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Just in Case

When a pilot falls ill (or worse) at the controls of an airplane, it sometimes leaves a frantic passenger at the controls. Pilot incapacitation is a factor in less than one percent of all general aviation accidents; chances are one in many millions that the pilot won’t be conscious to land the airplane.

When a pilot falls ill (or worse) at the controls of an airplane, it sometimes leaves a frantic passenger at the controls. Pilot incapacitation is a factor in less than one percent of all general aviation accidents; chances are one in many millions that the pilot won't be conscious to land the airplane. But our business isn't just about eliminating risk -- it's also about making our passengers feel secure. And it just so happens that the knowledge you share to counter this risk will likely contribute to more enjoyment for all souls onboard during those many, many hours of trouble free flight. So, how can you prepare your passengers for the worst, just in case?

1. CAREFULLY Approach the subject
Do you have a frequent front-seat passenger (a spouse, a co-worker, an older child)? Then you're flying with someone who might benefit from a little extra knowledge -- and this is how the subject is best approached. The information you share is "making flying more fun" and "sharing a bit of your world" -- you don't need to draw special attention to the fact that it might also save your life "in a pinch." Approach your "target" passenger by saying something like: "You fly up front with me a lot, and I think it'd be fun to teach you a little more about the airplane. In fact, I think you could learn to land it with just a little effort. You'll have a lot of fun, and it'd give you even more confidence by removing some of the mystery about flying. Only if you think your passenger has the maturity and the confidence to talk about this remote possibility should you wait for the right circumstances to introduce other possibilities. If you choose to say anything at all, emphasize that it's extremely rare that something happens to prevent the pilot from landing the airplane. Tell them (if it's true) you have no reason to believe you will ever have such a problem. And reaffirm your primary concern is their fun and their confidence -- which would probably increase if they knew how to land the airplane.

Insider's Tip: Most nervous passengers fear many things far more than the incapacitated pilot. This discussion, and the training that follows, is aimed at the frequent front-seat passenger who does not fear flying in light airplanes.

2. Seek Professional Help

By that I mean, professional flight instruction for your spouse (the "front seat passenger" is almost always a spouse of the pilot). There are a number of places you can go to get this sort of instruction:

  • The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. AOPA is well known for its Pinch-Hitter® ground school courses (the term is considered generic for this sort of training, but is in fact a registered trademark of AOPA). Pinch-Hitter® began years ago as a combination of classroom training and flight instruction aimed at teach a nonpilot, in about a day, techniques for getting an airplane safely down in this nightmare scenario. Although liability concerns have led AOPA to discontinue the flight training portion of their program, the coursework still removes a lot of the mystery about landing an airplane, and primes the nonpilot-cum-emergency pilot for instruction with his/her local instructor, in the airplane they most commonly enjoy.
  • Airplane "type clubs." Many aircraft owners' organizations have training arms that may have an emergency-pilot type course. The American Bonanza Society's BPPP, Inc., for instance, often includes a short course for spouses at its training events. These meets give your nonpilot passenger access to top-notch instructors, familiar with your airplane type. Type clubs are too numerous to mention here, so ask an instructor or search online for a type club designed around the airplane you fly.
  • Other Training Organizations. FlightSafety International, for instance, sometimes provides Pilot's Companion Confidence Builder, or PCCB, training scheduled to coincide with owner-pilot classes. Take your spouse or other "emergency pilot" candidate along for a little training of their own next time you take in a refresher.
  • Your local FBO. Don't overlook the home 'drome instructors. They may be able to put together a short course for your aspiring "emergency pilot" that'll give them the skills they need to bring a safe outcome to this unlikely tragedy.

Any "emergency pilot" program should include at least these elements:

  1. Aerodynamics -- An explanation, in layman's terms, of what it takes to land an airplane. Don't bog down in aerodynamic theory or discussions of the relationship between angle of attack and center of gravity location ... you'll lose your audience fast. Do -- in easily understood, non-pilot terms -- describe what the emergency pilot needs to know to complete the task at hand.
  2. Understanding that this emergency pilot training, much like the emergency training the pilot receives regularly, is almost never needed, but indispensable in those rare instances when the situation arises. The object is to get the plane down on an airport with little or no injury and respond to the pilot's medical condition. (There are bonus points for finesse, but they are not part of the final grade.)
  3. Training in radio use -- how to contact Air Traffic Control (or confirm contact is already made), what to tell the controller, and how to tune communications and navigation radios when requested by ATC. Emphasize using the transponder and the #1 communication radio, as well as how to tune for an instrument approach -- in the very best case. In the worst case, the mission is to at least alert rescuers so they will know where to look for you if the landing off-airport.
  4. Autopilot training -- if the airplane is equipped with an autopilot, then that's what the emergency pilot should use to get the plane down. Teach how to ask for a coupled ILS approach, how to set up the navigation radios, and how to program the autopilot to ride the beams toward the ground.
  5. "Flare-and-Shutdown" technique. Over the landing spot, the emergency pilot should establish the flare attitude, then shut everything down -- throttle idle, mixture to cutoff, battery and alternator/generator off -- to limit the chances of a fire.
  6. An evacuation plan. Teach the emergency pilot how to evacuate him/herself and other passengers, and recommend immediate evacuation after the airplane comes to a stop regardless of how smooth the touchdown. Advise the emergency pilot to evacuate first, then evaluate whether it's wise to return to extricate the incapacitated pilot or if waiting for rescuers is a more prudent choice.
  7. A written checklist. Trust me, a front-seat passenger will forget most of this within a few days of the training -- it's too much information, too far out of his/her normal experience, in too little time to stick for very long. Instead, the emergency pilot needs a written checklist outlining what to do and what to say (to controllers). This checklist has to be kept handy in the airplane, and the potential emergency pilot needs to review (and optimally, practice) the procedure every couple of months.

NOTE: About half the pilots I've ever provided "emergency pilot" training have gone on to earn their pilot certificate themselves -- this introduction was all it took to inspire a new pilot.

BOTTOM LINE: Nobody wants their family to need their life insurance. But we all buy 1 to protect our loved ones, and to give us peace of mind to know they can carry on without us. Spending a little time getting your spouse or frequent passengers ready to take over in the extremely unlikely event you're incapacitated is another -- and much more enjoyable -- form of life insurance all pilots who carry passengers need -- just in case.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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