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.
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.
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.
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!