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AOPA Online Members Only -- Aviation Subject Report -- Traveling With Children and Family: Aircraft Safety RestraintsAOPA Online Members Only -- Aviation Subject Report -- Traveling With Children and Family: Aircraft Safety Restraints

Traveling With Children and Family

Aircraft Safety Restraints

Federal Aviation Administration
Aviation Safety Program
FAA-P-8740-45 AFS-810 (1996)


The purpose of this series of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Safety Program publications is to provide the aviation community with safety information that is informative, handy, and easy to review. Many of the publications in this series summarize material published in various FAA advisory circulars, handbooks, other publications, and various audiovisual products produced by the FAA and used in its Aviation Safety Program.

Some of the ideas and materials in this series were developed by the aviation industry FAA acknowledges the support of the aviation industry and its various trade and membership groups in the production of this series.

Comments regarding these publications should be directed to the National Aviation Safety Program Manager, Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service, General Aviation and Commercial Division, Aviation Safety Program Branch, AFS-810, 800 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20591.

A shoulder harness can save your life

A properly installed shoulder harness which is worn by an occupant is one of the most important safety devices in an aircraft because it can reduce the chance of injury in an accident. Experts say serious injuries and fatalities can be reduced by more than one-third if everyone would wear shoulder harnesses. When this pamphlet was first written, the following statistic was reported. "According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), ironically, only 23 percent of those involved in fatal and/or serious injury accidents in recent years had their shoulder harness secured." Now, according to the FAA Office of Accident Investigation, using NTSB accident statistics, of the 9,851 fatal or serious injury general aviation accidents reported from 1983 through the summer of 1995, the reports show 3,800 entries where shoulder harnesses were used. 2,783 reports said shoulder harnesses were not used. In 3,268 reports, the shoulder harness entry was blank. Without reviewing each accident report to determine if the make, model, and year of aircraft involved in the reports had shoulder harnesses installed, we do not know how many of the reported "no" entries or "blank" entries had harnesses installed in the aircraft. The good news is the use of shoulder harnesses has increased since this pamphlet was first written. This may be because more aircraft now have shoulder harnesses installed, or that more people are wearing them, or both. The ultimate safety goal would be for every passenger in every general aviation aircraft to wear a shoulder harness. We wear shoulder harnesses in our vehicles we use to drive to the airport, why not our aircraft?

Shoulder harnesses are standard equipment in the front seats of aircraft manufactured today. Aircraft manufacturers have been installing shoulder harnesses in FAA certificated aircraft since 1978. Since then, many aircraft owners have installed shoulder harnesses in aircraft manufactured before the rule became effective requiring installed shoulder harnesses.

Unfortunately, some pilots still treat installed shoulder harnesses as optional equipment. They choose not to use the aircraft's complete restraint system and the protection it offers in the event of an accident.

For those pilots who don't use shoulder harnesses, remember, anyone can have an accident, no matter how conscientious the pilot is. The problem is, at the speeds aircraft fly, if there is an accident, there is a much greater risk of serious injury to those not wearing shoulder harnesses than to those who are wearing them. Because of the risk of an incident or accident, even something as simple as a low speed taxi incident, it is important that every aircraft occupant be properly restrained within the aircraft. A properly worn shoulder harness can lessen a person's risk of serious or fatal head and chest injuries in an accident. Children require special care as outlined below.

FAR § 91.107

Pilots and passengers who choose not to wear installed shoulder harnesses need to be aware of FAR § 91.107 titled, Use of safety belts, shoulder harnesses, and child restraint systems. FAR § 91.107(a)(l) states in part that the pilot in command must ensure that each passenger on board is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten that person's safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness before taking off. FAR § 91.107(a)(2) requires the pilot to ensure that each person has been notified to fasten his or her safety belt and, if installed, his or her shoulder harness before any surface movement, take off and landing of any U.S. registered civil aircraft. Free balloons with a basket or gondola or airships type certificated before November 2, 1987, are excluded. FAR § 91.107(a)(3) then requires each person on board a U.S. registered civil aircraft requiring safety belts and, if installed shoulder harnesses, to occupy an approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness, properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing. The paragraph lists exceptions to the rule such as for seaplane docking and mooring.

FAR § 91.107 also discusses when a person may hold on his or her lap a child that has not reached two years of age; when skydivers may use the floor of an aircraft instead of a seat, although they are required to have a safety belt about them; and the rules for the use of approved child restraint systems; the shared responsibility between pilots in command and their passengers for proper use of safety belts and, if installed, shoulder harnesses; restraint requirements for special use applications; and approved child restraint systems.

If your aircraft is not equipped with shoulder harnesses, consider having them installed. They're one of the most cost-effective safety devices you can buy for your aircraft. Information on installing shoulder harnesses is in the current version of FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 43.13-2A, Acceptable Methods, Techniques and Practices, Aircraft Alterations, (6-9-77) with Change 1, (AFS-340). Other changes have been issued. This AC can be purchased through the Superintendent of Documents, PO. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. The Government Printing Office (GPO) stock number for the publication is SN 050-007-00625-0. The AC is also available through the various GPO bookstores nationwide.

Use of safety belts and shoulder harnesses

  • Preflight - Remember, the pilot in command is responsible for ensuring that each person on board is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten seat belts and, if installed, shoulder harnesses.
  • Before any surface movement, takeoff and landing - The pilot in command is responsible for ensuring that each passenger has been notified to fasten his or her safety belt and, if installed, shoulder harness.
  • Passenger responsibility - Passengers are responsible for occupying an approved seat or berth with a safety belt and, if installed, a shoulder harness properly secured about him or her during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing.
  • En Route - For safety, your passengers should keep their seat belts fastened. They can wear them loose if they prefer, but they should not unfasten them. If you encounter turbulence, inform your passengers to tighten their belts and wear their shoulder harnesses.
  • Flight crewmembers - FAR § 91.105, Flight crewmembers at stations, outlines the safety belt and shoulder harness rules for flight crewmembers.

Proper wearing of seat belts and shoulder harnesses

There is a right way and a wrong way to wear your safety belt and shoulder harness combination. Wear your safety belt as low as possible across your hips. Be sure it is tight enough to stay that way in case of an accident. If you loosen your safety belt during cruise, be sure to "cinch up" before approach and landing.

Single strap shoulder harnesses should be snug, but not tight, across your chest. While inertial reel belts should be snug, fixed belts should be adjusted so that you are able to fit your fist between the shoulder harness and your chest at the tightest point.

Don't forget the children!

FAR § 91.107(a)(3)(iii) goes into great detail on the proper use of child restraint systems in aircraft. The following information is from an article about child restraint systems that was published in the April 1994 issue of FAA Aviation News magazine. The article was written by Phyllis Anne Duncan, Editor, and John Wensel, an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector.

Just as with child restraint systems for your car, you should "customize" the car seat you use in your aircraft for the age of the child. The instructions provided with the seat on how to install it in a car are transferable to aircraft installation. The car seats can be installed without a mechanic, but before doing so, you might have your mechanic check the integrity of the seat belt itself and the security of its attachment points in the aircraft, especially if your aircraft is between inspection intervals.

Infant seats

Infant Seats -Birth to about 20 pounds. Advantage: Small and portable. Fits small newborn best. Disadvantage: Must be replaced by a convertible seat when outgrown. Protection for newborns should consist of an infant safety seat or a convertible seat in the infant position. Either of these seats cradles the baby in a semi-reclining position (because the baby cannot yet control its neck muscles to hold its own head upright), protects the infant with a harness, and is anchored with the safety belt. An infant seat must face the rear so that the strongest portion of the seat and the strongest portion of the baby-its back-can absorb the forces of the crash. By the time the child is about one year old and/or weighs at least 20 pounds he or she can ride in a forward-facing seat. When the child outgrows the weight limitation of an infant seat-usually when the child's head reaches the top of the car seat-you must replace it with a larger seat. A convertible seat can be changed to fit a toddler by following the manufacturer's instructions.

Convertible seats

Convertible Seats - Birth to about 40 Pounds. Advantage: Fits child from seven to eight pounds up to about 40 pounds. Disadvantage: Bulky, less portable than an infant seat. Convertible seats recline and face rearward for infants and can be changed to be front-facing and upright for toddlers. The manufacturer's directions explain how to convert a seat from one position to the other, how to use the tether (only on older seats), and how to reroute the lap belt through the seat in the toddler position. In addition, the instructions will explain when the child is big enough to require the toddler position. (Rather than age, this is usually a weight consideration.)

Forward-facing seats are for children who are over the weight limit for or who have outgrown infant-only seats. These seats can only be used in the forward-facing position. Some still have a five-point harness for the child, but other models use a shield system joined to the harness. It is important to secure the car seat with the vehicle lap belt exactly as recommended by the manufacturer.

Booster seats

Booster seats are intended for older children who have outgrown their conventional car seats but don't yet fit in a vehicle lap belt/shoulder harness configuration - usually over 40 pounds and over four years of age. Unfortunately, parents often move the child from the convertible seat to the booster seat before the child is of adequate size. A convertible seat with shoulder straps provides greater protection for children less than 40 pounds.

There are primarily two types of booster seats on the market today. The small shield booster distributes crash forces through the shield. It is attached using the vehicle lap belt, which passes in front of the shield or under the seating platform. The advantage of this type of booster seat is that it provides better protection than a lap belt alone. The disadvantage is that it gives less protection than a convertible seat or a belt-positioning booster seat.

The advantage of the belt-positioning booster seat is that it is designed to be used with lap/shoulder belts, and it is preferred to a shield booster when a lap/shoulder belt is available. The disadvantage is that it cannot be used with lap belts only unless the seat comes with a separate shield. The base of this booster raises the child so that the vehicle shoulder belt will fit correctly over the child's chest and guides the lap belt over the hips to prevent it from riding up over the abdomen.

Booster seats may be a necessary transition because even tightened to its utmost, a lap belt may still have enough slack for children to slip out of in an accident. Also, shoulder harnesses designed for adults usually cross a child's upper body at the head or throat placing the child in danger of strangulation or a broken neck when the inertial reel shoulder harness locks during impact.

Booster seats are not recommended for use in transport category aircraft whose seat backs are designed to break over easily. Seats in most general aviation aircraft operate like those in automobiles; i.e., they are locked in place and require operation of a release lever or button to allow them to move forward.

When children outgrow any child restraint system, they are big enough to use the aircraft seat belts safely. But again, you will have to check to see where the shoulder harness crosses their body to determine if they are large enough to use that.

Choosing the "best" seat

  • The "best" car seat for your child is one that fits your child's size and weight, fits in your aircraft, and can be used correctly on every ride.
  • Choose a seat that meets the requirements of FAR § 91.107.
  • Low- and high-priced models generally provide similar levels of protection. Higher prices may mean added convenience features, which make the seat easier to use.
  • If you get a used seat, check the labels to make sure the seat meets the requirements of FAR § 91.107, get all the instructions and parts, and make sure it has not been in an accident (car or aircraft).
  • Try out the seat in the aircraft, if possible. Release the buckles, adjust the harness, etc. (Note that seats displayed in stores may not be used correctly.)
  • Make sure the aircraft seat belt can be fastened easily through the belt path on the car seat.
  • Look for a seat with harnesses that are easy to adjust while the seat is in the aircraft Check where the harness adjustors are located in the forward and rear-facing position, and make sure you can reach them when the seat is installed.

Aircraft installation

Anyone who is planning to purchase a child car seat for use in a small airplane should be aware of two important factors. First, consider the size of the car seat, and be aware that some of the larger models may not fit through the door of the plane. And, once through the door, it may be difficult to maneuver a large restraint into the seat. Second, consider that automobile seats and restraints are different from aircraft equipment. Consequently, if the car seat doesn't fit easily in the available space or if the belts in the airplane don't securely tighten on the car seat, don't use it.

If the car seat you've selected does fit, there are a couple of precautions to consider when using it in your general aviation aircraft.

The child seat should be used only when it is placed in a forward-facing aircraft seat. All the crash testing done for automobiles and aircraft show that forward-facing seats are most effective in protecting children in car seats used in aircraft.

You should maintain the car seat in good condition, as per the manufacturer's instructions, and secure the seat as indicated by the manufacturer. The manufacturer must provide instructions for care, use, and installation with the car seat. All straps provided with the seat should be used. All instructions should be followed carefully. If not, the car seat will, at best, provide you with a false sense of security and, at worst, be a hazard to the child or other occupants of the aircraft.

The child seat should be attached with a lap belt or the lap belt portion of a combined seat belt/shoulder harness only. The shoulder harness can be used to help stabilize the car seat but should not be used to restrain the child unless you are using a belt-positioning booster seat.

Place the car seat where it does not interfere with the operation of the cockpit controls or block an exit. Although the seat can be placed anywhere, the preferred location is a rear passenger seat, when available, with another adult occupying an adjacent seat. One reason for this is structural; the other is operational. If a child occupies a car seat in a front seat of a general aviation aircraft, the protection the car seat offers could be nullified by the impact during a crash on the seat back of an adult occupant of a rear seat. This appears to be a problem more with small shield booster seats.

If you have to put the child seat in the front (a la a Cessna 152), before takeoff, check the controls for free and correct movement in all directions with the seat in place and occupied. You might even want to add a special emphasis item concerning this in your pretakeoff checklist. Also, the child should be in the seat at all times,, especially if there is no other adult to supervise the child. You do not want to be distracted from flying or from your traffic scan to put junior back in his or her child seat.

Weight and balance should not be a problem. The typical child restraint is generally no more than 20 pounds, but count it in your calculations anyway. It may mean you have to leave a piece of luggage home, but arriving at the end of your trip with the baby safe is better than bemoaning the clothes you couldn't bring.

What is an approved child seat?

We've used the term "approved" throughout this article, but what does that mean? FAA has approved car seats for use in aircraft only if they meet federal motor vehicle standards; i.e., if your car seat can be used in your car, you can use it in your airplane.

You can tell if the restraint is FAA-approved by checking it for the appropriate markings, usually one or more labels. A seat manufactured between January 1, 1981, and February 25, 1985, must have a label which says: "THIS CHILD RESTRAINT SYSTEM CONFORMS TO ALL APPLICABLE FEDERAL MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY STANDARDS."

Vest and harness-type child restraint systems manufactured before February 26, 1985, but bearing such a label are not approved for use in an aircraft.

Seats manufactured to U.S. standards on or after February 26, 1985, must have two labels-the one above and the following one in red lettering: "THIS RESTRAINT IS CERTIFIED FOR USE IN MOTOR VEHICLES AND AIRCRAFT."

Seats that do not have these labels must have a label showing approval by a foreign government or a label showing that it was manufactured under United Nations standards. If the car seat does not have any of these labels it cannot be used in an aircraft; specifically, seats manufactured before January 1, 1981, are not approved for use in aircraft.

Child safety summary

Child seats are certified by their manufacturers to meet federal safety standards when they are used as designed. Improper installation or use may reduce protection to the child. So, here are a couple of reminders in that regard.

  • Always anchor the seat with the lap belt exactly as specified by the manufacturer.
  • Always protect your child with either the car seat's harness or padded front shield-depending on the model. Some car seats have both, and, if so, both must be used.
  • Always adjust the harness around seasonal clothing, leaving an inch of room so the child can move. The strap ends must be doubled back through the buckles so that the harness will not pull apart.
  • Always use the tether if your seat or booster requires one. The tether must be attached to the aircraft to keep the child from being thrown forward. Consult your mechanic if installation of a tether requires attachment to the aircraft's structure.

By all means, take your children flying with you and introduce them to its joys and wonders. Just make it safe for them, too.

For additional information consult Advisory Circular (AC) 91-62A, Use of Child Seats in Aircraft. This AC is free from the U.S. Department of Transportation, M-433.2, General Services Section, Washington, DC 20590.

This article was prepared using information provided by the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute and DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Also our thanks to Deborah Davis Stewart and Safe Ride News for much invaluable information. Mr. Wensel is an Operations Inspector in the Operations Branch in FAA Headquarters.

Care of safety belts and shoulder harnesses

Safety belts and shoulder harnesses won't work if they're not in good condition. Frayed belts, twisted shoulder harnesses and worn buckles need to be checked and replaced if not airworthy. REMEMBER - In case of an accident, the best and cheapest protection is your safety belt and, if installed, your shoulder harness. Be smart ... use them! If your aircraft does not have shoulder harnesses, think about installing them. It may be the best investment you have ever made.

The Aviation Safety Program, Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service, 800 Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. 20591;; 202/267-7956.