We all want to be safe pilots–that’s emphasized from day one of flight training, and for good reason. But after we’ve completed our first solo and gained some confidence, it’s time to raise the standard beyond just safe flying. Some day soon, you’ll be carrying passengers and sharing the excitement of aviation. Those passengers assume you will be safe–they wouldn’t have boarded the airplane if they didn’t believe that. What they will judge you on is how smooth you are.
Smooth flying doesn’t mean you sacrifice safety–after all, you can’t be smooth if you’re unsafe. But it does mean you care about not just what you do, but how you do it. Things that pilots may not notice can be very uncomfortable for passengers. Focusing on these finer points will make you a better pilot and a better advocate for general aviation.
So how do you fly like a pro and impress your passengers?
- Taxi carefully. Smooth flying starts before you ever leave the ground. If you’ve ever ridden in an airplane with a pilot who’s constantly stomping on the brakes, you know how unsettling it can be. So be gentle as you pull out of the chocks and avoid sharp turns. Use power and brakes sparingly–the less of one you use, the less of the other you’ll need. A good goal is to use as little braking as you can, so the whole trip from ramp to runway is hardly noticed.
- Focus on level-offs. As you approach your cruise altitude, don’t jab the yoke forward to capture the planned altitude. This can create a momentary weightless condition, and scare nervous flyers. Instead, plan ahead. As you get within 500 feet of your desired altitude, start gently nosing over and reducing the rate of climb–400 ft/min when you’re 400 ft away, 300 ft/min when you’re 300 ft away, etc. The goal is to level off without your passengers ever knowing you stopped climbing. You can practice this on every training flight to learn the feel for it.
- Plan descents. There’s nothing worse than a 2000 ft/min descent rate, especially if your passengers have a cold. Rapid changes in altitude are uncomfortable and unnecessary in most cases. Plan ahead so you can make a gentle 500 ft/min descent, and know when you need to start your descent.
- Throttle control. Have you ever been on an airline flight when the autothrottle system was engaged? This is usually obvious on final approach, as the computers constantly increase and decrease power to maintain speed and glidepath. It works fine, but it’s not ideal for passengers. Great pilots set the power once on approach and leave it there until crossing the fence, so passengers never hear the engines change. This same technique works in a Cessna as well as a Boeing. Learn your profiles (for example, 1500 rpm and 80 knots on base) and then leave the throttle alone.
- Be conscious of weather. Part of weather flying is staying safe–avoiding thunderstorms, low visibility and high winds. But the other, more subtle part, of weather flying is passenger comfort. If it’s a hot summer day and you’re on a cross country, climb up above the haze layer to smoother air. You might not mind bumping along at 500 ft, but most passengers do. If it’s going to be gusty later in the day, plan your takeoff for earlier to avoid the turbulence.
Of course, safety always comes first, so never be afraid to make your passengers uncomfortable if the situation demands it. But when you can, a little extra effort will lead to a much more enjoyable flight. Beyond passenger comfort, all of these habits are very desirable for professional pilots. If you plan to make a career out of flying, get started now.
What tips do you have for smoother flying? Any pet peeves you wish pilots would avoid?