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AOPA Online Members Only -- Aviation Subject Report -- Traveling With Children and Family: Don't Forget the Children!AOPA Online Members Only -- Aviation Subject Report -- Traveling With Children and Family: Don't Forget the Children!

Traveling With Children and Family

Don't Forget the Children!

By Phyllis Anne Duncan and John M. Wensel
FAA Aviation News, April 1994

When I was a child of three or four, my father would let me drive the car. I sat on his lap, able to see only the speedometer, so I couldn't see that he was really driving. Neither of us knew it then, but each time he let me do that, he was putting my life in danger in the event of an accident. (Actually, we're talking about a 1956 Pontiac, a tank-like vehicle that most cars on the road today wouldn't scratch.)

Every state now requires that children younger than a particular age or smaller than a particular weight to be buckled in an approved car seat ("child restraint" sounds like we are torturing them) which is in turn fastened in the car by a conventional seat belt.

Before these requirements became widespread, thousands of small children every year died needlessly in sometimes minor automobile accidents when impact made them human projectiles. My brother had a brief business venture as a tow-truck operator. One of his contracts was with the county police back home to tow away wrecked cars. The imprints of tiny heads in windshields switched him to the repair side of the business. I now cringe whenever I see a child standing between its parents in a moving car, unmindful that I literally traveled hundreds of miles as a kid in the bed of a pick-up truck or on the hitch of a tractor-before I knew better.

Changing Times

A few years ago I had taken a student on his first cross country flight to Charlottesville, VA. As we were walking toward the FBO, a young man and a little girl no more than three left the FBO and headed toward a Cessna 172 where the man proceeded to place his daughter in a car seat strapped in the cockpit.

"Copilot?" I called out.

"Since she was two days old," he replied.

A minivan with car seat (now built in) has become the symbol of family travel on the roads in the last decade. In the 1950's small plane manufacturers displayed many an ad showing families flying off for some recreation in the family plane. This is the ideal aspect of recreational flying-being able to provide quick, reliable transportation for yourself and your family. In the 1990s why not a general aviation aircraft with car seat? Nowadays you wouldn't think of driving anywhere without securing your children in their car seats. Why not the same philosophy for your aircraft?

That little piece of added equipment-the child's car seat-is probably a very good idea to use in a general aviation aircraft. Many minor automobile accidents turn tragic when a child not restrained in an approved seat or seat belt is injured or killed by bouncing around the car's interior like some horrific pinball. An otherwise survivable aircraft incident can become just as tragic for the same reasons.

Over the years changes in aircraft design and FAA requirements for seat belts and shoulder harnesses have greatly increased safety for adult occupants in small aircraft. Pilots should insist that small aircraft be equipped with crashworthy seats and restraints which meet the requirements in FAR § 23.562.

Some Accident History

Two years ago, a general aviation airplane carrying two adults and two children entered an uncontrolled descent and crashed. Parts of both wings and both horizontal stabilizers separated before the aircraft struck the ground. The impact involved high vertical and side loads, and the adult in the copilot's seat received fatal injuries. However, the adult in the pilot's seat survived as did a four year old boy and a 10-month old girl both of whom happened to be secured in their child restraint systems in the rear bench seat. The NTSB attributed their survival to their restraint systems. The 10-month old's car seat provided upper body restraint, and the four-year old's mini-shield child safety booster seat (with a crotch strap) provided him extra protection that he might not have had in an adult-sized safety belt. All three survivors sustained serious injuries in a crash where NTSB estimates the occupants sustained between 20 and 40 Gs during the impact sequence.

Another accident five years ago also shows the benefits of using approved child restraint systems. During a forced landing attempt, an airplane crashed at the bottom of a canyon on a 60-degree slope just short of a sandy beach. Both front seat occupants sustained serious back and head injuries. The rear seats were in a club seating configuration, and two adults occupied the rear-facing seats. One of these adults sustained back injuries, and the other had fractured ribs. Two children-a two-year old and a six-month old-were in their restraint systems in the forward facing seats and were not injured.

NTSB has also investigated general aviation accidents where children were held on an adult's lap and/or restrained by the adult's safety belt. In each case these actions contributed to or caused fatal injuries in the children.

Three years ago, an airplane crashed in a rural area. The two pilots and one passenger were killed, and two passengers sustained serious injuries. One of the surviving passengers was holding her 17-month old daughter on her lap with the single safety belt around them both. The mother survived, but her daughter died of safety-belt induced internal injuries and crushing to the base of the skull.

Seven years ago an airplane stalled after takeoff and struck the ground in a nose-low attitude. The two front seat occupants were fatally injured. The occupant space at the rear seat remained relatively intact; however, an adult passenger and her three-year old son were killed. The child was in his mother's lap sharing her safety belt — in non-compliance with FAR § 91.107(a)(3)(i). The child suffered a crushed skull and serious internal injuries likely exacerbated by the weight of the adult on whose lap he was sitting.

What the Regulations Say

FAR § 91.107 requires that the pilot not take off until each person on board is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten his or her seat belt, that the pilot ensures that each person has been notified to fasten his or her seat belt, and that each person must occupy an approved seat or berth with a seat belt fastened around him or herself (and shoulder harnesses, if installed). (Free balloons with a gondola or basket are excepted.)

The rule goes on to say that notwithstanding the above, a person may (emphasis added):

  • Be held by an adult who is occupying a seat or berth if that person has not reached his or her second birthday.
  • Use the floor of the aircraft as a seat when sport parachuting.
  • Occupy an approved child restraint system.

Since we're not dealing with parachuting here, we're going to leave that out of our discussion. Let's consider the ramifications of that first option. Remember, the regulation says, "a person may" not a person must.

You can hold a child under two years old on your lap provided you are occupying an approved seat or berth with your seat belt (and shoulder harness, if installed) fastened about you (only you; not you and the child).

Have you seen the commercial on TV where a man is holding a perfectly adorable 20-pound child on his lap? The voiceover announcer says something to the effect of, "So you think you could hold onto your child in a car accident." The announcer explains that with the deceleration forces in a typical car accident, a 20-pound child reacts with the moving force of 400 pounds (about 20 g's). The commercial switches to the father trying to hold a Sumo wrestler on his lap-an amusing but very accurate analogy for what would happen in any kind of accident.

Some people may believe-erroneously-that if they fasten the seat belt around themselves and the child they have secured them both. The two accident examples cited above show that the opposite is true. A few models of older aircraft (Cessna 190, Beech Travelaire) equipped with rear bench seats had one long safety belt for the occupants of the bench seat. The belt was designed, built, and installed to secure two to three adults seated side by side. Placing more than the allowed weight limit (usually placarded or provided in operating information) within the belt could cause failure, and placing a child in the large seat belt alone would leave too much slack. With another child or adult in the same belt could also leave slack or, worse, cause the individuals to slam together on impact.

As for securing a seat belt around an adult holding a child in his or her lap, Newton's Third Law of Motion is implacable: Once an object is in motion, it remains in motion until a force acts upon it. When an aircraft experiences the rapid deceleration of a crash, its occupants continue in motion-that's why we have seat belts and shoulder harnesses. However, put another body between yourself and the seat belt or shoulder harness, and what you end up doing is crushing that body between yourself and the strong restraining force of the aircraft's seat belt/shoulder harness. The FAR do not allow this, and common sense says to either put the child in a seat belt if he or she is old enough or weighs enough (over about 40 pounds) or place him or her in an approved child car seat.

Flying your own general aviation aircraft means you don't have to worry about buying an extra seat from the airline for the baby-as you would have to do when using your car seat on board an airliner-but you should be giving some thought to how you're going to keep the child safe in the aircraft. It's easy. Take the car seat out of the car and put it in the airplane. Using an approved car seat for your child when you take him or her flying is more part of your parental responsibilities than your pilot in command responsibilities.

Types of Child Restraint Systems

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
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
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 airline type 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 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 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 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 during 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 airline type 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.

In the Aircraft

Anyone who is planning to purchase a child car seat for use in a small airplane should be aware of two important actors. 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 the front of a general aviation aircraft, the protection the car seat offers could be nullified by the impact of an adult passenger in a rear seat without a shoulder harness striking the front seat back. 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.

Approved Child Seats?

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:


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.

Remember ...

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.