Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Minimalist Pilot

Pilots tend to be gadget-meisters and it's not uncommon for us to obsess over headsets, watches, flashlights, kneeboards, timers, you name it. Yet there tends to be a lot of individual variation in what we do and don't like: One size usually doesn't fit all. Learning what works for you requires experimentation. Sometimes you buy and then regret, but sometimes you can learn from other pilots' experiences. I've decided to go with as little stuff as necessary and here are some thoughts on pursuing a minimalist approach by selecting essential, functional, and lightweight piloting paraphernalia.

New iPad Kneeboard

My decision to lighten my flight bag came about 3 months ago and was made possible by two factors. First is my headset of choice (Lightspeed Mach 1) is very compact and lightweight. But the most far-reaching development was my adoption of the iPad for virtually all of my charting and note-taking needs. Though there are a few back-up paper charts in my flight bag, I gave up using notepaper or a conventional kneeboard. Finding the appropriate way to mount or hold the iPad, now that's a challenge.

You may remember reading my review of Russ Sill's Tech Board, which I liked but found a bit too pricey. I ended up creating my own kneeboard solution using an aftermarket iPad case, but now Russ has announced a new iPro Aviator kneeboard that is much more cost effective and adds some new features like an integrated kickstand for tabletop viewing. The iPro Aviator goes on sale on November 1, 2010 for $79.95, but you can pre-order one for $59.95 until October 15, 2010 by clicking on this link.


After much searching for an inexpensive and minimalist iPad flight bag, I found a good fit in the Timbuktu Freestyle Notebook Messenger. It holds my headset, has a slot for my iPad, a pocket for my Xaon traffic detector, and has just enough room for the other essentials I carry. Make no mistake, this bag is small, but that challenges one to look for small accessories. And I like challenges!


The Petzl e+LITE LED headlamp is not cheap at about $25, but it offers a lot of performance in a small package. Weighing in at just 28 grams and taking up less space than a set of car keys allows me to carry two of these babies in my mini flight bag. The e+LITE runs for about 45 hours on two Lithium CR2032 batteries. You can wear it around your head, dangle it around your neck, or clip it to the bill of your hat or most any other thin, flat surface. It offers two brightness setting for white light and a red setting for critical night vision situations.

Vision is Everything

Speaking of vision, getting older means one's eyes are not as willing to focus as they used to, a condition known as presbyopia. Once you've entered your fourth decade, you'll start to notice the effects. One simple solution is to buy over-the-counter reading glasses, but if you also wear lenses for distant vision this can be a pain. Prescription bi-focals, tri-focals, and progressive lenses can be a help, but a pilot's need for sunglasses further complicates the situation. Carrying several pairs of glasses does not fit with the minimalist approach at all.

My solution for many years was contact lenses for distant vision with glasses worn over the contacts for near vision. The glasses were progressive readers with transition lenses that darken in bright light. This worked okay, but progressive lenses have a lot of distortion in the peripheral field. What's more, you have to tilt your head just right to focus through the part of the reader lens that is appropriate for what you're trying to read or observe.

When I read about TruFocals I was intrigued by the design and, at the same time, skeptical. TruFocals are constructed with two layers of lenses: The outer lenses are made to your prescription and the inner lenses are a silcone-filled lens that can change focus by moving a small slider located on the bridge. While they are expensive, TruFocals come with a 30-day money back guarantee. So I gave them a try and after just a couple of days, I was a believer.

I purchased TruFocals with transition lenses that darken in sunlight and that means I now wear just one pair of glasses. I carry a back-up set of glasses in my flight bag and that's it. The clarity of vision is very good with none of the peripheral distortion of progressive lenses. In flight I find I'm often spotting other aircraft that pilots I'm flying with (usually many years my junior) don't see. At night, I can adjust the focus to be just right for viewing a G1000 screen from the right seat. And no, I don't find reaching up to adjust the focus to be particularly distracting. TruFocals come in just one frame design because the silicone-filled lenses must be round. They look a bit Harry Potter-ish, but utility is more important to me than vanity. Perhaps I need a lightning bolt scar tattooed on my right temple ...

So that's a brief round-up of a few ways to go minimalist. If you have discovered ways to lighten your flight bag and simplify your flight gear, as Ross Perot said, "I'm all ears!"


Joe said...

Do you use a stylus for your iPad like the Pogo, something different or just your finger?

John Ewing said...


I tried using the Pogo for writig, but didn't like it much. Writing with my finger tip using the Penultimate app took a bit of practice, but it's pretty natural now. And a big advantage is that I have yet to drop my index finger on the floor during flight. ;-)