One of the highest uses for a general aviation airplane is to take your family someplace enjoyable. Done right, the trip is much faster than in the family car and a heck of a lot more fun for all involved. I won’t even comment about the joys of family travel on the airlines, baggage fees and clearing security with a screaming toddler.
Judging from questions on aviation forums, a lot of pilots want to take their families flying, want to know how to best manage it and want to know how old their kids have to be before its safe to bundle them into a GA flying machine.
This article is a culmination of several years of experience with and inquiry into the subject. It included consultation with two doctors, Brent Blue of Jackson, Wyoming, an AME who has counseled pilots about flying with children for years and the late Richard Grossman of Colleyville, Texas, whose practice included otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose & throat), and discussion with other pilots as to their experience taking their families—and kids of all ages—on trips. It also includes my own experience taking my daughter flying from the time she was three weeks old. She liked it enough to solo a glider on her fourteenth birthday and a Cessna 150 on her sixteenth. She now holds a private pilot certificate and is a nut about the F4U Corsair.
The biggest concern you should have in taking a child flying is for his or her hearing. Face it; a general aviation airplane is noisy. So noisy that just 100 hours of flying without ear protection 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 that 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 earplugs.
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. Grossman pointed out that cotton in the ears is next to useless and recommends kids who fly get annual hearing checks. He also said to check frequently to make sure the earplugs are still in the child’s ears. I spoke with a couple of pilots who used band aids over a baby’s ears to help assure the plugs stay in place. The degree of “stickiness” is just right to allow them to do the job and avoid hurting the child when taking them off.
I applaud the fact that there are now headsets sized for little kids (although the smallest may be a bit too big for a baby). I suggest starting out with an inexpensive ear muff only “ear defender” type headset such as airport line crew wear. Peltor has a version that is less than $30 and fits a wide range of head sizes.
I picked up one of those Peltor earmuff headsets when my daughter was just over a year old. It was nearly the same color as the David Clarks her parents wore when flying. I put it in her toy box and let her discover it. She thought it was great to have a headset of her own, just like Mom and Dad. She would put it on and wear it around the house. Then, when it was time to go flying, it was no big deal to get her to wear it. I found that it stayed in place even when she would fall asleep in her child seat with her head at one of those improbable angles babies seem to prefer. I think the headset was more comfortable for her than the earplugs and bonnet combination as she fell asleep as we taxied out the first time she wore the headset.
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.
I noticed that when my daughter graduated to a forward-facing seat she no longer fell asleep as we 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. I knew she was aware of what was going on, even if she could not talk yet.
I became a firm believer that the car seat and child should be in a back seat when I put my daughter and her forward-facing seat in the right front seat. We flew around, she pointed and laughed a bit and generally enjoyed the flight. As I started to flare for landing, she put her feet on the right control wheel and pushed. That was an abnormal situation that wasn’t in the airplane manual. I had to pitch down to unload her control wheel, then use my right hand to move her feet out of the way, and finally, pull back before the nosewheel hit the runway. I never put a child seat in a front seat again. To this day I’m not sure what I’d do in a two-place airplane. Overall, if I am to be flying for more than about an hour with a child young enough to need a child’s seat, I want another person in the airplane to help take care of the child’s needs as they can be extremely demanding and always manage to time a crisis when the pilot’s work load is highest. Otherwise, in a two-place airplane, I think I would arrange to have the right-side yoke or stick removed for that flight.
Once a child gets to the age where he or she can climb around on things at home, it’s probably all right to free them up to move around the cabin in smooth air. I put a sleeping bag on the floor, which reduced the air leaks and served as a place to put my daughter’s 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. While she probably couldn’t have opened the baggage door, the idea was simply too frightening to contemplate. In anything greater than the lightest turbulence she had to stay buckled in.
In non-pressurized airplanes, the rear seat is a lot colder at altitude than the front. That’s because air flows forward from the tail cone into the cabin. You may want to do some work on the aft baggage curtain to make sure it seals or find a way to put a sleeping bag over it to help mitigate against cold drafts. Rear seat temperature monitoring was part of the reason I always made sure someone always rode beside the baby until she was old enough for a forward-facing child’s seat.
Altitude and Oxygen
Dr. Brent Blue told me 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, I didn’t fly above 5000 feet with my daughter for her first four or five months. Dr. Blue then said 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.
For my daughter’s first few flights, I kept the rate of descent to a maximum of 200 FPM. It required some negotiation with a couple of controllers, but explaining the reason was remarkably effective. The crying kids you’ve heard on airliners are often having problems equalizing pressure on their ears during a descent. The solution is straight forward; give the baby something to suck. A pacifier or bottle works wonders. I am also advised by an unimpeachable source that at least one pilot has routinely breast-fed her infant during descent—while flying the airplane. I’m in awe.
For older kids, gum is the magic bullet for equalizing the ears during descent. Don’t give it out before the descent starts as it will be used up and stuck in creative locations. Oh, for that and other things kids do and spill, don’t plan on putting 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. That’s non-negotiable.
Once my daughter was old enough to move around, she wanted to play with the controls. The procedure that 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 old enough for me to take her flying in a Citabria—wearing a chute—for aerobatics, banks were limited to about forty-five degrees.
During a flight with just me when she was two years old, I introduced her to reduced G levels in flight. She loved it. I’d pitch the airplane up a few degrees, then lower the nose fast enough that the G level was reduced to about .2 or so. 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 do require some creative planning. Diaper changing in flight is not fun. It can be done, but it does require some thought and effort. It’s another reason why a second adult was always in the airplane on flights for the first year. On the ground, the horizontal stabilizer or stabilator—with control lock installed—makes a great changing table.
One very good thing—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, always carry barf bags in several handy locations.
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 another 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 or piddle pack should be kept close at hand. If flying a rental airplane or sharing ownership, a flying bag with such essentials is 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 is the best four-place airplane for baby hauling? The biggest cabin you can get is a big plus. 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. Weight-hauling ability is not a big deal until kids get older. For a young family the desire is for space and a long c.g. range because much of the flying will be with an empty right seat, an adult and baby in the aft seat and the baggage area stuffed full. A large, flat floor with a rear seat that can be reached from the front seat is important. The ability to load the airplane when it’s raining and not get everything wet is a necessity if you fly IFR. Loading the airplane is often akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle to get all the stuff jammed inside—and it means you’re going to have all the stuff sitting on the ramp as you pick and choose what goes in next. That also means a baggage compartment that can be loaded from outside, but reached from the inside, is more than just nice to have.
In the four-place world, I recommend the Cessna Cardinal because it has two doors—and they’re bigger than any other airplane. The cabin is the largest of the four-placers, including the Cessna 182. It has a flat floor, large baggage compartment and, of huge importance—a center of gravity range longer than any other four-place airplane. It is impossible to load it out of the c.g. range if you comply with the 120-pound baggage limit.
As your family grows, it means looking a bigger airplane. In the world of six-place singles, my experience has been that for family comfort and spousal happiness, the Cherokee Six/Lance/Saratoga with club seating is the best choice. The Beech A and B36 are a close second, but the cabin is not as large and most run into aft c.g. issues when loading for a family flight. The Cessna 205, 206, 207 and 210 have the greatest payload in the class and the longest c.g. range, but the cabins are not as spacious and comfortable as the Cherokee Six series. (Although a Cessna 207 with only five or six seats installed would be incredibly spacious.)
What About Older Kids?
I suggest delaying the introduction of a “talking headset” to the child as long as possible. 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 a desire builds up to be able to hear ATC or Unicom—or silence. If your avionics control panel has an isolate feature, plan on using it, or just unplug the kid’s headset.
If your child is constantly listening to music, have her or him use ear buds under an aviation headset. Some commercially available music headsets have noise protection features that make them viable for use in the airplane. Newer avionics systems have music inputs designed to keep a teenager very happy.
Keep your kids involved in the flight. Have them 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 your 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. I’ve seen too many fathers show no concern for their kids’ flying experience. They do such things as blast through low-level turbulence when it’s smooth higher up or give their children headsets that hurt to wear, and generally don’t make the flights fun. Then the same fathers lament, “The darn kids just don’t like flying, I don’t understand it.” Well, dad, you made it an unpleasant experience, 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.
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 and 2.