First Flight

A ‘first flight’ experience can make or break a passenger — or even a pilot — for life. A ‘first flight’ experience can make or break a passenger — or even a pilot — for life. We need to continually introduce people to lightplane flying if personal aviation as we know it is going to survive. Sometimes we’re faced with the more selfish goal of convincing our family, friends and co-workers that it’s okay for us to pilot airplanes. We have a tremendous opportunity to perpetuate our avocation if we manage these introductory flights correctly… and we can just as easily create a life-long enemy of general avaition if we do it wrong.

Important: On average, about 10% of all satisfied customers tell one or more people about their positive experience — so say the customer relations experts, anyway. But 70% of dissatisfied customers tell five or more friends and family members about the bad experience. To put aviation in a positive light we need to create positive experiences, and to limit — as much as possible — the chance of producing bad memories.

So you want to excite your friends, or your family, or your employer about personal aviation. How can you make the experience as positive as possible?

  1. Choose your time. Try to be as flexible as possible with your new passengers. Bring up the idea of a flight ‘some evening‘ or ‘over the weekend.’ Be up front and tell them you want everything to be ‘perfect‘ for their first time aloft in a personal airplane. Postpone the flight if the wind’s very strong, or the visibility is poor, of if the clouds are too low … and tell your passengers why you’re rescheduling. You know the best flying is under a high overcast in the last hour or so before dusk — so that’s when you should take your new passengers up. Or maybe you’re all ‘morning people‘ and you can catch the first light of dawn from the air — just don’t make your passengers endure cold weather or other discomforts while you prepare the airplane. Watch the weather a few days ahead of time and you can judge when an ‘intro flight‘ will be most enjoyable.
  2. Involve your passengers. Make your passengers part of the fun stuff — let them in on the inside information. Explain the preflight process to them (you’re ‘doublechecking for safety,’ not ‘looking for anything that will kill us.’) Let them help with plugging in headsets, pulling the airplane out of the hangar, and anything else that’s not too much work and that shows a little of the flavor of personal aviation. Show the passengers an aeronautical chart — explain the symbols briefly for the immediate area of your trip, and how you use the information. Let them look over your checklists, and tell them checklists are the professional’s way of confirming all actions are safely accomplished. Let them know you’ll use the checklist when you start the airplane, and when you exercise the engine at the end of the runway to doublecheck safe operation before you take off.
  3. Be professional. Do things ‘by the book.’ Don’t take shortcuts. Explain the process of becoming Federally authorized to fly an airplane, and what you plan next (an instrument rating, for instance) to improve your skills and expand your abilities even further.
  4. Remember the goal. The flight is NOT for you…it’s for your PASSENGERS. Plan everything to optimize their enjoyment and safety.
  5. Have fun — a smile is contagious. (And passengers will be turned off if you’re tense.)

I’ll keep this simple and to the point… which is exactly how the flight should be. Three things will make the trip memorable (in a good way) for your passengers

  1. Keep it local.
  2. Keep it smooth.
  3. Keep it short.

Make the first flight a local sightseeing hop.

Local: Ask your passengers if there’s anything they’d like to see from the air — most people like to look at their house, their place of employment, and local landmarks. Decide before takeoff where you’ll go, and know exactly how to find your ‘target.’ Nothing is quite so disconcerting as having your pilot get lost, so don’t appear to be struggling to find their house from the air. Tip: Go out solo before the day of the flight and find it yourself, and/or plug coordinates into a handheld GPS and fly ‘direct.’

Smooth: Rotate smoothly to a comfortable climb angle. Gradually level off into cruise and trim the airplane. Make all turns with a shallow bank angle and use a small descent angle for landing. Be ready with your best ‘soft field‘ technique to make that all-important landing one of your smoothest yet.

Short: Good salespeople leave their customers wanting more. Make no mistake: you’re ‘selling‘ personal aviation with this flight, so make the first flight short — 15 to 20 minutes is optimum. Plan subsequent flights to take in other landmarks, or to buzz somewhere for lunch (don’t mix food and airplanes the first time you have them up). You’ll know you’ve been successful if THEY ask YOU for a second trip!

What if the weather’s worse than expected? What if you bounce your landing, and have to go around? What if a passenger gets queasy, or even sick? What if (heaven forbid) something breaks on the airplane during your intro flight? Fly enough ‘first timers‘ and you’ll face all these challenges. If the flight goes poorly, be truthful about what happened. Explain how you’ll take steps to avoid similar events in the future. Demonstrate your willingness to learn, and to improve. Offer a ‘rain check,’ (another flight under better circumstances) and try again.

Unfortunately, there’s no way even the most professional, smooth and enjoyable flying experience will convince SOME people that personal aviation is a good idea. You may talk them into one flight eventually, but it’s unlikely they’ll go up with you regularly, or ever want to take a cross-country trip by light plane. With these folks, the best you can do is to show them how professionally you approach flying (regardless of your certification or commercial aspirations), and how you put safety and comfort ahead of everything else you do in an airplane.

Strategy: If you can’t win the battle, concentrate on winning the war — get your friend, spouse, business associate, or whomever to at least accept that YOU to fly and respect your abilities… even if they don’t want to come along.

BOTTOM LINE: A passenger’s first experience in a light airplane should be easy, safe and smooth. You didn’t learn to ride a bicycle by being pushed down a hill. You wouldn’t expect to learn to ski by aiming down the ski jump. You can always share cross-countries, maneuvers, demonstrations like steep turns or stalls, and hands-on flying lessons later if the passenger shows interest. But the phrase ‘Watch this!’ should never be part of an introductory flight.