Wanted: A Decent Flashlight
If you were asked to describe the great technological challenge of the age, what would it be? Cracking fusion as an energy source? The 1000 wh/kg lithium-ion battery? Cheap turbine engines made of plastic? For me, it would be a flashlight that does what itís supposed to for, say, at least a year after purchase.
This makes me wonder if flashlight manufacturers look at their products like sandpaper. Theyíre supposed to be used up and thrown way. The rest of us just donít realize it. This occurred to me over the weekend when we flew up to Alabama for Continentalís learn-to-fly soiree.†I figured we might be return at night, so I rounded up my flashlight collection. Once I†repaired†my flashlight collection, I put together two operating lights from a collection of dozens.
I am somewhat of an authority on flashlights. On numerous occasions for†Aviation Consumer, we have rounded up multiple dozens of these things, measured their brightness and poked and prodded at their innards before reaching conclusions and recommendations. Then the things hang around for a few years and something interesting happens. They fail. And Iím not talking about dead batteries, but hard failures for some reason.
Let me list the casualties. One of my favorites is a largish†100-LED flashlight†Sportyís sells. Iíve used it in airplanes, but itís even a better light around the hangar and workshop. A couple of LEDs failedóno biggie, that left 98. Then the entire light pooped out. Fresh batteries and cleaning the contacts didnít help. The switch seemed to be okay, such as I could check it with a multi-meter. Into the trash it went.
Two of the other favorites suffered blow-its-top failures. The flashlight bodies were made of plastic, which just degraded, allowing the battery springs to literally pry the things apart like a slow-motion jack-in-the box. Some of the best all-time favorite lights are made by a company called†Underwater Kinetics. Year after year, they got our top recommendations.
YetÖmy UK flashlight failed dead, too. Wasnít the batteries or the bulb. The switch seemed OK, too. It just wouldnít work. Banging it, cleaning contacts and cursing didnít help.
So last Friday, when I was prepping to go, one of the flashlights I grabbed was a three-cell Mini Maglite. Give Mag instruments credit; they really try to make a great flashlight. The products are nicely machined in anodized aluminum with precisely knurled barrels. But they have one fatal flaw, in my opinion. The batteries fit into the barrel like a piston in a cylinder and if they swell in the slightestóand they do swellóyou canít get them out to install replacements. And thatís what happened to mine, despite the batteries being in the tube for less than a year. I know that because I changed them at the start of last yearís hurricane season.
To get the batteries out, I bored a hole in the rearmost one, drove a screw into it and after 15 minutes of effort at the vice, including application of heat, I extracted one messed up Duracell. The others, although not swollen, wouldnít slide past the corroded ring the crumped battery left in its wake. Another half hour of work with a rat-tail file and a scraper got me a clean barrel and a working flashlight. Now, itís Sunday morning and I tried it again. Itís dead. Why? More disassembly, including the LED module, cleaning of contacts and now it works again. Why canít such a simple thing, with a grade-school physics circuit, work more reliably? I slathered the batteries and contacts with DC4 and declared victory.
Speaking of victories, in the grim world of battery-powered lights, there are some. When we were organizing the Cayman Caravan years ago, we had some really nice ditching egress packs you could strap around your waist, the reality being that in a ditching, you might get out of the airplane only with what youíre wearing. They contained some water packs, first-aid kit, knife, sun block, signaling mirror and a little battery-operated strobe.
My pack has been stored in the attic over my shop for quite some time. Iím going to guess six or seven years. When I pulled the strobe out, I was thinking of just cutting its lanyard and tossing it into the trash. I was sure the batteries would have destroyed the thing by now. On a lark, I flipped the switch on the strobe and it fired right up. When I pulled the batteries, they were as pristine as the day they went in. They werenít Duracells either, but some Indonesian brand Iíd never heard of. I yanked them out and put them in my good battery drawer, smug with the satisfaction of retaining the strobe in serviceable condition. Thatís more than I can say for the four dead flashlights Iím about to toss.
Perhaps there's an opportunity here for someone to manufacture a quality, durable flashlight that doesnít require periodic overhaul. Itís a cinch no one has done it yet.