The coolest thing that I ever did ever since I earned my wings was to fly with my son.
In this blog post, I wanted to share the experience, the preparation and how it went in the hope that others who find themselves in my shoes will be able to relate and contribute. As a caveat, I am still learning so feel free to share things that could have been done differently or improved upon.
On November 5, 2019, I finally took my son flying with me for the very first time and enjoyed some amazing father son time over the skies of Northern Virginia and West Virginia. We landed back at Leesburg and did not make a landing anywhere else. My son had a lot of fun enjoying the sights, while I learnt a lot about safety considerations and how to handle an excited kid in an airplane while focusing on the primary task of a pilot, to #flytheplane!
The one thing I wanted to do once I had solo'd a plane was to take my #preciouscargo flying with me. I am pretty conservative in my outlook from my years riding motorcycles and am very conscious of not being distracted at critical moments. Needless to say, my son was pretty excited at me getting my license and wanted to fly with me as soon as I was ready to take him up. It was hard saying "no" to him but I did on several occassions over several months saying I would take him up once I felt comfortable doing so.
Every flight to me personally is learning about the human-machine interface (as also with Motorcycles after about 2 decades) and professionally I like to explore risk mitigation strategies (that's what I do for work in a sense). In the following few sections, I am transposing my thoughts and notes from the flight into a sequence of actions that I consciously took to make the flight with my #preciouscargo enjoyable and more importantly "Safe".
I think about everything as a project that has processes, activities and risk and have organized the rest of this post along those lines.
A note about Children:
Am sure everyone has a lot of experience in this space from dealing with their own kids, nieces, nephews, grand kids etc., so I will keep this brief:
1. Every kid is different, so do not assume anything.
2. Any kid (including my own) may exhibit very different behavior when excited, scared or anxious. And, oh, btw, Kid's love to talk (more about that later)!
3. Kids do not scare easy and are not always aware of risks and the need for safety. Kids will surprise you with how strong they are and you do not want to find that out during a critical phase of flight. As the adult(s) responsible for their safety, it is your job not to make any assumptions and to proactively manage all parameters related to your flight.
Before getting to the airport (this starts a few days before the flight):
Children are excited at the thought of flying, or are scared or both. They may or may not tell you so. With my son (a pre-teen), I prepared him for the flight over the few days preceding the actual day of our flight.
1. Spoke to him about aviation in general for days. How planes work, what happens, the sequence of events, reasons we may not be able to fly - weather, checking the plane (airworthiness, pre-flight), health etc. etc. I have a curious one on my hands, so our conversations went like an oral session with a DPE. I dropped these conversations in when we were sitting together, going somewhere in the car or otherwise. My primary reason for this was to make him aware that what we were doing was complex while preparing him for the potential disappointment if we were unable to fly for any reason.
2. Discussed the flight with him, when we would go, the sequence of events when we got to the airport, where the plane was located and everything we would do the evening before the flight. (Our plan was to fly to Shenandoah Regional - KSHD from Leesburg Executive - KJYO and back). We usually hike, camp or stay at Shenandoah National Park so we also spoke about our route and landmarks or features he could expect to see.
3. The evening before the flight, I walked him through my flight planning, expected weather enroute, winds, mountain turbulence as we crossed over the Blue Ridge mountains, how to communicate with me while in the plane, wearing my headset (had him wear it for about 30 minutes as he walked about the house), dealing with blocked ears, not touching the screen (ok that's a pet peeve of mine) or anything else inside the plane and listening to me.
4. Asked him about what excited him, his expectations and spoke about his fears. It has been my experience that kids will share what they are thinking but you have to ask specific questions. Ended the evening while tucking him into bed on a nice note to help him relax and get some sleep.
5. Last but not the least, I involved my son in all the activities such as making sure my phone and elecronics were put on charge, printing all the materials such as airport diagrams, putting away my charts, verifying that my headsets had batteries (and extra batteries), packing my flight bag, putting out bottles of water for us to carry and getting clothes and personal accessories organized for the next morning. All of these routines, if practiced by us as adults help instill a sense of discipline and an attention for detail in our children.
As I did this, I put together a small document on instructions for parents
of kids that may be flying with you to help guide them in talking about the flight with their kids. I figured I may have kids other than my own with me in a plane some day, and I would want them to be as comfortable (and hopefully as manageable) as my own when they showed up to the airport.
Getting to the Airport:
The last thing we want to have happen to us is to get into a fender bender because we are #distracted by the thought of flying with our #preciouscargo on the way to the airport. We also subconsciously do a number of things on our way to the airport that can be disrupted or missed entirely because we have our kid(s) with us. For instance, I like to look outside my car to pick up weather cues, listen to the METAR by calling the airport ASOS / AWOS, listen to some music, do some breathing exercises and collect my thoughts as I am driving to the airport. It is a subconscious routine.
A very good way to keep my son engaged on the drive to the airport was to have him "observe the wind". I spoke to him about looking at birds, flags, trees, pretty much anything that moved and to "check-in" on the weather. This helped me focus on driving and follow my usual routines when I go on my flights.
Getting to the Airplace (Hangar / Ramp Safety):
My son and I had spoken about a bunch of things airport related and about the hanger in which our plane was and things to do / not do around the hanger and the airplane. As life would have it, the morning of the flight, we had to move to another airplane that happened to be parked on a ramp. I only realized that once I picked up the books and keys. (PS: By the way, that key stays on your person all the while except from starting the plane to shutting it off. Not in the plane, not on a knob, not in the book, it stays "on your person".) Bummer! I had only been talking with my son only about hanger safety, do's / don'ts and had not ventured into "life on the ramp".
So this section has two parts Hanger and Ramp Safety for Kids:
A hanger is a secured environment and yet it is not. So here's my list of Hanger related safety items:
1. Obviously, the first instruction was to "Stay with me at all times and do not touch the plane!"
2. Stay away from the hangar door (did not want him jamming his fingers in the door). Also, the hangars at our airport fold up and so, "The Hangar door can swing loose, so do not be anywhere near the hangar door as it opens". With smaller children it may be a better idea to get them into the plane, or leave them in the car (both approaches have plusses / minuses). The best alternative is to have another adult be responsible for them "in the car" (I don't always trust adults to be entirely safe either, but hey, that's me). At any rate, have the kids sitting or standing where you can keep an eye on them all the while as you open the hangar.
3. Do not to touch the Propellor, it could potentially start the engine (Unlikely a kid can do that, but it is definitely better than the alternative).
4. Repeat all the "stuff" about the steps we were going to follow before we hopped into the airplane, mostly for my own sake.
5. Secure the kid(s) while you are moving the car, the plane or closing the hangar door etc. etc. A kid on the loose is like a loose part on your plane. Both can really ruin your day.
As I said before, I really did not get to talk to my son about the Ramp. The ramp and tie-downs bring a lot of other variables into play. Such as airplanes, dozens of 'em, stationary and moving and all the other paraphernalia you would expect to find on the ramp. If you have prepped your kid(s) about all that, your job became just a tad easier, if not, welcome to my life that day.
What started off as an easy trip to the hangar that I had prepared my kid for turned into another Q&A session with questions ranging from why the ramp and why not the hangar to is a plane really safe on the ramp (a philosophical question that experienced aviators cannot get to agree to on the big bad internet).
1. In addition to the usual precautions of dealing with one airplane now expanded to many. The first step was to stand outside the ramp door and point out all the things that could come at us, the fuel trucks, planes and other "stuff" around the airport.
2. Just as I was wrapping up my rambling sermon on ramp safety, my son saw N707MM and proceeded right towards it to get a picture with it. For the uninitiated, N707MM a.k.a. turbulence is an experimental 850 HP Turboprop built by Mike Patey using the Lancair Legacy Platform as a starting point. In other words, it is one heck of a breathtaking kid magnet (I mean kids of all ages) that can outclimb and outfly a citation jet. Luckily, MM was parked right outside the ramp, there was no one in it and there was no one moving around at the ramp. After we got him a picture with the plane, came the next set of rambling instructions.
3. Walk along side the hangar / walls / fences and in straight predictable lines.
4. Look at each of the parked planes and see if there is anyone inside the planes. Also look out to see if you can see any lights flashing. Stay alert and watch for any movement on the ramp.
5. Be extra careful while walking across empty stretches of the ramp.
6. Watch out for any open hangar doors and keep an eye out for any movement inside the hangars.
7. Once at the plane, I had him get on the wing while I deposited all my possessions inside the plane (with younger kids, you could have them sit on the wing while you move around).
8. All the other instructions (as in the case of hangars) to stay away from the prop, not to touch anything etc. etc.
A word about "Pre-flight":
We all know about the importance of pre-flighting the aircraft by following a proper checklist as recommended by the manufacturer. I am sure, many of us go "above and beyond" by double checking certain items and performing some tasks multiple times. Where this get's interesting is if your #preciouscargo decides to talk to you about something really important right in the middle of your pre-flight.
My simple rule of thumb for this situation was to "do it twice". I took the kid with me on the first go-around as I walked around the plane with him explaining what I was doing as I read each item off the checklist. I also let him move / touch some things as I was going around. After that, I got him standing on the wing and went around the plane once more verifying that I had all the checklist items properly covered.
An important item I always do twice is to check the fuel before filling up the tanks and then again after filling the tank. The first iteration will hopefully catch any water or dirt that has settled or sedimented and the second any impurities in the fuel after the tanks get new fuel. I then verify on my extra go around to make sure that I have infact completed this item.
Another important thing is to take a step back and look at the plane, is the "tow bar" still attached, what about the engine cowling plugs, the pitot tube cover, tires, wheel pants, anything at all that looks out of the ordinary. Generally a really good thing to do, important too, but critical when you have your #preciouscargo onboard. One, they could have distracted you just when you were about to do that, and two, you really don't want to miss these completely avoidable risk factors.
Do not skip the passenger briefing because you are flying with your kid. They may not yet understand everything in a standard passenger briefing, but there are things they need to know and the passenger briefing is an important opportunity to review all the information concerning the flight. Remember you are the first listener of your passenger briefing. I covered the following items with my son as a part of my passenger briefing.
1. The usual passenger briefing about where we were going, what runway we would be taxing to and how we would get to the runway. Stuff about runway length, take off distance, abort plans, what some of the key flight controls did, what initial heading we would fly, what altitude, where it would show up on the Glass Cockpit (PFD, MFD) and our flight plan.
2. Sterile cockpit and the need to stay quiet if he heard anything on the radio so I could listen to it.
3. staying away from the flight controls AND adjusting his seat so his feet would not be "near the rudder".
4. securing (making sure I did that for him) and releasing his seatbelt (making sure he could do that).
5. Checking the door and having him open it to check if he could (Reaching out and making sure I could too).
6. Emergency equipment (in our case a fire extinguisher under my feet, a hammer in the central console) and CAPS (we were flying a Cirrus SR20 that day).
7. How to deploy CAPS (did not test that one!)
8. Last but not the least, what he could expect to see as we took off and looking out for airplanes and alerting me if he saw something. Also instructed him to pipe down if I raised my hand.
9. We then did our selfies etc., put the phone on airplane mode and handed him a phone that he knew how to operate so he would not be asking me for a password or something because the device locked on him during our take off roll.
10. Back to checklists and my flight routine during which time he was expected to stay quiet! Expected to... but then life's all about unmet expectations, you just have to focus on the task at hand and continue your good work.
Flying the Plane:
And so it went on and on, until we completed our pre-takeoff checklist and visually verified our flap settings, transponder (you will not realize how critical this is around the DC SFRA), mixture, flight plan, heading bug, altimeter setting, one last listen to the weather, flight controls (making sure they worked and worked the right way) and verified everything again to be doubly sure. Switched over to tower, said we were ready, spoke about our abort plan again, got our clearance, checked the pattern and final, pulled onto the runway and took off.
At that point I forgot I had my kid in the plane, kept listening for anything significant from him beyond his excited chatter, and focused all my attention on flying the plane. (Zen Pilot Mode)
Our original plan was to fly a short cross country (VFR) to Shenandoah Regional (KSHD). When we got on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was supposed to be a nice day that afternoon with clouds that had been reported to be high but appeared much lower. As we got further south west towards Winchester (KOKV), the valley ahead seemed pretty hazy. A little closer and visibility seemed to be dropping. So we turned around and headed the other way, saw Harpers Ferry, WV and flew back to Leesburg, VA (KJYO). It was a fun trip and while we did not get to go to our intended destination or land elsewhere, we had a nice outing in the skies. It was not very bumpy and there were only a few planes sharing the airspace. (PS: If you see the picture above, you can figure out the clouds on either side of the ridge by looking at the shadows!)
The safety parameter from this jaunt was that an adult would have probably looked at the skies ahead of us and said something about the visibility. The kid did not know any better. My #preciouscargo was mine to protect and completely trusted me to protect him.
So the two sides to that story, if you see anything that makes you uncomfortable during a flight, a) get out of that situation (remember to aviate, navigate, communicate), don't think about disappointing your kid and, b) Kid(s) will not notice or pick up on any of the cues anyway as they are living the dream flying with you. There is always a lot to see and share from the sky, do it safely.
On the way back:
Pick a spot (a certain distance from the airport / a visual way point) or something before you start flying. That is the point at which you go back into your "Zen Pilot" mode where you forget that you have #preciouscargo in your plane. Prior to getting to that point, make sure you have your avionics programmed, pick up the airport weather, runways etc., Brief your passengers (#preciouscargo) on the upcoming events, going around, sterile cockpit rules all the way to engine shutdown, review landing information, check fuel tanks, radios etc. Once across that point, implement your sterile cockpit rules and become the "Zen Pilot" you are. Perform your descent checks, talk to the tower (if towered) and fly the plane all the way to the parking spot / hangar and engine shutdown. Make sure to note any information you need from the glass cockpits (usually fuel / tach) and cut off the mixture to kill the engine. Turn everything off and "Remove the key" after making sure that the "Switch is off".
Revisit Ramp / Hanger Safety rules before opening the plane doors. Make sure parking brake is set before you leave your seat. It may be embarrassing to try and push the plane with the parking brake set, it will be disastrous to have the plane slide or hit something with your kid around or in it.
Walk around and secure the plane and make sure everthing looks good. Look through the plane and grab all your personal stuff (remember the cell phone your kid was clicking pictures with, that one too). Get pictures / selfies and spend some time around the plane to help the adrenaline settle and then walk / drive back safely.
Other things ...
Last but not the least, make sure you call flight service, file a plan, request flight following, use flight service, monitor guard, do not transmit on guard etc., etc. And yes, please make sure your kids hit the rest room before you get them in a plane.
Have fun flying your #preciouscargo! Be Safe!