have gotten as ass whooping.

  9. Neil wallace says:

    At the time I almost said something to my sister in law. We were approaching The airport after a transport flight of a couple of hours, in twilight with a tidy cross wind after the tower had closed. I was starting to feel a little weary as I had gone out of my way to make her first flight calm and fun. Suddenly anything run by the vacuum pump toppled. Lights stopped working, the A.I. Told me I was flying with my left wing down after looking out the window in the deepening darkness I confirmed I was okay. The words ” well that is odd ” we’re on my tongue I looked at my sister in law who had eyes like a rabbit in a spot light. I stayed quiet and dealt with it did a cross wind landing and parked the plane. My sister in law was full of praise and of course I responded with “I do it like that all the time”. All the while I was sweating big time. As my plane was a rental I went to the office the next day looking for the mechanic the “serviced” the plane the day before. My CFI took me aside and gave a really confidence building talk to reassure me about my actions. This taught me that it is not always what you say but what you don’t say. Like the other writers I now am very careful what I say because our passengers want a good time and our job to give it to them. Great lesson for me

  10. Derek Inman says:

    Several years ago I was flying a King Air into a small uncontrolled airport where our company owned a flying school. My boss was co-pilot on the flight and he was getting off and I had two people to pick up for a charter. I taxied to the ramp next to the office where my passengers were waiting. The office staff and waiting room had a clear view of the aircraft. When my boss opened the door and got off the plane, he thought he’d show off and get a couple laughs from the office staff, so he got down and kissed the ground in full view of my passengers. The office had a good chuckle but he forgot about those two people who were about to board. Yes….he had some explaining to do. Fortunately, they had a good sense of humor and the charter went well.

  11. Dave says:

    I agree with all good advice. I try to warn about sounds people will hear. As I adjust from climb to cruise the engine will get quieter and that is normal. As we slow to land the engine will get quieter and that is normal. We are approaching the runway crooked to compensate for the crosswind but will straighten out before landing and this is normal … Things we don’t think of anymore sound and look funny to neophytes. More reassurance and explanation means more return flights for these folks.

  12. Don R says:

    I said “OH SHIT” one time with three non pilot passengers aboard when my Artificial Horizon rolled over. Conditions were CAVU, but they will never let me forget the incident.

  13. JJ Gullett says:

    Late to the party, but…

    I learned that I tend to, once airplane is reconfigured for cruise, start thinking about items in the office I forgot to take care of before I left. One time I let out a big “Oh Crap!” My wife jumped to attention and was asking me what incident was about to cause her life to end. I simply said, “Oh, that crap had nothing to do with flying, just forgot to do something.” She let me know to keep that to myself, especially if I had newer passengers with me.

    As to Dave’s notification of notification of sounds. I always let newbies know about gear and flaps being lowered. I will normally let them know that the sound they are about to hear is the gear (or flaps) being lowered and that the gear (or flaps) will also slow us down.

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