Wanted: A Decent Flashlight

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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.

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments†and†add your own.

Comments (25)

The blog topic is flashlights, but the end need is light. For that purpose, when the cockpit unexpectedly goes dark, I highly recommend good old Cyalume sticks. They have an indefinite shelf life; come in a variety of colors, and emission-endurances. They're inexpensive and very idiot-resistant. And they're manufactured right here in my home town of West Springfield, Massachusetts! I keep a supply of them in the seatback pocket. In a pinch, you can activate one and drop it just about anywhere in the cockpit. It will throw enough light to allow you to see everything that the panel lights will when they're operating. And it leaves you with both hands free, so you can troubleshoot your failed flashlight!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 6, 2014 6:59 AM    Report this comment

Geez Paul, I've had the same 3 flashlights in my flight bag for the past 6 years and always had a light when I needed one. #1 is a $0.99 squeeze light I got from a barrel in the checkout line at the hardware store. I bought a handful and I'm still working on the first one. The usual application is to stick it in my mouth and bite it for light. #2 is a wind-up 3 LED light that probably cost 2 bucks. No batteries, just a generator attached to a crank that charges a power cell. There's usually enough power in the cell to give a dull light without a charge. If I want more, I crank. #3 is a finger light with a yellow LED and 2 coin cell batteries. You wear it on your finger like a ring. Point at what you want illuminated. Spare batteries in the case.

Maybe you went too high-tech on your selection.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | June 6, 2014 7:47 AM    Report this comment

I'll add my one failure which was a coil-charge light. You shook it back and forth to slide a permanent magnet past a coil to charge the cell. In addition to the strange looks I would get from other pilots when I was charging it (especially if I was charging it in my lap), the strong permanent magnet caused a compass deviation if I had it within reach. Of course, it didn't effect the GPS, so I guess the magenta line pilots could still use it.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | June 6, 2014 7:54 AM    Report this comment

I buy "torches" whether cheap or expensive, aluminum or plastic, big ones, long ones, short ones, incandescent, fluorescent or just recently, LED light sources and from cell phones- it don't matter -- I like them, I need them, so I stash them - I strategically place them in bathrooms, bedrooms, entry halls, kitchen, garage, hangar, key chain, car, airplane - everywhere. I am ready for the dark side...I think.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 6, 2014 8:11 AM    Report this comment

During primary training, I was doing one of my first night flights with instructor. After shooting a few landings, he turned off all cockpit lights and said "OK, land the plane". Ever at the ready (no pun intended), I pulled out my trusty red/white aviation penlight... "I'm prepared for this one" I said.

It had a twist-on switch. Well I twisted it alright, and it came apart and the internal spring forcefully propelled both AA batteries into the VSI and cracked it. The cockpit was still pitch dark and then I learned in the heat of battle that you don't need no stinkin' flashlight to land at night, just a wing and a prayer. Only later did I learn this would have been entirely appropriate for static system failure in IMC, so I called it my IMC Emergency Flashlight!

Posted by: A Richie | June 6, 2014 9:17 AM    Report this comment

Get any name brand that makes "tactical" lights. Surefire is the Cessna of hardcore flashlights. Sporty's used to sell a couple of their models. However, it looks like they only sell their batteries now which are CR123s but a lot of these lights are moving away from them to AA/AAAs now that LED technology has advanced. Surefire is also the most expensive and least innovate brand right now as well. Some other brands I would look at are Coast as Joshua mentioned (they used to make a dual red/white color one and may still do), Streamlight, Olight, Fenix, and 4Sevens. They run more than your usual flashlight but will have the reliability you want.

Another light I came across that I really like for flying is the Energizer "LED Swivel light" angle head light. It can rotate to be used like a traditional light or an angle head. As one of my early instructors pointed out, these make a lot of sense because you can clip them to your shirt or shoulder belt if you lose electrical and still have both hands (headlamps are also good for that). The other nice thing with the Energizer angle head is that it has red and green LEDs and multiple white brightness settings to preserve your night vision. Also you can pick this one up at Wal-mart unlike the boutique flashlights I mentioned earlier.

I also think Thomas's suggestion about cyalume sticks is a great idea and will add a few to my bag!

Posted by: Matthew Edwards | June 6, 2014 9:26 AM    Report this comment

all you need to do is buy a LED flashlight that takes lithium CR123A 3Volt batteries. they are expensive but they last for at leas 10 years in your back pack and actually are cheaper if you compare using them to changing your batteries every year.

I have had several in My flight bag and they are always ready to go.

Posted by: BILL LAWSON | June 6, 2014 9:27 AM    Report this comment

I got tired of junk flashlights a long time ago and finally spent the money on a Surefire. Sure, they're expensive lights but they're top of the line and worth every penny you pay for them - buy once, cry once. I've carried mine daily for over two years now and it has never failed me. Moral of the story; don't buy cheap flashlights.

Posted by: Chris Ishmael | June 6, 2014 9:43 AM    Report this comment

Right on, Paul, but please allow me to add to your rant. Flashlight manufacturers add features for the same reason a dog licks his testicles: because he can. One feature I'd rather not have is a pushbutton switch that cycles from OFF to DIM to ON to hi-PRF flash. The latter is only useful to induce an epileptic seizure; I just want ON and OFF. When it's ON, it's bright and when it's OFF, it's dark.

Posted by: Joebob Dubner | June 6, 2014 9:45 AM    Report this comment

"I slathered the batteries and contacts with DC4 and declared victory."

Are you referring to Dow Corning DC4? If so, I'm puzzled. DC4 is an insulator. If you routinely apply it to your contacts, I'm not surprised that you're having problems.

Posted by: Rush Strong | June 6, 2014 9:49 AM    Report this comment

I have found the surefire g2 nitrolon to be a dependable and bright light that is moderately priced ( for high end lights) I have one in the plane and one in my toolbox that have bounced around for years. You can hold them with your teeth painlessly when needed. They do get hot when on for a extended time. The LED G2X gives longer battery life and cooler light but is twice the price of the standard g2.

A mag lite led mini with everyready lithium battery's is also a good light .

Posted by: JOHN DEATON | June 6, 2014 9:54 AM    Report this comment

As others have mentioned, there are many great options in the flashlight department. I suggest a visit to candlepowerforums.com, where self described 'flashaholics' provide consumer reviews and even detailed technical testing, a bit like a populist Aviation Consumer for flashlight geeks. I have been carrying a Surefire E2 in my Mooney for about 20 years. Clipped to the headliner and running on two CR123 lithium cells with a ten year shelf life, it has never failed. Even stuck it out the vent window and used it to taxi in at my home base after a landing light failure. I recently upgraded it to an LED with a drop in reflector from Malkoff Devices. For cockpit illumination, I keep several Inova Microlights with red or green LEDs in the cabin. They are long lived, can be held in the mouth and are very dependable. At $8 each they can be rotated out on a regular schedule without a big economic impact. For general purposes, I keep a Fenix TK22 on hand. It has 650 lumens of brightness and a built in strobe/SOS feature. Very well made and never let me down. Finally, for really serious SAR and signalling, a Fenix TK75 with 2900 lumens and a built in Strobe/SOS as well.Both of these run on lithium cells. These are not all the low cost options, but then when you need these things you want them to work---now.. BTW, I have never experienced swelling batteries in the many LED Maglights I keep around the house. Perhaps it is the low humidity environment of my high desert location? Thanks for your always excellent writing and for stimulating a good discussion.

Posted by: STUART WOOLLEY | June 6, 2014 10:34 AM    Report this comment

As per previous comments, buy good quality. My favorite is Fenix . . . they don't make a bad light! I carry a Fenix LD01 on my belt loop, takes an AAA battery (I have a rechargeable NiMH in it). I put a short length of silicone tubing on the cap end so it's handy to hold in one's teeth when both hands are needed.

For tactical size and larger, I prefer lights using the 18650 size lithium batteries. This standard size is readily available, rechargeable, and like most lithiums, stores well with low self discharge.

When you take apart a well made LED flashlight, it will have precise fitting threads, O-rings, and all contacts will be gold plated for low resistance and corrosion resistance.

Posted by: John Morgan | June 6, 2014 10:38 AM    Report this comment

The DC4 goes on the barrel of the batteries to make them slip into the tube. Actually, even on the contact it does no harm, since the contact is made through the film.

I've been experimenting with it. DC is a dielectric.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 6, 2014 11:29 AM    Report this comment

Gee, I thought I was the only flashlight junkie around, but it looks like there are a lot of addicts. I still have the original Ray-O-Vac 2-D cell flashlight I bought in December 1972, the week after my first lesson, which was at night off of Elmendorf AFB, AK--still works just great. But I also regularly carry a Maglite 2-D cell LED light clamped to the flap handle, a Maglite 2-AA cell LED light Velcroed to the side wall under the panel, a squeeze light of dubious manufacturer on the key chain, a flexible neck flashlight also of dubious manufacturer, a Glovelight (switched out the 2 3v batteries for 1 thicker 3v battery, because it was too bright), a Flitelite microphone/lip light, and a pen/light combo that lets me write in the dark. My kneeboard has a built in light, to light whatever is clipped to the kneeboard.

The only issue to me is not the quality of the lights, but the quality of the batteries. Some seem to last much longer than others (Energizers seems to last longest, regardless of size, Duracells next), some are so-so (Ray-O-Vacs, Radio Shacks), and some leak when they run down (Duracells). So if I will be using a light or other gadget a lot, I'll pick Energizers or Duracells, but if it's going to sit unused for any length of time, I'll make sure only Energizers or Ray-O-Vacs are in it, because I can almost guarantee that Duracells will leak and damage the item.

So from one flashlight junkie to other similarly disposed pilots, "let there be light!", but buy good batteries. :)


Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2014 1:03 PM    Report this comment

Flying in the Light Sport category relieves me of the hassle of the hunt for the ultimate flashlight; but when wanting to keep my night vision with the telescope while hunting the flashlights of the cosmos, the red glow-sticks seem to work very well, but I haven't tried them in a cockpit. Just be sure to have a hat to cover it when not needed as they can last a long time.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 6, 2014 4:54 PM    Report this comment

Try a Streamlight Survivor... I had one when I was on the fire department and it always worked as long as the batteries were good. It's waterproof and can take a beating.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | June 6, 2014 7:29 PM    Report this comment

Paul are you kidding? Flashlights are better than they have ever been in history! You need to go look around at some of the really new and well made stuff. Try a Fenix PD35. That's what I carry on my belt. The light is bright enough to use as a car headlight (tested that) and the 18650 battery lasts over a month without recharging in my normal use. For in the cockpit I use a LED 3AAA 3-in-1 Head-Lite by Ray-O-Vac. This little thing will seemingly go forever on a single set of AAA batteries and it has red and white LED's and an incandescent bulb. I fly a LOT at night and park in places where they don't have lights on the ramp so I have to use a light out the side window to find tiedowns. I also use the same lights at work. These things are stone axe reliable. Try them, you won't be disappointed. I have years of reliable use on mine.

Posted by: FILL CEE | June 7, 2014 4:57 AM    Report this comment

My most reliable torches in the last 10 years have been cheap head lamps and those short little 3 x AAA LED ones that you can hold in your mouth. If there is one in every door and seat pocket, quantity can give quality a decent run. A bit of red cellophane and some strong rubber bands and you're set!

I've had duracells leak and damage something in recent years.

Posted by: John Hogan | June 7, 2014 5:34 AM    Report this comment

I have a navy flashlight from WWII that still works perfectly with an occasional battery change. As far as I know, it's still on it's original incandescent bulbs.
As an A&P/IA/Pilot, I need a RECHARGEABLE and BRIGHT LED flashlight for inspections and flight. In a shop environment, good luck with that. I won't mention manufacturer's names, but they all suck. Bad ergonomics (round flashlights roll when placed on a wing); bad electronics (overstressed current regulators); bad batteries (proprietary designs that are not field replaceable); bad design (drop on a concrete floor - cracked circuit boards, cracked lenses).
The flashlight geeks are focused on lumens. I want reliability, rechargability, and ergonomics.

Posted by: Ripley Quinby | June 7, 2014 6:33 PM    Report this comment

Paul, despite these braggers with their Civil War era flashlights and their War of 1812 lithium batteries, you are exactly right. A solution is: buy a flashlight of a reputable variety with a lifetime guarantee. Use main brand Akaline batteries. If that flashlight fails, send it back to the marketer/ manufacturer for repair or replacement. If the batteries swell, and you remember which brand are plugged-up in there, Duracell or Energizer will repair or replace the device. Keep a spare favorite flashlight around for the weeks of downtime during repair/ replacement by either party. Unfortunately, it's the best plan I have found. A Smith & Wesson Galaxy 6 red/white LED by Powertech with Energizer AA's, along with a spare in the hangar, has kept me with a sound, working flashlight in the flight bag.

Posted by: ROB LONG | June 8, 2014 9:29 PM    Report this comment

Pak-lite. Simple, works, and uses up your old smoke detector batteries.

Posted by: MARK JENSEN | June 10, 2014 10:11 AM    Report this comment

I'd be happy if the flashlight I got (nice bicyclists light, Red/White LED) didn't eat batteries even when powered off. Really, it's the little things.

Posted by: Michael Graziano | June 10, 2014 4:11 PM    Report this comment

I'm with Paul H above. I watch for Harbor Freight ads in magazines that offer a free small 3ea AAA battery flashlight and then add them to my hoard. When one poops out, to the trash it goes. Surprisingly, those little lights do last a while and are more than sufficient for cockpit and minor other work. I probably have 20 new ones waiting in my 'queue.' For more serious work, they make one with more LED that only costs about $5. These days, they're even making inspection lights with LED's.

I don't care as much about lumens, either. I need them to work. Anyplace reliability is an issue, I have more than one around.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 11, 2014 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I got tired of looking at flashlights looking for all the features I want, and don't want to go thru cr123a or aa/aaa throwaway batteries, so.... I designed my own! If you want to look at it in action go to youtube and type in "homemade rechargeable multicolor led flashlight". sometimes brighter is not always better...this light puts out just the right amount of light to light up the cockpit in white, red, green & blue. If I want more light I can grab a mag lite or equivalent. I would like to see a high capacity power bank with white, red, & green led light so even if we lose power we can light up the instruments in red or use green to read sectional charts without ruining our night vision which may cause us to miss traffic and risk a mid-air. white will be for preflights. To see my light in plane type in "pilot flashlight in cockpit demonstration" on youtube.

Posted by: Stephen Pearson | April 23, 2016 10:01 PM    Report this comment

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