How to Give a Successful Discovery Flight

Preparing for a discovery flight in a sportcruiser

A discovery flight is commonly offered to allow non-flyers and prospective students to get a taste of what flight lessons are like.

They follow a basic formula no matter where you go. You meet with an instructor and tour the flight school, then you preflight the airplane and take a quick flight around the local area.

The whole thing lasts an hour or maybe a little longer. 

But some discovery flights are better than others. Some instructors have a knack for them, and some instructors dislike them. Some schools look at them as an inconvenience and an expense, especially since discovery flights are usually billed at a low flat rate. 

10 Tips for Rocking Discovery Flights

The basic principles of giving an excellent discovery flight do not only apply to working flight instructors. All pilots effectively provide discovery flights to their families and friends.

They might not be a CFI, and they might not be trying to sell their acquaintances on getting flight lessons, but the aviation bug bites many who soar in the air. 

Anytime you’re taking someone who has never flown in a small plane up, you’re basically doing a discovery flight.

While the following tips are written for flight instructors, it’s worth a read for everyone from new sport or private pilots to 

two pilots in cockpit for a discovery flight

1. Pick the Weather

Everything you do on your discovery flight should be done with the passengers in mind. This isn’t a flight lesson where you’re helping them learn how to make the go/no-go decision. It’s not a charter trip where you need to get to Point B, and you know that a few diversions for summer build-ups will get you there.

Your job is to take someone who is excited about aviation up in a plane to have some fun and keep them excited about aviation.

In doing this simple task, you have a lot working against you.

You have your schedule as a busy flight instructor.

And then, you have the weather. 

Are there dark foreboding clouds on the horizon? A stiff crosswind that’s going to make the landing…interesting? What about the heat—is it going to be uncomfortable taxiing to and from the runway?

This stuff matters a lot more to a non-flyer than it does to you. The best time of day is on clear mornings before it’s gotten too hot and before many thermals have developed. 

2. Pick the Equipment

Just like you don’t want to give them a rough ride, don’t make them nervous from the start either.

Most schools like to send discovery flights out in their nicest, newest airplane. It paints the school in a good light, but it also keeps the student and their family calm.

Nothing shatters confidence in a school quicker than seeing a beat-up airplane with torn seats and oil streaks down the belly. Make sure the plane is clean inside and out, too. 

Also pick up a good headset for them to use and make sure it works before the flight. You don’t want to jump on a discovery flight only to find out their mic doesn’t work.

3. Pick the Instructor

If the instructor is you, be on your best behavior. Chances are you’ve already done a few things right if you’re being asked to take a discovery flight.

If you’re the chief or the scheduler making the decisions, handpick the instructors you use for discovery flights. Use the calm ones and figure out who’s got the best people skills with people who pop in the flight school.

There’s a common misconception that the instructor on a discovery flight is selling something.

Are they selling the school, selling the flight program, or selling their skills? In reality, these things should be able to sell themselves. The instructor should just be doing their job, as professionally as they always do it. 

The instructors who give the best discovery flights are the ones who listen well and who engage in great conversation with strangers.

And, of course, they have a real passion for what they do.

Fly discovery flights in clear weather

4. Listen as Much as You Talk

A great discovery flight is as much about listening as it is talking.

Prospects walk through the doors with a list of questions in their heads. They have an idea of what they want from the discovery flight, and only some of them are eager to ask. Most want to see what you have to say first. 

Every instructor has an informal script they follow for giving school tours and for taking discovery flights. Just remember to customize the script every time based on what the student is looking for.

5. Keep an Eye Out for Apprehensiveness or Hesitation

More often than not, discovery flight passengers will have never been up in a small plane before.

It’s hard for professional instructors to visualize what that’s like. Is it like flying in an airliner? Nope, not really. Is it like riding in a car? No, there’s much more motion than that.

Most pilots would agree that there’s really nothing else like it. 

When approaching something so radically new and different, a certain level of apprehension is understandable. Most people don’t admit to it, but it’s important to acknowledge it and talk it through if they do. 

Just being open and talking about things goes a long way in reducing fears.

Explain what you’re doing during the preflight and the run-up. Ask them if they’re ready for takeoff. These little touches increase their involvement and make them feel a little more in control. 

6. Keep Them Comfortable, Like Grandma’s In The Back

Discovery flights are not the time to practice your steep turns, chandelles, or soft field takeoffs. Don’t fly like Bob Hoover. Fly it like the airline pilot who greases every landing and gets a planeload of cheers. No pressure.

Besides giving a smooth ride, you can do a few other simple things that will help.

Make sure they have nice, comfortable headsets. Try to fly over something familiar, like their home or the local mall.

Finally, when you let them fly, set them up for success. Don’t do it at times when it’s going to be easy for them to screw it up or when you have to grab the controls away.

7. Be Ready for Airsickness

No matter how smoothly you fly, some people will get airsick on their first flight.

You can reduce the chances of it by keeping a flow of cool air in the cabin, minimizing your maneuvering, and making sure that they’re looking outside the plane. 

It also helps to tell them that it’s normal to feel a little queasy but that they should let you know at the first signs of upset. You can always head back to the airport early. Short and positive is always better than longer and airsick. 

A final note to pilots—always have an airsick bag (or a few) on board and know exactly where it is. Things can deteriorate rapidly after the first signs of nauseous. You need to have that bag in their hands at a second’s notice. Seriously, it’s really important. 

Preparing for a discovery flight in a sportcruiser

8. Let Them Fly

Most discovery flights are geared for people who want to take flight lessons, so let them see what flying is like.

If they’ve already been bit by the bug, give them a fix. If they haven’t been bit yet, give them a chance. 

It’s up to you to figure out how and when you let them take the controls. Some flyers might have enough background knowledge that you could talk them through a takeoff.

Some might be too overwhelmed or nervous to try that, so just let them get a feel for straight and level and shallow turns in the practice area.  

9. Answer All The Questions

While you’re at it, remember that you’re not just letting the aviation bug bite.

You’re also answering their questions—especially the ones they don’t know to ask.

Everyone wants to know how much it costs to become a pilot and how long it takes, but few people know enough to ask about what tests they need to take, what they have to do to keep current, or what they can actually do with a pilot license.

Once they go home and digest it all, they’ll likely want to know even more. Make sure you send them out the door with your business card and email address and make it clear that you’d love to hear from them and answer any questions they have in the future. 

10. Make It Fun!

The final tip to successful discovery flights is a simple one that sums up all the others—remember to keep it fun!

It’s not a flight lesson, there’s no homework, and there’s nothing to evaluate. It’s a fun hour in the plane.

Take pictures, chat about their dreams of flying, and share your own story. In short, make a new friend and enjoy yourself.