Master, Slave or Partner

Checklists can run you, or you can run them. Either way, dont defeat their original purpose


A few friends recently had an e-mail discussion on checklist use. It started when one said he had been working on an audiocassette checklist as an adjunct to a speedy but complete check from preflight cockpit to shutdown. The tapes were planned to have background music and a pause tone so pilots would not get ahead of themselves during taxi or takeoff.

Its hard to believe that anyone needs to have another voice in the cockpit (not to mention background music) at critical times in the flight. Its hard enough to keep your attention shifting from one important task to another without an additional distraction.

In more than 30 years as a pilot, Ive never ceased to be amazed at the preoccupation pilots have with super-nifty checklists – and the consequent deluge of commercial products to fill this perceived need. They come in all styles: laminated cards as big as 8 x 11 inches with nearly microscopic print as well as scrolling devices with internal lighting that plug into the cigar lighter. Some are even motorized.

Ive seen them color-coded, multi-paged, and chock-full of information ranging from the rate of climb at 10,000 feet to the gap setting for the spark plugs. Ive also seen pilots with a six-page checklist for the walkaround preflight inspection carefully read every item on the list but fail to notice a birdstrike on the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer because there was no item called Vertical Stab Leading Edge – Check for damage.

These pilots walk around the plane, reading the list and looking up only to check the specific item they just read. If it isnt on the list, they dont check it. Students are often confounded when I tell them to leave the checklist in the cockpit during the walkaround. I teach them to read through the checklist before the inspection, then go around looking at the airplane rather than the checklist. They should be examining everything they see and then review the checklist after the inspection to see if theres anything on the list they dont remember looking at.

My beliefs about checklists could be summarized by saying checklists should be as simple as possible, and pilots should really learn how to do the things they should be doing. The checklist should be there only to make sure you dont forget critical items, not to teach you how to do them. For example, I believe any licensed pilot who needs a step-by-step checklist to get from sitting down in a light single-engine plane to having the engine running and all systems ready to taxi is too reliant on external aids.

Do you use a printed checklist when you start your car (Key – insert, Transmission – park, Brake Pedal – Depress, Key – rotate to start and release when engine catches, etc.)? Didnt think so.

Yes, I know, Einstein or Galileo or someone else equally smart said, I never remember anything I can look up in a book, but thats not really applicable to this situation. If you need a written set of instructions to take the immediate steps for coping with an engine fire on start, someday your charred cadaver will be removed from a burned-out aircraft hulk, its blackened hand clutching a POH turned to the wrong page.

Thats why the military requires pilots to memorize the truly time-critical steps in emergency procedures where delays can be lethal. The steps that must be memorized are printed in boldface in the checklist and flight manual. For example, the engine fire in flight checklist may be highlighted by: Throttle – OFF, Fire Pushbutton – DEPRESS, Agent Discharge Switch – UP, and then the remaining steps are outlined.

The entire procedure, including the memorized boldface and subsequent to-be-read steps are written out in the checklist the crew carries. The crew is expected to dig it out and read it after the crucial items have been completed and the situation is stable enough that another boldface action (Ejection Handle – SQUEEZE AND PULL) has been ruled unnecessary.

However, the boldface items must be memorized. All pilots in the Air Force must take a written test on the boldface emergencies for the aircraft they fly before their first flight each week. They are handed a paper listing the titles of all the boldface emergencies for their aircraft, and they must fill in the boldface steps for each one, exactly as they appear in the book. Passing requires a score of 100 percent, and if you dont pass, you dont fly.

Interestingly, the last boldface step in the F-111 engine fire procedure was changed from ACTUATE to UP after an airplane was lost to an engine fire. The pilot pushed the switch DOWN to the TEST position out of years of habit from pushing it down during the pre-start checks on every flight.

Obviously, this did not have the desired effect of discharging the Halon into the engine bay. The boldface was subsequently changed so crews would be aware of the need to do something different outside of the normal routine when they hit (actuate) that switch.

All of this is not to say you shouldnt use checklists. Checklists are extremely important.

But, in the words of one of the discussion participants, King Air and Baron pilot Stuart Spindel, There is a difference between a checklist and a do list. The word check implies verification rather than direction. At the early stages it is fine to use the checklist as a do list to help establish the proper and orderly flow of the routine operations. After a time, the list has been committed to memory and can function as a true checklist. The special checklists, such as emergency lists, should be reviewed from time to time to be sure that the [critical] items are memorized. Yes, we should all use the checklist, but use it as a check, rather than as an instruction manual.

Elementary, My Dear Watson
If you can remember the VFR cloud clearance and visibility minima, you should be able to remember that Run-up means: Engine – 1,800, mags – check (max drop 125/max diff 75), carb heat – on/check drop/off, suction – green arc, ammeter – check/switch off (discharge)/switch on (strong charge then normal), oil press/temp – check, engine – 1,000 RPM. Yes, this sounds like a lot, but really, all you have to memorize is: Run-up – mags, carb heat, gauges, idle. The rest follows logically. And if you do this, youll be paying more attention to the engine sounds and instrument readings (which can warn you of something potentially lethal) than trying to keep your place in a paper checklist (which can only give you a paper cut).

A lot of pilots use the ancient and honored GUMP (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop – or some close variation) on downwind or at the final approach fix. They call it and verify that each of those four items is in the proper position for landing. Other pilots tell me they do their GUMP check at some distance from the airport because they want to get the gear down farther out in order to get slowed up. Those other pilots have the wrong idea about the purpose of this checklist. They are using it as a do list rather than a checklist.

Instead of lowering the gear at whatever point in the arrival they feel the need for more drag to slow to pattern speed, they are only doing it as part of this GUMP list, and feel they must do the other items on that list at the same time. This is the wrong way to use a checklist. They should simply hit each control as its function is required, and then check for each controls proper position as part of the GUMP check. By this point, all the items should already be complete, but theres still time to correct things if theyre not.

Another problem that occurs is the expansion of simple lists. The GUMP check has often been expanded to GUMPF (flaps) or some other added features. In the fixed-gear, fixed-prop Grummans in which I often teach, I tell pilots to learn it as Gas, Undercarriage (not applicable, but a good habit to learn), Mixture, Pump and Flaps. However, Ive seen pilots for whom this simple check has expanded to 10 letters or more, including a number of items not critical to flight safety.

Those folks have turned a simple check for a few items that can kill or seriously damage if not properly set into a major reading exercise at a time when the pilots eyes should be outside the cockpit in VMC or on the instruments in IMC.

Personally, Im a CIGAR-TIPPF/GUMPPF man from way back. CIGAR-TIPPF (Controls, Instruments, Gas, Altimeter, Run-up, Trim, Interior, Prop, Pumps, Flaps) is my before takeoff check. It works very nicely in all light aircraft to ensure the items that can kill you are correctly set.

Its true that the simple words of the checklist are insufficient to get you through all the specific switches or items that must be checked. Instruments includes the six primary flight instruments as well as the nav and com instruments. Interior includes seat belts/harnesses, doors/windows/canopies, and loose gear stowed.

In that sense, the pilot still ought to know from memory what items need to be checked for each word of the mnemonic. But anyone allowed to operate an airplane alone should be able to have the full list spring to mind based on the single word reminder.

Those two checklists and a flow check at critical transition times in a flight will get a pilot through the critical flight phase transitions very safely and very effectively, without the chance of a finger slipping past a critical item.

A flow check starts at one corner of the cockpit and follows a flow line that covers the entire array of cockpit instruments and switches. In a single-engine Cessna, this starts at the fuel selector knob, goes up past the pitch trim to the engine controls, then left across the switches to the primer, then up the engine instruments, across the six flight instruments, and down the radio stack.

If theres a doubt about what setting a switch should be, or what an instrument should read, one hand/finger stays on the instrument/switch while the other picks up the checklist to find the correct value/setting for that item. Do this before starting, taxiing and taking off, after clearing the runway, and before and after shutdown.

Going With the Flow
Dont worry about missing something thats on the checklist if you do a flow check. Its not possible if you follow a path that covers every instrument, switch and control. By going through the cockpit in physical sequence, with your eyes and hands going from one item to the next adjacent one, you cant miss anything.

On the other hand, if your eyes and hands are bouncing back and forth between the printed checklist and the panel, its very easy to go back to the wrong step in the checklist, thus missing a critical item. Furthermore, if you examine your checklist while sitting in the cockpit, you may be surprised to find that in many cases it really is a flow check, with the items already in physical sequence.

Some may claim that these recommendations fly in the face of the accident statistics. Its true that the NTSB does cite failure to use a written checklist as a contributing factor in accidents, particularly in gear up landings. But the NTSB uses a lot of stock phrases in its findings that are as bad as the mindless use of a written checklist.

Proper use of a checklist is what produces safety, whether the checklist is written on paper, engraved on the panel or burned into the pilots memory. And no matter which kind you use, its useless if you forget to use it.

Veteran instructor Paul Tollini says its clear that no one is advocating doing away with checklists. Rather, the plethora of checklist devices and gadgets and homemade checklists that are as long as War And Peace detracts from the ability to perform an orderly and complete cockpit check before each critical phase of flight.

CIGAR-TIPF and GUMPF routines are very definitely checklists.

Tollini says that in thousands of hours of instructing, he has observed that longer checklists often result in less than thorough checks. In the course of a BFR, Tollini routinely pulls a breaker or changes a trim, flap or alternate air control setting. He says its almost scary how seldom it is caught in a thorough checklist.

In other words, printed checklists are often misused, abused and sometimes overused. Personally, I use checklists all the time on every flight, but they are not always printed. Even when they are, I rarely use the finger-directed move-and-do technique.

From time to time you hear of airplanes crashing on the first flight out of maintenance when the aileron cables were reconnected bass-ackwards. I wonder if those pilots just moved the yoke around while looking at the printed checklist line that said Controls – Free instead of looking at the ailerons because they were afraid if they looked away from the checklist theyd lose their place.

Tim Solms is an Army Aviator who splits his time between Apache helicopters and his own Grumman Cheetah. He summarizes it by saying, A checklist is only a good tool if you use it, understand it and have a working knowledge of the actions you are taking.

Solms says checklists may be legally mandatory in some cases, but theyre only effective when the pilot has an understanding of the applicable system or action. The benefit to memorization, he says, comes during an emergency, when you dont wind up with your head in a book.

Checklists must be tools, not crutches. Pilots should have enough knowledge and understanding of the aircraft to perform routine procedures without written instructions. They should memorize the time-critical steps to follow in emergencies.

Step-by-step checklists can help you get through unusual procedures to deal with abnormal flight conditions if there happens to be time to read and execute them. But you cannot expect to fly an airplane with one hand holding the list and your head down in the cockpit reading a series of instructions.

-by Ron Levy

Ron Levy, an ATP and CFII, is an assistant chief flight instructor at American Eagle Flight Academy.


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