Flying With Family

Importance to Members

Finally, you’ve received that coveted private pilot license. Now it’s time to prove to your spouse and kids that all you’ve been telling them is true. Flying is a fun, fast way to get around and it was worth the sacrifice of time and money for you to earn your certificate. What you do next — especially with young children or fearful flyers is pivotal; either building confidence and camaraderie in the sky, or ultimately reducing your flying to infrequent short solo trips. This subject report offers tips on making family flights comfortable, memorable, and fun. As always, feel free to call AOPA’s Pilot Information Center at 800/USA-AOPA with questions.

Overview

The purpose of this subject report is to address the challenges of flying with your family. You can find tips on how to interest your children in aviation in the section on family trips, as well as information on car seats and hearing protection for small children. Or perhaps you want to develop your spouse’s interest in flying? If that’s the case, you’ll enjoy the many letters of personal experience submitted by members. Sections on unique circumstances such as flying when you or a passenger is pregnant or flying with the family pet expand conventional information and provide advice to make all passengers comfortable. Additional resources and stories from the AOPA magazine archives provide a wealth of experiences from pilots who offer both the successes and shortcomings of their family flight experiences.

Technical Information

Family Trips

Taking your family flying is a well-earned reward for the hard work, time, and money you’ve put into your flight training. Hopefully your spouse and children will want to share the gift of flight with you. But what if your children are young, and afraid of flying? Perhaps it’s not a fear of flying as much as it is a fear of the unknown. Following are several tips that can keep your children comfortable and content on both short and long flights and help them enjoy aviation as much as you do.

  • Exposure – Exposing your children to aviation at a young age is extremely important if you plan on having them as passengers sometime in the future. If children are being forced in any way, as all parents know, they will resist. As a result you might start by making infrequent trips to the airport. On such trips your child should be shown around the airplane, and allowed to climb in and hold the controls. You can point out aircraft taking off and landing and proclaim “I can do that,” and offer to take them flying someday. These trips should continue until the child comes to you and says, “When will we go flying?”
  • Short Trips – Okay, so your child is interested in aviation – now what? Start by making short flights, less than half an hour to start. Make shallow climbs, turns, and descents. Show them your house from the air, or other familiar landmarks. Give them something to chew on (snacks or gum) during the descent to aid with ear clearing. Bring an older passenger (a sibling would be great) who can show his or her excitement, as this will help calm your new passenger. Make sure your child has adequate ear protection as well as a way to see out the window.
  • Longer Trips – By this point your children should love to fly! Now it’s time to make that big trip to the beach that you’ve been yearning to take. Here are a few tips: Don’t rush the kids to bed the night before; plan to depart early; and maybe skip breakfast. Your sleepy child may sleep through the first leg of the journey. Bring snacks for when they wake up.
  • Co-Pilot – Have an adult co-pilot or passenger to help manage the children. They can be distracting, and the pilot should not let his or her focus wander.

Now that we’ve covered how to make your children feel comfortable, what about the adults? Many adults are nervous about climbing into a GA aircraft that they know nothing about. There are many ways to help ease your passenger’s stress, the first of which is realizing that general aviation is often pilot-centric. We see things through a pilot’s eyes, and sometimes don’t realize what our passenger’s perception might be. Say for example you have a faulty fuel gauge that underestimates your remaining fuel. You should assure your passengers that you checked the fuel before the flight, and that you can keep track of how much is left with your watch. Even let them open the fuel cap and peer in to see the fuel. The look of your aircraft will also have a lot to do with how your passengers feel. Is it due for new paint? Is the interior messy? A quick clean up of the interior could make a big difference in their impression of the airworthiness of the small aircraft. Explain to your passengers that some bumps in flight are completely normal, and that the aircraft was designed to withstand them. Usually knowledge and understanding are the best cure for fearful passengers, so talk to them about what you are doing as it seems appropriate.

Seatbelts and Hearing Protection for Children

Though legal, there have been many instances when a child being held on a parents lap (restrained or unrestrained) has perished in an otherwise survivable crash. Studies have shown that the average adult cannot hold onto a child in forces of deceleration exceeding three g’s (three times the force of gravity). This is nothing compared to aircraft seats which are required to withstand nine g’s. So obviously a seat and seatbelt is the best option for safely securing your child. Parents may want to consider holding the child while en route, but properly restraining them during taxi, take-off, and landing. Restraining a child properly is just as important as restraining them at all. Make sure the seatbelt is drawn tight over their lap, in some cases this will require propping the child up on a pillow. Even with a pillow, children are more difficult to properly restrain than adults. One way to overcome this is to use an automobile approved CRS (Child Restraint System). Not all CRS’s will fit in the airplane snugly, so be sure to check that it is secure.

For a detailed article discussing how to properly secure children of different ages please read this article on child restraints.

It is common knowledge that many activities involve high levels of noise that can eventually lead to permanent hearing loss. Unfortunately, flying is one of those activities that may contribute to hearing loss if some form of protection is not used. The challenge, however, is finding a headset suitable for a child or infant. Some child headsets are available commercially, but are very costly. A cheaper alternative might be foam earplugs, or a homebuilt headset. For instructions on building a child’s headset for around $30 please see this detailed article.

Custodial and Visitation Flights

Information is available here to assist custodial and non-custodial parents in their efforts to take their child flying when the child is in their custody — over the objections of the other parent.

Flying While Pregnant

Flying under normal conditions during a normal pregnancy shouldn’t increase risk of miscarriage. However, pilots are required to ground themselves at the first indication of a complication. Aerobatic flying, however, may be different. The G forces encountered during aerobatic flight have an unknown effect on the developing fetus and on the risk of miscarriage. The rapid pressure changes associated with steep dives and climbs, likewise, have an unknown effect on the overall health of the pregnancy. Again, there is no conclusive evidence that flying aerobatics is a problem. There is also no evidence that it is not. Consider aerobatic flying the way you’d consider the warning sign outside every large roller coaster in the United States, and then decide for yourself.

One perceived risk for pregnancy loss is the lack of oxygen above 10,000 feet. Veteran gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Allan Shevach of Fort Myers, Florida, says, no way. “Studies have shown that the fetus already lives with an oxygen saturation level around 60 percent — about what you’d have if you were breathing the air on the top of Mount Everest. The lack of oxygen in an unpressurized airplane at altitude is far less of a worry to me than, say, the risk of a bladder infection from not voiding during a long cross-country flight or the risk of contracting phlebitis from sitting in one position for hours at a time,” he says.

Even though pregnancy itself is no reason to stop flying, there are plenty of moments during a pregnancy when your physical state may not be up to the challenges of being airborne. If you experience temporary severe fatigue, morning sickness, or hormone-induced emotional stress, then it is not a good time to be in the air as pilot in command. There is also, for some, the issue of size — you may find yourself too large to pull the yoke or control stick completely aft. Finally, if you have any medical problems during the pregnancy, including gestational diabetes, your medical certificate is no longer valid and you must legally ground yourself, no matter how competent you may feel about your ability to fly safely.

Flying with Pets

Taking your pet with you on a trip in a general aviation aircraft can be very rewarding, if done with due planning. Before hopping in the plane and taking off, there are many things that should be considered, for your pet’s safety and for the safety of those on board.

The first thing to think about before making travel plans for your pet is whether or not they will be welcome at your destination. If you will be staying at a hotel, be sure to call in advance to see if they allow pets. If you will be staying with friends or family, check to see if anyone has any allergies that may be aggravated by your pet. Will there be small children there? Finally you must make sure that there is somewhere for your pet to stay. If you have an indoor pet will your host allow your pet to stay inside their house? If you have an outdoor pet, is there adequate safe space for your pet to remain outside?

The age of your pet is also something to consider before flying. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates airline transportation of animals and requires that all pets be at least 8 weeks old and weaned at least 5 days prior to flying in order to be transported by air. That’s not a bad guideline for flying your pet in a general aviation aircraft. The temperament of your pet is another factor to consider before taking your pet flying with you. Basic obedience training is must before flying your pet. Also skittish, nervous, ill, or pregnant animals, or animals recovering from surgery or expected to come into heat during travel are best left behind.

Airlines require that any animal on board be confined to an animal carrier at all times. Although there are no such requirements for general aviation aircraft, it is always better to err on the side of safety and keep them in a carrier. An animal in a pet carrier cannot run away if it becomes frightened, cannot jump around inside the plane and distract the pilot, and cannot relieve itself or get sick on the upholstery or the floor of the aircraft.

If your pet experiences motion sickness in the car, then chances are it will be worse in a plane. Even if your pet doesn’t get sick in a car, it can still be affected from flying, especially if you own a dog. Cats very rarely show signs of motion sickness, dogs often do. There are some human drugs that can be given to your pet to help with motion sickness. The most common of these is Dramamine. Be sure to speak with your vet before giving your pet any medication, especially if they are on other medications. Your vet will also be able to tell you the proper dosage.

For those pilots who want to bring their pet with them outside of the U.S. there are a few special requirements that must be met. It is important to contact the foreign embassy of the country you will be traveling to and inquire about any special health requirements such as quarantine or vaccinations. Be sure to call several times and as close to your departure date as possible because regulations may be subject to change without notice. You can find information on customs requirements for international travel on AOPA’s Web site or by calling at 800/USA-AOPA.

More Than One Pilot

There are marriages that came about because of flying, and some that came apart. Some spouses are terrified of flying but fake interest, while others get the bug and become pilots. Some pilots ache for a spouse to fly with them and wonder how to entice them, while others are glad the spouse stays behind. AOPA Pilot compiled the results of a survey on flying together. The writers offer heartfelt advice and it’s all on the Web site for you to read.

A Pilot’s Influence on the Family

There are many reasons that motivate a person to learn to fly.

But one of the strongest influences comes from family members, especially a parent, according to research done for AOPA in the mid-1990s. Generational pilots--not Generation-X pilots, although they’re certainly represented here--tend to earn their pilot certificates at a younger age. Many solo on their sixteenth birthdays and pass the private pilot practical test on their seventeenth, the minimum ages established in the federal aviation regulations. This is something that should be encouraged, but not pressed onto our children. Flying and the surrounding studies form a great general foundation in math and science in young aviators. Read more online.

A Student Pilot in the Family

Being a student pilot is something that every pilot has been! While it may be fun and exciting for the student, we should remember how our training stories may impact the people we love. Often times a spouse or family member has an unexpressed fear of aviation. This is an important thing to consider if we want to have them as passengers sometime in the future. It might be wise to “tone down” our aviation stories around such company. Instead of saying, “And then the stall almost became a spin when I dropped the wing!” try, “I learned how to avoid and recover from stalls today.” This will help subdue, not encourage an individual’s aviation phobias. Also remember that your own self confidence will instill confidence in future passengers.

Additional Resources

Pinch-Hitter
Nonpilot flying companions can take this AOPA Air Safety Foundation course to learn more about the fundamentals of aircraft control and basic emergency procedures (approx. 45-60 minutes).

Let's all go!
Considerations when flying with the family
AOPA Pilot, November 2009

Flying Together: Couples in the Cockpit
Is the cockpit a bed of roses or a war zone?
AOPA Pilot, October 2006

All in the family
Relatives’ influence is strong when it comes to learning to fly
AOPA Flight Training, November 2005

Commentary: Continuing Ed
Through their eyes: Taking care of nervous passengers
AOPA Flight Training, September 2005

Proper Restraints: Keeping your child safe in a general aviation aircraft
AOPA Pilot, July 2005

Flying With Pets
November 2000

Flying For Two: Piloting While Pregnant
AOPA Flight Training, December 1999

Hearing Protection for Young Children
Sport Aviation, December 1995

Don’t Forget the Children!
FAA Aviation News, April 1994

Sky Kids: Preparing children for their first airplane rides
AOPA Flight Training, December 1990

Subject report: Custodial and Visitation Flights

Advisory Circular 91-62A "Use of Child Seats in Aircraft"

From the AOPA Archives

Family Trips

Accident Analysis: Realistic distractions
Tips for taking care of passengers
AOPA Flight Training, June 2005

Caution: Kids on Board
Flying family vacations can be memorable
AOPA Flight Training, July 1999

Instructor Report: One More Reason To Fly
Beating The Dumb Dads Club
AOPA Flight Training, August 1999

Pilotage: The Values of Flying
AOPA Flight Training, June 1997

Seat restraints

Letter of Interpretation: Seating of two persons under one safety belt
From Federal Aviation Decisions, Interpretation 1990-14

Flying While Pregnant

Flying While Pregnant: Is It Safe?
By AOPA’s Aviation Services Department
November 2000

Flying with Pets

Dogs and Flying
Articles on how to keep your faithful pal safe and comfortable in flight

Never Again: Dogged distraction
AOPA Pilot, May 2004

A Pilot’s Influence on Family

For love or flying
Homefront diplomacy can boost support for your piloting
AOPA Flight Training, August 2004

Selling Your Family on Flying
AOPA Flight Training, May 1999

Pilotage: The Values of Flying
AOPA Flight Training, June 1997

Commentary: Out Of The Pattern
Family Affair
AOPA Flight Training, October 1996

A Student Pilot in the Family

Born to Fly
But when should training start?
AOPA Flight Training, April 2004

Switching Seats: The Journey From Passenger To Student Pilot
AOPA Flight Training, August 2002

Getting Girls Interested In Aviation
A How-To Guide For Flight Schools, Teachers, And, Of Course, Parents
AOPA Flight Training, January 1997

Waypoints: Family affair
AOPA Pilot, November 1996