June 2005Departments

Accident Analysis

Realistic distractions


Tips for taking care of passengers

If there's one thing that pilots like more than flying, it's flying with other people. Taking a non-flier up for a ride is a privilege, a compliment to you, and a statement of trust and confidence by your passenger. Going along on another pilot's flight is an opportunity to learn, perhaps a chance to experience an unfamiliar type of aircraft, and certainly to observe the inevitable differences between the other guy's technique and yours.

These observations start with the preflight ritual, and there's an equal probability that you will be delighted or dismayed with the other pilot's way of preparing for a flight. Does the pilot do a proper preflight inspection, check fuel and oil, learn what the weather's doing, and seems to know whether the aircraft is permissibly loaded? Does he or she look after your comfort and safety, making sure that you know how to operate doors, seats, and seatbelts, and check that you are safely belted down and locked in for the ride? Or does the pilot treat this chore with disregard?

If you are a new observer of other pilots, this is a good opportunity to consider exactly where the convergence of passenger care and safe flying occurs, as two accident summaries to be illuminated here will propose. Flight instructors have a head start on you in this observation of other fliers, because they share cockpits with so many different personality types and experience more frequent sins of pilot inattention. Some CFIs, when preparing a checkride candidate who is less than attentive to such chores as briefing passengers and verifying that seatbelts and doors are properly secured, intentionally perpetrate a lapse to see if the omission goes undetected. It usually does, at which point the CFI can do some good work by reminding the pilot that if the same mischief occurs on the checkride, that checkride may end quickly.

Remember, designated pilot examiners are required to introduce what the practical test standards describe as "realistic distractions" into the testing process to see how the pilot copes. If the pilot voluntarily introduces such a distraction, well, how realistic can things get?

Door latch habits

As a rule, pilots who become aircraft owners tend to be scrupulous about securing people and aluminum. But idiosyncrasies lurk in this domain too. A particular Mooney owner was so obsessed with the delicacy of his cabin door's locking mechanism that he would forbid any right-seat passenger to touch it. Instead, he would watch the passenger buckle in, then lean across and complete the door-latching process himself -- the echo of a long-ago trauma where someone broke something?

By contrast there was the owner of a Cessna Skyhawk -- coincidentally manufactured the same year as the Mooney -- whose manner of instructing a rider about how to close the right-side door of his airplane was to growl, "Go ahead and slam it." Oddly, if you closed the door successfully without dishing out the trauma requested, in an effort to show respect for his property, the owner would make a face, shake his head, and repeat, "No good -- slam it." So you'd open the door again and slam it. Only after this violent ritual was completed would the owner become serene. At least both these pilots displayed some awareness of the need for certainty in the matter, which put them miles ahead of others.

Know how to work those belts

So the pilot you are flying with today briefed you on how to don belts, secure your seat, and lock the door. Good. But did he make you practice -- actually do the work a time or two to guarantee you could close, lock, secure, and even reopen everything without supervision? Few take that extra step. But any certificated pilot who carries passengers, or any student pilot who aspires to that privilege, would be well advised to consider adding this extra measure to your future passenger-care formula.

And although no one wants to raise the tension level when flying with potentially antsy nonpilots, why not throw in a word to them about how undangerous it would be -- how completely unworthy of overreaction -- if that door beside them were to pop open during flight? The suggestion of an open door may produce a gasp but they occasionally pop open, often just after liftoff, even if they appear to be properly latched. To the passenger, the idea could be closely linked to a vision of being sucked out of the aircraft like a villain in a James Bond movie. Little do they know how hard it would be even to push that door open a few more inches against the air stream. Educate them. You as a pilot may know that doors popping open have been linked to numerous accidents -- but not because someone plunged out of the aircraft. More likely, the distraction or panic of the pilot or someone else on board led to trouble, which then manifested in a loss of control. Reduce the distraction factor by precluding the panic associated with the event, and your safety numbers go up.

Thinking about an event that occurred on June 3, 2000, gives pilots a chance to head off this possibility. A Mooney M20F on takeoff ran off a runway into a ditch at Cable Airport in Upland, California, according to a National Transportation Safety Board accident summary. On board were a private pilot and two passengers. "The pilot reported that the cabin door came open during takeoff on Runway 24 (3,865 feet long by 75 feet wide). He intended to continue the takeoff and return to land and close the door; however, the passenger in the right front seat distracted him. In the time necessary to calm and reassure the passenger, the pilot lost directional control of the aircraft and it drifted off the runway to the left. The aviation surface weather observation at the Ontario, California, airport (six miles southeast of Cable) was reporting calm wind conditions."

It's a shame that the pilot seemed to have the situation under control but failed to divide attention between an upset passenger and a takeoff in progress. And of course there's no guarantee that a nonflier who had been briefed about just such an occurrence would still keep composed when it actually occurred. But it might help. In this particular case, the NTSB reached the following unapologetic conclusion on a probable cause: "The failure of the pilot-in-command to maintain directional control of the aircraft on takeoff after the cabin door became ajar."

Secure all seats

Like doors popping open, seat tracks are famously associated with accidents. The usual scenario is that a just-rotated aircraft breaks ground, and a pilot whose seat was not locked into position suddenly slides backwards, leaving him out of reach of the controls and shifting the center of gravity aft. Recognizing when a seat locks into place and confirming it seems an easy task -- but not always. A July 17, 2003, accident that occurred during a touch and go with a student and flight instructor aboard a Cessna 172 in Colorado led to the aircraft striking two other Skyhawks parked nearby. The stated cause was: "The right seat shifting aft during the take-off roll, rendering aircraft control not possible by the flight instructor. Contributing factors include the inboard seat pin which did not engage fully, the outboard seat pin which was installed incorrectly, the inadequate installation procedures provided by the manufacturer, and the parked aircraft on the ramp." The aircraft had already been flying for some time before the seat slid backward.

After troubleshooting the seat assembly, the NTSB report made the following observations about the problem lurking in the Cessna's cockpit: "When brought to the full forward position, the inboard seat pin would not engage fully into the seat track. When force was applied, the seat would move aft. According to a Cessna representative, the outboard seat pin was installed on the outboard side of the seat handle and should be installed on the inboard side of the seat handle.

"The flight instructor was asked to explain how she adjusts her seat in the airplane. She replied that on that particular flight, she lifted the seat lever, moved the seat full forward, released the lever, and rocked the seat to ensure that it was locked in the seat rail." The report also had this to say about installation procedures: "The Cessna Model 172 Series Service Manual provides only an illustration addressing the installation of the seat pins. There is no textual data available for installation."

What other pilots might consider from this unfortunate event is that rocking the seat to ensure its security should be, but might not be, enough. Do that, but also consider pressing your feet against the floor and trying to push the seat backward with enough force to approximate the tug of gravity -- and see if you discover a hidden problem. And if for any reason you find it necessary to readjust your seat position during flight, as some fidgety pilots tend to do, or notice a passenger making such a seat adjustment, double-check its security again before landing.

For the pilot flying with passengers, this event, while fortunately minor, reminds us that here again we must look after the people we take aloft in ways that aren't immediately obvious, before takeoff and throughout the flight. Don't scare them, but neither should a pilot err on the side of casual concern for passenger safety. Conduct your passenger-care ritual with information, a light manner, and pride in your concern for getting things right. Developing a good "bedside manner" in the cockpit is not only fun, but also a smart way to sweeten up the medicine of safety awareness, adding a pleasant and participatory component to a day's flying for passengers. It will be appreciated by all who share your cockpit, pilots and nonfliers alike.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.


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