Flying With Kids

Children can be the most cooperative, curious, and cheerful of airborne companions — I said they can be. On the other hand, if aerial introductions are done unwisely, they can also become most difficult, distracting, and very unhappy. Spousal issues are another consideration altogether, but when it comes to taking your kids (or those of anyone else) off into the wild blue, there are some things we must think about, first.

Tom Turner’s May 2002 article had some great advice about Kids and Airplanes, especially regarding airshows and the classroom, and his earlier Flying With Infants includes even more. I’d like to add some personal observations and minutiae to the preparation and actual flight (including one or two things that I could have accomplished more successfully, had I known better).

First off, one of the best ways to introduce anything new is: Start ’em out young. But be careful, because mistakes can set you back. I know. I brought my then-toddler son to the airport to sit in the pilot’s seat of old 3741V, the Cessna 150 that I was flying at the time. It was all tied down, neat and proper, and I opened the door, picked him up, and popped him up onto the right seat. He was enjoying his hands-on experience so much, I thought, “gee wouldn’t it be neat if I could let him hear what the engine sounded like?” (even if I racked up a whole tenth of a Hobbs hour). So I went through a quick pre-start checklist, and the engine roared to life.

Problem: It hadn’t occurred to me that the sound so friendly to my ears might not be so gentle to the tender ears of a two-year-old.

Result: Thanks to my profound oversight, that precious little boy screamed in absolute terror. Any hopes of his falling in love with airplanes were similarly flattened … for five years. True story.

DEFENSE In general, be careful when it comes to hearing. For those of you who plan to fly infants, babies, or even toddlers, there is one inexpensive and very easy way to protect their delicate ears.

  • Ear Plugs: Take a pair of those cylindrical foam earplugs that you can buy at almost any drug store for 50 cents, and cut one length-wise. The resulting pieces, rolled up and gently inserted about halfway into each ear canal, will do wonders.
  • Headsets (for little people) — such as the ones by Peltor — especially when used in conjunction with the previously mentioned earplug solution made for smaller folk. (We’ve been using our Peltor 7004’s with our kids since they were tiny; they’re now 12 and 14, and they still fit.)

In some kids, pressure equalization can be problematic, and infections frequent. Any tendencies towards ear troubles should be carefully watched; some kids are more prone to it than others. In some children, the Eustachian tube remains nearly horizontal for a longer time (unlike the more sloping configuration later in life), which can interfere with its proper function, and cause more infections. A pediatrician can often prescribe a decongestant, but be extra careful not to climb or descend too rapidly and be sensitive to how any child reacts to changes in altitude.

Tricks and tips for the long climb: The best thing to do is combine this segment of the flight profile with snacks, to keep the jaws moving; bottles for the babies, slightly older kids could have fruit. Bigger kids (and adults) often do well chewing gum to clear the ears.

And the potential side effects: For kids out of diapers who also have short-term bladders, go easy with the liquids. Another lesson we learned the hard way was on an IFR flight from our home airport in Maryland to an airport near my parents in northern New Jersey. The trouble began shortly after my wife had given our son a nice big glass of fruit juice (unbeknownst to me). We didn’t have a spare empty bottle of any kind aboard. (Little boys can get away with doing that, and in the company of others!) I remember well how, at 5,000 feet over Lancaster PA, I had to practically make an emergency descent to get him to a bathroom, and barely in time, at that.

First flights should be fun, and approached carefully. Start out with “cockpit familiarization” (minus any sudden sound effects), or stand by the fence to watch takeoffs and landings, or just talk. Play hard to get, let the enthusiasm build, and if it does, let the child come to you. When the big day comes, make sure it’s a friendly sky, with smooth air, and keep the flight under an hour. Fly high over familiar landmarks — but in today’s “heightened state of alert” make sure to avoid loitering … especially near a school or other “sensitive” areas.

Important: They’re not sitting as high up as you are, so be sure to use a cushion or booster seat (strapped in properly, as recommended by the manufacturer) to help them see out those windows! Your goal is to quit while they still want more! A celebratory post-flight photo makes for a great souvenir (read: propaganda item), by the way.

The next step up, of course, is a trip with a purpose … even if it’s to have fun. One of our first family flights was to Cumberland, in western Maryland, where we rode a steam train to Frostburg and back on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, and then visited the Transportation and Industrial Museum. If you want it to stay fun though, be sure to do some homework beforehand.

Danger: Obviously, it’s also your job to work out the timetables, and all those other travel logistics, so things flow smoothly — BUT don’t you dare let your schedule push you for these flights. The trip is a big deal; the safety of the flight is much bigger.

DETAILS, Details, details…

  • Kids under four: Don’t take them up without a second adult — especially under IFR or in high-traffic areas.
  • Bring books, pillows, and blankets, especially if leaving early in the evening, or if flight time and “nap time” overlap.

Strategy: Staying up late the night before can actually be an advantage during longer trips later on, if any certain someone might get a little grumpy (i.e., they’ll fall asleep, instead).

  • Drinks should be supplied — in moderation on long trips.
  • For IMC, enter with all the more forethought to turbulence and other workload challenges.
  • Stable and steady: Kids can pick up on emotions, and if something happens and you aren’t happy, they won’t be happy.
  • Sick sacks: Do *not* make too big a production of these. (If you’re a parent, you’ll know the signs and, of course, have them handy in case they’re needed.)
  • Involvement: After age four or so, depending on precocity (don’t all pilots have bright kids?) they can be made to feel part of the action by holding checklists, charts, etc.

BOTTOM LINE: Pick the right weather, expand their horizons gently, keep flights cozy and comfortable. Use flying to share confidence and enjoyment, not misgivings and frustration. Just as you wouldn’t rush important strategic decisions, don’t rush flying fever. And preflight (and fly) extra carefully; you have precious cargo!