Go With the Flow? Check

Checklists, memory, flow checks all have a place in an effectively managed cockpit


The pilot of a single-engine experimental airplane climbed into the left seat, started the engine, taxied out to the runway at his California home base, and advanced the throttle for takeoff. As the plane left the ground, he discovered the awful truth.

After his last flight, he had wrapped the seat belt on the right seat around the right yoke, using the belt as a gust lock. Somehow, hed forgotten to release the belt before takeoff. The airplane stalled and veered left of the runway. In the crash, the pilot was seriously injured.

Youre laughing now, wondering how someone could be so, well, careless as to take off with the seat belt wrapped around the yoke. This is an extreme case of forgetfulness, yet every week other pilots make similar bonehead mistakes. They takeoff with preflight items forgotten. They dont switch fuel tanks, and park the plane in the trees. They neglect to lower landing gear. They dont turn on carb heat and the engine runs out of steam on final. The list goes on and on.

To many pilots, it seems, checklists are for wimps. They rely on memory, flow checks or blind luck to ensure the proper operation of the airplane.

On the other end of the scale, there are fastidious pilots who revel in checklists. They may even have a checklist to organize their checklists. These pilots demand absolute precision, and the few seconds lost consulting a checklist is well worth the peace of mind that comes with knowing theyve not forgotten anything.

Which way is safer? The answer is neither. And both.

Like all things that defy generalization, the need for checklists over memorized procedures varies with the aircraft and individual. The gear-up landings and carb ice-induced power losses show that people forget things, even things they may have done hundreds of times before.

Cessnas checklist for a lowly 152 includes 116 steps for a routine preflight, engine start, runup, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, landing and shutdown. If flying a complex airplane on an IFR cross country trip and making an instrument approach requires you to perform 800 individual tasks, are you absolutely sure you wont forget number 743?

Some things readily lend themselves to a flow check, an easily memorized sequence of steps, typically accompanied by lots of tangible reminders. The walk around is a perfect example. As you walk around the wings you note the condition of hinges, rivets and control surfaces. Pass the nose and your hand falls naturally to the prop. Have you ever been interrupted on your walk around and then, even after you completed it, had a momentary nagging feeling that something wasnt right? Thats a flow check at its best.

Flow checks can be extended into the cockpit and used for runup, descent, landing and taxi. All it takes is a systematic, regular approach to monitoring the cockpit controls. A typical cockpit flow check would start with the trim wheel between the seats and move up to the panel, across the panel to the left covering the bottom row of instruments, then back to the right covering the top row of instruments, the avionics and the breakers or anything else on the right side of the panel.

The important aspect of flow checks is to do it the same every time, to create that nagging feeling if you get interrupted. The danger is that youll get distracted and pick up again in a different spot. What you forget could be a critical item.

For example, a private pilot undergoing instrument training dutifully checked his VORs with the airports VOT frequency, but got interrupted by Clearance Delivery at precisely that time. He took off, followed ATC vectors and then was given a heading to intercept the 359 radial on the first leg of an IFR cross country flight. He was surprised to see that his CDIs had already centered, so he flew outbound. He flew several miles with both needles pegged, through busy Class C airspace, before Departure finally asked him just where he intended to go. Perhaps the only person whose face was redder than the students was the instructor.

Conversely, people who rely too heavily on checklists put themselves into a different kind of jeopardy. Having an emergency checklist is no substitute for knowing the best glide speed, the engine out procedures and the emergency gear extension procedures for your airplane. A better strategy is to run through them from memory, then find the checklist and see if youve forgotten anything. Low and slow and going down is no time to be fumbling around for a checklist printed in red.

For example, suppose you get vectored to the final approach fix and it will take two minutes to get to the runway. At the fix, you select gear down, but nothing happens. How much time do you really have to execute your emergency gear extension? Even more critical, what if you have fire or smoke in the cockpit while cruising at 11,000 feet? Do you really want to conduct an emergency descent while leafing through the POH in search of how to stay alive?

Clearly, then, pilots should at least memorize most of the procedures and use the printed checklist as a backup.

Say What?
For memorization, acronyms and expressions are as abundant as they are useful. Who needs a checklist to remember lights, camera, action (strobes, transponder, fuel pump) when ready for the takeoff roll? But be careful not to overdo it. GUMP can become GUMPF, of course, but it can also become GUMMPCPPGPFLCC if you let it. At that point, its time to use a checklist.

If you dont like the one the manufacturer provided in the manual, there are some options. Several companies sell laminated checklists, tailored by make and model, that cost about the same as an hours worth of fuel. If your aircraft is unusual or you want a more tailored option, look no farther than the nearest computer.

Making your own checklist allows you to incorporate reference speeds, radio frequencies at your home base, and the specific equipment you have installed. You can make it fit inside a Jepp binder, create an oversized sheet thats easy to read, or laminate it right on top of your kneeboard.

Include the details given in your POH, of course, but augment it with information that fits your typical missions and your flying habits. If you tend to forget to turn on the landing light, for example, put it on the checklist a couple of times. If you routinely get your clearance before engine start, change the pre-start sequence to reflect that.

The important thing is that you have it and can use it when the need arises.

The FAA Practical Test Standards for every certificate require the use of checklists for each phase of flight. In the Commercial Pilot ASEL practical test, for example, the standards call for the use of a checklist 19 times, and only once do the standards give the out of using appropriate checklists or procedures. Technically, failure to use a checklist when required is grounds for failing the flight test, although some examiners may allow leeway on some maneuvers.

When You Gotta Have Em
Pilots flying paying passengers have few alternatives but to use checklists. For example, FAR 135.83(a) says the operator of an aircraft must provide the following materials, in current and appropriate form, accessible to the pilot at the pilot station, and the pilot shall use them: (1) A cockpit checklist. Furthermore, the regs say that each checklist must contain procedures for before starting engines, before takeoff, cruise, before landing, after landing and stopping the engine. The rules also require emergency checklists for fuel, hydraulic, electrical and mechanical emergencies, emergency operation of instruments and controls, engine out procedures and any other emergency procedures necessary for safety.

Part 121 stipulates that the pilot must use an approved cockpit check procedure. Sometimes that means checklists, other times a flow check is sufficient. The key is that the procedure be integrated into the cockpit actions of the pilot – a rigorous standard that many Part 91 fliers do not follow. Airlines tend to use flow checks to set up the cockpit, then use checklists when verifying the equipment is configured and operating properly.

FAR Part 91 does not specifically require the use of checklists. The FAA, however, says the need for checklists is implied by the numerous requirements that the pilot operate the aircraft safely and correctly. In enforcement cases and accident investigations, both the FAA and the NTSB have reiterated the need to use and follow checklists. In addition, many insurance policies will not pay damages if the flight violated an FAR and have concluded that not having a checklist available may be grounds for denying a claim.

-by Ken Ibold


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