Questions to Ask Before You Fly
Updated: Mar 3
Is this flight going to be performed visually or by instrument? Is the pilot currently certified, and is the aircraft currently airworthy? This article explores some of the rights and responsibilities you have as a passenger of an aircraft, such as the location and use of the Emergency Location Transmitter. We hope these questions and details help you make a more informed decision about your next Alaskan bush flight.
You have the right to a thorough preflight briefing, which covers:
The location of the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) and survival equipment.
In the event of an aircraft accident, an Emergency Locator Transmitter is designed to emit a distress signal upon impact or manual activation on 121.5 and 243.0 MHz frequencies, the designated international distress frequencies. The newer, digital ELT transmits on a 406 MHz frequency and allows search and rescue to have important information specific to you and your aircraft, as well an an instantaneous GPS position.
Locations and operation of emergency exits.
Smaller aircraft allow you to more easily discern the location of emergency exits, and the operation of all emergency features of the aircraft are posted in the cabin for high visibility. For example, the DHC-3 Otter, which Emerald Air Service flies, has 5 exits available. The main door opens on the left rear of the plane, with an additional right rear door available to exit as well. The roof of the plane features an emergency escape hatch, while the front of the plane, if the need arises, has both a pilot and a co-pilot door that open on each side of the plane.
DHC-3 Otter’s Safety Features
Although these may go without saying, it’s always good to know the following also:
Operation of the seat belts.
Location and use of the fire extinguisher.
Prohibition of smoking.
Use of flotation devices.
You have the right to ask the pilot certain questions, such as:
Will this flight be done visually (VFR) or on instruments (IFR)?
All aircraft have to fly by one of two sets of rules: Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), rules which govern how the pilot ought to fly the aircraft. VFR requires Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC), conditions which require the pilot to maintain visual separation from terrain (i.e., clouds) and other aircraft because the pilot flies the aircraft based off of his or her own vision. On the other hand, IFR requires, as you might guess, Instrument Meteorological Conditions, weather conditions which require pilots to fly primarily by reference to instruments, rather than outside visuals.
The differences between meteorological conditions are variable weather circumstances: visibility, cloud ceiling (for takeoffs and landings), and cloud clearances. Weather, therefore, constrains a VFR flight more than an IFR flight. Smaller aircraft are typically those that fly visually, whereas commercial airliners typically always fly based on advanced instruments.
Have you calculated the weight and balance for this flight?
Weight and balance are significant factors in any flight, both of which affect the stability, performance, and safety of the aircraft. Weight must be properly balanced and the aircraft must not be overloaded. Excessive weight affects things like the range of the aircraft, increases the distance needed to take off and the speed at which the aircraft goes airborne, as well as overall maneuverability. Aircraft are designed for their respective weights, and pilots must take weight and balance in for their flights.
Have you obtained a weather forecast for the intended flight?
Weather plays a significant role in the operation of aircraft. Wind, for example, is a significant factor in landings and takeoffs. Wind speed and direction is a major factor that can decide which direction an aircraft will takeoff and land, as well as which flight paths are used. Understanding the weather beforehand informs the pilot of the circumstances affecting the flight.
Is the airplane equipped properly?
Are you licensed, rated, and current for this flight? Are your certificates with you?
Licenses (certifications) and ratings permit a pilot to fly their particular aircraft. Required to keep these current in order to continue flying their aircraft, pilots should have their certifications available upon request. It can always be good to ask if you’re flying in the bush.
Have you made a flight plan and filed it with your company or the FAA?
For the sake of safety, the FAA requires that flight plans be reported to the FAA. In the case of a flight not returning as scheduled, the FAA is then able to administer search and rescue as needed. For example, “If you are ‘overdue’ — meaning more than 30 minutes past your estimated time of arrival (ETA) — a search for you is initiated via telephone. FBO or airport employees are asked to check the ramp for your airplane. If you still can’t be found, ATC goes to the originating FSS and checks out your flight plan. That’s why it is important to keep your route updated in flight and make your planned times — update them as well, if necessary. After the paperwork and ramp checks, search and rescue — usually in the form of the Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol — officially gets into the act, and airplanes start looking for you” (aopa.org).
Where are the aircraft airworthiness and registration certificates located?
Airworthiness is the measure of how suitable an aircraft is for safe flight. Airworthiness directives are issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the pilot is responsible for determining whether or not the aircraft is safe for flight.
You also have some responsibilities. In addition to rights, passengers have the responsibility to be proactive about safety:
Pay attention to the pilot during the passenger briefing. In fact, insist on a complete passenger safety briefing if one is not automatically given.
Tell the pilot that you can fly at another time if the weather is questionable.
Weather is one of the most important factors in safe flight.
Do not ask the pilot to fly into unsafe weather. Accept the air carrier’s decision to delay or cancel a flight due to weather.
Do not ask the pilot to overload the airplane.
As noted above, the balance and weight of the aircraft is important to safely fly.
Be alert to pilot fatigue. Be aware that the pilot has flight and duty time limitations. Federal regulations allow a pilot to fly 8 hours in a 14 hour duty day.
Dress properly for a flight according to the weather, in case of an unplanned landing.
Do not ask the pilot to fly below 500 feet above ground level, or to buzz people or fly close to things on the ground.
Do not insist that a pilot land at a location that a pilot believes is risky, marginal, or inadequate.
Remember that pilots are human and can make mistakes; if you have a question about the flight, ask.
Pilot fatigue, weather conditions, flight rules, flying in the bush: we hope this article gives you the awareness and confidence to ask the right questions when planning your next flight.