The Right Tool

The multi-tool market is red hot. For minor cockpit repairs and tweaks, top picks are the Leatherman Wave and SwissTool.

Losing the bolt that holds the collective link rod to the main rotor mechanism on a helicopter is usually a precursor to a messy end for all onboard. Necessity and adrenaline can accomplish miracles, but the right tool can make the difference.

In this case, one of the passengers, Dave Zalunardo, climbed outside the chopper and using the pilots Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool, was able to improvise a solution that allowed the pilot to safely land. While this is the most dramatic aviation survival story weve heard attributed to having a multi-tool, its hardly the only one. (See for the full narrative.)

Aircraft are mechanical assemblies and like all such contrivances, theyre subject to failure now and again, rarely at a convenient moment. Sometimes a failure can be fatal, as likely would have been the case with our helicopter crew above. Other times, the loose part is merely a nuisance or a distraction with a solution at hand, if only the right tool were available.

Thats the rub. Carrying an assortment of hand tools presents both weight and bulk problems and you also have to find a place for them where theyre convenient when you need them. Since thats generally not practical for most pilots, many of us have relied upon a well-equipped Swiss Army-style knife, buttressed with a pair of pliers for those important tasks that require gripping capability. Not an elegant solution, but it works.

Things changed in 1983 when Tim Leatherman introduced the Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool. It combined full-sized needle-nose pliers and the most essential tools heretofore found in a typical Swiss Army-style knife.

Fifteen years later, the so-called multi-tool market is hotter than ever and pilots have a dizzying array of multi-tools to select from. With a number of third-generation tools recently introduced, we thought wed take a look at which ones would best serve a pilot in need of a little help.

With such a huge variety of tools to select from, each with an assortment of often unique and intriguing features, its important to identify what features are most important. Size is the first criteria to consider. Many manufacturers offer multiple sizes in their multi-tool lines. Generally speaking, the smallest versions, often referred to as mini are not up to the types of jobs pilots may demand of them.

Next up the size ladder are the so-called pocket-size tools. These are large enough to be useful, but still small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. While convenient and of adequate size, these tools often lack some desirable safety and functional features.

At the top of the multi-tool pyramid are the larger tools, with more desirable features, which are most comfortably carried in a belt sheath or your flight case, due to their size and weight. From both a functional and safety standpoint, a desirable feature is locking blades and implements. This prevents the tool from accidentally folding while in use and injuring the user, as often happens otherwise. This feature is currently found almost exclusively on larger tools. Most of the pocket-size tools are designed so that the tools cannot close when opened, if the tool handles have been closed. But thats far different from locking them into place. They can still seriously injure you. We consider a locking knife blade(s) a minimum requirement and all the tools we’ll review here have this feature.

The type of pliers incorporated into the tools vary from a true needle- point to a basic blunt-nose and everything in between. The blunt nose pliers are generally somewhat stronger; they simply have more thick metal in the jaws and don’t come to a weaker point as do the needle nose. On the other hand, the needle-nose pliers tend to be more versatile and useful for getting into small places, something that airplanes require in spades. We prefer needle-nose pliers for these tools.

How useful a tool is depends upon the type, number, size and design of the blade(s) and other implements. The ideal multi-tool should incorporate, at a minimum, wire cutters capable of cutting moderately hard wire, a plain-edge blade (although there are those who will prefer a serrated or partially serrated blade), a file, and a selection of slotted and Phillips screwdrivers with maximum possible reach. Beyond that, individual preferences govern the choice.

Whats Available
Due to the large quantity of multi-tools on the market, we’ll concentrate on those that incorporate the features weve described above. All these tools are constructed of stainless steels and stand up we’ll to normal corrosive environments, such as around water or salt air. Prices listed are the average street price.

The Leatherman Super Tool ($62) was king of the multi-tool hill for a number of years, until just recently. This is slightly larger and heavier than the Original Leatherman, with correspondingly larger-and thereby more functional-tools, including a serrated blade to accompany its clip-point plain edge blade. This was the first tool to offer locking blades and tools. Still, unlocking the tool or blade is awkward, requiring you to partially open another tool or blade first in order to fold them back into storage. The tools are generally beefier than on the original and in the case of the screwdrivers, longer as well. These include the needle-nose pliers with wire cutters and a shear-style cutter to cut harder grades of wire, metal/wood file with hacksaw style edge, a double tooth wood saw, can/bottle opener, three slotted and #1/#2 Phillips (one size fits both) screwdrivers and an awl. A crimper, for crimp-style wire connectors is integrated into the back side of the pliers joint.

One drawback to the original Leatherman design is that the handles fold inside out to use the pliers. When using the pliers, you grasp the thin edges of the handles on the back side, cutting into your hand when you need to squeeze hard, uncomfortably so for some. The Super Tool opens in the same manner.

The latest innovation from Leatherman is the Wave ($78). The Waves most distinguishing feature is that the two knife blades (plain-edge clip-point and serrated sheepsfoot) open out one-handed, locking in place with a liner lock. No need to unfold the tool, they open with the same ease as any good one-handed opening folding knife. They also unlock easily with one hand. The blade (and saw) edges are aligned with the bottom of the tool for optimal use. Another advance is the pliers ergonomics with rounded handle edges making a huge difference in comfort. The Wave pliers are the same length and width as the Originals, however, the base of the jaws and the pivot have been beefed up.

A file and a saw also open without need to unfold the tool. The remaining tools are accessed by unfolding the tool in the traditional Leatherman manner. These don’t lock into place, but improved geometry makes the screwdrivers less likely to close inadvertently while in use.

Other implements include a can/bottle opener and four slotted and #1/#2 Phillips screwdrivers. There are also very effective scissors that are considerably more robust and useful than those found on the typical Swiss Army Knife.

Leatherman also offers its Tool Adapter ($27) that fits all the Super Tools but not the Wave. This adapter is locked into place between the closed handles and has an extension which holds 1/4-inch hex tool bits, six of which are provided. The extension can be locked either straight out or at a 45-degree or 90-degree position. Leatherman tools come with a limited 25-year warranty and either a nylon or leather sheath.

Gerber produces a number of variations of the Multi-Lock ($50). These are available with both blunt and needle-nose pliers. The needle-nose tips arent really very needle-like, being about twice as wide as those of the Leatherman tools. The distinguishing feature of the Multi-Lock is the ability to easily open the pliers one-handed. A quick flick of the wrist extends the pliers which automatically lock into place. Both plain-edge drop-point and serrated sheeps-foot blades are included. A nylon pouch is standard. Gerber offers a limited lifetime warranty. The pliers must be extended and the tools handles opened to access the blades and tools. There are three very short slotted screwdriver blades and a #2 Phillips, a can opener, a file and crimper.

The Multi-Lock Scout ($60) replaces one knife blade with a nice pair of scissors which work quite well. The remaining blade is a half-serrated drop-point. An awl replaces the smallest slotted screwdriver. Everything locks and the locking mechanism is easy to operate. An optional Tool Kit ($20) includes an adapter that fits over the Phillips blade and holds standard 1/4-inch hex bits, with six included. The Multi-Lock can also be purchased with the Tool Kit.

Buck Knives makes a number of variations of its BuckTool ($60), all of which have locking blades and implements and needle-nose pliers. The BuckTool unfolds by rotating the handles in opposite directions away from the faces of the pliers which nest between them.

One drawback of this design is that when twisting the pliers clockwise, the handles have a tendency to move towards the closed position, reducing the maximum force you can exert. The ergonomic handles are comfortable to grip. The spring lock works we’ll enough, although it isn’t always easy to operate, taking firm pressure on the spring-loaded lock to release. The small tools are not easy to open, being heavily spring- loaded and have been known to break fingernails during opening.

The screwdriver blades, three slotted and #1 and #2 Phillips, are short, a design made worse because about half the length is very wide to accommodate the opening slot. The Phillips drivers are unique, with only three sides, meaning you must hold the tool perfectly aligned or the bit may slip. The various configurations offer either two blades (the Original), a partially serrated drop-point and a fully serrated sheepsfoot or the drop-point and a combination coarse and fine metal file (BuckTool with File, $60). This file is an odd beast with a beveled edge to clear the locking mechanism, compromises its utility in some instances.

The BuckTool WorkMan ($65) includes slots on the beveled edge to serve as wire strippers, the bottle opener is replaced by an awl and the blade is the serrated sheepsfoot. Nylon sheaths are included, except with a version of the Original that comes with a pocket clip. This tool is protected by a limited lifetime warranty.

One could argue that the Swiss invented the multi-tool market with the Swiss Army Knife, but their lack of practical-sized pliers significantly reduces utility, no matter how many other useful odds and ends are packed into it.

Now Victorinox has weighed in with their SwissTool ($70). In size, its virtually identical to the Leatherman Super Tool, but is about an ounce heavier, making it the heaviest tool of the lot. The pliers fall about halfway between a true needle-nose and blunt-nose pliers, being neither fish nor fowl.

The pliers open in the same manner as do those on the traditional Leatherman, but thats where the similarity ends. Blades and implements open out from the closed SwissTool, it isn’t necessary to open the tool.

Unfortunately, Victorinox didnt take the next logical step and make the two excellent knife blades, plain edge and serrated-edge spear-points, one-handed opening. The blade (and saw) edges are aligned with the bottom of the tool. All the blades and tools lock and small knurled tabs slide fore and aft to easily unlock the tools.

The SwissTool includes a file, saw and four slotted screwdrivers, if you include the little one at the end of the can opener and the medium one at the end of the bottle opener. There is also a #1/#2 combination Phillips.

Unfortunately, Victorinox, in its zeal to polish everything to a high luster, rounds off the edges of the screwdrivers, which can lead to slipping. Also included are a chisel, V-style wire stripper and an awl. A nylon sheath is included. Victorinox offers a limited lifetime warranty.

The Schrade Tough Tool ($55) is the widest tool in the bunch. The three blades, a partially serrated clip-point, serrated sheepsfoot and the non-locking so-called scraping blade (2-1/4 inch) all align with the bottom of the tool, but the extreme width often gets in the way. The blades and two of the screwdrivers lock and are released easily by depressing either the scraping blade or the leather bore.

The relatively short needle-nose pliers jaws feature a riveted and laminated construction, supposedly for added strength. The handles both pivot out from the side and are moderately comfortable to grip. All the implements open without opening the handles. Also included are a very small slotted screwdriver and locking large slotted and #2 Phillips screwdrivers (both 1 3/4 in. long), V-style wire stripper, can/bottle opener, coarse/fine and hacksaw edge file and ruler with a hook disgorger. It comes with a nylon sheath and limited lifetime warranty.

While some of these tools unique features may appeal to a particular persons needs, the one-hand opening pliers of the Gerber Multi-Lock being a good example, overall there are two standouts: The Leatherman Wave and Victorinox SwissTool.

Both offer ease of use and utility that make a big difference for the sort of general purpose cockpit fix-it jobs and survival kits necessities that most pilots will need.

The Wave has the advantage of one-hand opening blades and a more compact size, the SwissTool has more robust blades and all the tools lock, but those slippery screwdrivers are a drawback. The Wave has true needle-nose pliers, the SwissTool does not. That may be a deciding point for many.

Both could completely replace a conventional pocket knife for many users with the Wave having the advantage because of the one-hand opening blades. The Leatherman Super Tool comes in as a honorable mention, but the locking mechanism and comfort is just not up to the other two. The Gerber Multi-Lock is also worthy of consideration provided the optional Tool Kit is included.

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by Douglas S. Ritter

Doug Ritter is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. For more on tools, see his Web site