Flight Bag Essentials

Flight Bag Essentials

Aug 17, 2021

One of a student pilot’s first purchases after he or she starts taking flying lessons is often a flight bag. But what should you carry in it to help ensure the flight is legal, safe, and comfortable?

Federal Aviation Regulations clearly spell out the items you must carry with you when you’re flying. To comply with 14 CFR § 61.3, a student must have in his or her possession a student pilot certificate, current medical certificate, and government-issued photo identification card (such as a driver’s license or passport). If flying solo, you must also carry your logbook with the appropriate endorsements by your instructor (14 CFR § 61.51).

While this takes care of the legal requirements, there are a number of additional items you should consider carrying with you, and these fall into two categories: great (and maybe even necessary) to have, and good to have.

What basic items should I carry in my flight bag?

If you’re flying in airspace where radio communication is required, you’ll need to pack a headset. Some flight bags have large pockets to hold a standard headset. And if you’re using a model with noise-cancelling capabilities, make sure the batteries are fresh—and bring spare batteries as a backup.

You should also have a current sectional chart and chart supplement (previously referred to as the airport directory) for your area, either a paper version or an electronic version loaded on your iPad or other device.

Student Flight Bag

A kneeboard and/or yoke- or window-mount for your iPad or other electronic device helps you keep your charts, notes, and other materials within easy reach. Chargers and cords, especially on longer flights, help keep your devices powered. And, of course, you’ll want to make sure you pack pens or pencils or, for your electronic devices, a stylus so you can jot down frequencies, squawk codes, and ATC instructions.

It’s also helpful to have printed airport diagrams on hand for both destination airports and alternates. They provide critical information about runways, taxiways, and frequencies and are a good backup in case your electronic devices fail. (The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Website allows you to search for free, printable, kneeboard-formatted diagrams.)

Sunglasses aren’t only for the summer. Winter glare, when the sun reflects off of the snow, can be especially hazardous without shades. If you’re flying in an airplane with a glass cockpit, make sure your sunglasses are non-polarized, as polarized glasses distort the image of digital displays. And if you depend on a prescription for seeing, make sure you have a pair of prescription sunglasses on board along with your regular glasses. 

If you’re flying at night, you’ll need a small flashlight with a red lens to protect your night vision while conducting your pre-flight and getting organized in the cockpit before takeoff. It’s also a good idea to have a small red light that can clip to the bill of your cap or seatbelt so you can read your chart or notes while freeing up your hands for flying.

Is there anything else that would be helpful to pack in my flight bag?

There are some items a student pilot may need to bring if they’re not already provided by the instructor, flight school, or fixed base operator (FBO) providing your aircraft. These include:

  • A fuel tester (ideally one with a screwdriver on one end so you can snug up a loose screw on the cowling, if need be), and a fuel gauge for checking fuel quantities during your visual inspection of the tanks.
  • A view-limiting device (aka foggles or hood), used for instrument practice.
  • Paper towels, for checking the oil or wiping bugs off the windshield.
  • Wheel chocks. While you probably won’t actually put these in your flight bag, it’s not a bad idea to have a pair in the airplane in case you land at an airport without an FBO and need to park, especially on a windy day.
Student Flight Bag

What items should I pack to help keep me safe in case of an emergency?

Lots of factors determine what to carry with you to manage an emergency, including the terrain, season, and weather. While you’re still training as a student pilot, however, when you’ll either be with an instructor or flying a route approved by your CFI, there are just a few items you should consider carrying to prevent—or in case you have to make—an off-airport landing.

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real risk, especially in the winter when you use your airplane’s heater. If you’re renting an airplane for your training, it may already include a carbon monoxide detector (though it may just be the sticker version with an orange dot that turns gray or black when CO is in the air). But it’s not a bad idea to have one of your own.
  • A cockpit can get cold quickly when the temperatures are below zero, so in the winter, be sure to bring a warm jacket, gloves, and hat.
  • Having a snack and small bottle of water on hand is also a good idea, especially during cross-country flights.
  • A basic first aid kit is good to have on hand, even if it just includes some band aids, antibiotic ointment, alcohol wipes, and gauze. 
  • A handheld radio is a good backup tool should the power in your airplane fail (but be sure you’ve thoroughly read the operating instructions and loaded fresh batteries before leaving the ground).

How do I keep all this stuff organized?

It’s a good idea to tidy up your flight bag before leaving the house for your flight. Throw away old scratch sheets, spent batteries, and oily paper towels you may have stuffed in there last time. Replenish notepad paper, charge your devices, and take out items you’re unlikely to need for the day. If you’re only planning to practice touch-and-goes in the pattern at your home airport, you can probably leave your iPad and associated mounting gear at home.

Beyond that, make sure whatever you’ll need for today’s flight is easy to access. Organize your bag to keep the most critical items you’ll need during your flight on you, near you, or within easy reach during your flight. Some things, like your sectional charts, you’ll want to clip to your kneeboard before taking off. The last thing you want to do, especially during critical phases of flight like landing, is reach behind to fish around for something in the flight bag you stowed on the seat behind you, which is a recipe for entering a stall, inadvertent bank, or for experiencing spatial disorientation.

How much is too much to pack in my flight bag? As with any hobby or endeavor, there’s really no end to the gadgets and aids you could buy for your flight bag. Your best bet? Begin with the basics. And as you get further along in your training and after you get your license, you can acquire the tools that really help you be a safer, more capable, and more confident pilot.