It doesn’t matter how well you did on your checkride, or what score you got on your written, if you can’t find your passengers some smooth air they will know a certain truth the second you fly them through a patch of turbulence.
They will be wriggling in their seat belts, leg muscles tightened, watching the wings flex up and down while their amygdala throbs with feelings of hate and anxiety. Why did they ever agree to get into this tin can with you?
In this article I want to share with some things I’ve learned over 20 years of corporate flying and flight training, taking all sorts of different people aloft for the first time. People who had no idea what to expect at all when they left the ground in a small aircraft. People I’ve had to coax and cajole into the aircraft, so bad sometimes I may as well have rubbed butter all over them and squeezed them into the cockpit.
Do your homework before you fly.
I had a phone call one afternoon from a student who had recently passed his private checkride and took his wife and newborn on a flight to Santa Barbara in their beautiful new airplane. I answered the phone and my student was in a frantic mess, uncertain what to do. He had flown down and descended over the ridge line north of Santa Barbara and experienced some of the roughest turbulence on the planet. Or so it seemed to his wife, who unfortunately vomited all over her clothes in the backseat of the aircraft while holding their child. My student, who managed to fly the plane safely to the ground and land alright, asked me, “Erick what should I do?”
“I think you owe your wife a night in Santa Barbara and some nice new clothes,” was my best advice.
I’ve been flying up and down the coast of California for years, and there is one place everyone should avoid when the wind is blowing terribly, and on this day it was blowing more than 40 knots, and that is the mountains just north of Santa Barbara. These sharp and ragged mountain cliffs provide the perfect place for mechanical turbulence to occur at altitudes that most general aviation pilots fly at, between 4000 and 8000 feet.
So how do you know when it’s safe to venture forth over any mound of earth higher than 1 inch?
Learn how to read the weather better.
Start by looking at the winds aloft for your flight and setting a personal maximum for winds aloft flying over terrain. My recommendation would be 10kts, because if you’re flying over the mountains, the wind will only accelerate over the crest of the ridge, sometimes increasing 20-30 kts above what the local wind velocity is.
Brief your passengers about the possibility of turbulence.
If the winds aloft are above 10kts and you’re going to be flying over hills or mountains, advise your passengers beforehand so they know what to expect, don’t just surprise them, and then act as stupidly surprised yourself. Make sure that stuff is situated in the cabin and they know to tighten their belts so as not to hit their head.
I routinely used to fly into Palm Springs, and it can be brutal descending near the high mountains surrounding the Banning Pass. That’s why one of the intersections there is named MORON, just for unlucky pilots like us who landed a gig where you get your head whacked everytime you descend to your destination.
But, my passengers knew me and I always did a thorough briefing before the flight about what we might expect as far as conditions, and when we might have those conditions. I said “If you see me tighten up my seat belt, then you know it’s time to tighten up yours.” The larger aircraft I fly have a nice cabin bell, and besides sounding like you’re walking into a liquor store, you can train your passengers with the bell to put their loose items away and secure themselves firmly in their seats.
But if you do get in the bumps do your best to get out of them for the sake of your passengers. Here are a couple things to think about:
- Ask ATC if there is a smoother ride at a different altitude (That's what the airlines do)
- Climb or Descend, using your best judgement as to where you think smooth air will be. Normally if you're below the clouds it will be bumpy, but if you can travel on top it will be smooth. You have to stay VFR though! Generally the higher you are from the earth the smoother it is.
- Think about the wind blowing over the terrain. Imagine where the wind may be going and create a picture of where the mechanical turbulence may be.
- Watch for clouds that may indicate turbulence, and react quickly to avoid them or the area they are grouping.
- Listen for pilot reports. If another pilot reports something ahead of you on the same frequency you may want to change your plan.
I flew this morning over the same area and even with a light wind experienced some good turbulence just north of Santa Barbara, I guess God knew I needed to be woken up, because he gave me a good little toss.