The Pilot's Lounge #1:
Flying with Babies and Kids

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Should you take your infant flying? AVweb's Rick Durden says

The Pilots LoungeWelcome to the pilots lounge at our virtual airport, a place where anyone who likes flying is welcome. It is not a big place, only two runways, one paved, one grass. It has a couple non-precision instrument approaches, some gliders on the grass, ski planes in the winter, a fair sized office and pilot's lounge where we can sit and engage in the birthright of pilots: criticizing landings and hangar flying. We do our best to debunk old wives' tales and from time to time we get some interesting visitors. So, pour yourself a cup of coffee, pull up one of the loungers and join us.

Wings for kids

It has been a good week here at the airport. One of our regular pilots had been away for a bit. She came back Saturday to get current. All of us had missed her while she had taken time off from flying to have a baby. She went through the usual gyrations getting the rust off her flying skills and then came in for a cup of what passes for coffee. After she put up with the usual insults and comments about being too good for us, she again felt at home. While the talk ranged through slips to a landing in Dave's Husky and extended spins in the Citabria our new mom kept kind of quiet.

Finally, during a pause in the conversation, she allowed as how she and her husband have always done a lot of flying. That she had kept flying while she was pregnant until she couldn't get the wheel back in the flare had been a source of awed admiration around here. The problem was, she said, that she wasn't sure about flying with a baby. Should she take the baby flying? If so, what should she be concerned about?

Well, that quieted things down for a bit. Fortunately, the couple who keep their Cardinal in the fourth T-hangar down the way were here. They have been taking their daughter, Amelia, flying ever since she was three weeks old. She's nine now, loves flying, insists on some zero G on each flight, and has done more than anyone here to explain to shaky would-be passengers that flying is a lot of fun. We knew Amelia's parents had spent some time talking to doctors who were pilots before taking Amelia flying, so we sat back and let them tell us what they had learned.

Hearing protection

The biggest concern is for a baby's hearing. Face it, a general aviation airplane is noisy. So noisy that even a hundred hours of flying is going to adversely affect one's hearing. A baby's hearing is more vulnerable to damage than that of an adult, so it absolutely must be protected. For an infant, the lightweight foam plugs which are so effective in protecting an adult's ears may be cut down to size with a razor knife. The problem is keeping the earplugs in the baby's ears. Babies' hands wander all over, and they rub their heads against the sides of the car seats, both moves guaranteed to eject ear plugs.

The best way to prevent the problem turns out to be to have the baby wear some sort of a hat or bonnet with something that covers the ears and can be tied under the baby's chin. Dr. Richard Grossman of Colleyville, Texas (near DFW) helped our friends out with their questions about hearing protection. His practice includes otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose & throat) and he advocates aggressive hearing protection for babies and children, pointing out that cotton in the ears is next to useless and recommends kids who fly get annual hearing checks.

Wily parents

At fourteen months of age they bought Amelia a Peltor headset. It was the kind which just cuts down noise, no audio. Back then there were no kid-size headsets, but they ran across a race pilot at Reno whose toddler daughter was wearing a Peltor while in her stroller. The pilot showed them that the Peltor unit, such as airline ground crew wear, will adjust small enough to fit little kids. It was the only thing on the market eight years ago. Amelia's folks figured they didn't want her to have one which allowed her to listen or talk. That would come later—much later.

They did a smart thing. They got one which pretty much matched the color of their headsets and put it in her toy box to play with. She wore it around the house and got used to it. On the next flight she wanted to wear her headset because mom and dad wore theirs. She still fell asleep during climbout. She still has, and still treasures, that headset. When she wants to sleep nowadays, she either unplugs the speaker connection on the "talking headset" or puts on her old, original favorite headset.

A couple of the pilots who had been listening commented that the market for headsets sized for children seems to have taken off as they had seen quite a few different brands advertised. It's nice to know the aviation marketers are listening to the demands of customers.

Restraint

The next concern is restraint. Most all of the car seats manufactured these days are DOT approved, so may be legally used in aircraft. Unless you have some real relic, the seat is probably just fine. Look at the label on the seat to make sure. Naturally, a baby starts out in a rear-facing seat. The kind which snaps in and out of a base which belts to the seat is pretty handy as the portion in which the baby sits can be used to carry the baby around and then just snapped into the base unit in the airplane. No wrestling with straps for the baby while in the airplane.

When our friend's daughter got a little bigger, she graduated to a forward-facing seat. They noticed right away that she no longer fell asleep as they taxied out. The height of the seat and the fact it matched the direction of travel meant she could see out and paid attention to what was going on during taxi, takeoff and climbout. The hum and vibration still put her to sleep prior to reaching cruise, but, it was fascinating to watch her follow a train on the ground with her eyes, so they knew she was aware of what was going on, even if she could not talk yet.

As the discussion continued, our Cardinal-owning friends pointed out one pitfall. It seems dad decided to take Amelia up one September 15 when he went flying on the anniversary of Battle of Britain day. He put her forward-facing child seat in the right front. They flew around, she pointed and laughed a bit, they shot a landing at another field and then returned to home plate. As he started to flare for landing, she put her feet on the right control wheel and pushed. It got his immediate and full attention. He's pretty quick, although he won't admit it, and we learned that he actually had to pitch down to unload her control wheel, then use his right hand to move her feet out of the way, and finally, pull back before they hit something more resistant to impact than the nose gear. After he got his heart rate back into two figures, he decided that the child seat would always be in the rear.

Watch that baggage door

The new mom asked whether the child has to stay fastened in all the time. Our friends said that once their daughter got to the stage where she could climb, they simply unbuckled her and let her move around the cabin, assuming they were in relatively smooth air. They put a sleeping bag on the floor which reduced the air leaks and served as a place to put her toys. She would play on the floor or on the empty rear seat and sometimes climb onto her child seat. She was forbidden to get into the baggage compartment as the idea of her opening the baggage door and stepping out for a breath of fresh air was too frightening for our friends to contemplate. It initially took some strong words, but she has stayed out. In anything greater than light turbulence she has to stay buckled in. Interestingly, she readily buckles up for landing because that means the trip is about over and she is close to getting to see grandma.

Our friends learned that the rear seat is a lot colder at altitude than the front. As a result, they now put a second sleeping bag around the baggage curtain because the airflow in the fuselage is aft to front. The heater does the best it can, but the rear seat in a lot of four place airplanes can be many, many degrees cooler than the front. It was suggested that work be done on the aft baggage curtain to make sure it seals well to try and prevent the cold breezes from coming forward. Rear seat temperature monitoring was part of the reason one parent always rode beside the baby at first.

Altitude and oxygen

Our friends said that the doctors they spoke with pointed out that an infant's body is pretty tough, but there is a degree of concern about the quality of the lungs as they are nearly the last things to develop prior to birth. As a result, they hesitated to go to any kind of high altitude for a while. They kept their flights at or below about 5000 feet for a few months. On the first several flights one of them sat in the rear seat with the baby and kept a very close eye on her. Being as they had a fixed-gear Cardinal this was not a problem from a weight and balance standpoint, as it is the only airplane we here at the airport have ever run across which you absolutely cannot load out of c.g. so long as you don't violate the 120 pound baggage limit and don't go over gross. (Run some sample weight and balance problems on one, it's true.)

Later on, our friends talked with Dr. Brent Blue of Jackson, Wyo., a member of the EAA Aeromedical advisory team and who, coincidentally also writes for AVweb, and learned that babies can be taken to altitude if oxygen is used starting at about 10,000 feet. He recommended nasal cannula for infants, and an oxygen mask smeared with grape jelly to help seal it for older babies. He had no suggestions about dealing with the mess.

Cautious descent

Being very cautious, our friends made their descents at about 200 fpm on the first few flights. That did require some negotiation with a couple of controllers, but explaining the reason was remarkably effective in getting exactly what they wanted. They also knew that crying kids they had heard on airliners were having problems equalizing pressure on their ears during the descent. The solution is very straightforward, give the baby something to suck. The mother was breast-feeding the baby, so the baby often got dinner during descent, unless it was decided a bottle or a pacifier would have to do. It always seemed to work. Having the flying pilot breast-feed during approach is something not usually covered in most training programs, however, it has been done, as our friends commented with some secret smiles passing between themselves.

Now, any time they have kids who haven't flown with them in their airplane, they give out some gum as the descent starts, not before. (Otherwise it is used up and stuck in creative locations, and, no, they are not going to put the new interior in the airplane until the kids get older.)

Dr. Grossman was adamant that a flight should not be undertaken if the child has a cold, unless the altitude change is restricted to about 3000 feet and then only with great care. Our friends did tell the story of a flight when the baby had a cold and they never got more than five hundred feet above the altitude of the departure runway as they flew along the shoreline of Lake Michigan to get to their destination. Maybe they were overly protective, but, as I said, she's nine years old today and has no ear problems.

Monitoring the baby in flight

During the months while she was in a rear-facing child seat, our friends took turns sitting in the back seat next to the child. Even though the baby slept most of the time, it seemed a good idea to monitor things to make sure the baby's motions had not rubbed an earplug out or that nothing was wrong. Such a seating arrangement, if it means leaving the right forward seat unoccupied, is not possible on all airplanes, so it is necessary to work some sample weight and balance problems on the one being flown. The intercom let the parents talk easily and, unfortunately, let dad do the backseat pilot routine on occasion from the back seat. He often found his headset disconnected after a "suggestion" about the flight.

They discovered Murphy's law meant the baby would wake up at a time of high workload. As a result, the person in the back seat could handle the demands of the moment. It also meant that they were not comfortable flying single pilot with the baby until she was nearly a year old.

Kids and controls

Naturally, once she was able to move around, our friends' little one wanted to play with the controls. The procedure which evolved was that she was held by the non-flying pilot and allowed to look at, but not touch, the switches on the panel. She was allowed to hold the control wheel. As she got older, she was encouraged to turn the control wheel and watch the world outside bank. She loved having such power and spent a fair amount of time making turns, which was fine, except that she really wanted to roll the airplane completely upside down. Until she got older and could be put into the airport's Citabria, banks were limited to about forty-five degrees.

During one flight with just her dad to a local EAA fly-in breakfast, when she was two years old, the daughter was introduced to reduced G levels in flight. She loved it. Dad pitched the airplane up a few degrees, then dropped the nose fast enough that the G level was reduced to about .2 or so. Whether this was a return to the womb feeling is a good question. Her dad discovered she liked it immediately. She would pick up her feet and float slowly down to the seat, laugh and crow and shout "Again!" From then on, each flight, unless a non-flyer were aboard, included at least two "zero G" events. She got to the point that on climbout she was demanding "Zero G, Daddy."

Diapers and other joys

Babies make for some creative planning efforts. Diaper changing in flight is not fun. It can be done, but it does require some thought and planning. On the ground, the horizontal stabilizer or stabilator, with control lock installed, makes a great changing table.

Our friends related that very, very few babies who ride in child seats seem to get airsick. It may be the fact they can see out the window, but, whatever it is, it seems to work. Nevertheless, they always carry barf bags in a handy location.

"I have to go!"

For kids out of diapers the plaintive cry of "I have to go potty" will generally be heard at the least desirable time. In the child development cycle this is a point where it may be wise to fly with two adults in the airplane, despite having gone to just one a few months earlier. A pickle jar with wadded up paper toweling inside or a commercially available port-a-potty should be kept close at hand. If flying a rental airplane or sharing ownership, a flying bag with such essentials is considered a necessity.

Keeping a child occupied in flight, especially when there is nothing to see out the windows means being creative. The "kid bag" with flight essentials should include some soft toys, finger snacks, and drinks such as juice boxes. Having a sleeping bag or other covering on the floor helps keep goodies from rolling into seat tracks, but with kids, you are always going to be finding little treasures stuck in various locations in the cabin.

What airplane?

What is the best four-place airplane for baby hauling? We tossed that one around for some time. A major concern was for a good sized cabin, as baby stuff is not usually heavy, but is amazingly bulky. Portable cribs, diaper bags, this, that, four other things, and a baby can fill up a minivan in a hurry. Our friends did not feel that weight-hauling ability was a big deal until kids get older. For a young family the desire is for space and a long c.g. range. A large, flat floor with a rear seat which can be reached from the front is important. The ability to load the airplane when it's raining and not get everything wet is pretty much a necessity, as sometimes it is akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle to get all the stuff jammed inside. That also means a baggage compartment which can be loaded from outside, but reached from the inside, is more than just nice to have.

Our friends faced the airplane question when their baby was on the way. They lived some distance from each of their parents and did not want long drives with a baby. They felt they could almost afford the care and feeding of the 180 hp Lycoming O-360 engine (no one can fully afford any airplane, right?) and they worked on figuring out which airframe to wrap around it. They rejected the Beech Musketeer/Sundowner line as too slow for the fuel burn, although they liked the airplanes, particularly the two doors on some models. Next to go was the Cherokee 180/Archer line because they only had one door, something which made loading difficult with a baby and because it had a low wing, making loading "stuff" in weather most unpleasant.

It boiled down to the Tiger, the Cessna Cutlass (not the RG version), and the Cardinal. The Tiger was the fastest of the bunch, with the best handling by far. The husband had flown the Cheetah a great deal and liked it, but they did not like the fact that the back seat was well below the front and that it was not possible to get in and out without getting wet when it was raining. They are both instrument rated and fly in weather regularly. Further, with a fixed-pitch prop, to get the blistering cruise speeds meant high rpm and attendant noise, which was not pleasant. They both had the nagging concern that emergency egress in the event they blew it and flipped could be a major league challenge.

That left the Cutlass and Cardinal. The Cutlass was so new that the prices made it largely out of reach. It had a fixed-pitch prop as well and was essentially a 172 with larger engine. The Cardinal had a much larger cabin, handling nearly as pleasant as the Tiger, a constant speed prop, and the longest cg range of any four-place airplane built. While it did not have the useful load of the Cutlass, that was not a problem, so it became the airplane of choice for the family. They never regretted it.

What about older kids?

We all laughed when our friends fervently suggested delaying the introduction of a "talking headset" to the child as long as possible. When the child's head is large enough for an adult headset, there is a tendency to allow the child to wear one. Plugging the kid into the intercom means that you will hear nothing but the child. This is fascinating at first, because it is your child talking about flight. After a while our friends said a desire builds up to be able to hear ATC or unicom—or silence.

Our friends counseled against letting kids use standard versions of the headset CD players teenagers seem to have permanently attached to their heads on the ground. This is because the foam headsets provide no hearing protection and the volume has to be cranked so high that hearing damage is bound to occur. They did say there are muff-type headphones available, as well adapters so the aircraft headsets can be used with the players to solve the noise problem. They also pointed out that a lot of aircraft intercoms have music inputs and some have crew and passenger select positions so the kids can have their music and the parents can listen to whatever the kids feel to be stodgy and hopelessly out of date.

Keep them involved

Everyone in the group strongly suggested keeping the kids involved in the flight. The ideas started with having the kids come up with a name for your airplane, whether you own it or are just renting for one flight. It helps personalize all of the flying. Have them sit (or stand) in the right seat and fly the airplane, if at all possible. They may get bored after a while, so don't force it. Much of the time they will sleep. So be it. Flying then is a very fast way to go a long distance, therefore it is good.

Treat the kids as valued passengers. Fly the airplane with as much care as you would for a good friend you are taking up for the first time. Shallow banks and smooth operation should be the order of the day, unless the child clearly says he or she wants a more energetic experience. Here at the airport we see fathers (it seems to always be men) who jerk the airplane through the air when their kids are aboard, yet handle it as if carrying eggs when a business associate is along. Then the same fathers come in the office here and lament, "The darn kids just don't like flying, I don't understand it." Well, dad, you have made it an unpleasant experience for them, what do you expect?

Our kids are the future of aviation, we need to make it fun for them, so even though they have become sullen teenagers, it would be wise to treat them with respect and dignity in the airplane. After all, they may be the ones flying you to the nursing home some day, or sitting on the county board voting on whether to close your favorite airport.

As the conversation started to wind down we noticed our young mother had been listening and making notes and that she took down our Cardinal-owners' phone number. She finished her coffee, rinsed out the cup and headed out. As she left she was smiling.