3 Things Every Pilot Needs to Know About… Effective Preflight Passenger Briefings

One of the great benefits of having a pilot’s license is the ability to take friends and family members for airplane rides! But there are a couple of things that a prudent pilot will cover with them before even starting the engine… A proper and thorough preflight briefing goes a long way in determining the passenger experience.


An effective preflight passenger briefing sets the tone before takeoff for your passengers to have the best experience during any given flight!


While it may seem redundant or mundane to a pilot that frequently breezes through the preflight checklist, the briefing sets a tone for your passengers. Many commercial airline passengers text, talk and sleep through the safety briefing, but in a small plane the attention is much different. You have a captive audience, often one-on-one or one-on-just a few.

Your passengers will be impressed right off the bat when you flow through a well-informed and well-articulated preflight briefing. This briefing illustrates that you care about them and their well being and that you’re a competent pilot. Some passengers view small airplanes as “tin cans with rubber bands” driving the propeller, not a safe mode of transportation. Thus, they will be keenly interested in what you are telling them about how they can best enjoy their time in the air. For instance if a passenger plans on taking some pictures, it’s vital to inform your photographer for the day that they should avoid using the actual lens, as when peering through the lens, the motions/movements of the aircraft are accentuated and this can trick their brain into a misinformed sense of motion sickness. If you’ve never had someone ‘toss their lunch’ in the airplane, it isn’t something you want to experience, I promise!

A proper briefing should include three basic sections, plus anything that you feel is important on the day. For instance if it is a cold day, you and your passenger should have a hat and gloves within an easy arms-reach, just in case!

  1. Safety should be the first priority of any preflight briefing.

There are two primary reasons to give a thorough preflight briefing for your passengers. First, there are some things that they need to know before you launch up into the wild blue yonder… For instance, a good rule of thumb is that anything that is red, your passenger should not be touching, ever… Think about the things that are red in most general aviation cockpits- fuel shutoff, mixture and master switch, just to name a few. Nothing good will come from any of these being touched by someone who hasn’t received formal aviation training, I promise…

The second reason to give a thorough preflight briefing is to prepare your passenger for what they are about to experience. Giving them a heads up on the key differences between flying in an airplane (something new) and driving in a car (something familiar- to most) plays a key role in allowing your passengers to relax and enjoy the ride. For example, it is good to explain that during the initial takeoff and climb they should not engage in any distracting conversation because you are slow and low to the ground during this critical phase of flight which requires a great deal of concentration. Preparing your passengers with this information in advance is a lot more affective than “shushing” them at 500 feet while they are expressing their excitement which causes you to have trouble hearing another pilot announcing his 45’degree entry to the traffic pattern… Being “shushed” isn’t fun and can seem out of the ordinary which can cause a little bit of hesitancy at a minimum and panic at a maximum in terms of a reaction from your passenger.

Flying is very safe, but it is critically important to prepare our passengers for the “what ifs” of an emergency. If something does go wrong, a prepared passenger will present less of a barrier to success than a passenger who doesn’t know what to do. By showing your passenger how to set the transponder to 7700, tune the radio to 121.5, pop the door open, etc… you can reduce the number of things you would have to do in this critical time.

  1. Security may seem like a subject more well suited for the “big boys” in the commercial jets, but it is a critical component of any preflight briefing.

One of the basic items to cover is to ask your passenger, specifically those that have joined you a couple of times before to question anything they see that seems out of the ordinary. A lot times even a passenger that isn’t around the airport very often can pick out when something is amiss.

Then there is the operation of the door & seat belts: Of course you are a SMART pilot and everyone in the airplane will remain seated, wearing their seatbelt (even those that may not be required to). The door should be closed prior to takeoff and it is important that your passenger understands exactly what may be required of them to secure the door. As an example, almost every Piper door is different and even I have been fooled into thinking one was closed only to feel the cool breeze flowing through the slightly ajar door on a cool winter morning during the initial climb out, before we landed to fix the issue. It’s always better to be on the ground figuring something out, instead of trying to troubleshoot a situation and fly the airport, even with multiple pilots!

It should also be noted that while in flight excess items floating about the cockpit can not only be a distraction, but can hamper safety if it gets turbulent. Many passengers will engage in some type of activity and having their phone, iPad or a magazine is good but all that and a bag of potato chips can be a bit much. As the pilot it is your job to make the rules and ensure that they are followed to keep the cockpit organized and ensure that you are able to have full control of the aircraft at all times.

Lastly, and this will be reinforced later, but once you land at your destination to enjoy the $100 hamburger (see the Flying for Food series of posts we do here on ReviewBeforeFlight) your passenger should be competent when it comes to securing their door and any valuables. Maybe it means placing the yoke-mounted GPS in a seat-back pocket or bringing your iPad with you. There are a number of things that a ramp-wanderer may think are worth attempting to grab. Additionally, if the aircraft will be secured and the passenger is responsible for any part of that they must know this is their responsibility. Telling them early on (preflight briefing) and then brining it back up later is a good way to make sure these concepts sink in with the passenger.

  1. Passengers aren’t just along for the ride, they can provide valuable assistance, but only if they know what to expect in advance!

A lot of passengers, especially first-timers, will spend much of the flight snapping pictures, taking selfies and “ooh-ing” & “ahh-ing”. But these passengers can also be valuable flight crew members that make your life easier. With some basic training before starting the engine a passenger that knows nothing about aviation can be ready to perform many tasks.

holding charts

Holding charts or an electronic flight bag is a great way to keep a passenger involved with the flight- making them feel important while also making your life as the pilot easier. This allows you to keep one hand on the yoke while you set the radio yourself or tune/identify a VOR…


On a basic level an attuned passenger can help with cockpit organization, holding/grabbing charts, diagrams, etc… But that is just the ‘low level’ of help they can provide. With only a limited amount of training a passenger can learn to tune the radio to a specific frequency when it comes time to call approach or make a check-in after a frequency change. Moreover, passengers can make great back ups by giving them “one big thing” to help remember, for instance closing your VFR flight plan after landing…

Special care should always be given to instruct each and every passenger on scanning for traffic while in flight and helping with collision avoidance. Yes it is a big sky, and yes there are other airplanes out there, both important things to remember! During the preflight introduce the concept by pointing to an aircraft across the field and showing your passenger what they may see. A good rule of thumb is to have your passenger tell you left or right, above or below the horizon. I always pointed to a plane way across the field and tell my passenger that there is no need to yell (if they see another airplane in flight) unless the plane they see in flight is that close or closer… As you know, most “targets” that you see in flight are “no factor” and are actually a good distance away, but you should always be prepared to take action to avoid another aircraft.

watching for traffic

Scanning the sky for traffic is the responsibility of the pilot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask anyone else int eh aircraft to help you! The more eyes searching, the better your chances are to spot other aircraft!


Another one of the benefits of having your passenger help you with some “flight duties” is that it keeps their mind and body occupied, which greatly reduces the possibility that they mindlessly drift into a state of motion-sickness if they are prone to this type of aliment… Thus, it is a great idea to keep your passengers active in the flight!

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9


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