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Vacuum bags, bivy bags, baby wipes

More than a few general aviation pilots have learned the joy of camping under a wing and off the grid (“flamping,” if you’re hip to the new lingo), and most GA airplanes offer at least a modest amount of luggage space, depending on how many seats are occupied, and how much fuel is in the tank. A Cessna Skyhawk can support travel for two for weeks on end without much sacrifice in terms of toiletries, and even leave room for a towel.

Most general aviation airplanes offer at least a modest amount of luggage space. Photo by Mike Fizer.

Available space is hard to find in aerobatic airplanes, however. A Pitts S–1 is a fine competition airplane, but there’s not much room for your stuff. Should you wish to fly one of these to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a week of camping at EAA AirVenture or the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships (both of which we all hope will return for 2021), the first challenge you face will be making do without the suitcase.

Several members of the International Aerobatic Club’s Chapter 35, a cluster of competitive pilots from around New England, have made the trip to the weeklong contest more than once, spending weeks living with less. While one might reasonably survey the available space in an Extra 330 SC, calculate the volume of baggage typically required for such a duration, and conclude that spending any amount of time surrounded by such pilots on the contest line would be as malodorous an experience as a hobo convention in a junkyard, that is not, in fact, the case.

Pitts pilot and competitor Eric Anderson supplied a detailed briefing on his approach to attending five weekend competitions during the 2016 season.

“I was caught naked ‘showering’ under a garden hose in Vermont, harassed mercilessly by cows in Virginia and very nearly arrested at 1 a.m. in New Jersey,” Anderson recalled in an essay supplied by way of reply. “I can tell you that everything you’ll need for the weekend packs nicely in a single-hole Pitts.”

Anderson is a fan of the bivy (aka, a “bivvy” or “bivy sack” for a “bivouac sack”), essentially a bag made of nylon or other material that takes up far less space and weight than a tent. A compact, portable cocoon developed from military and mountaineering use, a bivy offers some degree of shelter from the elements, if not quite what some might call “comfort.”

“Reading is possible in a bivy, but little else is beyond sleep and star-gazing,” Anderson reports.

Bivies can be found in various configurations and price points. A detailed discussion of the pros and cons of each is available in this video.

Rob Dumovic, a veteran competitor, flight instructor, and IAC regional judge, makes the most of available space by compressing his clothes in Hefty vacuum bags. He advises against certain other brands that require an actual vacuum to compress their contents. A Hefty is among those that feature a one-way valve to let the air escape when the bag is squeezed by hand, but not return.

“I can get about six days’ worth of clothes in a backpack that will fit in the turtleback of an Extra,” Dumovic said in a phone chat between lessons.

Anderson’s packing list for under-wing camping includes a small bottle of concentrated body wash; personal hygiene can also be achieved, to a socially acceptable degree, when necessary, with baby wipes, prized in particular by disaster response specialists who deploy into primitive conditions where running water may not be available after a storm, just to throw that thought into the mix.

Marc Nathanson, pictured here at the Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest in July 2015, has flown his Pitts S-1T to aerobatic contests for years. This particular Pitts model is highly regarded for its power-to-weight ratio, but not so much for its luggage accommodations. Photo by Jim Moore.

Marc Nathanson, a CFI, designated pilot examiner, aerobatic competitor, and veteran of the U.S. Air Force and FedEx, both of which called on him to live far away from home for extended periods, offered his own endorsement for Febreze fabric freshener: “Not all hotels in the different countries had laundry services,” Nathanson explained, speculating that the company CEOs’ children may have gone to college on the profits he supplied over the years.

If your itinerary takes you away from restaurants, remember freeze-dried foods pack lots of nutrition, and MSR makes camp stoves that run on avgas. They’re perfect for noodles and coffee, and with a little ductwork and ingenuity, they can also preheat your airplane’s engine on a cold winter morning.

A Pitts S-2B has a little more interior space than some, but not much. Bill Gordon is seen here flying his at the 2015 Green Mountain Aerobatic Contest in Springfield, Vermont. Photo by Jim Moore.

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