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Survival in a Bag: Aviator's Tool Kit

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wire cutters

Over the years I have relished the challenge of the efficiencies of packing. Early in my life, I owned a Corvair, notably short of space when packing for a 10-day vacation involving some camping along with some hoteling. When I was finished, the car held everything—but no more toothbrushes, please.

Several years later I was again challenged when packing for a week’s vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina—and it all had to fit in a C-172 along with two adults and three young children. Again, it was a success story.

This efficiency, of course, came full circle when we were packing for our around-the-world trip in a G35 Bonanza. Here my desired baggage weight was stolen by the fuel. And not only did we have to worry about changes of clothing, but also what parts to bring along—and, oh yes, the tools to install or remove any of those parts.

For those of you who have found your way through my book “O’ the Places I’ve Been,” you’ll remember the schematic of the aircraft with “arm” indications for stowage. The same diagram is published here. (Note: Classen’s book about his record-setting adventure is available in print and electronic form at amazon.com and through other online retailers. —Ed.)


What to consider

What tools and what parts are good to have with you on your cross-country, your vacation or some extended trip in your craft of choice? To some degree, the type of trip will dictate. Whether it is a routine trip to Grandma’s on Sunday afternoon or a wilderness excursion for 10 to 20 days can make a great deal of difference.

First, I’d suggest reading and understanding the legal limits you may have to face—as well as your personal talent limits, which would include prior life experiences (or lack thereof). If it’s the first time you will be faced with wrenching, perhaps careful consideration of flying partners should be included in your planning.

I would start with a copy of Appendix A from Part 43 of the FARs. Laminate it and keep it in your tool bag—it may help you decide how much wrenching you are allowed to do per the regulations as well as what you’re personally capable of doing. Keep in mind that wilderness wrenching is not as easy as in the home shop.

As an A&P-IA, and having had some really interesting experiences, I carry a full tool chest of 30 to 35 pounds. That’s my extra suitcase, which goes in first. You, however, may wish to carry only a bank deposit bag of tools. (I’ve done that, too.)


What to pack

The average person should probably carry only a few key items. These would include a combination screwdriver with small and medium Phillips (#2 & #3) and spade tips. This saves space over individual screwdrivers.

Add a 10-inch spade screwdriver or two; they could be helpful in changing a tire or holding a large slotted screw. And add a tire valve core removal tool. You can use an adjustable wrench on the square shank if an extra boost in removal torque (force) is required.

An 8- or 10-inch adjustable (crescent) wrench will often come in handy, even as a hammer. An 11/32 and a couple of 3/8 inch wrenches along with your screwdrivers (mentioned above) will handle most cowling removals. Both 7/16 and 1/2 inch combination wrenches are always a good choice. Many boltheads and nuts in our aircraft are these sizes.

Spark plug removal or installation requires a 3/4 or a 7/8 inch combo to remove the spark lead and a 7/8 inch spark plug socket with a breaker bar to remove the plug. A one-half or one-pound ball-peen hammer could also come in handy, even for breaking out a window in an emergency; if the door jams on a hard landing; or for breaking of the face of the climb indicator if the “static” pressure line becomes plugged.

Finally, one pair of six- to seven-inch pliers (with wire cutter), or a similarly sized flat nose and separate cutter are good choices.

These tools will get you through the essential maintenance of the owner-operator if you are without an A&P certificate.

Have at least a few feet of 0.032-inch safety wire in your bag, too. It can’t hold a strut but it can replace a cotter key in an emergency, or until you can get the right one. A short roll of your favorite paper towels are essential… spread the love, not the grease.


Further suggestions

If you are not wrench-twistingly-inclined, take the tools anyway—your partner may be able to help under your supervision. Conversely, he or she can give you advice on their use. Remember to endorse the appropriate logbook when your job is finished.

None of the good tools are cheap. I suggest Sears for their price and quality, but Mac, Snap-on, NAPA or other such reputable brands are fine. I suggest you save your money and nerves and forego the “off-brand” super warehouse clearance specials.

As for parts, a nav-lamp, a landing lamp, a spark plug, maybe a vacuum pump and jumper cables are all that I have ever carried. Most towns have a post office or an auto parts store where UPS or FedEx can deliver. Aviall, Aircraft Spruce, Chief, Wag-Aero, Desser, Sporty’s and the others can overnight nearly their entire stock of parts.


A brief bit about survival

On a separate issue of preparedness, always carry a few items for unexpected survival needs. I suggest the following: a 9 volt battery and a ball of fine steel wool (for starting a fire, even in the rain), but keep the two battery conductors covered with plastic tape when not in use; an emergency blanket and a reflecting mirror are absolute minimums.

Finally, always file a flight plan, even for short hops. It takes only a few minutes to do so and could save days or months in search and rescue if the unthinkable happens even a few yards from home. It can and has happened, so let someone know your plan.

Charles Classen has owned and maintained a Piper Comanche for over 20 years. From 1998 to 2008, he held an around-the-world (westbound) speed record for single engine airplanes. Classen has extensive experience in engine and equipment design and development and also wrote and conducted safety seminars during his 28-year career with Abbott Laboratories. After retiring in 1996, Chuck became an A&P-IA. Classen learned to fly in 1957 from the same airstrip on which he now lives with his wife, Norma, who is also a private pilot. The couple owns and operates Global Aeronautics, Inc., a maintenance and flight instruction business. Send questions or comments to .

Classen packing schematic

Tools & Parts: What to pack for your next trip

Weight of these items will be about 15 pounds.

1 – combination screwdriver              

1 or 2 - 10" spade screwdriver

1 – 7/8" spark-plug socket (3/8" drive)          

1 – breaker bar (3/8" drive)

1 – 6" - 7" flat-nose pliers                              

1 – 6" - 7" wire cutter

1 – 1/2 or 3/4 pound hammer             

1 – short roll paper towels

1 – 3/4" short combo wrench1

1 – 7/8" short combo wrench1

1 – 11/32" combo wrench2                 

2 – 3/8" combo wrenches3                  

2 – 7/16" combo wrenches                 

1 – wing lamp

1 – tail lamp               

1 – vacuum pump                   

1 – landing lamp

1 – spool safety wire (0.032")            

1 – set jumper cables  

1 – banking bag

Standard; longer tools are not necessary and will not fit in your tool pouch.

A 1/4" driver socket set with breaker bar will work, too.           

Several small, nice “brand-name” kits are available.

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