Flying general aviation trips with young children—particularly children who aren’t yet old enough to express themselves clearly—takes extra planning to keep them safe and comfortable.
My husband and I are both pilots, and we’ve worked out a system for flying with our 3-year-old son and infant daughter. Here are a few tips that you might find helpful—many built from mistakes we’ve made.
Before taking your little ones on a long trip, try a few short flights to see how they handle being in the airplane, wearing infant or child headsets, etc. Most of the time, children quickly fall asleep with the hum and vibration of the engine, but other times they have needs you must address. It’s best to learn all of this over a few short flights. Also, use these lower-stress flights to take time to talk to your little ones about how the airplane works. I am amazed that our son can talk through the basics of starting the airplane. This can help your children feel more comfortable.
When you have young children, you travel with a lot of stuff, from pack and plays to bottle sanitizers and potty training seats. Before you go on a trip, gather everything you would take, weigh it all, and once you determine you would be within weight and balance, see if it all fits. You don’t want to be doing this for the first time when you are going on a trip and grandma and grandpa are eagerly awaiting their grandchildren’s arrival. I am amazed every time we fly the family on a trip that everything we pack in the back of our Toyota RAV4 fits in the baggage area of the Cessna 170B. While packing, note what is easy to fit in, what is difficult, and what could be packed differently. Once, I packed several things in plastic shopping bags thinking it would be easy for my husband to maneuver and stuff where needed when loading the airplane. It ended up being more of a hassle. Since then, I have packed all our clothes in travel bags and put all of those in one large duffle bag. It consolidates bags but is still flexible enough to load and reshape in the baggage area.
My husband and I are both pilots, and it’s difficult to do a thorough, undistracted preflight with young children running around. Loading the airplane takes exponentially longer. We’ve tried leaving our daughter in her car seat to play and we’ve tried having our toddler sweep the hangar, but bottom line, it goes better if I or my husband keeps the kids occupied in the car while the other preflights and loads the airplane. Typically, we feed our daughter and let our son pretend he is driving our car. It definitely takes the two of us working together, and it works best when one of us can give the other that undivided time and attention to safely preflight the airplane.
Light GA aircraft can be stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Keep in mind during the summer that children are usually hotter in their car seats, and they can’t regulate their body temperature as well as adults. Opening your windows allows plenty of airflow, but it might not always be the best option—my son doesn’t like the rush of air hitting his face during taxi and always requests the windows be closed. Check the air vents for the rear seat to make sure they are open and blowing on the children, pack some cooling rags for their heads or necks, and if they are old enough for a sippy cup, make sure they have water. In the winter, bring their favorite blankets for them to snuggle up in and ensure the air vents are turned off. (If you are flying in the winter with children, I also recommend a sensitive carbon monoxide detector—something better than the stick-on round dot that changes colors. Children will feel the effects of CO poisoning before you will, so it is important to have a good sensor. I use a ForeFlight Sentry ADS-B receiver with an electronic CO detector.)
If your child is old enough to wear an aviation youth headset with a mic and adjustable volume, check the volume level before each flight. My husband had set the volume to the lowest setting on our son’s David Clark H10-13Y aviation youth headset, but over multiple trips his headset volume had been turned all the way up. We noticed that our son started crying on a couple of short trips and didn’t want to wear his headset. This was unusual because he liked his headset and enjoyed going flying. During a trip from Ohio to Indiana to visit family, our son wouldn’t stop crying or fall asleep even though he looked exhausted. Nothing worked…I tried holding his hand, talking to him, and offering to sing (which was met by an emphatic “No!”). Finally, I noticed that he started crying anytime we talked or a radio communication came through. I turned on crew isolation on the radio and within minutes, our son fell asleep. Once we landed in Indiana, my husband checked the headset and learned the volume had been turned all the way up. Now, we check it before every flight—and we use crew isolate.
We like to feed our infant daughter right before going flying to help her sleep during the trip. This strategy has worked well most of the time. Twice we have had trouble if we didn’t get her burped completely and she became uncomfortable at altitude. The pilot not flying would remove her from her car seat, burp her, and hold her until she fell asleep again, which was usually soon after the burp. Our son loves to snack, whether in the car or airplane, so we have safe foods like crackers on hand for him.
If both of you are pilots, this is a necessity. My husband and I typically divide duties, with one flying and the other handling the radios. But, when flying with kids, we have determined that one pilot handles it all (unless both kids are asleep and then the other helps with radios) and the other focuses on the children. If the pilot flying turns around to check on the kids, we inevitably get off altitude and heading. That’s not good when flying VFR but could be very serious if flying IFR. Sometimes, our infant needs to be pulled out of her car seat and attended to. It’s best to leave that to the other pilot/parent while the pilot flying focuses on aviating, navigating, and communicating.
We learn something new each trip and add it to our pilot/parenting checklist for making flying more comfortable and enjoyable for our children. I’m sure many of you have tips and tricks beyond these that are helpful for you. I’d appreciate your sage advice, and if I get enough, I’ll share your recommendations in a future article.