Practical tips for family flying – how to keep everyone happy

Three hours en route, three little children and three (hundred) hours experience

If you are a flying family, or want to be one, you will quickly realize that there is very little information online about flying with kids. I can tell you how much flying with your family is great, amazing, rewarding etc., but you probably don’t need too much convincing – you need the HOW. So here is my HOW.

The mission (should you choose to accept it) is San Diego to San Francisco. Google clocks it at a seven-hour drive. Looks like the guys at Google don’t have little kids. Add 20% on top of that for food, drinks, gas and #1s and #2s, and no, they don’t necessarily go together. My kids’ mission is to visit every gas station and restroom along the route – fun!

After tinkering with my WingX app, I figured three hours for the flight, including climb, and no, we don’t climb to 4,500 ft like normal people. We need to be at 8,500 because my darling wife is allergic to bumps and turbulence – “Wilco, honey.” Up we go.

Cherokee Six
The Cherokee Six may be the perfect aerial minivan.

The airplane, a Piper PA32, Cherokee Six, is by far the best travel accommodation for a family of five with luggage. In an earlier post, I debated if I should go with the Bonanza or the Six, and I am happy to report that the Six was a great choice. Why? Because a seven-day trip with three children and two adults yielded over 100 lbs of clothing luggage, 50 lbs of “stuff” (iPads, water, in flight snacks, etc.) and other things you don’t think about when you drive, like two full sets of Costco-size diaper boxes, and yes, my little one knows how to eat!

Now for the practical advice.

On the weekend before the trip I went to the airport and prepared everything for the flight. I got my tanks filled up, added oil, and pumped the tires. The goal here is to make it as close to a car trip as possible, because that is how non-aviation people get comfortable. When they see you popping up the “hood” and start tinkering with oil and funnels before they get into that death machine, they freak out.

Next, I stole the extra two car seats from the other car and installed them in the airplane. Without anyone waiting on you, or kids driving you crazy, it’s much easier to do a good job putting these ginormous seats into the airplane. Same goes with headsets. I plugged them in and made sure the AUX cables are ready for the iPads that will show up with the kids in a few days. So rule number one: prep your airplane ahead of time. Remember, think car trip.

Next, I ran different scenarios on what can go wrong (not with the airplane, but rather with the passengers), with the little one at two years old, the sandwich child at five years of age and the older at eight, I know that the babies will have issues with headsets. They are simply too big and keep falling off their heads. After reading online, I went on Amazon and bought kid-size headsets from PilotUSA (pink ones of course!) and that solved the five-year old issue. Make sure you buy the one with the AUX hookup! For the baby, I got basic ear muffs from the hardware store — works like a charm and will not slip.

Another scenario that kept coming up for a three-hour nonstop flight was #1 and #2s. For adults, we can get away with #1 and we can hold #2, but not a five-year old or an eight-year old. I looked and I looked and for the life of me I could not find anything online that talked about a solution to this problem. Finally, I figured it out. I went on Amazon and bought a small $70 portable toilet, which is used primarily for camping.

Potty in Cherokee Six
Elegant? No. But it’s essential to a happy flying family.

Once it came in the mail, I used heavy tape to make sure the built in latches were not going to die on me during flight. I then took one seat out of the plane and secured the toilet with a seatbelt. The result? Let’s just say that I have pictures of everyone (yes Honey, everyone!) using it at 9,000 feet. It was a great success with no spills or issues. If you have the space for it, take it with you. It makes a huge difference with kids (and adults) and reduces the wife’s worries of “What will we do if they HAVE TO GO?” Remember, our function here is to eliminate obstacles.

As for the rules and regulations, I asked around and was told that as long as the item (aka potty) is handled like any other piece of luggage, or a big “bottle” of water, and that everyone on board has an FAA-approved seat with an FAA-approved seatbelt (meaning no one used the potty as their primary seat), and that everyone was sitting in their FAA seat, buckled in on takeoffs and landings (rules, rules rules!), there should be no problem. So please remember: if you don’t have the space, don’t even consider it. My Cherokee has six seats and a lot of useful load, so that was a non-issue for me.

Flight planning is the last piece of the puzzle, and the biggest issue here is my wife. She is not an aviation buff. She doesn’t like flying that much, and she will trade an airplane ride with a car any day, but not when the difference is six full hours in the car. So there was no question if we should fly or drive, but there was the regular anxiety about going up in the air. For that reason, I have spent a good amount of time doing my flight planning. With full fuel, the Cherokee gives me five hours of cruise plus 45 minutes reserve. With a three-hour flight planned, I was well within my comfort zone of diverting to make the flight more comfortable.

To start, I decided not to deal with LAX transitions and simply go the back way (via French Valley and Chino). It is much quieter on the radio for the first hour of the flight, not to mention more likely to have VFR weather inland than along the coast. Another consideration is heat and bumps. As a VFR pilot, departing MYF (San Diego) early in the morning to avoid all this heat buildup is usually not an option. It will be overcast until noon and blue skies by 1pm, so flying above high terrain in the afternoon is going to be bumpy. The only option you have is to climb high and stay above flat land as much as you can, and that is what I did.

Using the app, I kept plugging in different routes and VORs until the highest point in my route went from 7,000 down to 5,000, so at 8,500 we should be well above it and more likely to have a smoother ride. Zooming in on your route and looking for mountains takes time, but with an iPad it’s easy and it is well worth it. So the next rule to remember is when it comes to passenger comfort, shortest is not necessarily better. What we pilots call “small bumps” can freak passengers out; they would rather be in smooth air for that extra 10 minutes rather than arrive early. Trust me.

Family flying trip
With a little preparation and some careful flying, family airplane trips can be a lot of fun.

And while on the subject of bumps, one thing that helps a lot is to let your passengers know what is coming. When you see that mountain up in the distance and the airplane’s cabin is currently silky smooth, start saying that, “We will probably have some bumps in a few minutes so just sit comfortably in your seat and put your seatbelt on, tuck in all of your water and food into the backpack and zip it closed, and if you need to hold on to something, hold on to your OWN seatbelt.” In reality, they expect Armageddon to show up, and when light to moderate turbulence occurs, they take it like champs. It’s all about setting up expectations.

Other things that you may want to have with you onboard (and close by) are baby wipes, batteries (most headsets runs on batteries these days), a dry snack, a bottle of water, a large zip-lock bag with a few diapers tucked in it (give it a minute… it will come to you…), and I even got motion sickness pills and that sea-band thingy for my wife, which I am happy to report she didn’t need.

On takeoff day everything was ready to go, and within 15 minutes everything was loaded up, and while my wife was fastening the girls in their car seats, I did my pre-flight. We were in the air shortly after, and at 8,500 feet it was a very smooth ride all the way to KRHV. Note to self: Next time you plan on landing at Reid-Hillview remember, the big ass runways in the distance, that’s NOT YOURS! That’s San Jose. You are going to use the little one on the bottom right. Check! Thank you Reid tower for saving me from myself.

Once on the ground, we called up two Uber cars that showed up 10 minutes later and took us to our friend’s house, where we had an amazing week in Los Gatos (Thanks Tamir and Shira!). On the way back, we spontaneously decided to stop at SMO (long live SMO People!) and had lunch with Grandma and Grandpa. How awesome is that?

To summarize, this was the trip that checked my “family flying” box. It was everything I wanted it to be: it was easy, it was fun, it made sense, and, with careful planning, it was stress-free and enjoyable to me and my family. Mission accomplished!

16 Comments

  • Liad, you are a wise and thoughtful guy. Keep that up, and you may find some real aviation enthusiasts in your brood.

  • Thanks, Liad, for writing this. Understanding your passengers needs as compared to what they will experience in your airplane is the key to pre-flight planning as you did so well.

    Some of what you write will not be applicable to most of us, since most of us light aircraft pilots have only 2 or 4 seats, and thus do not have the roomy Cherokee Six to which the porta potty can be added as you did.

    But that can be overcome by planning shorter legs

    I am not sure why there is so much emphasis by so many pilots on minimizing enroute stops, particularly when carrying non-aviation-enthusiast passengers. For me, I like landing at new airports, particularly the typical rural, small town, or suburban airports one will otherwise just fly over. Kids like it too … for some of the smaller ones, in fact, visiting new and different bathrooms is itself an adventure 🙂

    And periodic landings break up the trip and reduce boredom, an ever-present risk for any young children on a trip.

    So you really don’t need the porta potty if you make a stop every hour and a half … or if you have very young children with bladders the size of an acorn, you can hop scotch your way with stops every hour or so.

    Heck, researching, finding, and landing at new airports is half the fun of flying, in my opinion. Just cruising along up high for hours at a time can be pretty boring, actually, for both pilots and passengers.

    Besides, you never know what you’ll discover at an airport you’ve never visited before .. maybe a great restaurant, or meet some interesting people, or see a very interesting aircraft on the ramp … or stimulate your desire to return there another time to explore the environs. I love small airports!

    • Hi Duane, and thank you for your great comment.

      For people like my beautiful wife, stopping means yet another bumpy landing that she will happily avoid is all possible. Other issues very from taking the kids IN and OUT of their car seats,not as easy as it sounds, and there is always the spinning propellers lurking around my kids heads.. one of my biggest (personal) fears.

      If its just me and a friend flying, then I am with you, we will stop everywhere we can, but when you are utilizing the plane for travel, and the main function is to get somewhere faster, direct, if possible, is the way to go.

      • Liad,

        You know your spouse so of course I can’t disagree with her dislike of bumpy low level approaches to landings.

        As a curiosity though, I don’t understand your concern over the danger from spinning props. That should never be an issue as long as you always stop the engine when deplaning passengers. Which you should always do.

        There is almost never a good reason (despite hot starts) to keep the engine going when debarking or embarking passengers, and presumably the PIC is going to debark himself/herself on a family pit stop, so of course you wouldn’t leave the engine running without a PIC at the controls.

        In my 30 some years of flying, there were only two instances in which I’ve left the engine running while a passenger debarked, and both times it was at the specific request of a “professional” passenger … in the first instance it was my primary flight training CFI, after OKing me to fly my first solo, and the other was my mechanic after doing a test ride with me, just before I took off on a 1,500 mile cross country journey).

        It’s just bad business to leave the prop turning with passengers getting on or off the plane.

        • I think the issue here is having your two year old run off from you while helping the 5 year old out of the plane. The spinning props would be those of the other airplanes taxing around the ramp.

  • Liadi, we had a GREAT time flying with you this week!

    Any concerns we had quickly disappeared once we were in the air, taking in the breathtaking views.

    Thanks for being so well-prepared, and for the incredibly smooth landing.

    It made the experience for us and for our girls a super fun one! The girls keep asking when they can fly with you again… 🙂

  • Hi Liad,

    Knowing now how thoughtful you were in preparing to visit us, and the execution excellence in this military grade operation, I have new appreciation of our relationship…

    And yes, I agree with Shira – you are a great pilot. I had my doubts taking off in your one engine plane. All my doubts went away very quickly. Thanks so much for the amazing experience.

  • Tamir and Shira, thank u for the lovely comments.
    It is always a joy to take people on thier first small-plane ride. I am especially privileged to take Mia on her first ever flight in an airplane. Hopefully Tamir will start getting some lessons so u guys can come visit us in San Diego more often :/)

  • Duane, Nick is correct, I meant other airplanes taxing around while the kids are only steps away from the yellow lines. I never ever load or unload passengers with the prop running. Complete shutdown and keys out and on the dash before the first door ever opens.

    • Liad – That’s not a persuasive argument to minimize stops on family trips. If it were, then the risk cited would mean you’d never take young children on any GA flights at all. Like any other activity in life, very young children require constant adult supervision, in the home, on the street, in the backyard, in the store, and inside the airplane.

      And to my original point, very few of us own or fly large 6-place airplanes like yours that can accommodate a porta-potty. For the other 95% of us, more frequent stops is the only alternative to dressing them in pull-ups.

  • Fantastic writeup. Why havent I ever thought of making it as much like a car ride as possible? Silly me. And now I want a Six. 😉

  • I now have three kids and upgraded to a Six a few years ago. We do lots of regional weekend trips throughout the year, plus fly one long cross-country for a vacation trip. They are always great family adventures.

    Going out to he hangar the day before is a must. It lets you check everything, set-up the cabin and car seats, plus take out some of the baggage beforehand. I’d also recommend a soft sided cooler for drinks and snacks. Having portable electronics comes in really handy, especially waiting out weather in an FBO.

    One thing I try and enforce is an airline-style “one checked bag and one carry-on policy”. For my son it’s no problem. He’ll pack just a toothbrush and spare hat for a week long trip if you let him. My girls on the other hand, not so much. Next trip I plan on charging bag fees.

    I always try to set the expectation that there are no expectations. Meaning we will go when we can go, weather permitting, and we’ll get there when we get there. We may need to stop along the way or we may fly straight through (if we have a good tailwind).

  • No doubt about it you did an excellent job! Now your challenge will be to maintain the standard that you set.

    I’m not in the habit of giving advise but here are three suggestions. Train on a regular basis, learn everything you can about the weather, and get an instrument rating.

  • Steven, Doug, thank you both.

    Steven, my kids are still young so there is no much fighting over what to pack, but with two girls of my own, I know it’s coming. Will use ur airline advice.

    Doug, I am currently working on my instrument ticket, which I hope to finish this year. After I had to cancle a family trip because local clouds, I felt it was time to take it on.

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