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Hands-on Gear Review
Black Diamond Pilot 11 JetForce Review
Cons: Small for an 11L pack, back panel doesn't pack easily
Bottom line: A top-notch pack for its performance on the down, and solid airbag system that works well for side-country or heli/cat use.
The Black Diamond Pilot 11 JetForce is Black Diamond's sidecountry, heli and cat-oriented airbag pack. The pack is big enough to carry gear, a layer, food, and an extra pair of gloves, but not much else. It is one of our testers' favorite packs for "rideability" or how well it moved with the wearer on the down. What makes the Pilot even more appealing is its hassle free refills while traveling to cat and heli ski/snowboard operations. Unlike all other airbag packs, which used a cylinder of compressed gas that must be refilled after used or emptied before flying, the JetForce uses a battery powered fan to inflate its airbag, eliminating travel and refill hassles.
The downside, at $1050, it is one of the most expensive pack in its size range, as well as the heaviest. This pack is certainly not the most versatile pack, as its small size makes it move and ride with the wearer fantastically, but limits its uses and volume while touring. It's perfect for mechanized skiing and boarding, but a poor choice for touring. It does have a wonderful sidecountry and short touring capabilities, though this limits its overall versatility. The Backcountry Access Float 22 took home the notable award for heli, cat, and sidecountry skiing, as it performs nicely on the way down, and includes more pack friendly features that our testers liked more (we could ski slack-country with just a tad more gear and it could go on shorter less gear intensive day tours far better). That said, we still think the Pilot is a sweet mechanized ski pack for those who want easier air travel and don't care about longer tours.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Black Diamond Pilot 11, identical to the rest of Black Diamond's JetForce packs, uses a lithium battery powered fan instead of the more traditional compressed gas cylinder (that when deployed, inflates a solitary 200L airbag). Two hundred liters is currently the biggest "airbag" on the market. Of course, the question becomes - is bigger better? Currently, there aren't any studies showing that 200L is vastly superior to the more commonly used volumes between 150L to 170L. This comes back to the fundamentals of how air bags work: inverse segregation.
Inverse segregation works by moving the largest particles to the surface and the smaller partials lower (like a much more complex version of a bag of chips). If you can make yourself a bigger particle, you may be more likely to end up on top, so a bigger bag is likely slightly better, but is very unlikely worse. Black Diamond is able to achieve a larger volume bag because of its electric fan, which has a high limit on the maximum size of a balloon it could fill. Compare this to a compressed gas cartridge, where there is a finite limit on how big a "balloon" you could fill.
Once the trigger on the Pilot 11 has been pulled, it takes around three seconds to inflate the bag (similar to compressed gas options), but the fan runs at 100% for nine full seconds to both make sure not only that it inflates but in the event of a puncture, the fan will inflate the bag even with a 6" tear. Once deployed, the bag stays inflated for three full minutes before deflating. The idea behind deflating after minutes is in hopes of creating a more spacious air pocket for the wearer.
Black Diamond states the Pilot 11's battery will provide at least four deployments per charge, allowing the wearer to repack the airbag in the event of a close call or an accidental deployment. This will also allow you to continue to use the airbag function for the duration of their trip or a possible scary return to the trail head. How do you know if your airbag system is functioning? The JetForce has a self-checking diagnostic system that briefly fires the fan at 100% in reverse in order to make sure your airbag pack is ready to go. Once all of this is complete, the pack illuminates a green LED on the trigger handle for a visual confirmation.
Refilling Options and Travel Considerations
Traveling and finding refill centers with Black Diamond JetForce airbag pack is a piece of cake, as there is no canister to deal with. Simply charge at home, or if traveling, charge at your hotel. Unlike compressed gas cylinders, TSA has no rules against the batteries of the JetForce traveling on commercial airlines.
Top scorers in the airbag system metric include the Arc'teryx Voltair 30, Black Diamond Halo 28 Jetforce, Black Diamond Saga 40 Jetforce, and the Pilot 11. All contenders took home a perfect 10 out of 10, with the Mammut Pro Protection Airbag 3.0 trailing closely behind, earning a 9 out of 10.
The Pilot 11's main compartment is accessed via a zippered back panel. The 11L volume is its limiting factor for touring or anytime we needed a lot of gear; we found that we were often maxing out its space with any type of non-mechanized assisted skiing (even carrying skins while side-country skiing was sometimes stretching it depending on how cold it was). This small volume is slightly compounded by the fact that the zippered panel access just made it that much harder to squeeze things into. Killer for lift or heli-access, not great for almost any type of touring.
The snow safety gear pocket is smaller than average, though not Way smaller-than-average, and its' size in general was pretty typical of other sub 20L packs. We found the Pilot could actually fit most medium and smaller sized probes and shovels, which is what most people are likely going to choose anyway if considering this pack. While the Pilot 11 scored an above average 6 out of 10 in this metric, its not completely fair as this pack isn't design to have a lot of all-around Backcountry Utility.
Carrying Skis or Snowboard
Despite its small size, the Pilot 11 carries skis like a champion. It comes fully prepared for quick transition side-country booters with its sleek, quick (and stealthy stow-able) diagonal carry system that was among our testers' favorite in the review.
The Pilot 11 isn't super feature rich — BD instead focused on making a smaller pack whose main attribute is moving well with the wearer and performance on the down, while still offering one of the best and easiest-to-travel-with airbag systems on the market. The helmet holster feature on the Pilot 11, as well as Black Diamond's other JetForce packs, like the Black Diamond Halo 28 Jetforce and Black Diamond Saga 40 Jetforce, is an easy to use feature, as its sleek and stealthily stowed design fits a wide range of helmets - from climbing helmets to XL+ ski helmets. We also liked that this pack still featured a single zippered hip belt pocket as well as a place to stow the leg strap on the other side while not in use.
Scoring an 8 out of 10, the Pilot 11 is only available in one size (one size fits most) and fits most average sized people fine. Because of its small size, it actually fits shorter users down to around 5'3" - as long as their shoulders aren't too narrow. On the flip side, many of our taller testers (6"+) thought that it provided a comfortable fit. For the ultimate in comfort, consider the Arc'teryx Voltair 30, our Editors' Choice winner, along with the Black Diamond Halo 28, and Mammut Light Removable 3.0.
Performance on the down is how well each pack handled and moved with us while skiing and snowboarding on the descent. The Pilot 11 is the smallest volume pack in our review, and while it is a little heavy, it's hard for a pack this little and tight against your back to not feel fantastic. Overall, the Pilot 11 is one of our top airbag packs for performance on the down, earning a perfect 10 out of 10, significantly outperforming all of the mid-sized (25L-30L) and above packs, like the Arc'teryx Voltair 30, Black Diamond Halo 28, and the Backcountry Access Float 22.
The Pilot 11 tips the scales at 7 pounds 3 ounces, making it the heaviest sub 24L pack in our review and around half a pound heavier than the next closest pack in its size range. Most potential buyers of the Pilot 11 likely won't mind the extra weight, both because they are likely getting some help on the way up and because as we stated earlier, weight doesn't affect the Pilot's compact shape nor how well it rides while skiing or snowboarding. If weight is an important factor in your purchasing process, the Mammut Light Removable 3.0 was the lightest pack in our review, weighing five 5 pounds 10 ounces, with the Backcountry Access Float 22 and Mammut bags finishing closely behind.
The Pilot 11, because of its volume, is certainly aimed at mechanized skiing and snowboarding, not touring. The volume is perfect for avy gear and a handful of other items. It's okay for side-country (depending on if you bring skins or not) and is perfect for heli and cat skiers. In reality, it isn't big enough for longer touring trips. Its battery powered fan based system means traveling with it is easier than every other traditional airbag system. This means that Pilot 11 owners can go to more remote, less equipped heli operations and know that they will always be able to charge their pack for use.
The Pilot 11 checks in on the higher side of the review, costing $1050 for the whole system, with no additional canister to buy. This pack is the most expensive and minimalist sidecountry sized (sub 24L) pack we tested. That said, you can purchase the Top Pick Black Diamond Halo 28 for $1100, or our Editors' Choice Arc'teryx Voltair 30 for $1680 (for the entire system). If you're on a budget and need a slightly larger pack, the Backcountry Access Float 22 costs about $675 for the pack and the canister and includes 11 additional liters, with the Backcountry Access Float 32, our Best Buy winner, costing a few extra bucks, providing 21 extra liters.
The Bottom Line
The Black Diamond Pilot 11 JetForce is BD's side-country, heli and cat-oriented ski pack. It's big enough to carry avalanche gear and a handful of items, but not much else. This means it's great for mechanized skiing but it truly is too small for almost any kind of touring, and several of our testers thought too small for some slack-country use. It's this lack of versatility that kept it from being our Top Pick for best side-country, heli, and cat skiing pack. The Pilot does have some major advantages: like easy refilling, recharging, and traveling, as well as excellent performance on the down. These two features were almost enough to win our Top PIck award, with the Pilot scoring an overall score of 80.
The Pilot 11 is on the heavy side for its size and is the most expensive pack in its volume range. It remains a strong contender, but the Backcountry Access Float 22 is a more versatile pack (you could actually go short-day touring with it) with slightly better backcountry utility (and it still moves with the wearer fantastically). While we agree the Pilot 11's ease of travel is nice, it wasn't enough to overcome the many advantages of the BCA Float 22, especially if you take into account that many heli destinations have already set something up to accommodate their clients' airbag pack needs.
— Ian Nicholson
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