Fly girl

Mid-air diaper changes and occasional airsickness aside, flying with my toddler at the controls brings back the thrill I felt when my dad taught me to fly.

By Phaedra Hise
Published April 27, 1998 10:20AM (EDT)

Usually I get about half an hour. Half an hour after takeoff in our small airplane before my 2-year-old starts wiggling around in her car seat, yelling, "Mommy! I want to fly too!"

Rounding up the kids for a ride in the family plane isn't most people's typical extra-curricular activity. Maybe you take the kids camping instead, or fishing or boating. But if your dad taught you how to fly, like mine did, you grow up with a speed jones and spend your weekends out at the airport. My hope was that my daughter, Lily, would take to flying like an older friend of hers, whose parents are also pilots. Amelia's dad used to take her up in his aerobatic plane, and it was Amelia's greatest thrill to command him, "Go upside down, Daddy!" These moments, when a little girl realizes she has the power to turn the world head over heels, are what shore up her self-confidence before the madness of peer pressure and girlish insecurity set in.

"Yay! An airplane ride!" Lily shouts. "The propeller is so big! I'm
going to fly the airplane with mommy and daddy! Can I get in now, please,
please, please?" That's pretty much how I feel about flying, too, so
it's great to have a companion who's just as enthusiastic.

Half an hour into most short flights -- when we're stabilized at cruising altitude, flying straight-and-level and riding on autopilot -- I unstrap Lily and let her climb up front on my lap. "You have to ask before you can touch anything," I remind her. But she's not easily distracted by shiny knobs and flashing lights. She knows where the action is on the one-ton hunk of metal mommy flies. Lily always heads straight for the "yoke," the airplane's steering wheel.

Lily loves to grab the yoke and roll it grandly from side to side -- which is pretty laughable considering that even I struggle sometimes to hold the heavy
plane in steep turns. Lily's tiny biceps don't have much hope of moving that yoke past the small amount of play in the control cables. But that's enough to spark grins of delight from my little starter pilot. "Look at me, I'm flying!" she squeals into the microphone on her junior headset.

After a brief hand at the controls, Lily is bundled safely in her car seat for most of the flight. There, she delights in unfolding and folding the giant aviation maps, yanking on her microphone and pointing out clouds. When we begin any flight, it's Lily's special job to holler "Clear!" -- the standard warning before we crank the propeller.

Then she babbles like a tour guide during most of the flight, "See the
clouds? The houses are very small." She's become good at spotting other
airplanes, and once called out a distant airline jet before I saw it. Her
excitement is contagious. When I pull her in the front seat for an endless
stream of "What's that?" and "Why?" answering her questions takes me back
10 years, to the thrill of my early days of flying. Plus, she's killer
cute in her little headset and flight suit, and when she grabs the yoke, we
can't take enough snapshots.

Taking Lily along has made for some interesting situations that they didn't teach me about in flight school. Diaper changes, for example, have to be fast because the best position is to drape the baby across the pilot's and co-pilot's laps. Also, it's best to make a note in your flight plan, "baby on board." That way, air traffic controllers are wise to the occasional background wailing while you're chatting with them on the radio.

And you can never have too many wipes or Ziploc bags. After all, you can't pull over to empty the trash. And you can't open the windows in flight to air the plane out. The seat pockets in our plane used to hold maps, wrenches and flight checklists. Now they're stuffed with snacks, crayons and slightly crumpled Kleenex.

We've had our share of unexpected developments. I can't really blame Lily for the one time she got airsick. It was a windy afternoon and I was sliding and skidding the plane all over the place, trying to hold to a particular angle of descent to land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. First Lily screamed, which was pretty disconcerting. Then she barfed. Fortunately, I was the one flying, which left my husband on nurse duty. But somehow, I ended up with the raunchy car seat in the airport, which hardly fit my macho self-image. Can you see Amelia Earhart huddled in an airport ladies' room, furtively rinsing vomit from a flowered velour seat cover? Hardly.

Like most glamorous adult activities, flying loses some of its thrill when a small child is involved. Before Lily, my husband and I used to wake up in the morning, stretch and say, "Hey, let's fly out to the beach and go for a swim." Now, our life isn't quite that decadent. There are diapers and juice boxes to be packed, a big plastic car seat to be wrestled, a fussy toddler to be soothed. Out at the airport, one pilot checks and prepares the plane while the other corrals the child to keep her from dashing out onto the runway.

Things get more complicated in mid-air, where my husband and I swap pilot and co-pilot duties. In our glamour days, the pilot flew the plane and
the co-pilot navigated. But there are a few extra cockpit distractions with a child, particularly when diapers are involved. So now the pilot flies the plane and the co-pilot entertains and cleans the passenger.

And yet, I'll never give up our family flights. When I see Lily yanking that yoke around and chattering into the intercom, I realize how limitless the world of a 2-year-old girl is. She doesn't know that only 6 percent of pilots are women. All she knows is that flying is really, really fun. And she can do it.

Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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