“I’m just trying to keep my lunch down”

After working as a professional aviation mechanic/avionics tech for the past 23 years, I finally fulfilled the lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. I earned my Private Pilot Certificate in July 2018. My ten-year-old son, Elias, asked me relentlessly throughout my training to take him flying, and I promised him that he’d be my very first passenger, so the day after I passed my checkride we made it happen. One of the highlights in my life’s reel. We both had a blast.

My second passenger, and my first cross-country as a private pilot, was Garin, a lifelong friend with whom I grew up. He and his family came up to Clover to spend the weekend with us so I reserved my favorite 172 for Saturday morning. The weather was beautiful, if a little bit warm, with some showers moving in later in the day as normal. I decided we’d make the short, scenic hop from EQY up to HKY to get some grub at the airport cafe. On the way we would fly via JQF so he could get a good look at the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway and dragstrip.

Cox passenger
Looking good so far!

It was a promising start. He was excited to break ground for the first time; he’d never flown before. I laid everything out for him the night before. I showed him the route on the sectional and explained the phases of flight and what he could expect. As we drove to EQY, I explained everything again. He had some good questions: How high are we going? Will there be turbulence? Why the hell does the airplane have a parachute? What do you mean if you’re incapacitated? Standard stuff, really.

We got down to the end of runway 5. There were two airplanes in the pattern, one turning base and one turning downwind, so I took the opportunity to explain the traffic pattern to him and we watched both airplanes land and get going again. He was thoroughly enjoying plane-watching and recording video on his phone. I rolled onto the runway, smoothly applied full power and started making my standard callouts. Engine’s making power, gauges are green, airspeed’s alive, here we go – rotate, and we’re off. That’s when he and I both, at the same time, realized that he was afraid of flying.

He stopped recording on his phone and looked for somewhere, anywhere, to hold on to. We flew over the end of the runway and I looked over and said, “So whaddaya think? Pretty cool, huh?” I got a rapid nod of his head with a quick “Yeah.” I said, “It’s a new sensation, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly. Just let me know if you get uncomfortable or anything. We’re still right over the airport so I can come back around and land if you want to get back on the ground.”

“Nah, it’s cool. I’m just trying to get used to it. I’m good. I’m good.”

He was talking to himself more than to me.

I pointed at the general direction of JQF and let him know that we’d be turning that way shortly. I made my last call on CTAF and gently banked left – about half standard rate because I knew he was not terribly relaxed. He was okay with the bank but I noticed that he wasn’t talking much. I looked over and saw that he was holding on to the pillar trim as if that’s what was holding the airplane together.

I had to keep reminding myself that I had just gone through about 90 hours of primary training – steep turns, stalls, emergency descents, etc., so I was comfortable in a small airplane. Garin, however, probably wouldn’t react very well to any of it.

I was pointing out landmarks on the horizon trying to get him engaged while taking his mind off being afraid of the wings crumpling and us cartwheeling to our deaths at any second. It seemed to work for a while. We flew over JQF and transitioned to the northwest. He liked seeing the speedway and the dragstrip and I started pointing out Lake Norman and the city of Charlotte as soon as we got on course.

I called CLT approach after we left the JQF Class D and got flight following to HKY. I told him what flight following was and that we’d just added an extra layer of safety to our flight because now we had ATC looking out for us and helping with traffic awareness. We spotted a few planes over the lake, one of which CLT Approach pointed out to us. He seemed to be relaxing at this point, but he still felt that the trim piece needed to be firmly held in place.

I asked him if he saw that smokestack on the far side of the lake and he said he did. I said, “Why don’t you grab the yoke and keep us pointed at it.”

“No.”

“Okay. You don’t have to. At least grab the yoke and follow me. You’ll see how easy it is to keep everything straight and level. Look, I’m barely touching it.”

“Alright.” He held the yoke with as few skin cells as he could manage.

I said, “I’m going to take my hand away for a second and it’ll be all you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not touching a thing; it’s all you. Not too bad, huh?”

“Nah man, not too bad… okay, can you take it back now?”

I did. I don’t know whether I should have done the next part, but I did. And it was fun. I told him I wanted to show him something. I said, “You know what causes plane crashes?” He shook his head. “Human intervention. Watch.” I banked about 15 degrees to the right and brought the nose up about 10 degrees, then crossed my arms and took my feet off the pedals. He went stiff as a board but I told him, “See how the airplane just settles back to where it was? The airplane wants to fly; it’s people who screw everything up.”

Passenger holding on
A little less happy…

He nodded enthusiastically, but I suspect that it was more from still being alive than from my lesson in stability. I asked him if he wanted to fly again but he declined.

HKY tower cleared me for a right downwind to runway 6. I was talking through the landing process, but the change in configuration and “feel” of the airplane sent Garin’s legs into nervous shakiness. I had to tell him to put his feet forward some so that his knee wasn’t banging into me. Poor guy.

I made the right downwind to base turn and he leaned into me so hard I thought I was going to open my door. I calmly advised him that there was no way he was going to fall out but if he did, I would drop a pin on the iPad so I’d know where to send the cops. He laughed and mentioned something about putting his foot up something-or-other. I was concentrating on flying so I didn’t really get all the details.

As we were on short final I told him, “See? Nice and slow, the runway’s right there and we’re slowly working our way down. Not too scary, right?”

“Ask me again in five minutes.”

I made a decent landing and we taxied on to the FBO. We shut down and got out and I asked him again how he liked it. “I wonder how much a taxi is from here?”

We had a leisurely lunch and he told me that it was all new for him, but he really enjoyed it. A side note: the sweet potato fries at the cafe are phenomenal. I pulled up the flight plan in ForeFlight and showed him that there was no weather between us and home to be worried about, but that it might be a little bit bumpy because it was July in North Carolina.

We got back to the airplane and got strapped in. He was chipper at this point and looking forward to heading back. We departed from runway 6 and turned on course. I pointed out a couple of towers and a couple of hills between us and the lake. He said, “Cool.” I asked if he wanted to fly a little bit and he declined. We spotted a couple more airplanes sightseeing over the lake. I pointed to Concord and asked if he saw the airport, “Um hmm.”

Uh oh.

I didn’t want to start asking if he was feeling sick just in case he wasn’t feeling sick. I tried diverting his attention out the window.

“Man, I bet Concord Mills is packed today, huh? See the Bass Pro Shop right there? Lots of boats!”

Nothing.

Transition south over JQF. I was still trying. “We’re going to fly right over the speedway again. I’ll put it on your side so you can get a good look at it. This is where I took my checkride, right here. You see the runway back there? Going that way is runway 2 and my first checkpoint was right here and…”

“I’m just trying to keep my lunch down right now.”

You know how you can have a thousand thoughts go through your head in the blink of an eye?

Oh man, he’s gonna puke. I shouldn’t’ve taken him on this long of a flight. I should’ve just flown a couple of patterns and called it a day. We could’ve just watched airplanes for a while then gone over to CLT and I could’ve shown him all the jets out there. Oh yeah! I stole those puke bags from American when I flew home from OKC the other day. Well, not American, I guess it was PSA that I stole the…

“You need a bag, man? I think I have a couple in the back seat.”

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll be alright.”

Passenger throwing up
Losing the battle.

“Cool. Here, turn this air vent so it’s blowing on your face and put that cold bottle of water on your forehead. Just look out at the horizon there. You see that quarry there? That was my second checkpoint on my checkride… ”

“You got those bags?”

I’m pretty sure I leapt onto the back seat to rummage through my backpack and, WHEW! I came up with two white puke bags. I handed them to Garin and said, “Better safe than sorry.”

He held on to them while I was pointing out other landmarks and telling him “Only 13 miles until Monroe. Almost on the ground!”

Nothing.

“Monroe traffic Skyhawk 2055E 10 miles to th……..blarghghgarghgharghhhh. The north, inbound.”

I was extremely concerned with my friend’s well-being, as you can see from the photo at right.

He filled two bags then started talking again. I did end up letting him off the hook. “You know, the heat plus your nerves plus the bumpy air and all the new sensations would make nearly anybody puke. No shame in it, man,” I said. He thanked me and when we got on the ground he threw his bags away and helped me wipe down the airplane.

He swears that this wasn’t his last flight. I told him that I’d come pick him up this winter when the air is cold and smooth and he readily agreed that he’d try it again. I hope he does because I had a great, smelly time flying with my friend, even if it was a quiet ride home.

20 Comments

  • A great yarn well spun. Even better because it’s all true. Garin will definitely never forget his first trip into the blue; kudos to you for taking him along and a big thanks for letting us (virtually) ride with you.

  • A little advice:

    First Flights NEVER should exceed 15 minutes duration.

    One takeoff; one landing.

    Keep it SIMPLE. All of that ATC stuff that you think is so impressive and reassuring, actually is confusing and anxiety-inducing.

    It’s supposed to be a RIDE – NOT a flight lesson.

    If at all possible, make a long, gentle, straight-in approach. Manuvering in the traffic pattern likely will just disorient your passenger.

    Greasy food has a way of performing undesired encore appearances. Save the burger and fries for after the plane is put away.

    • Tom…all your points are 100 percent right on. All that talking about “safety” just makes people wonder…if everything is so “safe,” why does the pilot have to keep talking about it.

      As soon as you can tell the passenger isn’t feeling right, it’s time to land…and keep everything smooth as possible.

      Great story though…it was fun reading, and I really enjoyed the photos.

  • “The airplane wants to fly; it’s people who screw everything up.”…..I’ve never heard it put that way before. Almost gives me a grain of courage.

  • When I was learning to fly I found out that I would get airsick on an empty stomach (a couple cups of coffee after being awake for a few hours and then flying).

    My flight instructor, a friend and aviation mentor who I had named “The Albatross” – due to his over a zillion hours in the air from just after WW 2 (this was late1990’s) said of me: “Oh…you’re one of the weirdo’s” (ill with an empty stomach, fine, not ill, with a full stomach with severe continuous gut wrenching aerobatics).

    I learned from that to make sure I ate before a commercial or private flight or the day was ruined……as I would have my head in a bag dry heaving.

      • I too turned wrenches for years before finally getting my ticket but my only passengers are pilots. All my best, and most harrowing, lessons came after the check ride. Just like an A&P it’s a licence to learn.

        The desire to share Flying, or any new experience, is genetically ingrained but statistics show that pilots are most dangerous when they have less than 300hrs or, ironically, over 5000.

        YARS’ advice should be on top of everyones checklist and yes, summer in the south is no time or place for first flights.

    • “Goodnight, you old albatross” Last line from “The High and The Mighty” . Award winning movie from 1954, based on the book by Ernest Gann.

  • Enjoyed the recap and truly made me laugh. Nice AAR Elliot. I hope that you get another opportunity with your buddy.

  • My hard earned lesson on first rides:

    If a first airplane rider mentions feeling queasy to me, I gently land at the most convenient airport (preferably my launch point) without delay and take a long break, treating them as gently and sympathetically as possible. I take them straight home and put off the rest of the ride for another day. I will take them for a second ride on another day somewhat later, but a repeat “performance” will cause me to indefinitely put off a third flight (“I can’t Saturday; I’m shampooing my plane that day…”.), again treating them as gently and sympathetically as possible.

  • I loved this story, and totally belly-laughed at the Monroe call at the end. As a newly minted pilot about to take some my first passengers up soon, this is not only entertaining but informative!

  • I was that frightened passenger with a tendency toward motion sickness with a pilot husband eager to take me flying. As mentioned above, we did short flights and pattern work to get me acclimated before we ever did a longer cross country.

    What I have found for the queasiness is to watch the horizon right in front of me (no gawking and looking around), have cold air blowing on my face, keep ginger candy or lemon drops at the ready, and a pop a couple of Advil before taking off (my motion sickness usually starts off with a migraine-esque headache and if I can keep the headache at bay, the nausea usually stays away too). I also wear Sea Bands but I’m not sure if those help or it’s all the other things I do.

    And the comments about not making it a flight lesson are spot on. The whole time I was reading the part about him trying to make his passenger take the yoke, I kept yelling in my head “no no no, don’t be doing that!” Even though I’ve now flown with hubs for over 14 years, I’ve only taken the yoke once and my response was the same as in the article – “ok, take it back now”. I figure we paid a ton of money for him to learn to fly, don’t be giving control to the newbie 😉

  • I took a friend who wanted a ride up once. During pre-flight he said something like “this is great, because every few years I like to try something to see if I still suffer from motion sickness”. Ok, ten minutes after takeoff we were back on the ground. 🙂

  • This was a fun read, Elliott! Thanks for sharing. It’s awesome to have lifelong friends that support you and will share in your adventures even if they do leave a bit of themselves in the bin post-flight!

  • Something similar happened to myself on my third private flight I took. I have flown many times on commercial and enjoy them immensely. The first two private flights were fine, even when flying over the thermals from the pine trees below. The pilot was a neighbor and friend of mine who is average in height but a little overweight. On this third flight he asked me to come along for a ride while he did his PIC with another qualified pilot who was tall, large and definitely over weight. So I was in the back seat of a Cessna 172 in the summer flying out of New Orleans. I could barely see out the front at all, much less get any air. Needless to say it was extremely hot humid with two guys in front sweating heavily, as there is no air conditioning in the airplane. To add to this, I am claustrophobic. As a trained EMT I knew there were a few things I needed to do rapidly to bring myself out of heat exhaustion and recognize the first signs of shock. First off I let them know I was fighting it and asked bags to be ready. Next, I got a cold bottle of water and drank some water to start cooling off. Next I got a clean paper towel and put some of the cool water on it and cover my nose. The smell was much better. Third I asked them to climb to 10K’ to get into cooler air. Lastly, I laid down on the back seat. After 10 minutes I recovered and for the rest of the flight I was fine even when we descended again. The guys were so glad I managed to keep it down as they were certain they would be doing the same. And I agree about some of the other suggestions; namely, no greasy food but a little bit on the stomach and no flight lessons but a short ride. I working on building an airplane and besides a parachute system, it has to have AC!

    • Opps I forgot the most important thing was putting another cold bottle of water behind my neck as well. That will cool the body down very nicely.

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