What Happens to Your Passengers if Something Happens to You?

Jim Gorman, 3,000 Hour Instrument-rated commercial Pilot, Single Engine Land and Sea, Private Glider

August 2023

The luckiest pilot on the planet is the one whose spouse or partner likes flying together. That opens up a world of places your plane can take you and reasons to fly there. But many of those frequent flyer passengers have the same concern, maybe even fear: If their pilot gets sick or passes out, how are they going to get back on the ground in one piece?


Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training (BPT) is one of the few organizations that has an answer to that question. Hundreds of non-pilots have benefitted from the course since BPT was formed in 2012. The weekend-long Non-Pilot Companion Course includes a half day of ground school and the option of flying with an instructor experienced in helping non-pilots accomplish something they think is impossible. BPT instructors show them the basics of controlling the plane, getting help from ATC and making it to an airport with a landing they can walk away from.


Since the BPT Non-Pilot Companion Course is available only as part of Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training type-specific clinics, we'll also talk about what you can do on your own to help your companion become a more confident copilot no matter what you fly, whether in an emergency or to just to lighten your workload and maybe even enjoy flying together more.


The Non-Pilot Companion Ground School is often taught by Ron Timmermans. He asks each pilot to bring a photo of their panel, so it's easy to see what's what and where everything is located in the plane the companions will actually be flying. He role-plays an emergency where the pilot becomes sick or passes out. Then he demonstrates what companions have to do to keep the plane flying level and, crucially, to get the help they need from ATC.


Kent Ewing is one of the BPT instructors who specializes in teaching the in-flight portion of the program. He says that although the ultimate goal is to show a non-pilot companion that they really can get on the ground safely, the course can also turn a companion into a better copilot on every flight, perhaps by helping with the radios, watching for traffic, making sure the gear is down, etc.


The companions who have gained enough confidence from the ground school have the option to fly with a reassuring and patient instructor to put into practice what they learned. The instructor endeavors to keep everything as simple as possible.


First, the companions learn how to turn on the autopilot in altitude and heading mode. Once the airplane is stabilized, they're shown how to call ATC and get directed to the nearest airport with a long, wide runway and emergency services. They're told not to worry about pilot lingo like, "Mayday!" or even "Emergency!" If ATC hears a frightened voice say "Help me!" they'll get the idea quickly. Finally, the companions are taught how to set up for a long gradual straight-in approach. Kent says, "We keep it visual and we keep it simple. We don't mess with the flaps. So the plane is going to come down fast. All they have to do is gradually close the throttle to slow the plane. It's not going to be a real pretty landing but it should be a safe one."


John Andrick, another Non-Pilot Companion Course specialist says that each companion practices a series of landings. The first time, they just follow with their hand on top of the instructor's while he is going through the process of landing. The second time, the companion is a little more in control. And finally, the instructor is the one following through on the approach and even a landing if the companion is up for it.


But what if you don't have the benefit of a seasoned instructor teaching your companion what to do if the unthinkable happens? The BPT instructors suggest that you start by including your companion in your regular flying tasks so they can build some familiarity with the basics, like talking on the radio. That's one of the things that makes people the most nervous and self-conscious. If they can get used to talking to ATC during a nice, calm flight, it will be one less thing to freak out about if a real emergency ever materializes.


You should show your companion how to turn on the autopilot in altitude and heading mode. That way, ATC can guide them to an airport using the autopilot.


You could also let your companion see what it's like to line up for a straight-in landing by setting up a long 5 mile final about 2,500' AGL. That will give them plenty of time to get the sight line of what approaching the runway should look like and how little they have to move the throttle to slow the plane without stalling it. Show them where the gear lever is and how to lower the gear. Let them be the one to confirm gear down by saying out loud, "Three green." That's a good double-check for you, too.


This is really an exercise in crew resource management by making your passenger part of the crew. It's also important for you, as the pilot, to understand that your companion can be of assistance on every flight and to accept their help.


To learn more about Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training, the Non-Pilot Companion Course and when and where the next clinics will be held, visit BonanzaPT.com


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Jim Gorman is an instrument-rated commercial pilot with glider and seaplane ratings and close to 3,000 hours in the air. He flies a Beechcraft F33-A Bonanza and is the owner of Gorman360, Inc., an advertising agency and a volunteer for Pilots N Paws and other organizations.

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