“What’s this button do?” Why you need to watch your passengers

Our Skyhawk is cruising through the humid Florida air as we cross the east side of Lake Okeechobee heading to the south. The air is so humid this time of year that you can feel it dripping like hot soup coming through the overhead vents, almost making the climate of our cabin feel like the muggy part of a thunderstorm after it passes and the sun comes out. Luckily, this particular flight does not include any visits from thunderstorms, but it does entail a lot of traffic passing to the east of our position heading to the north.

Pilot and passenger
Watch that right seat – even if it’s occupied by a pilot.

We have flight following and I am looking out for a Baron to my ten o’clock and four miles, northbound. I have my eyes outside as my right seat passenger, a pilot in training who has (surprisingly) never been in the front of a 172, finds the handheld mic stored in the center console. I often wonder why Cessna installed that microphone, as I marvel at how a person could hear a response amongst the noise of a whirling engine and the rushing wind. Jared looks at the mic and asks, “What does this do?”

I’m busy looking for traffic, but I glance to my right to see what he has found. He is holding it like a mechanic inspecting a new tool he has found in the corner of the shop; perhaps dumbfounded, he now has a solution for a problem he never knew he had. I still have my eyes outside as I say, “It’s a backup comm mic in case you lose your headset.”

I see him in my peripheral vision putting back the mic. I ask him to help me look for traffic outside—perhaps his different angle will let him see the Baron behind my blind spot on the wing strut. I’m continuing to hold our altitude and heading as I search far and wide for this apparent needle in the sugarcane fields. That’s when I hear the sound of the mic clicking in my headset as if I am about to transmit, but I know my thumb is nowhere near the button.

“ATTENTION EVERYONE THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING”

I snap my head to the right and see Jared holding the mic to his mouth.

“Jared! Don’t ever do that again, man!”

“Why?”

“You just transmitted that. To EVERYONE.”

“I thought you said it was an intercom mic. Only our cabin can hear that, right?”

“COMM mic. It’s a backup for the headset on the radio. You just told everybody in south Florida that you are the captain.”

He puts the microphone back in its holster as a dog with his head down because he just chewed his owner’s shoe into pieces. I told him to please not touch anything unless I approve it. Luckily nobody on frequency has acknowledged this transmission, but I know for sure they have heard it.

Cessna hand mic
Hey – what’s this do?

We continue our course to the south and we are now over the Everglades. Nothing around for as far as we can see in the unrestricted visibility. We open the windows because of the humidity, and I find the wind coming through the door has helped a little in cooling off our sweat dripping on the sectionals. Jared has just finished an apple and asks if he can throw it out the window. I think about FAR 91.15, concerning the freedom to throw anything you want out of an airplane as long as it does not create a hazard.

I tell him he is free to throw the apple overboard since we are in the middle of nothing more than lakes and trees for miles to come. Our biodegradable waste will not create any more of a hazard than enriched nutrients for the soil below.

He holds his hand out the window, about to let go, when I yell, “WAIT! Don’t throw it!”

That apple isn’t going to just fall to the Earth like we picture it falling from a New York skyscraper. The velocity of the wind would carry it straight back, just where I don’t want an apple to go. It would strike our tail and cause a lot of damage just where we don’t need it. We would end up in the middle of gator-infested swampland below—if we can even get the airplane safely on the ground with a failed horizontal stabilizer.

He closes the window and keeps the apple inside. I tell him we will get rid of it when we land, so please do not throw anything overboard.

That apple may have just descended far enough down to miss the tail if he had thrown it hard enough. I don’t feel like taking my chances though.

It’s very important to always keep track of your passengers, as they will do very silly things you never would imagine. I have found it solid advice to always brief passengers on what to do and what not to do in a small airplane, but I failed to brief Jared on this particular flight because of his assumed experience around small airplanes. I cannot underestimate the importance of a briefing even when flying with other pilots. This kind of curiosity isn’t limited to just microphones—it could include things like flap levers and gear switches.

Have you had any interesting experiences with passengers?

8 Comments

  • I once went flying with a friend who was overly curious…

    We were cruising along when out of the corner of my eye i saw his hand moving towards the NAV radio tuner (Maybe he tought he’d put some music on, because he knew what the COM was and how it worked)… Anyways, his moving of the tuner was inmediately followed by a slightly negative G dive, followed by around 2.5 g’s pullout, wich is pretty much harmless… BOY was he scared… To top it off i said “Hey did you touch something?”

    His attempting to explain and regain face color at the same time was hillarious.

    We have flown many times since that, but now he knows to ask before touching 😛

  • For most passengers, misbehavior won’t be a big problem. People who are new to flying in small private aircraft tend to be some combination of frightened and/or awed at the experience. There may be an occasional passenger who insists on fooling with things in their space, of course, and a pre-flight briefing and warning to touch nothing besides their own seat/shoulder belt without the pilot’s permission is a good place to start. If that is not sufficient warning for especially hyperactive passengers, deny them boarding. There is no justification for putting courtesy above safety in an aircraft, at any time and under any circumstances.

    The only problem I ever had with a passenger, and it was a very minor one, was one time I had an experienced pilot riding in the right seat who assumed he could make calls on the radio on his own volition. Of course, that problem was easily solved by the fact that the right side yolk PTT button was (and remains) inoperative! And in my Cherokee, there is no hand held mic.

    • Children and pilots (especially very experienced “senior” pilots) need to be watched carefully. I have corrected both. “Senior” pilots … that is high time with lots of type ratings and lots of hours are the worst. And they tend to pout when reminded they aren’t the PIC, aren’t giving instruction, and in fact are a mere passenger. Kids are usually excited, overcome with enthusiasm, and willing to wait ‘their turn’ to fly… beginning about 1500′ AGL. I prefer kids to “Seniors”.

  • Good point…….Things beyond the FAA required passenger briefing can be important enough to be sure to include in our personal passenger briefing for things unique to the specific aircraft we happen to be flying. The hand held mic experience on a Cessna is a case in point. I fly a kitfox which has a stick rather than a yoke. Early on in my kitfox passenger carrying experience a very interested person asked if it was OK to take pictures on our flight….well Sure! Have at it! What I didn’t see coming is the slightly reduced stick travel on roundout when we tried to land due to my passenger tucking the little camera into the stick boot between the stick and front edge of the seat. That’s my passenger suprise – no harm done other than explaining what a go around was and why we do it to my right seat….OK that’s on the passenger breifing now! Got stuff – don’t put it there!

    One of the things I am a little paranoid of is the ELT switch on the panel….that has been on the passenger briefing from day one. In the case of a really curious passenger….”what happens if I touch it?”….my reply is “not much really, the 10 days mandatory jail time for a false alarm will provide enough time to properly consider the ramifications” I figure a little white lie is not a bad thing in this case.

    There are things to consider that are unique to our particular aircraft and operations. A little preflight thinking about our own particular situation and learning from experience is a good thing.

    Cheers

  • As a newly minted tower controller on his first solo midshift I got a call from a civilian Mooney asking me to close his VFR flight plan into the city airport. As I hung up the phone to Flight Service the pilot called saying he was “going in” five miles from the airport. It seems his intoxicated passenger had removed the mag key and dropped it on the floor.

    The next call from the pilot was to inform me he had found the key and restarted the engine. The police that had gone to the airport to verify safe arrival advised they had to help the pilot get the passanger to the car. I now knew the reason for the FAR forbidding the carrying of intoxicated passangers.

  • “I often wonder why Cessna installed that microphone, as I marvel at how a person could hear a response amongst the noise of a whirling engine and the rushing wind.”
    Because, before you were born and normal people were flying airplanes around the world, the majority of pilots used that microphone and the aircraft speaker to communicate. That’s precisely why we’re a better group of listeners today. And p.s. when your headset mic shorts out and you’re running alone with no other headsets in the cabin, you’ll be damn thankful Cessna did what they knew was best.
    Oh, p.s.s. If used properly nobody hears any of that “noise” you’re talking about, on the other end.

    • Hi Afello, thanks for reading my article. Back in the day, there was generally less traffic, fewer pilots, and less complexity of the NAS. My comment was mainly based on the observation that the engine is so loud in some of the aged airplanes today (especially those with cracked weatherproofing of the cabin and aged speakers) it’s difficult to hear the speaker over that noise. Not that it’s hard to hear a transmission on the other end, but rather it’s hard to hear a controller’s response inside the airplane. It’s definitely a good last resort in case your headset fails, I just can’t see it being a feasible alternative to one. Even if it was, the noise level inside a modern GA airplane is more than enough to cause hearing problems after prolonged exposure. A headset does a good job of fixing these issues.

  • I flew for years in the 60’s and 70’s with no headset, using just the handheld mic and the overhead speaker, which was quite close to my right ear and could be heard clearly in all the airplanes that I flew back then. These consisted of a Piper Colt, Tri-Pacer, Cherokee and a Mooney. During the time I had the Mooney I learned to fly IFR, and could no longer spare my hand to hold a mic, so I transitioned to headsets at that point. Happily, my hearing survived intact, although there are many who can’t say that. But back in the day, headsets were the exception for beginning pilots and most learned using the hand-held mic and overhead speaker. Even in 1978 when I bought a brand new Piper Aerostar, it came from the factory with a hand-held mic as standard equipment. I still have a hand-held mic but don’t carry it with me as I always have at least two or three headsets in the airplane to provide redundacy.

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