The Flight Kit Demystified!

An authentic airline pilot’s flight kit

You’ve seen them… Those bags that pilots drag around airport terminals. No, not the suitcases, the smaller, catalog-style bags. What do they keep in those things? And they look pretty heavy, too.

Well, pull up a chair and get comfy. It’s time to demystify… The Pilot’s Flight Kit.

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[Editor’s Note: Paper charts are being replaced by electronic tablets (iPad, Microsoft Surface). Pilots still carry all the important stuff mentioned in this article, but the printed stuff is now mostly digital.]

First off, the kits are heavy; mine weighs about 35 lbs. They are no fun to lug around, but they contain some really important stuff. Almost everything in the bag is required by the FAA. Exceptions include my stash of Halloween candy and a pack of Starbucks Via coffee singles… I’ll share if you’re nice!

So what’s in the kit? We’ll start with the easy stuff:

You gotta have a flashlight
In olden times, the flashlight had to be powered by at least 2 D-cell batteries. This ensured the light would be bright enough to illuminate the cockpit in the event of a power failure at night (a very bad thing). When I started flying professionally in the mid 1980’s, I carried a 3 D-cell Maglite that could double as a self-defense weapon. Thankfully, times have changed. My current light is a small, blindingly bright LED powered by 3 AAA batteries.

Backup Battery
For many of us using iPads on the flight deck, a backup battery is required. Some aircraft are retrofitted with built-in charging cords. Configurations and requirements vary from airline to airline.

Extra Spectacles
I’m over 40; way over (but thanks for asking). I need glasses to see – anything. So I’m required to carry an extra pair when I fly. That’s probably a good idea.

Required Reading
Most airlines require pilots to carry a thick book with information about the plane they fly. Different companies have different names for the book, but they all contain detailed guidelines on how the company wants you to operate their machine. Airlines are really picky about how you do things when they hand you the keys for a $200 million dollar aircraft. The book is an important in-flight reference.

Checklists – Check!
Laminated cards with bullet points of items we really, really don’t want to forget. We have two types of checklists: Normal Procedures and Abnormal Procedures. We try not to use the Abnormal Procedures checklist too often.

Plotter and Computer
Plotter & E6BAhhhh… These go way back. The circular slide rule thingie is a variant of the classic E-6B computer, affectionately known as the “Whiz-Wheel”. Developed back in the 1930’s, the E-6B can be used for solving just about any type of navigation problem or conversion. It’s a truly amazing device that we must carry for over water flights. When students go through initial flight training (private or military) they become masters of this thing. For me, that was over 30 years ago; I haven’t a clue how to use it now. If I’m ever over the Pacific and things are that bad, I’ll pull out my iPhone and use my freebie E-6B app. The ruler-looking thing is a plotter, nothing more than a glorified staight-edge. It’s great for drawing, uhmm, straight lines. 

Navigation – Do you know the way to San José?
By far, most of the weight in our flight bags can be blamed on navigation charts. We have a lot of them. If you’re interested in the sordid details with some examples, please read on!

Enroute Charts

I'm pretty sure Albuquerque is in here somewhere.
Albuquerque is in here somewhere.

Enroute charts are maps that show the highways in the sky. They are used during the cruise portion of the flight to navigate from one part of the country to another. The charts are the same size as a typical road map (does anyone still use a road map?). I’m required to carry about 45 of these. The navigation systems of most modern airliners include much of this information in their database. Occasionally, we’ll need to find something on the chart, so we have them when we need them.

Terminal Procedure Charts (referred to as “Approach Plates”)
binderTerminal charts provide pilots with routes for arriving and departing airport terminal areas. Airports often have several arrival and departure routes. Each runway will have one or more instrument approach charts for landing in bad weather. The charts are kept in a 2” thick binder. Pilots usually carry two or three of these heavy binders. Every two weeks, a packet of updates (or “revisions”) are issued and any obsolete charts must be removed and replaced with new ones. This is a task despised by pilots all over the planet. Some guys pay their kids to do it. I think a nickel a page is the going rate.

Here are the main types of terminal charts we use:

SID – Standard Instrument Departure

BNA Departure
Click image for full view

SIDs display routes to fly right after takeoff. They help move air traffic efficiently away from the airport. Small airports might have one or two SIDs (or none), while larger airports can have a dozens. Shanghai’s Pudong International has 44 pages of SIDs containing over 100 different departure procedures! Ouch. Fortunately, air traffic control will tell the pilots which procedure they expect them to fly.

STAR – Standard Terminal Arrival Routes

BNA Arrival
Click image for full view

STARs enable the pilot to transition from cruise to the approach phase. The STAR route ends about 5-10 miles from the runway. Upon completing the STAR, the pilot will then fly a visual approach to the runway (the pilot can see the runway out the window and doesn’t need any more help from the stinking charts!) or an instrument approach with the help of an “Instrument Approach Procedure” chart. Busy airports almost always make us fly the instrument approach regardless of the weather. It keeps a more orderly flow of traffic.

Many small airports don’t need STARs. Large airports can have dozens of them. Good old Shanghai has 17 pages of STARs containing over 70 different arrival routes. I get a headache every time I fly there.

IAP – Instrument Approach Procedures

BNA Approach
Click image for full view

The IAP chart picks up where the STAR leaves off. It provides the information needed for the flight crew to make an instrument approach and landing on the runway.  Some approaches, usually at larger airports, allow specially equipped aircraft (and specially trained crews) to land in extremely low visibility. That’s right – you can’t see your hand in front of your face, but commerce can keep moving!

Airport Diagram

BNA Taxi Diagram
Click image for full view

Some airports are really big. And really confusing. Thankfully, the airport diagram helps us find our way. All the taxiways are marked with letters. When the controller wants the pilot to taxi a certain route, the route will be given as a series of phonetic alphabet letters. Like: “Taxi via Bravo, Kilo, Tango4 to the Connector then to gate 23”. It might sound like greek, but if you peek at the Nashville taxi diagram you’ll be able to find taxiway B, K, T4 and the connector. They have signs along the way to help us out as well. Look out your window next time you fly – you’ll see the taxiway signs!

Odds & Ends

The flight kit is also the pilot’s purse. If you dump everything out of the average pilot’s flight kit, you’ll typically find an assortment of stuff including (but not limited to):

  • Instant coffee (most popular: Starbucks Via)
  • Noise canceling headset
  • Magazines
  • Hearing protection (ear plugs)
  • Yellow safety vest
  • Assortment of hotel pens. Borrowed, of course – to be returned upon retirement!
  • Laptop or tablet (iPad, Android, Surface, etc)
  • Passport, pilot license, radio permit, medical certificate
  • Inflatable seat cushion
  • Baseball cap
  • Camera
  • Family photos
  • Selfie stick – apparently the latest trend
  • Sewing kit (borrowed from a hotel amenity tray)
  • Candy
  • Chewing gum (stays in the bag in Singapore due to the chewing gum ban).

Some of the more interesting and unusual stuff I’ve seen or heard pilots carry:


  • A bottle of Tabasco Sauce – because:  inflight food!
  • Pepper grinder – same as above.
  • “Flying Gloves.” I’ve seen white cotton and leather. Seems silly to me.
  • I flew with a first officer that carried a small espresso machine in his kit (his books were in a backpack). We had the best coffee on his flights.
  • Legend has it that a now retired pilot (for an airline I won’t mention) carried a large crystal in his bag to ward off negative energy. He was one strange bird!

Have you heard about pilots carrying odd items with them? Let me know in the comments!

So that’s about it. All this stuff is crammed into the catalog cases that you see pilots dragging around airport terminals. Huh? What? Lately you’ve see pilots wandering around the airport without a flight kit?  Read the next article in this series: “iPads in the cockpit”!

Note: example charts were obtained from the FAA’s Digital Products page.


  1. I am a VFR helicopter pilot and I carry a backpack as a flightbag. Luckily we don’t need Jeppesen binders and IFR charts but I have many maps with varying scales. I also carry a Swiss Army knife and a Gerber multi-tool. Flying in the mountains without sunscreen, NOPES! I also carry a kneeeboard!

    P.S. Great article; happy landings!

  2. Great list, Ken!

    SOOO glad we went EFB last year! Now I have room for my NEW flight kit: Computer, noise-cancelling headphones (for the flight deck, not tunes!), and a book, mag or two.

    And, in answer to your question, my roller board contains about 5 lb. of clothes…and about 80 lb. of electronics and books! LOL…I am NOT a light traveler! ;o)

    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

    • Hi, Eric,

      I absolutely LOVE our iPads. What a great safety enhancement!

      I can’t believe I forgot to include a headset in the list (I really should take a peek in my OWN kit some time).

      I’ve had folks comment: “Pilots don’t need the chart bags anymore because of the iPad.” Not true. Thanks to the iPad, there’s more room in the chart bag to haul more junk!

      Thanks for reading!

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