When I began putting together my airline portable telescope and related accessories I found myself initially more concerned with finding the right optical tube assembly for my observing needs as well as asking many questions about how I would successfully mount the scope without blowing through my checked baggage allowances which led me to items such as the Gitzo Systematic 6X Carbon Fibre GT5532S tripod (review). I did not consider how I would transport the OTA and other fragile optical equipment like eyepieces in the aircraft cabin. After I took delivery of the APM TMB 105/650 triplet apochromatic refractor (review), the need for a successful baggage solution suddenly became priority number one and the search was on for a bag that meets airline cabin baggage restrictions with the ability to hold a telescope with minimum dimensions for transportation of 19.4”x6.1” (49.2×15.6cm), weighing 6.0kg (13.2lbs) including tube rings and dovetail as well as three to four eyepieces, finderscope, 2” star-diagonal, filters and a star atlas.
While a number of telescopes do come with their own baggage solution, this is often a hard case specific to the scope and with dimensions that will often exceed cabin baggage limitations. Generic third party telescope bags seem to be thin on the ground and this apparent gap in the market led me to photographic bags as a potential solution. After visiting a number of photography forums and conducting plenty of online research I discovered Think Tank Photo and their range of high end camera bags. The Airport Security V2.0 rolling camera bag outside dimensions complied with British Airways (and most other airlines) maximum cabin baggage sizing and the internal capacity was sufficient for the telescope. The bag seemed to fit my requirements and after asking a few questions about the internal dimensions of the bag I purchased one from Clifton Cameras in the UK. At the time the price was £275 (July 2012) though the price today is around £300.
The first impressions of the bag were very favourable, with high quality materials clearly having been used in its construction. To a casual observer it actually appears like a regular carry-on suitcase though this can be both a positive and a negative. It is clearly a strong point that the bag does not draw attention to the fact that within lies several thousand pounds worth of optical equipment, though the downside is having overzealous drivers handle the bag with slightly less care than I would like due to the assumption there is nothing fragile inside.
British Airways maximum allowed cabin baggage dimensions are 22”x18”x10” (56x45x25cm) including handles, pockets and wheels with a maximum weight of 23kg (51lbs). The outside dimensions of the Airport Security V2.0 are 22”x14”x9” (55.9×35.6×22.9cm) so while the long dimension is just compliant; the other two dimensions are more comfortable. I have to admit that when the bag first arrived I immediately took a tape measure to it as the bag appears imposingly large. There is a small caveat to what I have just written. While the quoted dimensions are accurate, these exclude the skid plates and wheels which add as much as an additional inch to the length. When placing it into an overhead bin, I would suggest top handle first as the natural curvature of the bag just allows it to fit length ways but do be prepared to be challenged at the gate as the bag really does look large.
Depending on internal configuration and accessories used the bag weighs somewhere between 5.4 and 6.4kg (12-14lbs). Due to the use of fairly thick padded silver-toned nylon in the walls of the bag, the interior dimensions are 21”x13”x7-8” (53.3x33x17.8-20.3cm). The variance in depth comes from a step in the centre of the bag where the retractable handle is stored which does result in slightly less flexibility of how to lay out the stored equipment. However, in my case the length of the bag below the step almost exactly matches the length of the Vixen dovetail I use to attach the scope to the mount, so when the rings are fully retracted for transport, the dovetail sits comfortably on the floor of the bag without raising the height of the scope above the lip. For reference, the dimensions of the raised platform are 6.25” wide by 14.75” long.
The roller-handle of the bag is hidden away behind a zipped flap which allows the continuation of the nice lines across the top of the bag and the action to extend is very smooth with a simple button press and pull. Fully extended it stands 42” (106cm high).
Perhaps my favourite feature is carrying handles on three sides of the bag. Both the top and side handles are thickly padded and comfortable to hold for extended periods. On the bottom of the bag, between the wheels is a thin, but strong nylon strap. While it does not have the padding of the other two, it makes the task of lifting the bag into an overhead bin in an aircraft very easy indeed. Despite loading the bag with as much as 11kg (24lbs) of kit, I have never felt concerned that the bottom strap is any less strong than the other two.
Any roller bag lives and dies by the quality of its wheels and skid plates and here the bag delivers. There is nothing worse than squeaky, rough wheels, but the custom designed (and replaceable) in-line style skate wheels are very smooth and virtually silent and the skid plates provide a very stable base when the bag is left upright. In two years of use I have yet to see the bag topple over.
Provided as standard are reinforced dividers which allows a customisable configuration keeping the telescope and other optical accessories secure and immobilised during travel. The dimensions of the scope with attached tube rings and dovetail are such that I utilise almost the entire depth of the bag, but should you wish, Think Tank sell an optional low divider set which allows a 17” laptop to sit inside the case on top of the dividers.
On the front of the bag is an elastic pocket for a laptop though I use it hold star charts and other books I am taking with me. I would caution that the pocket is thin and would provide little protection to a laptop or tablet and be careful when flipping open the lid. My star charts have slipped out onto the floor more than once. It would have been nice if some kind of seal could hold that pocket closed.
On the inside of the main compartment flap are a number of clear, zipped pouches which are very useful for storing filters and optical cleaning equipment. The use of clear plastic allows easy identification of what is in each compartment which is especially useful when out in the dark observing under the stars.
Located next to the top handle is a business card holder which has room for several cards and there is a pocket underneath which is just large enough to hold a passport and other travel docs. All these little pouches and pockets built into the frame of the bag are really clever little touches and make use of otherwise dead space.
The Think Tank Photo Airport Security V2.0 comes with a security plate with a unique serial number. Registration on the company website is straight forward and should your bag ever be lost or stolen, Think Tank will be able to identify the owner of the bag. It is something I hope I never have to test, but it is a nice additional element to have.
There are a host of additional features I do not really use but are certainly worth mentioning. Located on the side of the bag is an elastic tripod / monopod holder with additional provided straps which are simply attached to secure the tripod in place. When travelling abroad I check the tripod and mount and when using domestically I tend to use a separate tripod bag.
There are a number of security features included in the bag. On one side is a TSA combination lock which secures the main compartment of the bag as well as a heavy duty rear security cable which emerges from the underside of the case and can be secured to an immovable object so your bag cannot just “walk away” if you leave it unattended. A smaller security cable is also stored in a front side compartment which can be attached to a Think Tank Artificial Intelligence laptop bag.
As well as the pockets and pouches I have already mentioned there are two more in the form a front and side pocket which would be good for storing pens and small items. It really is very impressive to see the designers try to squeeze as much storage space as possible into the bag.
While I have never found the need to use them, in the rear underside pocket are emergency shoulder straps. Perhaps when walking over very uneven terrain and a roller just will not work, they would come into their own though they are a bit thin, as necessitated by the small compartment they are kept in, but it is nice to have if you need to carry the bag as back pack for brief period.
In all honesty, I could configure my bag a little more efficiently (I need to find a better solution for the finderscope) but for any photographers reading this review, Think Tank demonstrate just how much can be squeezed into one of these bags if you think about your arrangement.
My requirements and intended use are perhaps slightly unusual compared to most owners, and while it is not the cheapest solution available, there is no denying the quality of the materials and the construction. The bag never leaves me worried about the expensive equipment inside, and the thoughtful touches like the three handles, security plate, and all the internal pocket space has left me extremely satisfied with my purchase. So much so in fact, that I recently added a second Think Tank bag, the Airport Commuter Backpack for my ultra portable Takahashi FS-60CB refractor, Canon 70D and lenses for a two week stargazing trip to Namibia later this year (internal flight restrictions necessitate a smaller bag). The only downside I feel is that the bag really does look large so be prepared for the odd challenge from cabin crew when travelling abroad and if that really does worry you, the Airport International V2.0 which is touch smaller may be the bag for you. The Airport Security V2.0 comes highly recommended.