Mile-high Motherhood: How to breastfeed while piloting a plane

Guest post by Sarah Davies
By: Michael GilCC BY 2.0

The noise-canceling headset did not cancel out the noise of my miniature screaming copilot at an altitude of 10,500 feet. My three month-old daughter Emma, was an unwilling second-in-command.

Her infant car seat had attached so nicely to the right front seat of my Mooney TLS single-engine airplane that our loving mother-daughter piloting adventures seemed meant to be. Had Mooney planned for this in the design of their TLS? After all, there are more and more women pilots every day. Surely they sought to accommodate the infants that these women pilots would produce, and undoubtedly wish to travel with. What corporate thoughtfulness, what social insight…what was I thinking?

Pre-baby, I knew I would never be one of those “traditional moms” who seemed to lose her mind and identity in a whirl of post-partum hormones. I was first and foremost a pilot. A fully instrument-rated, multi-engine, commercial and airline transport pilot and instructor. A woman in a man’s world. No baby would ever stop me from flying.

Certainly, I thought, the reason most babies and children were such poor travelers was due to lack of practice. If you feed a child hotdogs and chicken strips, they will only tolerate Denny’s or McDonald’s. Feed a child sushi and brie and you will create a junior gourmet who craves fine international cuisine at the tender age of two.

Similarly, taking my tiny infant on plane trips piloted by me would turn her into a model traveler and junior pilot. I knew that my future two year-old daughter would sit happily for hours in the Mooney, enjoying foie gras on crusty French bread, while precociously assisting me with transponder and GPS settings.

I had planned for this day from eight and a half months before her birth. I scoured the internet for little baby pilot headsets. I cut some foam earplugs to baby ear canal size. I bought her a cute little outfit that said “Junior Pilot.” I made sure my choice of infant car seat was properly FAA approved and that it fit snugly and safely in the Mooney while allowing for free movement of the aircraft controls.

My fellow instructors all joked that Emma’s first words would be “more right rudder.” After all, she had been exposed to airplane engine noise and my insightful instructional commentary for nearly nine months in utero. During an uneventful pregnancy, the FAA allows women pilots to fly for as long as they can safely do so. I took full advantage of this vague and permissive attitude, and flew through my entire pregnancy. So why wouldn’t my daughter take to flying as naturally as a baby bird?

I decided that three months seemed a mature enough age for her very first flight on the daylight side of my uterus. She and I arrived at the local airport, excitedly anticipating her debut. The trip would be an effortless one hour trek over the beautiful volcanic terrain of western New Mexico to visit my dubious mother in Arizona. My mother was simply not as excited as I was about Emma’s first co-piloting experience. Apart from the obvious grandmotherly-worries at the prospect of her first grandchild hurtling through the sky in a tiny, single-engine plane, Mom also expressed doubts about how easy this expedition would really turn out to be. But I knew best.

Emma sat happily in her car seat, closely studying a small patch of spit-up on her “Junior Pilot” sweatshirt, while I hauled the plane out of the hangar and conducted the preflight inspection. She gave me a glorious gummy smile as I strapped her car seat into the copilot’s position. I tested the controls. All was well.

In went the ear plugs. Hmm…they didn’t fit quite as well as I had hoped. I crammed them in a little harder. After all, with the amount of flying we would be doing I had to be very careful to protect Emma’s delicate hearing. Emma gave me her first look of disapproval.

I smiled at her reassuringly as I clamped the little blue baby-sized headset onto her bald head. It turned out that Emma did not like headsets and the wailing began.

I grinned broadly at my tiny co-pilot and put my headset on. With as much faux enthusiasm as I could muster, I said “See Emma, Mama has a headset too!” Louder wailing. OK, change of plans. Since the flight was only an hour, perhaps we could skip the headset just this one time. The earplugs would simply have to suffice. I removed the offending headset and wiped her tears with my sleeve.

After she had settled down a bit, no longer crying, but not exactly vibrating with excited anticipation as I had hoped, it was time to start the engine. The engine rumbled and came to life and the baby started screaming full timbre. Avionics switch on – “Better get my noise-canceling headset on right now,” I thought. The engine grew quieter as the headset turned on. The baby grew louder as the engine noise dulled.

Well, I thought, they say that noise and vibration soon lulls babies to sleep. Besides, airplane engines are what she heard in the womb, she should soon settle down. We taxied out and were airborne as quickly as I could safely manage.

As we floated miraculously upward into the smooth, fall air, I experienced the thrill of introducing my little one to a world I loved achingly. My daughter, on the other hand, experienced the thrill of screaming while soaring toward the brilliant blue New Mexico sky. She screamed, and screamed, and screamed. A concerned air traffic controller asked me, “What have you got in there? A parrot, or a monkey?”

Albuquerque Approach Control handed me off to Albuquerque Center, who had probably been forewarned that they would be dealing with a Mooney full of smuggled exotic pets.

Emma shrieked as we leveled off at 10,500 feet. Once I was out of Albuquerque’s busy airspace, level and on course for Show Low, Arizona, my last task was to adjust the throttle and fuel flow settings for cruise flight. With the Cruise Checklist completed, my now decreased workload allowed me to finally return my thoughts to my less-than-thrilled baby pilot. “Perhaps her ears hurt,” I pondered, as I desperately shoved a pacifier into her mouth. Emma always hated pacifiers; especially, so it seemed, while airborne. The pacifier shot out of her mouth at high velocity and ricocheted off the transponder, landing somewhere far beneath her seat.

“Hungry,” was the next thought that entered my head. Despite our prophylactic preflight feeding, this was an unfortunate possibility. “Is it possible,” I asked myself, “to nurse a baby and pilot an airplane at the same time?” The choice I faced was, to try it, or endure ear piercing wails for another forty minutes which would probably scar both Emma and me (not to mention our poor air traffic controller), for life.

In all my many years of training, I had never been briefed on this particular “emergency.” I was forced to come up with my own Nursing Emergency Checklist:

1… Altitude and heading numbers – VERIFY

2… Heading bug – SET

3… Altitude pre-select – SET

4… Autopilot – ON

5… Verify autopilot functioning correctly

6… Shirt and nursing flap on bra – UNBUTTON

7… Nursing pad – REMOVE and secure on yoke in Approach Chart clip for easy retrieval later

8… Screaming baby – REMOVE FROM CAR SEAT

9… Baby position – LATCH ON

So, there we were, gliding through the clear turquoise sky at 10,500 feet above sea level, the two of us enjoying a timeless moment of mother-daughter bonding, and best of all, silence! Little did Albuquerque Center realize what was going on inside our little green blip on the radar screen. Emma and I were proving that day that it is possible to pilot an airplane, talk to the controllers, and nurse an infant all at once.

We nursed our way over massive, ancient lava flows that looked like overdone chocolate cake fresh from the oven. We saw miniature antelope, doll-sized octagonal homes that the Navajo call “hogans,” and vast plains dotted with little broccoli piÒons. We nursed until we could nurse no more and Emma’s mom had to become the pilot once again to get us safely back to Earth.

Fortunately, Emma was too busy working on a Giant Poo to complain much during the landing. Safely back on the ground, we taxied to the parking area and I tied the Mooney up while Emma sat in her car seat with an expression of intense concentration, finishing her business.

Judging by the lack of baby-changing facilities, small airports do not get many mom-pilots with babies flying in for a quick diaper freshen-up. The Mooney’s horizontal stabilizer (tail) proved to be an excellent changing table. Did the Mooney company include this dual purpose in their design plan too?

In her diaper, a surprise awaited me (beyond the obvious “natural” one): a tiny earplug. Just one. In all the fuss, it had somehow made its way from her ear to the interior of her diaper. But where was the other one? I checked her ears. Gone.

I never did find the other earplug that I had so lovingly crafted before her birth. Six years later I still wonder where it went. Either it is permanently stuck deep inside her ear canal, festering away to this day, or it worked its way down through a crack in the floor and sits in the landing gear motor, waiting to be discovered by a puzzled mechanic.

Six years of experience and three children have made me reevaluate my opinion of the ease with which one can really travel with kids. I guess Mom was right after all. My children don’t like sushi or foie gras, and they don’t like airplanes much either. I have learned the hard way that there is a very good reason why one never finds changing tables in small airport bathrooms or Nursing Emergency Checklists in airplane pilot operating handbooks. However, my kids will now eat mushroom crepes…can toddler aerobatic lessons be far behind?

Comments on Mile-high Motherhood: How to breastfeed while piloting a plane

  1. i LOVE this story but what a bummer! my husband and i are thinking of taking our 6 week old on a road trip from florida to NY. this is making me reconsider…

    • It should be okay–planes are a lot different from cars, and babies are apparently okay in cars when they are still in the infant stage.

      My sister is due in April, and my wedding is dated around June, when he/she will be okay to be around strangers. She has to travel from Upper MI to New Jersey, and apparently other moms (both in real life and internet) ahve told her it should be fine. It's when they get older it becomes more difficult.

    • Yeah, I think flying a plane with a baby vs. going on a little road trip are pretty different experiences. We went on a little road trip with Tavi when he was exactly one month old, and he slept the whole way! Every kid is different of course, but I hope this post won't discourage you from packing up and getting on the road!

    • Hi Ryan, I agree with Starla and Ariel. My trip was a lot different from a car trip, or even a commercial airline flight. Remember, you can always pull over to the side of the road in the car, right? Just go for it, then write up a story and let us know how it was!

  2. hilarious! my child is actually pretty good on planes and I absolutely dislike flying. weird, huh? man it really bugs me when those kids don't do anything according to plan — don't they know we've made a great plan to happily ever after??

  3. My grand-dad is a pilot and he flew me back and forth from Austin to Houston a lot as an infant. We called his plane the mother-goose. I love this story. I don't know how old I was when I first started flying but I have to wonder what my reaction was an infant…and well how he dealt with it. I'll have to ask. Really well written and enjoyable. Things don't always go how you plan or imagine but it's all good.

  4. I wanted to post and reassure Ryan that all travel with kids is doable and fun – we've taken our two all over the place via plane, train and automobile ('tho never flying solo like awesome Sarah!). Our younger son did a multiple-country road trip (Ireland-Wales-England-Wales) at 9 weeks – 10 hours in the car and barely a peep from him. 6 weeks is a pretty great age to travel and the kick you'll get from having done it will be totally worth any hassle. honest!
    Ariel – thanks from me too for posting this – feels like a great home for the story and lovely to see all the props for Sarah!

  5. My dad took me up in light aircraft, gliders, Cessna's and even an open biplane as a fairly young child (maybe 8 years old). I loved it, he used to let us "fly" the plane. Maybe you can do this with your kids when they are older.

  6. I always tell people to travel with their kids before they are 6 months old — after that they start to get definite opinions on naptimes/feedtimes/bedtimes/etc. Before then, they eat, sleep, and poop! Pop them in a sling/Bjorn/Ergo — and they are good to go! They are light, portable, (if you breastfeed – no food to bring with you) and it just will never be any easier as they get older….

  7. What a great story! I could really picture everything that was happening, and I was smiling the whole time. It makes me wonder what my daughter's first bicycle trailer rides will be like this spring…

  8. Sara, what a great story. My wife Susanne and I are both pilots and we have a Mooney Acclaim. We take our young son Benjamin, now 10 months old, flying with us whenever we can: his first flight was at 6 weeks old along the Alps, because we live in Munich, Germany. Benji is a great travel baby: Susanne nurses him up to the holding point, then pops him into his Maxi-Cosi for the take-off. He usually falls asleep within about 10 minutes and wakes up only when he's hungry, or back at the hanger when It is all over. The wonders of motion!

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