Small Children in Small Airplanes


Advice on taking your little ones flying…

In the past couple months I have been asked several times what I thought about taking small children flying.  I thought I would share my thoughts on the topic for those of you parents and grand-parents itching to take little ones flying.

First, let’s recognize that small children don’t communicate like adults; they cannot tell us that their ears hurt, and we won’t be able to teach them ways to equalize the pressure until they’re much older.  They also may not understand what’s going on and this might be scary.  That means, as the pilots we have a greater degree of responsibility then we would have if we were flying with an older passenger.  If, however we do some good planning and prevent problems we can make the experience a positive one.

Is the child fit to fly this flight?

Just as we would pre-flight our own physical condition prior to flight, we also need to pre-flight the condition of our young passengers.  The two greatest risks of discomfort and damage for small children are sinus and ear blocks.  This means we need to be acutely aware of their health, and we may even need to visit the pediatrician the day before our flight to verify their ears are clear.  Generally speaking, sick children should just not be flying.

Another important physiological consideration is the altitudes you plan to fly. Newborns and children that have had a history of respiratory problems, or recent respiratory sickness shouldn’t be taken to altitudes of more than several thousand feet above that which they live. 

Am I fit to fly this flight?

Above and beyond the normal considerations you would take into account before flying, you should also ask yourself one additional important question. If this child becomes a distraction, will I still be capable of operating this aircraft without any problems?  If the answer is no then you might want to consider taking a CFI or other pilot with you on this first flight.  If your child or grandchild becomes a distraction then you’ll be able to devote your attention to them, and there will still be a competent pilot at the controls capable of bringing the aircraft home without incident.

Preparing for Flight

Every flight involves some degree preparation; a flight with a small child involves a little extra.  Before the flight you’ll need to how well the safety restraint system is going to work for your small passenger.  Some aircraft seat belts will work fine for the child without using a car seat.  For example, a Katana DA-20 has a seatbelt and shoulder straps that can be tightened up and works well for a small child.  The problem is however that most children won’t be able to see out the window. 

That’s where the car seat comes in.  I’m personally a big fan of using the car seat in the airplane.  I believe a car seat adds an additional level of crash protection, as well as provides the passenger with an elevated view that allows them to see out the windows.  Above and beyond these benefits, the car seat if familiar to the child and provides a system of working seatbelts ideal for their size and shape.

If you do choose to use a car seat then you’ll need to strap it into the aircraft just as you would strap it into a car.  You’ll also need to verify the car seat (with the child in it) doesn’t cause interference with the flight controls.  In the case of the DA-20 Katana, a car seat will usually prevent the control stick from moving to the full back position.  This could cause a real problem during landing.  Piper Cherokee Variants and Cessna 172 & 182’s are examples of an excellent aircraft to use a car seat in because the seat can be moved towards the rear and out of the way of the flight controls.

Before you go flying you’ll need to consider ear protection and clothing for your little passenger.  The goal is to provide some form of ear protection; there are several strategies to accomplish this including headsets, ear plugs, or cotton.  Many aviation head sets will adjust down to a size suitable for a little person.  Otherwise, pilot shops such as Sporty’s provide junior sized aviation headsets, some even have ANR.  If you decide to go the headset route then you may want to have the child ride around in the car for a couple days wearing the headset to get used to it. 

If you decide to go the route of earplugs or cotton balls then you may still have to try it several times before the flight to make sure they’ll keep it in their ears.  If the child is very young then the cotton balls or ear plugs may be the only workable option.  A good way to keep the cotton or ear plugs in place is to use a stocking cap.

If the child is over 16 months then the best route is definitely the headset.  The advantage of the headset is that you’ll be able to interact and communicate with your child without having to yell.  This is important because the flight may be a little scary for them to begin with, if your son or daughter sees you yelling at them the scary flight may become terrifying.  To them it didn’t matter that you were yelling about them flying over the park.  On the other hand, if they see you smiling and talking in a normal tone through their headset, the scariness of the flight will soon go away.  After some time they will also realize they can talk back to you through the microphone.  Depending upon how talkative your child is you may want to unplug their microphone prior to take-off and landing to ensure you can hear and communicate with ATC.

Proper clothing is another area not to overlook.  Long pants and long sleeve cotton garments are best are best for flying.  This is because they provide added protection against burns in the event of a crash.  Also consider the temps at altitude, unlike an older passenger who will just take off a layer or add a layer depending upon the temperature, a small child strapped into a car seat doesn’t have this option.  You’ll want to dress them according to the temps you expect to encounter, and run the heat if necessary.

Depending upon the weather, altitude, and duration of flight, sunscreen may be advised.  You may also want to bring along some sunglasses.  If the flight is of some duration then consider bringing snacks, beverages, and maybe even some toys.

Flying the flight…

The first rule of flying with small children is the same as the first rule of flying without small children.  The first rule is FLY THE AIRPLANE!  If the kid is screaming, crying, scared to death and throwing a fit right after takeoff, that’s too bad.  You’ll need to keep your head together and focus on the task of flying the aircraft. The well being of both of you depends upon you flying the plane.  If necessary, you may have to unplugging their microphone.

On the first flight be careful to not bite off more than you can chew.  Since it is the child’s first flight then you’ll want to be ready for any response from them.  The best idea is to stay close to the airport, then come back and do a couple touch and gos.  After a couple of these short flights try something grander.  If you do have a situation where you need to immediately turn back then call ATC and explain the situation, they’ll understand.

As you conduct the flight don’t forget about the special physiological needs of your little passenger.  Keep the climbs and descents subtle, 500 fpm or less to prevent ear and sinus blocks.  When you climb and descend you may want to have the child drink something.  The swallowing action will help release trapped gasses in the eustation tubes and will help keep the inner ear equalized.  You don’t want to kill any brain cells.  If you do venture to high altitude in an un-pressurized cabin put the child on oxygen.  If they refuse to keep it on then fly a lower altitude unless there’s a reason not to.

Logging the Hours…

If you’re a CFI, then don’t forget to get a logbook for your child and start logging those hours.  Later in life if he or she decides to become a commercial pilot they’ll already have the hours that will count towards the 250 for commercial or a portion of the 1500 for an ATP.

Remember to have fun…

Flying is a rich and rewarding experience for children.  At first they may not understand what they are seeing or doing, but as time goes on and they fly more they’ll understand. As you fly, talk to your child, and smile.  If they look at you and hear you and see that everything is ok then they’re more likely to think everything is ok also.