Looking through the aviation catalogs you can quickly be overwhelmed by the choices of pilot equipment and gear. In Sporty's Pilot Shop catalog, for example, there are two pages of logbook options and half a page of logbook covers and cases. What's a pilot to do?
When I first started taking flying lessons, I gobbled up at least one of everything. If one plotter was good, a second one was better and a mechanical measuring implement was needed. I had a standard E6B but then felt I needed a circular slide rule version. Sectionals were fine, but I also needed airport guides and all kinds of whiz wheels that showed landing pattern procedures, holding procedure entries and weight and balance calculations.
Many of the choices today didn't exist when I was training. Flight bags were hard sided and the choice was how wide you wanted it based on how many Jepp Manuals you needed to accommodate. None of us had headsets, handheld navcoms hadn't been invented and the GPS wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye. Today, the choices are myriad.
If I'm typical, then pilots go through phases in terms of the equipment and gadgets they need or want. And of course it depends on what type of flying they're doing. There are going to be differences in what resides in the bag of an instrument pilot compared to a VFR pilot. What a pilot totes back and forth to the airport is going to differ if he's a renter or an owner. Initially, I think, we all feel we have to have one of everything, but eventually we learn what we really need and what's excess baggage.
We thought it might be interesting to see what pilots are carrying in their flight bags and whether the selections have changed over the years. We contacted Sporty's for help and John Zimmerman, Sporty's vice president of the catalog division, volunteered. Here's what he found.
Flight BagsIt seems that the size and type of flight bag that a pilot orders depends on where they are in their ratings. Students, Zimmerman found, often need big ones to live out of and cram full of textbooks and the FARs. On the other hand, an owner may not need nearly as much capacity.
"We see many pilots go through three or four different types and sizes as they progress, from big to small (or none) back to bigger." Zimmerman admitted to having two flight bags of his own. "One is what I need when I'm flying my airplane and the other is packed and ready in case someone comes along and asks me to fly a DC-3 to Africa. If so, I can pick up and go."
According to Sporty's records, the core bags are still the soft-sided nylon bags. At the same time, sales of the traditional airline captain's case, the hard-sided leather bag that sometimes has wheels and a handle, have faded away.
Maybe it's a fashion statement, he said, but, "a very hot trend these days is the soft-sided leather pilot bags. In terms of size, the full-size bags are our best sellers."
HeadsetsA big change from the time I started flying has been the growing popularity of headsets, first passive and, more recently, active noise reduction headsets. According to Zimmerman, "The most important trend we see is the steady rise in the popularity of ANR headsets, which have reshaped the category in terms of price, performance and manufacturers. Sales of inexpensive as well as expensive ANR headsets are growing." So far the trend is toward an increasing percentage of ANR headsets and eventually ANRs will become the dominant, although not exclusive, style. Many of the passive headsets are bought by beginners and students. Part of the attraction of the ANR headsets, in addition to hearing protection, is that the prices are coming down. A popular option, particularly for ANR headsets, is a cell phone/music interface.
"The in-the-ear (ITE) products are an exciting new development," Zimmerman added, "but right now, they're a niche market. Although we've been surprised by how popular they've been, they're not for everyone. So far, it's a small percentage of headsets sold but as this technology matures, I think they'll gain a strong foothold."
E6BsNo student pilot's flight bag is complete without some kind of E6B flight computer and, based on the number Sporty's sells, many experienced pilots still rely on one. Although Zimmerman said that Sporty's sells as many E6Bs today as 20 years ago, the big change is that electronic E6Bs have taken over as the dominant style and the ratio of sales of electronic to traditional E6Bs is about 80 to 20 percent. Zimmerman pointed out that Sporty's offers E6B software for a Palm-based PDA and there are others out there for Pocket PC/Windows mobile units. "But for us, the full size electronic E6B is still the majority of our sales," he concluded.
Whiz WheelsThere are a variety of small "whiz wheels" that typically provide visual representations of various procedures. Although some of them may be of questionable value, Zimmerman said it seems pilots can't get enough of them. "As they say, they're better than trusting your memory." By far the most popular, he said, are the traffic pattern calculator and the holding pattern calculator. Others that are available compute crosswinds, decode metars and TAFs, locate VORs and calculate weight and balance. Pilots seem to like them because they're helpful in visualizing hard concepts and it's easier than trusting their memory or trying to do reciprocal heading calculations in their head. "I think most pilots use them as they learn to fly or get an instrument rating, but then they discard them," he offered. The decline in their popularity is understandable, with the proliferation of sophisticated portable GPS devices. With moving maps that show holding patterns and entries, the whiz wheels aren't as useful.
KneeboardsSporty's has sold a number of kneeboards at both ends of the $10- to $90-cost spectrum and everywhere in between. Some of the kneeboards now incorporate GPS mounts so they've become even more functional. According to Zimmerman, kneeboards seem to be a very personal thing-everyone has their favorite and sticks to it. "I remember as a student buying the big, tri-fold kneeboard to hold every possible chart and E6B needed for a cross-country flight," he recalled. "Now I use just the basic metal board for writing clearances on." The sales ratio between inexpensive and expensive kneeboards is right around fifty-fifty.
PlottersHistorically, a plotter has been an essential requirement for planning a cross-country flight. So it's no surprise that hey've found a place in the flight bag of virtually every student and some veteran pilots who enjoy the challenge of conducting their VFR flights using pilotage. Although with the increasing popularity of GPS navigators, you'd expect the need for plotters to diminish, Sporty's still sells "thousands and thousands a year, some 95 percent of which are the original full-size plotters."
Fuel SamplersFuel samplers are one of the most popular pilot products that Sporty's sells. "I think most pilots have three or four of them lying around in various places," Zimmerman said. The best-selling fuel samplers, he said, are the old standby-the long, full-size, fuel tester/screwdriver combo. In terms of tester versus tester/strainer, the split is about fifty-fifty. "About six months ago we introduced our fuel tester strainer that snaps onto our heavy-duty fuel tester to let pilots return fuel to the tank after it's been sampled, and that's been very successful," he reported. As the EPA and state governments crack down on pouring sampled fuel out on the ramp, and as gas prices go up, pilots are going to become even more interested in returning sampled fuel to their tanks.
FlashlightsIf there's a pilot's favorite gadget-or at least the one item that almost every pilot has in their flight bag, particularly once they've begun night flying-it's a flashlight. Flashlights have been one of Sporty's most popular categories for years, but recently there's been a change in the type of flashlights pilots are buying. "Once the price of LED lights came down to those of incandescent flashlights, the fate of incandescent lights was sealed; LEDs have taken over this market," Zimmerman said. In Sporty's current catalog, there are 13 different LED illumination devices and only one conventional incandescent flashlight. "The basic white or red/white lights are the best sellers; hat lights and headlamps are more niche products," he added.
According to Sporty's sales records, the high-end flashlights are surprisingly popular. "It seems our customers are looking for tougher, longer-lasting, brighter and higher-tech lights and they're willing to pay for them."
HandheldsIf you've been flying as long as many of today's pilots, you've seen some dramatic changes in equipment and technology. Miniaturization created a whole new class of electronic handheld devices. The first wave was navcom units followed rapidly by the GPS. "The purchase of navcoms has steadily declined since the GPS came around," Zimmerman said. "Today, handheld navcoms are used mostly for com backup or during preflight; the nav features have been superseded by GPS. Having said that, radios still represent a good-sized market and we continue to have very good success with our SP-200 (over 80,000 units since our first Sporty's handheld). But the growth and the 'wow factor' seems to have disappeared from this market."
It's the advent of the GPS that has caused a real revolution in the equipment that's becoming de rigueur for pilots. Over the last five years, handheld global positioning systems have been an important part of the change in the way we navigate. Handheld GPS receivers, Zimmerman said, "have gone from a luxury item to a must-have for licensed pilots."
Apparently, portable GPS navigators aren't as popular with students. "A quick poll of students in our flight school found only one student who owned a handheld GPS," Zimmerman reported.
The growth and excitement in the portable GPS market is at the high end, led by Garmin. "They continue to push the bar for features higher and higher, and their 396 has been an overwhelming success. It proves that if the product is good enough, price is no obstacle," Zimmerman concluded.
Data-link weather will continue to revolutionize this market, he said, as will the move to truly portable multi-function displays. "The technology in panel-mounted units and handheld units is converging. As a result, some people may even put off their panel upgrade and go for a high-end portable GPS. On the other end of the spectrum, the features are trickling down to the point where a student can buy an extremely capable GPS for under $500. But this is not a commodity/price market. We actually sell more high-end GPS units than entry level ones. My suspicion is that a lot of these global positioning systems, unlike the handheld navcoms that were used for backup, are being used for primary navigation."
What we haul around in our flight bags is dependent to a great extent on our experience and ratings. Instrument pilots have their own special requirements for what to carry with them in their flight bags.
View Limiting DevicesA way to block the outside world and limit a pilot's view of the instrument panel is a necessity for instrument training and maintaining currency, and close to the top of the list of "IFR" products. Although the traditional hood, with its long visor, still garners about 50 percent of the sales, it is slowly losing out in the numbers race to glasses-style products. "Even the old-fashioned Francis IFR hood still sells," Zimmerman said, "I suppose because CFIs enjoy torturing students the way they were tortured. Our Instant IFR glasses have been very successful. We think it's because they marry the 'no-peek' features with some important comfort features."
Charts"The digital chart revolution is coming, or so we're told," Zimmerman said. "But so far, at Sporty's, we sell as many paper charts today as we did 10 years ago, and there are no signs of the sales slowing down." According to Zimmerman, there are two issues that keep paper charts in vogue; first, most people are still uncomfortable with digital charts; and second, most people who do use digital charts aren't quite ready to pitch their paper charts, so they buy them as backup. Until more cockpits are equipped with adequate panel-mounted displays to present the charts and the portable EFB (electronic flight bags) become more convenient-and less expensive-there will still be a requirement for paper charts. "Someday pilots will stop carrying paper charts in their bags, but I don't think it will happen any day soon. In the meantime, all kinds of paper charts-sectionals, low en route charts and approach charts--will continue to be essential and widely carried."
Chart HoldersUntil electronic flight bags and electronic charts gain more of a foothold in the cockpits of airplanes used in IFR operations, pilots are going to continue to use some sort of device to hold their approach charts. According to Zimmerman, this is a very broad category, ranging from 39-cent vinyl chart protectors to fancy yoke-mounted appliances. "We sell tens of thousands of chart protectors every year, both the original and quick release style, which wins hands down in terms of quantity," he said. Sporty's also sells a lot of its Chart Binders, which let you put your approach charts in hard plastic protective covers.
In addition to the chart "covers" there are a range of yoke-mounted devices that hold the chart in easy view during an approach. The basic plastic clips that can hold an approach chart, sectional or checklist are the most popular. Since most of the yoke-mounted holders only work with loose-leaf approach charts and only about 40 percent of Sporty's chart sales are loose-leaf, the holders aren't as popular as they might otherwise be.
TimersLike flashlights and fuel samplers, timers are very popular items for both VFR and IFR pilots. Based on Sporty's numbers, "every pilot must own five of these," Zimmerman said. VFR pilots use them for timing when to switch fuel tanks and to monitor flight time; IFR pilots also use them for timing holds and approaches. Sporty's has timers that range in price from about $10 to $50. The top-of-the-line timer actually features a digital notepad to copy squawk codes, altitudes or frequencies. "Not surprisingly, our Sporty's Timer that combines a big screen, flashing red LEDs and intuitive software sells the best," he said.
Like Parkinson's law ("Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."), a pilot's flight bag seems to be able to expand to hold all that a pilot wants to stuff into it. And there's lots! Just flipping through the pages of Sporty's catalog (or clicking through the Sportys.com website) is to browse the aisles of a pilot's "candy" store. Part of becoming a pilot is learning what equipment you need and what's nice to have. Take it from me, your needs may change but most of what you no longer need will end up collecting dust-often in the bottom or the pockets of your flight bag. Of course, what feels like excess baggage may be just the thing you need on your next flight. Then you'll be glad you held onto it.