Prowling the booths at Oshkosh last July we were presented with what appeared to us to be the ultimate flashlight, a precisely machined little beauty with enough lumens to melt through a steel door. Very slick. How much, we asked?
Two sixty five, came the booth dwellers reply.
Dollars? we whimpered, barely containing our shock at the very notion of a flashlight costing more than we spend on clothes in a typical year. Hell, make that two years.
It has digital current regulation capability and a combat grip, she said, sneering at our lack of refined taste in portable illumination.
Oh, well, in that case…
Clearly, the world has spun into some alternate reality if anyone can sell a $265 flashlight with a straight face. But we confront the truth where we find it and sure enough, you can spend a third of your mortgage on a flashlight. But, really, do you want to? Or should you? Will your hangar mates snicker if your cockpit illumination came from the remainder bin at Tubbys Tool House?
We aimed to find out. Last summer, we bought a bagful of cheap flashlights from the local Ace, Home Depot and Lowes outlets, plus a smattering of similar lights from a specialty site on the Web. Our goal: to determine if a cheap flashlight-by cheap, we mean under $20-is suitable for cockpit use and, if so, which one is the best buy.
The quick answer is yes, but theres a proviso: If you go really cheap, buy a lot of them and scatter them around your flightbag and the cabin. If one fails, another is all but guaranteed to work. You cant say the same of having fewer or just one flashlight, no matter what it costs. And, as our tests revealed, not all sub-$20 flashlights are equal.
Having flown lots of night hours, our view is that the ideal flashlight is small enough to fit into the pockets of seatbacks and flightbags. That strongly argues for flashlights in the AA-battery size. Although it may be a good idea to also carry a larger C- or D-cell light, these are too awkward for cockpit detail work. The AA size is perfect for reading charts, finding stuff in a darkened cabin and for pre-flighting. Theyre less ideal for night signaling, so if thats a concern, consider a laser flare (see www.greatlandlaser.com) or carry a larger light in addition to smaller ones.
In a future issue, well examine higher-priced LED flashlights, which are the hot items in the illumination market. More modest LEDs have declined in price recently so we tried a couple that met our sub-$20 price point, but mainly, were interested in off-the-shelf incandescent lights you can buy in your local hardware store or find readily on the Web. Limiting the selection to AA batteries has other benefits: Theyre readily available, its easy to carry plenty of spares and theyre interchangeable with portable radios and GPS. We werent interested in rechargeables, which are fine for home use, but a pain in the cockpit because you have to manage the charging cycle. Life is too complicated to have it ruled by the needs of flashlights.
For our testing, we devised a simple protocol to measure light levels (lux), beam characteristics, run time on a battery set and drop and water soak tests. Basically, we wanted to see how much a $5 hardware store flashlight could endure.
Our list of flashlights appears in the photo above but were not about to wear you out describing the losers. Only the top five winners are listed. We think any of these will make the cut for cockpit use. Although we measured brightness, this is merely for comparison purposes for brightness is, of itself, not the sole determinant of cockpit suitability. Some of the lights were just too bright to use for charts or cockpit detail work, but theyre great for illuminating that first sign of ice on the base of the windshield or a stall strip.
Ergonomics are important. For instance, stiff push switches are an annoyance, as are bezel-twist switches that dont quite work correctly. Beam quality-the size and shape of the projected illumination-is worth considering only to the extent that a misshapen beam is miserable to use and should be avoided.
Most under-$20 flashlights have simple incandescent bulbs best described as cheap but nothing special. In this class of flashlight, the bulbs are usually replaceable of themselves but some consist of bulb/reflector assemblies which may not be easily replaceable. But the flashlights are so cheap, were not much concerned with the cost of replacement bulbs.
Bulb chemistry varies by flashlight. Most are either Krypton or Xenon-type bulbs, both of which emit a brighter, whiter light and/or have longer bulb life. Some have brighter Halogen chemistry. Mechanically, the bulbs are of two types, so-called push-ins, which fit into a socket and are held in place by a spring, ring or screw cap and bi-pin bulbs, the tiny seed-like bulb used by Maglite and Pelican, among others. These are replaceable and the Mag is famous for including a spare in the battery cap.
LEDs or light-emitting diodes are the current hot item in flashlights and although well report on tests of expensive LED flashlights in a future issue, we dabbled with this species for this article, since not many practical LED lights cost under $20. LEDs use less power but dont have the bright beam throw of incandescent lights. Both characteristics offer plusses and minuses.
Last, switches and overall construction. Plastic or rubber is the byword in cheap flashlights, although the Mini Maglite is nicely made of machined aluminum, as is the Dorcy LED. Some flashlights have side click switches while others have tailcap switches. Some are covered by a rubber membrane while others are exposed. The Mini Mag has a bezel-twist design that turns on the light and then focuses the beam. The advantage of switches-slide or push-is that you can one-hand them, while the bezel-twist model requires two hands.
For brightness, we divided the lights into five levels: very low, low, medium, high and very high. As noted, actual brightness shouldnt be the sole determiner, but in buying, you should match the brightness to the job at hand: very bright for signaling or for an ice inspection light, low or very low for a chart reading light. In our view, none of the lights do it all, although a couple come close.
PrincetonTec40/UKE4AA-Try as we might, we couldnt make a choice between these two top performing flashlights so we deem them tied for first choice.Both require four AA cells in series so theyre very bright, among the brightest we tested, easily rivaling the C-cell Maglite.
Both are well constructed of plastic with a screw-on lens cap with an O-ring and a sealed tail, to minimize water incursion. (After the dunk test, they remained dry internally.) The PrincetonTec Tec40 has a twist bezel switch (tighten to turn on, loosen to turn off) and a bright, hot focused beam. Its the perfect ice light but perhaps too bright for chart reading. Price is $15.95.
The Underwater Kinetics 4AA has a robust but stiff push switch which we didnt like as much as the PrincetonTecs bezel. But the UK provided usable light for four hours and dim light for another 30 minutes. Very impressive.Its also well made and, we think, a heckuva deal for $16.95 from www.brightguy.com.
Dorcy 2AA LED-Among all the lights we tried, this is our favorite. We would have rated it tops but its not suitable as an ice light while the Tec40 and UK4AA will do double duty. The Dorcy is made of matte aluminum with knurled rubber trim with a four-LED bulb array with O-rings for the lens assembly and tail cap battery access. It has both a tail bezel twist-tighten for on-and a momentary button for a quick look at charts or unlighted instruments. Its quite a pleasure to use this little light.
The light quality is cool white and bright enough to read charts without tanking night vision but not adequate for signaling or ice inspection.Endurance on two AAs seems like forever. We gave up after 11 hours of continuous testing. Price: $14.25 from www.brightguy.com.
Streamlight 2AA-This AA light is an incandescent version of the Dorcy LED, with the same combination of momentary button on the tail and a twist bezel for continuous on-tighten to switch on. For an incandescent Xenon bi-pin lamp, it has remarkable endurance (four hours) and is brighter with a more symmetrical beam than the Mini Maglite.
The Streamlight is made of a tough polymer plastic and is available in black or yellow. Like other flashlights in this class, its sealed with an O-ring to prevent water incursion. Price is $12.95 from brightguy.
Mini Maglite-The Mini Maglite is perhaps the most common high-quality hardware-store flashlight and at $10 to $15 retail, its easy to see why. The Mini Mag is well made of anodized aluminum with a threaded tailcap and lens assembly, both protected by O-rings. It has a twist bezel-loosen for on-and is the only flashlight with a focusable beam from spot to flood which is, in effect, a brightness control. Its also the only light shipped standard with a replacement bulb, which lives in the tailcap. (In years of using these lights, weve never replaced a bulb.)
Brightness wise, with the beam sharply focused, the Mini Mag rates as very high, meaning its a good ice light. At the flood setting, its just bright enough for chart reading. Some outlets sell kits with colored filters to further dim the light. Also unique to the Mini Maglite is candle mode, in which the flashlight is inserted into the removed lens assembly, which then serves as a base for minimal area lighting.
Eveready Contractor 2AA-This one gets honorable mention. No O-rings here, no adjustable lens, spare bulb or dual-function switch. But at $3.96 from Home Depot, buy four and a set of batteries for under $20 and you cant go wrong. Of all the dirt- cheap flashlights we tried, this one had the best endurance and we liked its plastic-and-metal slide switch.
For a bulb, it has an ordinary bayonet type flashlight bulb in a spring cage, but the light is so cheap that we doubt anyone would bother to change the bulb; just toss it and reach for another.
What to Buy
No matter how much a flashlight costs, you need more than one, both for the type of cockpit task at hand and for back-up, especially for night instrument flying. Theres nothing wrong with cheap flashlights, but make sure you have a handful of them because switches and bulbs will fail.
If you carry survival gear, buy one good flashlight, such as the UK4AA or the PrincetonTec Tec 40 and keep it in fresh alkalines. (We think Duracells are worth the extra cost.) Otherwise, for general night flying, we like the Dorcy LED as the main light and a couple of the UK, Tec40 or Streamlight products for ice and back-up lighting.