Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Flight Bag Is A Pilot's Best Friend

Modern design and computer engineering have transformed the humble flight bag into a cockpit necessity

Sky High
Ah, the flight bag. What, in the air-mail days, was a lowly canvas sack into which was stuffed a bedraggled map, a candy bar and a dime for a phone call if the weather got bad has become a cockpit staple. Though electronic flight gadgets have replaced the manual E6B computers and the pedantic Jeppesen chart binders of yesterday, the flight bag has only grown in popularity and usefulness. Though some forego flight bags altogether, the fact is that pilots today need flight bags just to keep all their gadgets organized! Holding everything from chart readers and portable navigators to laptops and radios, gear bags need to organize and function like never before.

The humble flight bag has always been a symbol of aviation. The great aviation writer Ernest Gann used laying down his flight bag as a metaphor for ending his flying career at the close of his masterpiece, Fate Is the Hunter. Bob Buck, the revered TWA pilot and author, symbolized the beginning of his airline career with a comical photo of him climbing aboard a DC-3 with his suitcase, typewriter and what he called his “brain bag.” And, of course, there’s the iconic scene in Top Gun with Maverick speaking his famous, “I feel the need for speed” line, carrying his sage-green flight bag.

The great thing is that, today, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of pilot bags to choose from, and no two pilots can agree on which is best. As part of my research for this piece, I asked nearly all the pilots I know what flight bag they carry and why. The response was anything from the new, mega-engineered BrightLine bag, to “an old day pack I bought for eight bucks at the swap meet.” Some have even created their own design! Being humans, we pilots like different things, and, like underwear, flight bags become personal for each of us.

Modern flight bags also are marvels of design and engineering. For example, many bags today are made of “ballistic nylon.” DuPont first developed ballistic nylon during World War II to make flak jackets for airmen. That first formulation was an 18-ounce fabric made from 1050 denier, high-tenacity nylon thread (denier refers to the weight of a fabric). Modern formulations are even heavier, and newer variations on that fabric (such as Cordura) are more abrasion-resistant yet softer to the touch.

Some bags on the market today have gone through extensive computer-aided design (CAD) and have been conceived and engineered meticulously and with flying in mind. The arrangement of pockets and compartments utilize every centimeter of space, making efficient use of material, clasps, straps and vertical space. Changes in the way we fly airplanes have influenced much of this.

Headsets, for example, made flight bags different. Suddenly, a student had to have someplace to put that bulky headset and cord. While early bags were just one big canvas pocket, bags became more compartmentalized as time went on. Students wanted to carry their E6B, fuel tester, charts and headset in separate pockets. Anybody who has ever tried looking for a pencil or battery in a single-compartment flight bag in turbulence knows why.

And, speaking of students, remember when you were first learning to fly and couldn’t wait for the new Sporty’s or other pilot gear catalog to come? You’d sit around on a summer day, poring over the latest issue of your favorite aviation magazine, circling all the pilot gadgets in the back pages. As a student pilot, you’d buy everything (“Hey, that ‘pattern entry calculator’ wheel is just what I need!”). But do you also remember that, as you matured in your flying, your flight bag had less and less stuff in it, and that soon you had edited your stuff down to only that which was absolutely critical?


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