Dogfight: Flight bags

December 23, 2013

Tough, simple, proven

By Dave Hirschman

The modern flight bag is an over-thought, over-stuffed, and over-priced parody of itself. Trying to use one is like entering a house of mirrors: a semi-comedic and confusing exercise in which the simple items we look for in flight—batteries, a pack of gum, a note pad—are sure to be hidden in some obscure pocket within a pocket.

If pilots really want more zippers, they must own stock in a zipper company, because today’s flight bags already have so many that some flight bag manufactures have begun color-coding them. Really.

My favorite flight bag is an actual bag. It’s a military-surplus helmet bag purchased for less than $20, and it reminds me of a circus clown car in its seemingly magical power to swallow an ever-growing quantity of “essential” gear. It’s got one zipper and two side pouches, and I can almost always find what I’m looking for without, well, looking. Just reach in, fish around for a few seconds, and pull out the kneeboard, headset, sunglasses, GPS, flashlight, or approach plates, or Aleve as you please. Do you really require a special bag to carry your fragile Apple product du jour?

If your iWhatever requires constant in-flight fondling, why stuff it in a lowly bag at all? Won’t it feel lonely and get depressed in such a dark place?

My frumpy, shapeless bag seems indestructible, and during the years it’s accompanied me on trips all over the planet, it’s developed an indomitable character of its own. It’s persevered through abuse including extreme heat and cold, rough handling, dousing, and neglect, and always come through no worse for the wear. It’s even sat on a few ashen passengers’ knees as a barf bag of last resort (although it so far has escaped being used for that ghastly purpose). And it’s easy to identify, even in a heap of helmet bags, because of its simple Velcro name tag.

So the next time you’re in the market for something to carry flight gear, consider the lowly helmet bag. It’s simple, reliable, has a great aviation pedigree, and will never hide what you’re looking for when you need it most.

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org

More is better

By Ian J. Twombly

Five years ago the debate over whether to use a trash-bag-style flight bag or one with pockets would have been irrelevant. When the pocketed bag only had three pockets, it didn’t really matter. But then came Brightline Bags, and our impression of all that was good and holy in the world of flight bags came crashing down.

Brightline is now joined in the pocket race by Sporty’s, MyGoFlight, and others. And this is a great thing. Having a flight bag with lots of pockets makes great sense for three basic reasons.

First, they protect the contents. If all we carried were a headset, a sectional chart, and a kneeboard, a flight bag full of pockets would still make sense. But now with handheld GPS, and especially tablet computers, having dedicated pockets is a must. iPads are surprisingly hardy, except when the glass is exposed to pressure—then the glass shatters, and the only map you’ll need is to the nearest Apple store. If you invest a minimum of $500 in a tablet, it only makes sense to protect it in a good bag. The same goes for that $1,000 headset.

The next reason to say no to the trash bag is easy access. How many times have you rummaged through a backpack, or packed luggage, for something small that’s hidden among all the other contents? Now imagine trying that at 3,500 feet while you’re doing 120 knots—at night. This is when you’ll wish you had dedicated pockets for flashlights, sunglasses, charts, tablets, sick sacks, and anything else you need right now.

Finally, there’s the harder to quantify “cool” factor. Part of the joy of being in any activity is the stuff. The gear. It makes you feel like part of the club, helps you identify with the rest of the community, and connects you to the activity even when you’re not doing it. Flight bags check off all these boxes. They hold what represents all that’s great about aviation—the fuel sampling cups, the flashlights, charts, kneeboards, and headsets. The repurposed trash-bag-style bag may be resourceful but it doesn’t speak aviation.

Brightline’s continued success and Sporty’s expanding line of pocketed bags says most pilots agree with this, too. As Sporty’s John Zimmerman put it, “Over time, we’ve added more and more pockets to our flight bags, and everyone keeps asking for more.”

Email ian.twombly@aopa.org