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What I Learned About Flying From A Root Canal

I know what you are thinking. What does flying and root canals have anything to do with each other. The other day I discovered they had more in common than I realized.

It was the first day of the annual AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I have always wanted to attend AirVenture and thought I would make it this year, but instead of looking at airplanes I had a root canal. I love air shows because I always increase my knowledge of flying and aviation, but to my amazement I learned about flying in the endodontist’s chair.

It is always a humbling experience when learning new insights about our own avocation from someone who knows nothing about flying but much about professionalism. The endodontist knew I was nervous about having a root canal and as I listened and watched her during the procedure I was amazed at how well she could relate her experience with patients with my flying passengers.

One of the negative effects of being a pilot for a long time is that we learn to be skeptical to a fault because we are concerned about our safety. As pilots we must trust those that keep us in the air but also must verify what the mechanics have done to our airplane or weather briefers have told us about our flight.

How To Instill Trust

As I sat in the chair waiting for the Novocain to begin working the dentist made a very poignant statement. She said that as an airline captain I must normally feel like I am in control but in this situation I am not. She then went on to tell me how she felt a little nervous when she was flying once but then said to herself that she must trust in the fact that the people up front flying the plane know what their doing and that she would have to trust in their ability to fly her to their destination safely.

I said to myself "Wow, this lady sure has a great bedside manner. I wonder what I could learn from this professional and relate it to how I treat my passengers and students." I then began to focus my attention more on her actions than the procedure she was performing.

Whether we are taking passengers flying or students up for their first lesson we must gain and maintain the trust of the student or the passenger. Integrity and a high level of professionalism is very important.

The first step in instilling trust is relating to the student or passenger before the flight our qualifications and experience. When I walked into the doctors office I noticed all the plaques she had on the wall. The wall full of graduation certificates and other professional qualifications was a good indication this person has the qualifications to work on my teeth.

As an airline pilot it is assumed that I have the qualifications to fly because I'm the one wearing the Captains uniform, but when I am at the airport flying my friends in my airplane or while instructing I can show my qualifications in other ways. I visit flight schools and fixed based operators all over the country. I also visit friends homes and hangars at various airports.

Many flight schools display the qualifications and any special awards or accomplishments on the walls and in the offices. If you are an instructor and have achieved the Master designation then display that in the lobby or your office.

If you are a pilot who takes up passengers on a regular basis, then display all your accomplishments on your wall at home or in the office. If you are involved in the FAA wings program, print and display your wings certificate. If you have accomplished any training display these also. You never know who your next passenger might be and displaying your flying certificates and accomplishments might instill more trust in your skills.

Dress For Success

As the doctor came into the room she had a mask below her chin and scrubs as if getting ready for a medical procedure. This put me at ease because in my mind this is how a doctor should dress and fit my preconceived notion of what she should look like.

It is amazing how important it is to present a professional image to the public and how we psychologically judge people based on what they are wearing. I remember an airline that experimented with allowing their pilots to wear polo shirts and slacks. But the majority of the passengers did not like it very much and began questioning whether they were real pilots.

The uniforms we wear as pilots are more for our passengers than for us. As a pilot taking someone for a ride in an airplane for the first time, I find you can instill trust and your level of professionalism if you arrive neat and clean. Of course what you are wearing doesn't make you a better pilot but it does put your passengers at ease because they will relate your appearance and professional attitude to the way you are going to fly the airplane.

Words Have Consequences

During a follow up procedure with the dentist and before she started she said "I should be ok, and not feel any pain." Maybe she noticed I was paying attention to everything she was saying because she then immediately said that she must be careful of what she says because people might interpret this statement differently. Boy was she right.

One day while preparing for a flight I didn't notice a passenger hearing me talking to our dispatch and what I said really made the person nervous. All the passenger heard me say was "I don't think we are going to make it there". What the passenger didn't realize is that I was looking for another alternate because the one chosen by the dispatcher was forecast to be worse than expected. So I had to explain this to the passengers and as my bad luck would have it we had to divert.

Unfortunately in the back of the passenger’s mind, she still remembered what I said to the dispatcher and when I saw her later she said "I guess you where right about us not making it". She then went on to tell me she was teasing but what if someone had heard what I said without the explanation.

Words are very important when we are briefing passengers. It is very important to brief the passengers on the emergency equipment and how to exit the aircraft but we must be careful how we brief our passengers. I nearly jumped out of my skin one day when I heard a friend briefing his passengers. He started off by saying "In case we crash you should open the door....." The word "crash" should never be used around an airport let alone a briefing.

There are some great words as substitutes to get your point across without terrifying your passengers. One example is to use the word "bumps" instead of "turbulence". And for those doing a safety briefing concerning exits the best way to start the briefing is "in the unlikely event of an off airport landing, the exits work this way...."

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

As the dentist proceeded with the procedure she would tell me when I might feel something or hear a noise that was foreign to me. Then when I heard the noise I was not scared by the sudden change in my environment. When we take someone flying for the first time or if we are teaching stalls I have found it is a good idea to talk through the whole maneuver in a very calming voice telling them what is about to happen.

During a passenger’s first flight let them know you are about to turn and that you will be slowly lowering the wing because this is how a plane turns. When you begin the turn do it slowly and with as little bank as necessary. After a while of informing your passenger what you are doing and then actually doing it you will gain the trust of your student or passenger.

With some of the planes I fly, the stall horns are loud and it scares the passengers when it comes on especially during landing. Right before we land I will let my passengers know that they will hear a horn right before we touch down and that this is normal. When it goes off they see there is no reaction from me and that this must be the normal horn I was talking about.

Know Your Planes Noises

Before your next flight think about all the unique sounds your plane makes and make a list. Next try to explain each of these noises as if you where talking to someone flying for their first time. I’m sure passengers will appreciate your placing them at ease.

Post Flight

After my root canal was finished I said to myself that wasn't bad at all. Heck I have had gas pains worse than that experience. Before I left the office the endodontist then explained what had happened during the procedure, what I might experience as far as any discomfort, and what medicines I must take before my next visit.

As a pilot flying someone for their first flight or a flight instructor finishing a lesson it is important to include a post flight conversation. For the person who has flown the first time just ask them if they have any questions or comments about their experience. It is important to make them feel comfortable about asking you questions and that you will not ridicule them no matter how simplistic they feel the question is. Just like the dentist giving me simple instructions after my procedure we cannot assume that everyone even remotely knows even the basics of flying and they should feel free to ask.

As an instructor this is one of the most important parts of the lesson since the student will have the lesson fresh in their mind. Also, when you give them an assignment for the next lesson you have a chance to show them the importance of homework and how it relates to this lesson and the next.


Although I missed Oshkosh because I had to get a root canal, I was able to get a lesson on flying and professionalism from a unsuspecting source, my endodontist. It is humbling to learn from someone who is not even associated with your industry but has valuable insights. There are always opportunities to learn in life especially from professionals in other industries. What can you learn from people you respect in other industries and how can you apply their level of professionalism to your flying?

Safe Flying!

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