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Caution: Kids on Board

Flying family vacations can be memorable

When I close my eyes, I see it as if it were yesterday—the huge glass dining room table in my parents’ house, covered with colorful sectional charts in preparation for a cross-country trip. For a week or more before we took a trip those sectionals and low altitude en route charts were our tablecloths (and woe to the child who spilled her milk). My parents stayed up late watching the weather, then plotting a course, then arguing, then laughing, and then replotting. Mom and dad were commercial/instrument-rated pilots, so the debate over which pass to fly through or how to dodge impending weather was a healthy one.

One trip in a Piper Aztec was three weeks long and stretched from the Deep South to Spokane, Washington, site of the World’s Fair. I remember my first glimpse of the Mississippi’s broad banks, two days waiting out a front in some nameless Midwestern town, and the Grand Tetons’ snow-capped pinnacles filling the windows as we maneuvered for a landing in the tight valley around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We were four kids with nine years between us, and we managed comfortably in the relatively roomy Aztec cabin. Our most serious tragedy was when my brother, the youngest, would forget his luggage, and no one would notice until we arrived at our destination. Those family cross-countries are probably what brought me to aviation and have shaped the kind of pilot that I’ve become. I married a pilot and before I knew it, there I was heading out on long cross-country trips with my own kids tucked snugly in the back, first in car seats, then in seat belts.

GPS, computer software, and sloppy kids have changed the way I plan and plot, but the night before an adventure begins I can still be found, highlighter in hand, sketching lines on sectionals and then carefully folding and stacking them for easy access in the cockpit. I purchase duplicates of any charts I’ll have to flip, eliminating awkward refolding in my crowded, busy cockpit. The extra charts can always be passed to an eager navigator in the back seat, too. I learned that trick from mom and dad long before I ever went off on my own.

At $5 or so each, those extra charts I purchase to keep from having to flip and refold really show their value when I hand them back to my 8-year-old. She’s just old enough to be interested in the world outside the airplane, and a sectional chart is detailed enough to keep her fascinated for more than an hour. I recall my parents letting me total distances and calculate estimated fuel burns on our cross-country trips. As a middle-schooler the task did much to improve my algebra skills. I learned a few other tricks from my parents, too, mostly about traveling by air with young children. The most important lesson is that anything is better than traveling long distances by car. That alone is the best reason I know for learning to fly. Whatever the distance from point A to point B, if it’s less than a day’s car travel, you can get there in a morning by air. Would you prefer to listen to “Mom—she’s pinching me! Mom—she’s being gross! MOM—I have to go?” for 12 hours or for three? You do the math.

Best of all, when piloting an airplane, I don’t have to listen to them at all. My Cessna is equipped with headsets for pilot and copilot only. Children, I’ve found, don’t care to wear headsets and few brands fit well, anyhow. I give my daughters earplugs to dull the throb of the big Continental engine out front. I then make sure that each has a “carry-on” full of toys, books, and snacks. There is absorbent disposable underwear for anyone who needs to “go.” Since I’ve got only girls, modesty isn’t an issue. If you are blessed with a flock of boys, more power to you. They delight in the challenge of using the familiar red “john.”

As a rule I don’t look back to see what the cabin looks like. Crumbs can be vacuumed up, and I provide liquids in containers that are difficult to spill—there’s no such thing as spill-proof if you are a kid.

Yes, I do get taps on the shoulder, but that’s why I never fly long distances without another adult on board. When you’ve got children—particularly young children—you’ve got to have a flight attendant on long flights. It is not just a convenience; it is a safety issue. That adult’s job is not so much to keep the kids from distracting you, the pilot, as much as to make sure that they stay safely occupied, and, in the case of an emergency, the flight attendant can ready those special passengers of yours for whatever comes next. Most of the time the flight attendant job falls to the copilot, and for flights under six hours, that’s fine. Our Cessna is truly a single-pilot craft, and although it’s nice to divide up cockpit chores, it isn’t necessary. Last summer we winged it from South Florida to Salt Lake City, Utah, a two-day, 13-hour jaunt each way. On that trip, we turned over flight attendant duties to an extra adult in back with the kids instead of to the copilot. This was a godsend, especially when one child lost her lunch shortly after our first encounter with mountain-ridge turbulence.

Speaking of turbulence, or weather, I’m exceedingly conservative with my family on board. I make sure to book enough time away from work to allow for plenty of weather delays, and I am not averse to leaving the airplane somewhere and taking an airliner home if I must. Most pilots I know are responsible fliers, not prone to taking risks. Yet there is something about having your most precious possessions with you that adds a whole new dimension to calculating weather dangers.

To beat uncomfortable weather, especially turbulence, I tend to fly with my family in the early morning. I pick high altitudes for long flights for the same reason. If your children are little, early departures come with a bonus—most kids will strap in and, if made comfortable with pillows and such, snuggle down and go right back to sleep. On the way home from Utah we left at sunrise. We cruised past Lake Powell and followed the Colorado River’s meandering gorge for some miles through deserts that showed every color of the rainbow. I’m glad I took pictures because neither of my children saw it. They were both out cold—the result of the early departure and the thin air at our altitude of 11,500 feet. Only the stifling, bone-dry air of Texas at noon in summer succeeded in rousing them. Lubbock was our lunch-and-refuel stop, anyhow.

When children won’t go to sleep, there is always the option of letting an older child sit in the copilot’s seat for a while. I’ve never forgotten the Piper Aztec’s broad black instrument panel (probably because I couldn’t see over it). I’ll typically take the airplane off autopilot with a child up front and let her feel for herself the weight of the machine through the yoke. It breaks up the monotony of cruise for all of us, but I have to be careful not to let the child’s meandering draw us off altitude or off course.

There are three times during a flight, however, when children are absolutely banned from my forward cockpit: takeoff, approach, and landing. In fact, my husband and I follow an airline-style policy of requiring a sterile cockpit during these flight phases. That means we do not discuss anything that does not pertain to the operation of the flight. It’s a great buffer, especially for husband-and-wife pilot teams that might experience tension in the cockpit. The airline procedures are cut and dried—each pilot has duties and does them. There is no room for discussion. The kids know that we are busy and do not disturb us. It’s something that we’ve trained them to respect. Any kid can learn it. Just insist.

Children have small Eustachian tubes with which to equalize their middle ear, and these tubes clog easily. Even the toughest children often suffer pain during rapid descents from altitude. Some parents give their kids decongestants, chewing gum, or pacifiers to help them clear their ears. We take it one step further. We plan all our descents with a simple formula: figure miles per minute, then minutes to descend to pattern altitude, then miles to descend at 300 to 500 feet per minute. Generally, at three miles per minute with 8,000 feet to lose, we’ll commence a descent some 50 miles from the arrival airport. This gives the kids’ ears time to equalize more naturally. It also helps us psyche up for the approach and landing phases, often the most challenging part of a long-distance trek.

There is nothing more rewarding than a stable approach and smooth touchdown after four or more hours at the controls of a light airplane. There’s probably nothing more elusive, either. The transition from the cruise phase to the approach phase is so jarring after a long flight that I recommend thinking about the approach early, even an hour before you get there. I’ll use my time at altitude to peruse through approach plates or terminal charts and the Airport/Facility Directory. I set the automatic terminal information service frequency and pull out the squelch, then strain to listen for present conditions from as far away as possible. I know the conditions may change, but even knowing the trends (weather getting better, weather getting worse) is useful. Besides, it all serves to keep my brain thinking ahead to the busy part of my flight.

No matter how prepared you are, however, runways may change and you may find yourself doing some last-minute shuffling to get in line for landing. It happens. Don’t come down too hard on yourself if you find that you don’t exactly grease it on after a full day or night of flying. As long as the landing is safe and on or near the centerline of the runway, you’ve passed muster. Even the airline guys who fly long hauls for a living will cede you that.

After landing, keep flying. Follow your checklists meticulously—remember that you are tired and the checklist is the beacon that will lead you safely to port. Once the engine has been shut down and the checklist completed, pop open the doors and let everybody out, being sure the kids remember all the ramp safety lessons you’ve taught them. Feel the luxury of your ears freed from your headset. Look around you. You’ve arrived. That’s the best feeling of all.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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