Charting a Course Towards a Memorable Pilot Gift

Thinking outside of the box and finding unique items could be just the ticket for a memorable gift that’s easy to give and fun to receive.

Whether it’s our birthday or Christmas, we airplane owners are a troublesome lot to shop for. When asked for gift ideas, we immediately rattle off specific, specialized parts that require serial numbers to order and are probably on backorder. When pressed, we’ll provide dreamy descriptions of various avionics, engines, propellers, and other upgrades well into the five-figure price range. 

This is problematic for our loved ones. They want to find something special and unique, something that compliments the hobby we love so dearly. But the likelihood of finding a reasonably-priced gift that we’ll actually enjoy can be frustratingly low. 

So what are some of the most memorable gifts we aircraft owners have received over the years? I posed this question to followers on social media recently, and a theme formed. By and large, the most memorable gifts were not items to be used for their airplanes, but rather authentic, unique items that had once flown on or had been installed in an aircraft we don’t own.

Examples included military items such as a B-52 ejection seat, a genuine U.S. Navy flight helmet, and a sextant that had once been used aboard a World War II bomber. Airline memorabilia was also represented, including McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 first-class seats, a Boeing 757 nose gear door, and a wallet made from actual Southwest Airlines seat leather. One individual even received a taxiway sign, and several mentioned receiving authentic control yokes.

One hopes these items were obtained in a responsible, lawful manner. One hopes that the gift-givers didn’t simply abscond with random aircraft components, leaving the 6 p.m. departure to Raleigh stranded at the gate while mechanics scrambled to find replacements. Fortunately, with the variety of sources available to us online, it’s doubtful that was the case.

One source for control yokes is eBay, with basic Cessna 150 yokes listed for as little as $60. Another source known for their unique offerings is the Airline Pilot’s Historical Society. A volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization, they salvage aircraft parts and resell them to raise money for charity. 

As it happens, one of the most memorable gifts I have ever given was a control yoke. A good friend of mine flies the Avro RJ85, a four-engine regional airliner. When I discovered that an older version was being parted out in England, I contacted the company. Two weeks and $200 later, I had an authentic yoke in my possession. 

A control yoke deserves to be properly placed on display, so I contacted my friends at DarkAero for help. They’re developing a cutting-edge carbon fiber kit aircraft locally, and are extremely talented when it comes to prototyping and machining. They kindly squeezed me into their schedule, designing and engineering a custom desktop stand for the yoke just in time for Christmas. 

Authentic control yokes are a sure hit with pilots. With a proper means of displaying them on a wall or desk, they can become a unique piece of aviation history that stands out from other mementos. [Credit: Jason McDowell]

It was a success. My friend smiles a lot in general, but his reaction to the yoke was on par with Ralphie opening up his Red Ryder BB gun. The yoke is now displayed prominently behind his desk in his home office.

Always on the lookout for similarly unique gift opportunities, I may or may not have climbed into dumpsters to rescue discarded taxiway signs and repurpose them as gifts. Find one with a single prominent letter that has meaning to a friend, and you’ve suddenly got a fun and interesting item to present as a gift. A friend of mine cherishes his beautiful Cessna 170B, so I thought he’d appreciate a big reflective taxiway sign with a single large “B” in the center. He now has it mounted on his hangar wall, lit up from behind with LED lights.

If your friends and family members aren’t enthusiastic about dumpster diving at airports, other options are less likely to require bail money. Tin Tail Numbers creates customized, life-sized metal replicas of an aircraft’s tail numbers or markings. Factory Direct Models creates fully-custom models of individual aircraft. And for more modest budgets, Planetags creates cool, laser-etched keychains using the skin of actual aircraft…from F-14s to 747s to SR-71s.

One of my personal favorite aviation-related gifts came from a childhood friend. After obtaining a digital, custom-drawn cartoon version of my airplane from an artist called Ramp Rat Gear, he had it applied to a nice, heavyweight hoodie and gave it to me for Christmas. I love it, and I make a point to take it with me in the airplane on any flights that have the potential to turn chilly.

A custom-drawn caricature of an owner’s airplane can be applied to any number of items. In this example, a good friend had a custom hoodie created as a Christmas gift. [Credit: Jason McDowell]

As much as we owners would love to receive aircraft-specific hardware for our beloved machines, parts tend to be prohibitively specific and expensive for most friends and relatives. Additionally, most owners I know have already purchased the accessories they need for use in the cockpit and hangar. Thinking outside of the box and finding unique items could be just the ticket for a memorable gift that’s easy to give and fun to receive. 

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