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Your Pilot Passenger—Friend or Foe?

Article appeared in Flying Magazine October, 2014 by Martha King –

“Did you do something to my nav radios?” John was clearly confused, and I didn’t know why. But John had just realized that steady needles didn’t necessarily mean he was flying well. The flag for the glideslope confirmed his suspicion.

We were flying an ILS approach in our old Comanche 250, in the clouds with weather just above minimums. As was occasionally the case, our #1 nav receiver had been behaving badly, with the needles on the indicator twitching and jumping.

So I had swapped the ILS frequency to the #2 receiver, which was always steady, and put the VOR frequency in the #1 nav in case we needed to do a missed approach.

“I swapped the ILS frequency from #1 to #2,” I told John. “What?” John said in disbelief.

John swapped his gaze to the other indicator and we completed the approach just fine.

After we were on the ground, we had a discussion. “What were you doing switching my radios without telling me?” he said. “But I did tell you,” I said, “and you answered me.”

“What did I say?” “You said ‘Uh-huh’,” I responded.

“Well, it didn’t penetrate,” he said. “I was still using the #1 nav to fly the ILS, and I couldn’t figure out why the needles were so steady. I know my approaches aren’t that good.”

I had committed a cardinal sin regarding crew resource management, and that was understandable since I had never been trained in crew resource management. I had changed something significant, without having a standard operating procedure for doing so—and, most important, without getting positive confirmation from John that he had actually heard what I had said to him, and in this case was moving his focus to the #2 nav display.

Together we had just proven that, unless there has been some preplanning and shared standard operating procedures, a second pilot can do more harm than good. This is often the case in general aviation.

John and I had been flying together for a little over a year, and had only gotten our instrument ratings six months earlier. Our recently-learned IFR procedures were probably pretty good when we were flying single pilot, but we clearly had not yet developed good crew coordination skills.

I had a tendency, when in the right seat, to get overly proactive about setting up radios long in advance, in anticipation of the next fix or of the approach. I sometimes did this when John was busy with other tasks, and not able to watch what I was doing. The result was his seeing out of the corner of his eye my hands moving around the cockpit, and hearing knobs turning and switches flipping, without having any idea what was happening—all in all, not a comforting feeling for the pilot in command.

Over time, through trial and error and occasional “deals” like the one in our venerable Comanche, we developed procedures that made us an OK team in the cockpit. But it wasn’t until we were trained in crew resource management when we were type-rated in a Citation 500, which required two pilots, that our technique began to get good.

What we learned was that the presence of a second pilot requires management from the pilot in command. First, whether you’re flying a single-pilot airplane or a two-crew airplane, it’s important to clearly establish who’s pilot in command. It isn’t always obvious. The pilot with the most ratings or the highest time isn’t necessarily the one current in the aircraft being flown—or covered by the insurance. But it’s easy for the high-time pilot to assume they are the pilot in command.

Something that has become apparent to us over time is, when you have pilots as passengers, they really want to be involved in the flight. So it takes a lot of the stress and confusion out of the situation if you can figure out a way for them to be involved that is truly helpful—or at the minimum, not distracting.

It starts during the preflight. “Can I help you with the preflight?” a pilot passenger will often say. Unless you manage this situation well, you are very likely to get distracted and overlook something. Even if they know the airplane type well, they don’t know your airplane and how you like to do things.

But if I don’t assign them a task, they’ll likely keep talking or go do something on their own they think is helpful. So I try to assign my pilot passengers tasks that really help me out, such as loading the luggage or untying the airplane.

During the flight, with my pilot passenger serving as a second pilot, it’s important to define exactly what the second pilot’s role will be. And it helps a lot if the pilot in command explains to the second pilot that unrequested help, at the wrong time, can actually be a risk factor. The key is for the pilot in command to keep in control of things.

I will often have them handle the communications. Since I can hear what’s happening, I can always speak up if needed. Plus, at my command, they can read checklists. And sometimes I’ll ask them to change navigation frequencies for me, at my request only, or insert a waypoint in the GPS flight plan if they’re familiar with my unit. I also ask them to tell me when a checklist or other task they have been assigned is complete.

The most important thing they can do is make callouts to help with my situational awareness. For an IFR flight I’ll ask them to give me a callout on climb or descent when I’m 1,000 feet from my new altitude, and again when I’m 300 feet from it. I’ll also brief them on my standards for when on final—such as a descent of no more than 1,000 fpm, and speed no more than +10 over planned threshold speed—and ask them to give me a callout if I exceed those. These tasks not only keep my pilot passenger engaged in the flight, and thereby enjoying it more, they help make me a safer pilot.

One of the corollaries of assuming command authority is also consideration and respect for your second pilot. This means flying in a standardized, expected way. I know from experience that if I’m not flying in a standardized way, my pilot passenger will first get nervous, and then get more participatory—sometimes in a counterproductive way.

As I alluded to earlier, one situation fraught with potential conflict is when the second pilot has higher ratings, or significantly more hours, than the pilot in command. A few years ago my friend Valerie needed to fly her Husky to a nearby airport for its annual, and asked an acquaintance—who said he was a high-time pilot with tail-dragger experience—if he wanted to go along for the flight.

Unfortunately, Valerie didn’t brief him on what she expected of him—which was nothing, other than his company. The acquaintance started issuing instructions to her, including giving her the destination airport unicom frequency from memory and getting it wrong, and then grabbed the stick during the landing because he felt she was too fast. Valerie did a go-around, and landed smoothly on the second attempt after telling her passenger to not touch anything. It turned out he had never flown a Husky, and wasn’t current in tail-draggers.

Valerie’s story made me thoughtful about how would I prevent a similar situation from happening to me, when taking a casual acquaintance as a second pilot in a light aircraft. The answer, I decided, would be to anticipate possible confusion or conflict and give a good “captain’s briefing” before we ever got in the airplane.

The major items of discussion would be who is pilot in command (me), what tasks the second pilot could do without request (such as putting the next expected frequency in the com radio) and which they could not do without my specific request (such as changing the navigation radios), and how they should communicate to me that they had completed a task. I’m confident this would go a long way towards ensuring a safer, and more fun, flight for both of us.

And when I’m a second pilot, I now know better than to accept “Uh-huh” as full and complete communication.


  1. Maurice Regan

    I’m in a flying club. Few things in flying bother me more than when I ask the PIC if he wants me handle the radios or the checklists and they decline. One guy said “No” and never spoke to me again on the very brief flight. (He also used an old, outdated checklist.) Another slapped my hand away when I attempted to put in the transponder code after I asked for a confirmation of the code. Another, when I suggested that he lean the mixture, he refused and flew the cc on full rich.

    Even nonpilot passengers are helpful. One memorable event? The tower directed me onto an active runway and the passenger with no flying experience spotted a heavy about to land allowing us to exit quickly.

    This is a very good article.

  2. Sven

    Thx for that useful article, makes perfect sense to put some thought into those flight deck scenarios.

    I flew with an experienced pilot friend recently and ran into similar issues on a very short VFR – unexpectedly turned popup IFR – flight where some of his well-meant action caused more confusion on my end than help.
    A more thorough briefing on my part before the flight on who does what (and not) would have helped avoid the confusion.

  3. Norman Ivancevich

    I have fond memories of taking your vhs instrument course and acing my written.
    I didn’t know you both were so young once.

  4. Bill Gillespie

    Once again, John and Martha’s articles strike a chord near and dear to me.

    As a long-retired comm. flyer (non-airline) and aviation safety guy-they always hit the “nail on the head” without a bunch of bs.

    About ten years ago, I came “out of retirement” to help a friend transition from props to jets. Where was the the first place to consult? John and Martha King-of course!

    Thank you John and Martha for your ongoing dedication to our industry!

  5. Wolfgang Greiner

    What a great article! I have been a King School fan for over 30 years and still revisit my old tapes and CDs along with the online courses from time to time.
    Kudos to Martha and John for still turning out interesting and educational material.

  6. Scot

    Wow, you guys look young and 70s. I enjoyed the thoughts. Both my wife and I are pilots (and used the King DVDs for ground school) and almost always fly together, we have a simplified set of rules that we have developed. 2nd pilot can always inform, but never change instruments unless instructed to do so. 2nd pilot cannot control the plane unless instructed through the exchange: Take the Controls. Response: I have the controls (hands are now on the controls), Your controls (my hands are off the controls). Our second pilot runs an iPad with Foreflight. This usually keeps the other one entertained and responsible for setting up any information we want available there. But most importantly for us, the second pilot always has the right to call “go-around now” on landing or a “climb [right|left] immediately” in otherwise. These commands keep us straight on when we perceive a situation that requires immediate action. Go-arounds at our airport are frequently due to deer on or near the runway. Also, our airport abuts a practice area that frequently has students performing maneuvers, so that extra pair of eyes really makes a difference.

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