What do Pilots Carry?

Q: And what do you carry in those black bags?

The bulk of the ubiquitous black flight case consists of aircraft operating manuals, a company operations manual, and heavy, leather-bound navigational binders. In these binders are the maps, charts, airport diagrams, and other technical arcana needed enroute. Unlike those a GA pilot might use, they are tailored to the specific airline. Different crewmembers carry slightly different volumes.

The only thing a pilot dreads more than a Chapter 11 bankruptcy is having to collate and insert the constant revisions to these books. The pages are replaced by hand, one at a time. When I was a second officer, one captain offered to pay me $5 for each batch of revisions I took care of for him. If this sounds unnecessarily tedious, it is, and some airlines are turning to virtual manuals, equipping their crews with laptops and easily-updated CDs.

The rest of the inventory includes a headset, flashlight, and a library of checklists, booklets, and miscellaneous pages of company or aircraft-related literature. Then there are the personal sundries: stickies, pens, calculators, earplugs and ramen noodles to be heated in the hotel coffee maker during those 9-hour layovers.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.