Size—and Safety—Matters

Sight picture is key for safety. If you need a cushion beneath you or behind you, finding the right one can be tough.

“Is the seat all the way forward?”

My first instructor asked me this when, on my first flight, I couldn’t see over the cowling of my Cessna nor could I reach the rudder pedals without doing some sort of an advanced, twisting yoga pose. The seat was as far forward as it could be, but still I could not reach what I needed to in order to fly the airplane.

My instructor remedied this situation by grabbing a thick phonebook from the FBO for me to use as a booster seat. Thus began my journey as I joined the ranks of The Pilots Who Need A Little Help to Reach the Rudder Pedals and See Over the Cowling.

The remedy for this condition is simple but important—a well-placed cushion or two.

Should you use a cushion?

Visit any FBO in the world and you will find loaner cushions for the customers. Eventually, relying on a loaner cushion becomes untenable—just wait for the day when that cushion that you rely on is being used by someone else. On that day, you realize the wisdom of getting a booster cushion of your very own.

Any instructor worth the plastic their certificate is printed on will stress the concept of sight picture from the cockpit. Show me a student pilot who’s having trouble with their landings and knowing when to flare and I’ll show you a student pilot who can’t see over the nose of the aircraft and doesn’t grasp the concept of sight picture.

Sporty's Pilot Shop
The Elevator Cushion Sporty’s Pilot Shop

Experienced instructors will pick up this quickly, and if there isn’t a cushion around will get creative using dispatch binders, gear bags, folded up jackets, and even the FAR/AIM strategically placed to give the student pilot the extra boost they need.

Boost comes in two forms: sitting up higher and sitting closer to the panel. Sometimes you need both, sometimes you need only one. It’ll probably take some experimentation to figure out exactly what you need for a particular aircraft.

In an airplane with articulating seats (they crank up and or forward), you may not need a booster cushion. In aircraft with partially articulating seats you may just need a back cushion.

Pro-tip: When using an aircraft with an articulating seat, before you climb into the cockpit, crank the seat all the way up and forward, then get in the seat to make adjustments.

The Pillow Problem

Every pilot in need of a boost begins their booster seat experimentation with a combination of pillows or couch cushions. Most pilots notice that these low-tech devices are not the best choice because they compress quickly thus reducing their effectiveness, and they are not secure in the seat so you may need to adjust them quite a bit during the flight. For this reason many pilots opt to find a booster seat that is designed for aviation use.

Cost, Comfort and Cockpit Integration

What’s your budget for booster?

Price is a driving force in booster seat selection. Sporty’s Elevator Seat Cushion is their most popular seller. It’s also the least expensive—costing about $50.

It consists of two separate foam cushions, one rectangular, the other square, attached with straps and snaps to form an L-shape. The cushions can be separated if the pilot doesn’t need one or the other. The seat back part also has a pocket that can really help with charts and the like.

The other booster seat offered by Sporty’s is made by C Bailey—the maker of popular portable stadium seats. It’s more expensive than the Elevator Seat cushion, but it’s also thicker. It runs about $110.

Pilot Mall’s most popular seller is the Wagan RelaxFusion. It’s a hybrid of memory foam and a gel pod. The gel helps reduce heat build up, which can help with comfort.

It’s available both with a two-inch cushion and a four-inch cushion. The seat features a carrying handle making it easier to transport from aircraft to aircraft.

The R&D Cushion

One of the most researched portable seat cushion designs—hence its use by the U.S. military and civilian space tourism companies—comes from Oregon Aero, located in Scappoose, Oregon. The company makes the SoftSeat Portable cushion. The SoftSeat is a combination base and back support that can be zipped together.

They aren’t cheap—expect to pay upwards of $200 for the full combination, but based on the thousands of customer testimonials they have received over the years, many customers think they are worth it.

“A lot of research went into the design,” says Oregon Aero founder Mike Dennis. The company got its start in 1989 when Mike and his wife Jude flew coast-to-coast-to-coast in their 1966 Alon Aircoupe. Jude, who is a little over five feet tall, needed a booster cushion in the cockpit.

According to Mike, they purchased one along the way that was little more than a slab of foam. It was so uncomfortable when they returned home to Oregon, she burned it, and they started to research a better seat design. The research involved borrowing a skeleton from a medical school and wrapping it in weights to see where the pelvic pressure points were.

“We learned that the lower part of the seat cushion needed to have a concave shape for optimum comfort,” Dennis explains. “We had to sort of use a wedge on the skeleton to get the pelvis tilted right then we figured out we needed to create a bowl.

“When you sit on the cushion you are basically the ball in a ball and socket.”

The Oregon Aero SoftSeat cushions range in thickness from one inch to two inches. The construction is multi-layer temperature sensitive foam. For the pilots that fly a stick rather than yoke-equipped aircraft, there is a model that has a cut-out in the base cushion. Dennis notes with pride that several airshow performers utilize the SoftSeat in their airplanes.

If You Have The Opposite Issue

There are pilots with the opposite problem: they are tall, and therefore may have trouble fitting into aircraft. There is no way to really adjust for this—you are simply sized out of an airplane. You probably know a pilot who fits into this category (pardon the pun). Jason Schappert, the founder of the online ground school MzeroA.com is one of these pilots—he often tells the story of having his Top Gun-inspired dreams of becoming a naval aviator dashed when the recruiter told him that at 6′4″ he was too tall to fit in their cockpits.

In the civilian world, these taller-than-average pilots have to experiment to find an aircraft that works for them. Very often it hinges on how their height is distributed. Some pilots are all legs, others have long torsos, and then are there are those who have both.

Some find their head is up against the ceiling so tightly their headset gets in the way, and they feel like Dino at the drive-in from the opening of the Flintstones cartoon. (Neil Glazer from Pilot Mall falls into this category—he stands 6′2″, and notes that when he flew a Mooney Mite there were times when combination of the cockpit design, his headset and turbulence created some bad days.)

If you are a renter pilot and on the tall end of the spectrum, it behooves you to try to fit in every aircraft in the FBO’s fleet. You may find that one of the airplanes, with articulating seats, is the one that works for you. Make sure you check for full control deflection before you start the engine, and watch that your body posture does not compromise control surfaces or trim. There are pilots in Cessna aircraft, for example, who have inadvertently actuated manual trim because their right knee is pressed against the trim wheel.

If you find an airplane that fits you, ask the FBO or flight school to put a note in your renter’s file so that you don’t get switched to an airplane that doesn’t work.

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