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Getting the Gear You Need

And finding it at the right price

If you’re a gadget nut with an insatiable appetite for the latest thingamajig, boundless curiosity, and unlimited money, aviation could be the perfect hobby for you. If it’s new, complicated, and looks cool, some folks just have to have it. You can literally spend your way into the poor house.

The truth is that you really don’t need “hot” gadgets to learn to fly or to practice the aviator’s craft. Especially if you’re a student pilot on a budget, just say no. Keep it simple—the simpler the better. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider buying some of the great tools that are available. It just means that you should use common sense in deciding what you need to fly safely and comfortably. Individual needs vary depending on the type and quantity of flying you do, but this article can help you to get the right gear at a good price.

There’s no doubt that great equipment can enhance cockpit performance—but only if you already have sound procedural knowledge and skills, know how to use your equipment, and don’t let it get in the way or complicate your cockpit.

Here’s a plan

So what do you really need to learn to fly?

  1. First, answer that question; decide what you need—not what you want or would like to have, but what you need—to learn to fly. Get organized. Make a list of what you must have. (Later I’ll give you a suggested list of equipment that every student pilot should consider.) If you’re very new to flying, you may not know what’s important. Talk to other pilots, including other students and your instructor, for recommendations. They may be able to tell you about their own experiences with gear. Ask what they consider the most useful tools and what they would recommend for a pilot at your level.
  2. List likely sources. Check out magazines. Some catalog sources and Web sites are listed later in this article, and Landings.com links you to more than 250 separate sources of pilot supplies
  3. Determine a likely price range for each item. There’s a top line and a bottom line for virtually everything. Prices vary significantly depending on what function and quality you need. Make sure your budget, not your ego, determines how much you spend.
  4. Check out actual prices and sources. It’s important here to refer to your original list of what you need. It makes no sense to pay for more capability than you need...or pay a premium price for what you have selected. Shop on the Web and in catalogs. Consider shipping charges; they vary widely.

Before you start spending money, you might look around for someone who no longer flies. You may be able to obtain excellent second-hand gear. Another source for used pilot equipment is online auction sites like eBay. The rule at these sites is “buyer beware.” Read listings thoroughly and ask the seller questions before placing a bid. Check the seller’s reputation, too, via any feedback features the site might have. And watch out for bidding wars that can drive up prices to retail and beyond.

A student pilot’s shopping list

Here’s the basic equipment you need to learn to fly. Depending on individual tastes and preferences, your list might differ, but this one is a good start for most students.

  • An “appropriate” airplane. You don’t need to buy your own airplane to learn to fly, but many people who make a commitment to flying actually find that it saves them money. “Try before you buy” is a good motto if you are in the market for an airplane to buy or rent. The more capability your airplane has, the more it costs to purchase, rent, insure, fly, and maintain. You probably want to save the more sophisticated airplanes for the time when your talents can properly make use of them.
  • A pilot’s operating handbook (POH) published by the manufacturer of your airplane. Study the book and understand it. Failure to do so will cost you money and time (which is also money). Buy your own copy. You will need it as you plan cross-country flights, and you’ll want to have it with you on the checkride. Study it from cover to cover and don’t be afraid to make notes in the book. The cost should be less than $40.
  • A cockpit-usable checklist for your airplane. If you can’t obtain one from your instructor, copy the one that’s in the POH, contact the manufacturer, or procure a commercially available checklist and edit it for your airplane.
  • A lesson-by-lesson syllabus. Mandatory for Part 141 flying schools, the syllabus should show what you will do, flight by flight, and include study assignments for each lesson. You absolutely need this information. If your school doesn’t have a copy you can use, buy your own. If an approved syllabus is not available, look in Part 61 of the federal aviation regulations (FARs). It specifies what training is required. If your instructor has not designed a lesson-by-lesson Part 61 syllabus for you, ask him or her to do so. If that doesn’t happen, get another instructor. A syllabus is the only road map you have for training, and knowing what you must accomplish can save you a great deal of expensive airplane and instructor time.
  • Approved flying publications that support your syllabus. Kits usually include most of the publications you need. Jeppesen sells Private Pilot Kits from $99.95 (basic Part 61 kit) to $159.95 (basic Part 141) to $299.95 (electronic kit). There are “deluxe” kits in between. One outlet I know sells them for $90.99 to $267.50—but watch shipping costs! Shop around. Your local FBO or pilot shop probably sells them too—without shipping charges but with sales tax. If you have an AOPA credit card, you can receive a 5 percent rebate on FBO purchases, including pilot supplies. (Visit the AOPA Web site for details.) Any kit should contain basic maneuvers and procedures books, regulations, the Aeronautical Information Manual, the Practical Test Standards (PTS), and other basics like a flight computer, plotter, test booklets, and a course syllabus. The PTS is a must because it outlines checkride requirements. Prepackaged kits usually have most of the basic equipment you need—except for a headset and clipboard. If you decide not to get a prepackaged kit, you’ll have to buy the individual items separately. We’ve listed many outlets from which you can get them. The individual flying books you need include: The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook; the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge; the FAR/AIM, a commercially produced book containing both federal regulations and the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) combined; Aviation Weather; Aviation Weather Services; and appropriate editions of the Airport/Facility Directory for areas in which you fly. The PTS lists additional books and manuals you might want to reference. You’ll pay less than $15 each for most of these books through the FAA. ASA, Jeppesen, and others also produce and sell their own versions of some of these publications. In addition, AOPA members can view much of this material online.
  • A good flight bag. Some kits come with flight bags, but if you buy your components individually, you’ll have to buy one. Maybe you already own a bag that will work. If you use a regular bag instead of purchasing a specially designed flight bag, be sure it will stand up on its own to give you easy access. Flight bags can cost anywhere from $40 to $300 and have features such as headset and chart pockets and pen and pencil holders. Everybody sells them.
  • A good headset. Unless you’d like to use the overhead speaker, lose your hearing, have to pick up a handheld microphone every time you make a radio call, and yell back and forth with your instructor...buy a headset! One Web site lists 29 headsets from eight different manufacturers at prices from $99.95 to $995. Headsets come in a variety of colors and styles, though most are conservative. Renting one from your FBO may also be an option. Twenty years ago, I bought a reasonably priced lower-end headset. In several thousand hours it has never failed. I’m still using it. You can buy a good headset for less than $200. Every catalog and Web site offers many choices. Some headsets require batteries. Most don’t. Some have fancy head pads. Some actively reduce noise, some do it passively, others don’t do it at all. Pick one that matches your needs and budget. Don’t forget a headset bag to protect your investment—$19.95 and up.
  • A reliable watch/clock/timer. A lot of things are timed in flying: How long it takes to fly a pattern, how long it takes from point A to point B on a cross-country...lots of things. Don’t spend an arm and a leg for an upscale aviation timer with bells and whistles. Radio Shack has a reliable timer for under $5.
  • A kneeboard/clipboard—something that will stay securely on your thigh. Maps, pencils, loose papers, and checklists are tough to retrieve from under the rudder pedals. You may choose to use a simple clipboard ($10 to $50) that will securely hold a checklist, notes, and a pencil. You may want to attach a non-slip surface such as a rubber pad to the back, or you may want to add a leg strap. Either approach will stop it from sliding off your lap in turbulence. You don’t need a fold-out aluminum flight planning laptop table, but you can buy ’em and may even find one useful. If possible, borrow one from a fellow pilot before you buy.
  • Maps/charts. FARs require pilots to obtain all pertinent information before every flight—that includes current aeronautical charts. Flying cross-country, you’ll have to draw your course lines on the appropriate sectional chart, measure distances, identify landmarks, and all the rest. Even for local flying you must have current information. If your training area includes any Class B airspace, you’ll need a separate VFR terminal area chart. Plan on spending less than $15 or so every few months for the charts you need, but shop around. Prices vary. Subscriptions are available too. AOPA members can get special rates by calling 800/4-CHARTS.
  • Flight computer/calculator. Some electronic calculators will literally talk to you, but you don’t really need them. Every pilot outlet sells more than one. Prices usually begin at $40 to $70 and go up from there. A manual computer (E6B type) like the one I’ve used for 40 years will cost you $25 to $30—maybe less from a fellow pilot who’s “gone electronic.” It’s a good idea to be able to use a manual flight computer, which is essentially a circular slide rule, but many pilots find electronic flight computers to be a worthwhile investment. Ask your instructor for recommendations.
  • Necessary forms (flight plans, training record, weather briefing forms, logbook, etc.). Prepackaged kits sometimes contain these. Whether or not your kit comes with them, you’ll want to get some preprinted forms to help you organize your planning and flight information. A logbook, in particular, is a must. Your instructor needs to record all of your training information in it, and you’ll have to show it to the examiner at the checkride. Get a training record and understand it. Keep track of what you’ve done and monitor your progress. Your instructor should keep it current for you.
  • A view limiting device. You’ll need this for practicing your instrument skills and for your checkride. Choose something comfortable. You’ll use it again and again if you go on to get your instrument rating.
  • An appropriate survival kit. Don’t plan to be picked up right away if you ever make an off-airport landing. If it freezes at night (or it’s hot and dry), think about what you’ll need to survive.

Where and how to buy

There are many sources for what you need. Visit the Web sites and call the telephone numbers. Look for specials. It pays to check out all of the following sources for gear:

  • Local flying club, pilot shop, or FBO: usually has kits at reasonable prices; sales tax, but no shipping costs.
  • Direct from the manufacturer (catalog or online): usually no sales tax but shipping can be expensive. I talked directly (toll-free) to the manufacturer of a $105 headset. He said shipping would be $9 or shipped “from across town,” it would be $4. Interesting. Ask and deal, if you can. Another vendor sold the same headset for $95.
  • Pilot supplies vendors (catalog or online): usually wide selection; possibly less expensive than manufacturer.
  • Catalog or on the World Wide Web: excellent selection; many vendors; shipping, but often no sales tax.

So, start with a list of what you need. Then price each item (including shipping). Get all your “stuff” together, then start flying. And fly safe!

Sources of Pilot Supplies
This is not a complete list of pilot supply sources but does include many of the best-known retailers and manufacturers.
Aircraft Spruce & Specialty www.aircraftspruce.com 877/4-SPRUCE
AVCOMM www.avcomm.com 800/845-7541
Aviation Book Company www.aviationbook.com 800/423-2708
Aviation Shopping Network www.avshop.net 800/805-9415
Aviation Supplies & Academics www.asa2fly.com 800/ASA-2-FLY
Cessna Aircraft www.cessna.com 800/4-CESSNA
Crew Gear www.crewgear.com 800/848-CREW
Flightcom Corp. www.flight-com.com 800/432-4342
Flight Suits Ltd. www.flightsuits.com 800/748-6693
Gleim Publications www.gleim.com 800/87-GLEIM
Hart Aviation www.hartaviation.com 800/859-7102
Historic Aviation www.historicaviation.com 800/225-5575
Jeppesen www.jeppesen.com 800/621-5377
Jet Stream www.jetstreamcat.com 800/470-2359
King Schools www.kingschools.com 800/854-1001
Landings.com www.landings.com 617/441-0455
Marv Golden Sales www.marvgolden.com 800/348-0014
MyPilotStore.com www.mypilotstore.com 877/314-7575
Noral Enterprises www.noralenterprises.com 877/996-6725
Pilot Portal www.pilotportal.com 219/269-1520
Rod Machado www.rodmachado.com 800/437-7080
Spinners Pilot Shop www.spinnerspilotshop.com 888/305-SPIN
Sporty’s Pilot Shop www.sportys.com 800/543-8633
Trade-A-Plane www.trade-a-plane.com 800/337-5263

As originally published in February 2001 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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