Pilot Gear You Should Always Have on Hand
By Ralph Wetterhahn
No matter whether you are a student pilot or an airline captain with 20,000 hours, there are some basic items that you should have at your fingertips, especially if you wind up flying solo. You can spend hundreds of dollars — even thousands — on gadgets to simplify piloting tasks, but the more complex they are, the more prone to failure they can be at the most inopportune times. Besides your log book, checklist and headset, these are the seven most important things I take into the cockpit, particularly when God is my copilot. The prices are minimal, and the important thing to consider with each is how quickly available the item becomes when an emergency arises. Nothing induces panic faster when you are alone than the absence or failure of backup equipment.
Never leave the ground without one, day or night. I consider night flying an emergency in progress. No matter how “buttoned up” or prepared you might be, anything can happen that switches off the lights and puts you in a dire situation. Instrument lighting is fine until the generator or alternator fails or a circuit breaker pops. You say you never fly at night? There will come a time if you fly long enough when circumstances like weather or transportation delays push takeoff time into that gray area where you think you can get to destination and make a “pinky” night landing, only to discover that something (a cloud deck, an IFR holding pattern, or a late getaway from work, etc.) has made that impossible. John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s demise is a classic example of a planned daytime flight becoming a night disaster, though what went wrong is still a mystery.
If the cockpit or instrument panel goes dark, you want light immediately. Having to twist and duck your head to find the flashlight you stowed behind you is vertigo inducing. At night, have the flashlight on a tether around your neck and clipped to what you are wearing so it does not flail about. A good old GI Type Military Style Mini Right-Angle Flashlight is the way to go. Wear it with the lens pointed at the instrument panel. The flashlight is left-hand-operated (while your right hand holds the yoke or stick), is already aimed at the instrument panel, is hands-free once turned on and is not so bright that it totally destroys night vision.
Able to host a note pad, approach plate or map, clipboards come in all sizes and price tags — some with battery powered lighting and other handy features. Helpful flight information is often printed on them. A military spec multi-purpose variety is a great investment, or go basic with the lighter (and slightly cheaper) APR Deluxe VFR Pro-Flight Kneeboards [P-VFR].
They call them “aviator sunglasses” for a reason. At altitude, glare can be a real problem especially on long flights. The elimination of ultraviolet rays can help prevent cataracts and other eye maladies. Be sure to get flat sunglasses or specially designed aviator glasses such as Flying Eyes, which feature sturdy microthin temples that won’t be uncomfortable or create a gap between your head and headphones. Bottom line: you can’t avoid a mid-air collision if you are not looking outside.
These can be left in a flight bag, but they come in handy for all the obvious reasons. You want a light pair that allows tactile feeling with the fingers but is strong enough to prevent dinged knuckles when you try to force open an inspection panel or cargo hatch on a cold morning. Home Depot or Lowes offers a wide, inexpensive variety.
Baseball cap preferred. I can’t count the number of times it gave a nanosecond warning of impact with a gear door, flap, speedbrake, etc. on preflight. Keeps the sun out of your eyes, too.
A No. 2 hardness with eraser, together with a manual sharpener.
Forget about a ballpoint pen. The ink supply is susceptible to pressure changes and the “astronaut” space pen version is too small and slippery. The knee board should have a way to secure the pencil. The sharpener stays in a flight bag.
To consolidate your gear, you do not need a cumbersome flight bag like the airline pilots tote through airports. What you do need is something light with side pockets that allow quick access to specific items when needed. The Flight Gear HP Crosswind Bag is one such bag, but there are many other styles to fit one’s needs.
The last key point I’ll mention is that a medley of essential pilot gear won’t be of much help if it’s disorganized. Come up with an organization system that makes sense, and always put equipment back in the same spot for easy access. Whatever you choose, it should have space for your headset, checklist, log book, charts, approach plates, gloves, flashlight, knee clipboard, sunglasses, pencil, sharpener, hat and — of course — lunch!