The Brainbag

I get a lot of questions from passengers and passersby alike, running the gamut of lazy (“Where is baggage claim?” often comes from someone that is standing right next to a sign that points them in the direction they need to go) to the inquisitive (“Why did Southwest start putting the curved wingtips on their planes?” To which I couldn’t resist the urge to tell them that it was a place for the airline to advertise its website while waiting for other companies to bid the highest price). But every once in a while, I get a question that I just don’t expect.

Believe it or not, it took almost ten years for someone to ask me what it is that pilots lug around in the briefcases that we all carry. This bag goes by a number of other monikers, such as flight kit, flight case, and brainbag. The truth is that, until I got my own bag, I didn’t know the answer myself. While the answer varies for each airline and each individual pilot, the generalities are the same. First and foremost are Jeppesen approach chart binders. I carry two three-inch binders that contain all of the approach charts, DPs, STARS and airport diagrams for every destination that we serve, plus about a half dozen that we don’t serve, but that the company uses for emergency diversions, seasonal service or off-line maintenance work. Those binders, side by side, take up one whole side of my bag.  As an aside, the charts for off-line alternate airports are kept in the airplane.

I also carry a one inch Jepp binder that has all of my enroute charts, covering the US and parts of Canada, Mexico, Cuba and the Bahamas. When they expire I take them home to use as wrapping paper.

In addition, I carry two company manuals. One is the book that actually lays out the procedures for flying the airplane. Some airlines call this book the Flight Operating Manual (FOM), the Flight Crew Operating Manual (FCOM), or the Flight Standards Manual (FSM), but by one name or the other, it is the same. It spells out in depth how we are to operate the plane from the minute we arrive first thing in the morning until the door is locked at night. Think of it is the POH for a jet, only it is customized by each airline instead of being an across-the-world-wide fleet document.  The second manual that I carry is a company Operations Manual, which is specific to the Flight Operations department. It contains more broad company procedures and policies that are too generic to into the FSM. I can’t get into a lot of specific details in what each manual has in it, but suffice it to say that like an AmEx card–I can’t leave home without them.

I also carry a headset, a D-cell flashlight (the D-cell requirement no longer exists, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). The headset is a company requirement, and the flashlight is an FAA requirement. I also carry a pair of sunglasses, which is an individual requirement, and is really as essential a piece of equipment as anything else a pilot could ever own. To this point, my bag is pretty much the same as that of every other pilot at my airline, and I suspect, at every airline that does not use electronic flight bags (EFBs). The rest of what I carry is what personalizes it for me, and it may vary wildly from one person to another.

For instance, my manuals are highlighted to make it easy to find the important stuff. I also keep a spare pen and small screwdriver to fix my sunglasses as needed. A small calculator is in there for doing weight and balance computations, and I also keep a small bottle of Purell in my bag to sanitize my hands, especially when a virus is making its way through the company. I have a Cliff’s Notes-like guide to our union contract to help me with contractual interpretations as needed, a couple of flow charts for certain performance scenarios that come up on occasion, and some approved OTC pain medication for the occasional headache. Like every pilot, I have something that I feel I can’t live without that you’d never guess. In my case it is both my sunglasses (and the associated screwdriver) and, believe it or not, dental floss. One miserable day of not being able to get some apple skin out of my teeth when I was a new hire taught me that lesson.

So there you have it: just one bag, that weighs in at more than thirty pounds combined of necessary stuff and some miscellaneous crap. One tradition among pilots the world over is to personalize their bags with all manner of stickers, each of which reveals a slice of that person’s nature. Some advertise allegiance to their favorite sports teams, their previous employers, countries they have visited, political statements, etc. Often you’ll see humorous bumper stickers (one of my favorites is “What if the hokey pokey really is what it’s all about?”). My current bag doesn’t have any stickers, since the outside is cloth. But I am in the market for a new one, and if it isn’t a cloth one, well, count on it being adorned with stickers. ASAP.

–Chip Wright

  • John

    Great article, thank you for posting.

  • Patrick Shaub

    So now we know what’s in the bag…and what its all about!