Plane Answers: What’s really in a pilot’s ‘kitbag?’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

James asks:

Hi Kent,

I’ve always wondered what is in a professional pilots flight bag? Is there a difference between what the FO brings versus the captain? Furthermore with respect to airport diagrams and charts, do you carry only the approach and departure plates for the destinations you are flying to?

Ahh, yes. The kitbag. A twenty-five pound behemoth that constantly reminds pilots that we’re a long way from a paperless cockpit. Although Boeing and Airbus have recently introduced built-in electronic flight bags to their airplanes, those of us flying the older generation aircraft still need to carry around suitcases full of charts, manuals and procedures.

Since Gadling features a “What’s in your pack” series, I think it’s about time to ‘fess up about my tote.

As a kid, my friend and I would grab a couple of chairs and my dad’s retired kitbag full of discarded, outdated approach plates, and position ourselves so we were inside a closet, imagining we were pilots. I had no idea what the contents of the kitbag were for, but I knew we needed them to fly.

So what exactly is in one of those bags? Let’s start with the heaviest part first.

Jeppesen Approach Plates

There’s a company based in Denver that has specialized in creating maps and instrument approach charts for aviation use since 1934. What started out as a $10 book that early United pilots carried, turned into a large corporation that is now owned by Boeing.

We carry up to two of these volumes that weigh at least 3 pounds each. For international pilots, a domestic book and Europe, South America or Pacific manual is carried. These manuals include every conceivable landing airport we might fly to, along with alternate and emergency airports.

The books are updated every week or two with an envelope delivered to our mailbox at work containing the latest pages to be replaced. The most minute change at an airport will require a new set of these ‘plates’ that have to be swapped out.

Lots of occupations require a person to bring the work home with them–but pilots, for the most part, could leave their job at the door when coming home if it weren’t for these revisions.

Aircraft Manuals

There are three manuals for each airplane airplane our company operates. Two of them are about the same size as the Jeppesen binders, but we’re only required to carry one, the operating manual, which details the limitations, procedures and systems of our airplane. The other manual stays at home and it goes deeper into the aircraft design.

The third manual is much smaller than the other two. It’s called the Quick Response Handbook (QRH) and it combines all the emergency and abnormal procedures that we may need to accomplish. Emergency procedures, which cover engine fires, smoke in the cabin, rapid depressurization, etc., are marked with red tabs. Abnormal procedures, which deal with everything else, such as overweight landings, oven overheats and volcanic ash encounters, are marked with orange tabs.
Company Procedures and Regulations Manual

The captain is required to carry a manual we call “Part 1″ which covers the company rules, procedures and FAA regulations. In this manual you’ll find information on flight planning, crew qualifications and responsibilities, approach and landing regulations and even specifics on our uniform dress code (black socks are OK, blue are not).

Aircraft Specific Minimum Equipment List

The FAA requires that everything operates on an aircraft before it can depart. But they understand that a flight needn’t be delayed to fix a seat-back recline mechanism for a seat that won’t be used, or an oven that’s inoperative.

So the airline, working with the FAA, has come up with a list of the minimum equipment needed to fly an airplane. Pilots call this the MEL and they refer to it anytime something isn’t working properly while on the ground. If the specific item isn’t in the MEL, (the extreme example is, say the LEFT WING) then obviously the airplane isn’t legal to fly.

On our airplane, the Captain carries the 757 MEL and the co-pilot and relief pilot, if there is one, carry the 767 MEL.

Trip Book

This is entirely optional. But I carry a smaller binder with the approach plates and maps for the more common airports that I fly to. Right now, I have the Jeppesen pages for Boston, Miami, London, San Juan, Santo Domingo, St. Thomas, Aruba and Cancun in there, but it can change every month as we add or remove destinations from my base.

I also carry the normal procedures paper checklist in this book, an RNAV approach guide and a quick reference guide to be used if our airlines dispatching computer system is offline before a departure.

Other Items

The FAA also requires that we carry a Flashlight adequate to accomplish all required tasks as well as a spare pair of glasses or contacts if we wear corrective lenses.

The airline provides a headset and wearable microphone in each airplane, but many pilots, myself included, prefer to buy our own type to use. I’ve tried a number of them so far, but most recently I’ve been using the Telex Airman 850.

And most importantly, I always carry a camera with me. I prefer to use something with a wide-angle lens, and the Panasonic LX3 is perfect for a kitbag camera. If I had more room in my bag, I’d bring a DSLR on every trip, but the added weight and bulk of the full sized Canon means the Panasonic sees more frequent use.

I often carry a Sigg water bottle with me as well.

Can’t we make this bag lighter?

In the past few years, our company has allowed us to carry what’s called a Class 1 Electronic Flight Bag. It’s a fancy name for a laptop, essentially. I have a Macbook loaded with the company manuals in a PDF format along with an extra battery and powerport charger.

This allows me to ditch the regulations manual, the MEL and the aircraft manual. I now only carry the QRH and the trip book in my kitbag, and I’ve been putting the larger two Jeppesen manuals which we’re still required to carry, in my main suitcase which sits behind my seat, since we rarely need access to them.

So with a need for a much smaller bag, I searched for the perfect solution. After reading Scott Carmichael’s review of the Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer, I figured this could be the lightweight bag I need. And maybe I’d set a new trend in pilot kitbags.


/>I have a feeling this type of bag will be far more common in the future among airline pilots, especially as cockpits enter the 21st century. The Tom Bihn bag had all the features I wanted and a few that I didn’t realize I needed.

It includes a fold out section that houses a laptop, which the TSA now allows in lieu of taking the computer out of it’s case. Flip out the laptop portion and let it slide through security. It’s definitely been a time saver, especially when you have to go through the process two or three times a day.

There are side pockets that hold my camera and headset perfectly, and the main section which holds the trip book and QRH. They’ve even got a small pocket on both ends that’s perfect for a flashlight and keys.

I shouldn’t be too surprised at the pilot oriented layout for this bag, since Tom Bihn’s dad was a Pan Am pilot.

I can think of no less than five pilots who have done damage significant enough to require surgery while lifting their full-sized kitbags into the cockpit. This Tom Bihn bag, coupled with the EFB and Jeppesen manuals relocated to a wheeled suitcase is my attempt at avoiding injury.

Hopefully airlines will retrofit their airplanes quickly with electronic flight bags, in which case, the behemoth kitbag might be a thing of the past.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.