New student pilots are almost always surprised by the number of new items they are told they need to acquire when they start learning to fly.
‘Pilot Gear’, as it is generally known, has a way of multiplying, with pilots being told of something else essential that they need to buy with every new lesson. And, as your flying develops, there seem to be more and more things that might be a good idea to buy, particularly if you look at the catalogs for some of the larger pilot gear shops and websites.
So what items do pilots actually need, and which are just fairly useful, but not essential. And, most importantly, where do you go to find the best pilot gear, either as a new student or later on in your career as a pilot, private or professional?
We will take a look at the answers to all these questions, particularly how you can find the best pilot gear. But firstly, let’s take a look at the important question of what pilots actually need.
Important Pilot Gear
The following are the items that almost every pilot really needs. You might not need all of them for your very first flying lesson, but as soon as you qualify as a pilot you are likely to need them, if not earlier. I have divided them into essential items and optional items, but there is some overlap, and all of them are very useful.
Top 10 Essential Items
Older pilots or those with long memories will recall a time when every pilot had a massive flight bag, stuffed to the brim with hard copy navigation charts and log books.
Thankfully, electronic documents and log books have made such things something of the past, except for those pilots who still prefer them. But you will still need a bag to keep everything in, and hopefully have everything well organized.
Recommendation: ASA Air Classics Flight bag – good looking, a sensible size, and a reasonable price.
While almost any type of bag will do if necessary, even an old carrier bag, it is a much better idea to have something specially designed for pilots. It means you will have specific spaces and pockets for everything, with compartments especially for such items as headsets and handheld radios. And the bag itself will be of a suitable size to store in even a small aircraft.
Ipad and iPad Kneeboard Case
As mentioned above, pilots in general no longer have to struggle under the weight of a load of navigational charts, logbooks, notebooks, and supplemental documents.
Instead, you can now store them digitally on a mobile device, and this is what an increasing number of people do. For this purpose many pilots use a large-ish ipad, with around an 11 inch screen, which is big enough to make reading charts simple, but not too cumbersome to carry in your flight bag.
Recommendation: Use your own iPad of course, and for a case, the Flight Outfitters iPad slimline kneeboard is perfect.
An ipad kneeboard case is a specialist pilot’s item, and you really need one if you’re going to use your ipad in flight. The last thing you need is your ipad getting dropped in an inaccessible place when you are flying, particularly if you are flying solo.
Basically it is a case which straps to your upper thigh while you are flying, so that you can have both hands free. It really is almost essential.
Every pilot needs a headset, right from the very beginning of pilot training. At the start you may be able to use those belonging to the flight school, but later on you will definitely want your own, for hygiene purposes if nothing else. However, there is a wide variety available, so it may be best to hang on until you know what type you prefer.
Recommendation: A headset tends to be a personal choice, and depends very much on your budget. But at a reasonable price, try the ASA Air Classics HS-1A, which gets excellent reviews.
Checking for fuel quality is an important part of a pilot’s pre-flight check list, Again, a fuel tester could be something you can borrow from the flying school, but in the long run you are likely to find it better to have your own.
Recommendation: Sporty’s Fuel Tester is not expensive and is perfectly adequate.
Hand Held Radio
Most aircraft have radios, but even the best radio can unexpectedly fail. So it is important to have a backup, particularly if you are in controlled airspace or flying IFR, ie in instrument conditions. You may not use this item often, if at all. But it is essential to have it.
Recommendation: You won’t go far wrong with Sporty’s SP-400 handheld NAV/COM aviation radio.
However, do make sure you know how to use your hand held radio. I once had radio failure when I was flying solo near a large airport, and I had completely forgotten how to work my hand held radio, I had to orbit, alone in the aircraft, for quite a while, working out exactly how my radio worked. I was OK in the end, but I really don’t recommend this!
OK, so these look cool! But this is not their main purpose. They are not an extra, but are essential for maximizing visibility in flight and also reducing eye fatigue. Again, a lot of different types are available.
Recommendation: Serengeti medium aviator sunglasses are recommended by many pilots
Like your hand held radio, this is again something of an emergency item, but is always a very good idea. A lamp which attaches to your head is probably best, allowing you to have both hands free. But an ordinary flashlight will do if that is all you have.
Recommendation: If you decide to get a head attaching flashlight, try Flight Outfitter’s Dual Color Pilot’s Headlamp
First aid Kit
Another emergency item, and it is obviously prudent to have a small first aid kit for emergencies when you are flying. This is something else you may never need, but it is a very good idea to have it.
Recommendation: There are a large number of these available, not specifically for pilots. A four person one should be adequate unless you tend to carry a lot of passengers.
Pilot’s License, Medical Certificate, and Photo Id
It is not just a good idea to carry these with you on every flight; it is actually a legal requirement, at least in the US. It is possible to buy a special aviation document bag to keep them in, and this could be a good idea.
Recommendation: If you decide to buy an aviation document bag, Pilotshop’s Aircraft Document Case is excellent and very reasonably priced.
Snacks and Bottled Water
These are not just an afterthought. If you are on a long flight, you need to keep hydrated and also make sure you have enough to eat. I have occasionally landed at an airport and found everything closed, with nowhere to stock up on food and water. So at the very least make sure you always carry a bottle of water and some energy bars, just in case this happens to you.
Recommendation: Simply buy your own favourite snacks; these are not a specialist item!
Top 10 Optional Items
We will now take a look at some other items of pilot gear that you might want to obtain, though maybe not immediately. Some of them are more important than others.
Kneeboard with Pen and Paper
This may seem rather old fashioned, particularly as I have been emphasizing using modern technology. But it could be a good backup to your ipad, just in case something goes wrong. You should be able to use the same kneeboard as you use for your ipad, but do check that this will actually work.
Recommendation: Your Ipad kneeboard should work fine in most instances.
Hard Copy Navigation Charts
It is a good idea to carry a set of charts necessary for your flight, again as a backup in case anything happens to your ipad.
Recommendation: Simply buy those you actually need; they will be available from any Pilot Shop, or quite possibly your own flight school.
Portable Battery Pack
Some pilots would say this is essential, considering how dependent most of us are on our modern electronic devices. If you are very careful to keep everything fully charged this may not be the case, but a portable battery pack is certainly a good idea, to extend the life of your devices or for emergency use.
Recommendation: The MERL BP-1005 battery pack should be adequate for emergency use.
Extra tools are always useful, although perhaps not immediately for the new student pilot. But perhaps make sure you have a pocket knife or multitool, plus some microfiber towels and extra oil, at the very least.
Recommendation: Again, these are items you may well have at home, and you can choose the ones you think will be useful
Nobody likes to think they might need survival, but it is a good idea to at least carry a pocket compass and an emergency beacon. Of course, survival situations differ a great deal.
You may get stranded away from home, but not in particularly uncomfortable surroundings. But after getting stuck on the ground one night due to extensive thunderstorms, and having to find overnight accommodation, I decided to always carry spare underwear and a toothbrush in my flight bag!
Recommendation: As I did, decide which items you want, and keep them in your flight bag.
This is by no means essential, but many pilots like to splash out on a good looking leather flying jacket or something similar. There is a large variety of these available from specialist pilot stores. Of course, if you fly open cockpit aircraft, a good jacket may be essential.
Recommendation: There are a huge number of these available at various prices. But if you want something a bit special, take a look at the G-1 Leather Jacket from Pilotshop.
There are a huge number of these, and you will probably have been recommended some of them by your flying school. But you might want to buy others, and perhaps to keep in your flight bag.
Recommendation: If you are a student pilot, use the books recommended by your flying school. Later on in your career, you will be able to decide for yourself which ones you prefer and want to carry with you.
Manual Flight Computer (E6B)
This is basically a circular slide rule, and these were extensively used by earlier generations of pilots, although it is less common for them to be used now. Nevertheless, some flight schools do teach their use to students and a perhaps surprising number of pilots still carry on navigating with them. Again, this could be a good backup if your electronic devices fail.
Recommendation: The Jeppesen Student CSG Computer is budget prices and quite adequate.
Most people carry a watch of some type, and this is almost essential when flying. You really don’t need a special aviation one, although they do look very cool. But if you want one, there is a wide choice available.
Recommendation: Again, an item with a huge variety of types and prices. But the Smith & Wesson Commando Watch is not expensive and is very nice looking.
It is highly likely that you are carrying a phone anyway; most of us do these days. But if not, it is a very good idea when flying. If you really can’t contact anyone by radio, or you have an accident, it is essential to be able to get in touch with someone, and then a phone is essential.
However, do bear in mind that you aren’t supposed to use it in flight except in an absolute emergency.
Recommendation: Use whichever mobile phone you prefer. And if you are one of the few people who doesn’t own one, buy one now before you go flying!
Where to Buy Your Pilot Gear
There are a large number of different places where you can buy all the pilot gear you need. Basically these places can be split into four categories:
- Specialist pilot shops and websites
- Shops attached to flight schools
- Ebay and similar online outlets
- Secondhand items obtainable from other pilots
We will take a look at each of these in turn.
Specialist Shops and Websites
These are probably the best places to obtain all the pilot gear you need, particularly if you want a large choice and to buy a number of items. They will have a wide variety, and they often sell ‘starter packs’ suitable for the student pilot starting out, with everything you need, at least in the beginning.
There are a large number of these outlets, some national and others regional and local. We will take a look at some of the best and most popular.
Sporty’s Pilot Shop
Sporty’s is the world’s largest pilot shop, and has been offering aviation supplies and products for over 50 years. Based in Ohio, they also offer training, charter, and aircraft sales. And they have an extensive range of pilot gear for all needs. You can find details of them here.
Pilotshop is a worldwide distributor of certified and homebuilt aircraft supplies. The Irwin family, who run the company, have been active in the aircraft parts and pilot supply business since 1965. Pilotshop was founded in 2003, and has become a leading supplier to pilots worldwide since that date. You can find them here.
Pilot Mall describe themselves as a one-stop shop for pilot gear, pilot supplies, aviation headsets, pilot accessories, and aviation equipment. You can find further details here.
My Pilot Store
My Pilot Store is a pilot supply store offering charts, GPS, headsets, transceivers, handheld radios, flight bags, headsets, kneeboards, pilot guides, maps, aviation books, and many other items of pilot gear. You can find out more here.
Airport Pilot Shop
This company describes itself as the number one online store for all pilot and aviation products. You can find them here.
There are a number of other specialist pilot stores, and also some companies specializing in particular items, such as clothing for pilots.
To be honest, there is not a great deal to choose between any of them. You can get excellent pilot gear from any of these places. After all, pilots have been using them for many years, and generations of pilots are unlikely to be wrong.
We will take a look now at the other places that sell pilot gear.
Flight School Shops
Most flight schools carry a range of pilot gear to sell to their own students, sometimes quite a large selection, or maybe just a few essentials if it is a small flight school.
They may not have as great a variety as the large online stores of course. However, you will probably be able to obtain advice, possibly from your own instructor, as to what you actually need to obtain at this point.
If you are a new student, this may be a better option for you, at least until you have some flying experience. There is really no point in buying absolutely everything at the beginning of your flying course, unless you really want to.
Ebay and Other Online Outlets
You can find a wealth of pilot gear on ebay and similar sites; simply do a search on ‘pilot gear’. Some of this will be secondhand, and some from people who have bought things and then decided flying is not for them so they are selling them on unused.
A number of flight stores also use these sites as outlets. You may find this easier than other methods of obtaining pilot gear, and you may be able to pick up a bargain this way. But you do need to know just what you are looking for.
Secondhand Items Obtained from Other Pilots
Other pilots, both current ones and those who have given up flying for some reason, maybe a good source of pilot gear. This is particularly the case if you are looking for older items such as manual flight computers, which a lot of pilots sell on when they have finished with flying training and obtaining qualifications.
This may be the cheapest way to get your pilot gear, but again, you do need to know what you are looking for.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Buying from Different Outlets
The advantage of buying from the specialist pilot hops such as Sporty’s is that they have an incredibly extensive range. You will have a great deal of choice, and absolutely anything you want is likely to be available. However, the main disadvantage is that you are quite likely to end up buying too much, and you will get stuff you don’t really need.
Specialist shops are there primarily to make money, and they will try to sell you every item of pilot gear which has ever existed. So if you are new to flying and don’t know that much about it, they may not be the best place to start.
The advantage of buying from your own flying school is that they are likely to sell you only those items that you actually need. You will be able to get advice, and won’t end up buying things that you never use.
The disadvantage of course is that they are unlikely to have a very wide choice. So if you are past the beginning stages of flying, and know what you want, this may not be the best place for you, especially if you want something relatively unusual.
Buying from Ebay and/or other pilots can be a bit hit and miss. You may be able to get good stuff and save a lot of money, or you may find that not much is available at the time you are looking. These are perhaps best left for when you have a certain amount of flying experience, are not in a hurry, and you are looking for a specific item.
So where is the best place to obtain your pilot gear? I would recommend buying what you need as a student from your own flying school, for all the reasons already mentioned. Then, at a later date, have a look at what the specialist shops have to offer and see if they have what you want.
Hopefully by then you will have enough experience to choose sensibly from among the huge variety of pilot gear with which you will be presented. And of course when you have that experience, you will know whether an item on Ebay or being sold by another pilot is a good bargain, or no real use to you.
Other Points to Consider
Different Types of Flying
Not every pilot will need exactly the same things. This article is talking mainly about the average private pilot, flying the most common types of aircraft.
But if, for example, you fly open cockpit aircraft, you might find that it is worth spending a large amount of money on a warm flying jacket, something which would be an unnecessary extravagance for most of us.
If you fly small helicopters, you may find you need a different type of kneeboard, for example, to fit in a more confined space. Some people will want everything to be digital, others prefer pen and paper. If you are a commercial pilot, your company may specify certain items, particularly when it comes to clothing.
So this is one reason for not buying too much at the start, as it may take a while before you know exactly what type of flying you want to do.
If you are on a tight budget, you may want to make sure you only buy what you really need at the present time. If this is the case, be guided by your instructor. But if money is not an issue, feel free to browse the specialist shops, and get more expensive items if you like the look of them.
How Experienced are You?
Again, if you are a student pilot, don’t buy too much, and be guided by your instructor. But if you are an experienced pilot, you will probably know what you want. And you can shop around at the specialist shops quite safely.
Don’t Stint on Safety
No matter what you decide to get, safety should be paramount. Make sure you have spare batteries for digital items, a handheld radio, food and water, and anything else which might help you if the going gets tough, or even save your life in an emergency.
It is far better to buy these things, and carry your pilot gear in a supermarket carrier bag if necessary, than to buy gear which looks good but miss out the safety related essentials.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: I am Just Starting to Learn to Fly. Should I Buy a ‘Starter Kit’, or Get all Items Individually?
Answer: This is a very important question. Many specialist shops and some flying schools sell a selection of items for new pilots as a starter kit. They will often save you money over the individual items, and they look like a good deal.
But they are only worth getting if you actually need all the items in them. Often that is not the case. So unless you are quite certain, I would say it is better to buy individual items as and when you need them.
Question: I Struggle with Modern Technology. Can I Buy and Use Paper Charts and other Documents?
Answer: You most certainly can, and many pilots still do. However, you will save space in your flight bag if you can use digital maps and other items, and this could be important if you are going on a long flight with passengers and are running the risk of overloading the aircraft.
So I would suggest you try to learn the technology required. But it is not absolutely essential to do so if you really don’t want to.
Question: What Flying Books do I Need?
Answer: Your flight school will be able to advise you on what books you need for your Private Pilot License exams. After this the choice is yours. Some people like to read a lot around the subject of aviation, others do not. But at the start, be guided by your instructor.
Question: Where Can I Buy Leather Flying Jackets?
Answer: All the large specialist aviation shops sell leather flying jackets; some have a very wide choice. There are also a few sites specializing in these jackets. Cockpit USA has an excellent selection, see https://cockpitusa.com/.
It is actually not difficult to find the best pilot gear. In fact, you are quite spoiled for choice, as a massive amount is available, to suit all types of pilots, all kinds of flying, and all budgets. It really is your choice, and the main difficulty may be ensuring that you do not buy too much.
However, if the huge amount of choice makes it difficult for you to decide, I would suggest you start off by buying just what you need from your own flying school, being guided by your instructor.
Later on, when you are more experienced, you can buy more from one of the specialist pilot stores. All of them are good, but perhaps the best place to do this would be from Sporty’s Pilot’s Shop. After all, they are the oldest and most established outlet for pilot gear in the world. Can generations of pilots all be wrong?
Meanwhile, if you are short of money or want a bargain, and enjoy shopping around, it might be worth taking a look at Ebay once in a while, for extras or specific items, and keeping an eye open for second-hand items or gear that other pilots want to sell.
After that, organize your new flight bag and its contents, make sure you have everything you need in terms of pilot gear, and go out and enjoy your flying. After all, that is what this is all about!
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Pilot Institute https://pilotinstitute.com/pilot-gear/
Pilot Gear Online https://www.pilotgearonline.com/asa-color-e6-b-manual-flight-computer/
Sporty’s Pilot Shop. https://www.sportys.com/
Pilot Mall https://www.pilotmall.com/
My Pilot Store https://www.mypilotstore.com/mypilotstore/
Airport Pilot Shop https://www.airportpilotshop.com/