Proper Restraints

Keeping your child safe in a general aviation aircraft

July 1, 2005

It was not intended to be a human experiment. However, when Capt. Al Haynes managed to crash-land a disabled DC-10, United Airlines Flight 232, at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, there were several children aboard — some survived and some died. While methods of keeping a child safe in a general aviation aircraft differ in details from those in a commercial airliner, the similarities are striking.

In a potentially survivable accident the outcome often depends upon the efficiency of the child's restraint system. When an aircraft stops suddenly, unrestrained objects — like loose children — continue in motion until stopped, as they strike the inside of the aircraft often with devastating force.

On that fateful day in Sioux City there were four in-lap children aboard. Specific federal aviation regulations, which still apply to both commercial and general aviation, allow a child younger than age 2 to be held on the lap of an adult, and not be otherwise restrained. However, at even modest decelerations of 3 Gs, it is impossible for even the strongest adult to keep a child in her arms. FAA-certified aircraft and restraints in most general aviation aircraft are rated at 9 Gs. This means you will survive most accidents, and your unrestrained son or daughter may not.

At the time of the Sioux City crash one mother stated that her son "flew up in the air" on impact, but she was able to grab and hold on to him. The mother of an 11-month-old had problems placing and keeping her daughter on the floor, because she was screaming and trying to stand up. Two mothers could not hold on to their children, and were unable to find them after the aircraft landed. One of these children perished, and the other was rescued when a passenger heard her cries and re-entered the wrecked, burning aircraft. The child was found alive in an overhead luggage compartment. A 32-month-old child who had been placed in his own seat and provided with pillows beneath the adult seat belt to tighten it survived without injury.

The lesson is that children in restraints survive, and those who are unrestrained have a high risk of perishing. While the NTSB has consistently advised that child-restraint systems (CRSs) be mandatory on board airplanes, the FAA has demurred, citing the cost imposed upon parents and the airlines for the extra seat. The FAA claims that the cost of the additional seat would divert travel with children to automobiles, which are deemed less safe than commercial airline flights. These arguments came under attack by the NTSB in a report of August 3, 2004. However, the extra-seat-cost and diversion-to-automobiles arguments are not pertinent to general aviation. The additional cost of carrying a child in a private aircraft is insignificant.

Parents who transport their children in light aircraft should be aware of practical methods to keep them safe despite the lack of official guidance. There is little published data specific to general aviation. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)-certified child passenger safety technicians are trained to provide information about child seats and motor vehicles, but most are not familiar with the general aviation environment. But information about restraining children in automobiles can be extended to light aircraft.

A child held on an adult's lap while flying may be legal, but foolish. Some parents place their child on their lap and then place the seat belt around themselves and their child. However, in a rapid deceleration the child will be squashed between the adult and the belt, and will likely sustain significant injuries. This is even worse if the adult's upper torso is unrestrained by a shoulder belt, as the adult doubles over the child like a nutcracker.

I have lectured at the past 16 AOPA Expos on the necessity of installing and using shoulder safety belts. However, their use should not encourage an adult to carry a child on his or her lap.

The FAA also unwisely permits two children to occupy the same seat using the one seat belt if their combined weight is less than 170 pounds. This is patently unsafe. A single belt cannot tightly hold two people. And where do you place the shoulder belt in that situation? It also has been wryly noted that no two children will tolerate being strapped together for long before a fight erupts.

The most obvious rule is that children must be adequately restrained in an aircraft. An unrestrained child will become a projectile, will be injured, and can injure other occupants in the aircraft. Restraining children of all ages in automobiles became law in all states by the mid-1980s. Why should you care for your child less when you fly?

Children are more difficult to restrain than adults because of a higher center of gravity (their heads are relatively large for their body size), and restraints find poorer purchase over their pelvis. Soft skull bones put the brain at greater risk than in an adult with a hard skull. Thus, children require specially designed child-restraint systems until they can use adult seat and shoulder belts.

For infants and small children a safety child seat already proven safe for automobile use is the obvious choice. About half of all CRSs are also certified for use in commercial aircraft. These systems have passed all automobile standards including the demonstrated restraint of a child in a vehicle in a 30-mph impact with a wall. Additional airline standards include a width of no more than 16 inches, and adequate child restraint in inversion (to simulate turbulence). These additional standards make such child seats better choices for a light aircraft, but regulations do not preclude the use of any CRS in a private aircraft.

However, not all seats safe in an automobile or even certified for commercial aviation can be used in every general aviation aircraft. Obviously, the seat must fit through the airplane door, fit the seat of the aircraft, and then be adequately secured. Eighty percent of the child-seat base should rest against the installed aircraft seat. If not, it is the wrong child seat.

The most common mistake made with a child seat is not tightly strapping it to the vehicular seat. Seat belts securing a CRS must be as tight as possible, and when installed properly the child seat should hardly move. Rocking the child seat should rock a small airplane. Some suggest that movement of an inch or less is a good measure. Do not twist seat belts if possible, as each twist saps 5 percent of a belt's strength. If the aircraft belt is continuous and on retractors, a locking clip should be used. A clip should be supplied with each child seat, but if not, a replacement can be easily purchased. Without the locking clip the child seat remains loosely attached in some aircraft.

Many newer child-restraint seats have a top tether strap, or a LATCH (Lower Anchor and Tethers for Children) system, but retain provision to install without benefit of these devices. Upper tether anchors have been in automobiles since September 2000, and LATCH anchors are in motor vehicles manufactured after September 2002. Unfortunately, no general aviation aircraft has such provisions, and I am unaware of approved aircraft modifications to accommodate a top-tether or LATCH child seat. Do not jerry-rig a CRS tether or LATCH to an aircraft. This is an unproven modification, and may compromise child safety.

A rear-facing child seat is used for infants, and should be reclined from the vertical no more than 45 degrees. If flatter, the infant may slide out over the top of the seat with impact, or too much pressure may be applied to the child's shoulders. Very young infants may have problems with upright positions of less than 30 degrees from upright because of poor head control. If head control is a problem even at 30 degrees, a child's head can be surrounded with a rolled blanket or towel. However, nothing should be placed between the child and the child seat.

Children should be kept in rear-facing child seats as long as feasible, based upon the child's weight, size, and the published limitations of the child seat. A child should not be faced forward until at least 2 years of age and at a weight of more than 20 pounds. It is preferable to continue to use a rear-facing seat until older, if the child is within the manufacturer's stated weight limits. That may mean 30 to 35 pounds in some convertible seats. Scientific studies of automobile accidents confirm that rear-facing seats are the safest for children.

Convertible seats are used facing the rear when the child is young, and then converted to a front-facing configuration as the child grows. Switching a convertible seat from rear- to front facing requires substantial reconfiguration. You cannot simply reverse the seat. The seat incline must be changed to upright, and the aircraft belts and child harness must be rerouted according to the manufacturer's explicit (and sometimes complex) directions.

In a general aviation aircraft a child in a rear-facing seat cannot occupy the copilot seat, because of the yoke. Even a front-facing child seat may not permit full-yoke travel. You do not want to find this out upon landing when inadequate up elevator is available to flare, and the yoke is squeezing your child.

In most cases a child should not be in a copilot seat until large enough to use adult seat and shoulder belts. It is best to position the child where a responsible adult can tend to the child's needs, and this is usually not the co-pilot seat.

It is probably safe to use a front-facing CRS in a rear-facing general aviation seat, so the child faces the rear of the airplane. However, there is no data on using any CRS facing the opposite way.

While booster seats position an older child so standard safety belts can be used more effectively, the FAA prohibits the use of booster seats in commercial aircraft. This is because seats in airlines fold over forward, and have no rear locks. As many general aviation aircraft seats lock upright, this prohibition is probably unwarranted for light aircraft, and there is no regulatory limitation in private flying. However, there is good evidence that a full child seat is safer than depending upon a booster seat that positions adult seat and shoulder belts when restraining a small child.

How tight should the harness be around a child? Slack restraints defeat the purpose, so they must be snug. For example, only one finger should pass between the strap and collar bone, and shoulder straps should not be so loose that slack can be pinched up between two fingers along the belt at shoulder level. Avoid bulky clothing that compromises restraints.

Can a child be allowed out of restraints once at altitude? That may be permissible, but you must consider how quickly the child can be re-restrained if an emergency landing becomes imminent. An adult — but not the pilot — must take responsibility for this task in an emergency. Turbulence may also throw a child about the cabin, resulting in injuries. So the safest advice is to keep children (and everyone else) restrained for the entire flight.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend the use of booster seats with shields in automobiles. Shields do not securely hold a child. The academy also advised against using aftermarket additions to a child seat, as there are no NHTSA standards for devices that are not original parts of an approved child seat. It is reasonable to follow the same advice in choosing child restraints for travel in your aircraft. A thin rubber pad placed between an aircraft seat and child seat to prevent slipping is the exception to the rule of not adding accessories to a CRS.

Older children are more likely to be unrestrained or improperly restrained. There is a tendency to be complacent as a child ages, and a reluctance to continue using a "baby seat" as a child grows. Do not discontinue use of adequate CRSs too early. Typically a child must be at least 4 feet 9 inches tall and more than 80 pounds before adult safety belts are protective. It then must be assured that shoulder and seat belts can be properly positioned, fastened, and tightened. A child can be judged safe using aircraft safety belts if his back is flat against the rear of the seat, and his knees are flexed over the front seat edge. If the child's legs are short and do not flex over the front of the seat, there is a tendency for the child to slide forward and submarine under the seat belt upon deceleration. The seat belt then applies pressure over the abdomen, and may cause serious internal injuries in a crash. A belt that cannot be properly positioned over a shoulder should never be placed behind a child or under an arm.

Studies have shown that one-third of children in motor vehicles are improperly restrained, and 80 percent of child seats are improperly installed in automobiles and trucks. While there are no statistics for general aviation, there is no reason to believe that children are handled by their parents differently in the air. It does not take more than a minor childhood injury to change a whole family's favorable perception of private aviation. Flying unrestrained is a great risk factor for death and injury in an aircraft, and this applies equally to children and adults.


Ian Blair Fries, M.D. is co-chairman of the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors.


Links to additional information about flying with children may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).