A Perspective On Checklists

by Harold Green

Over the years our safety record in general aviation has improved dramatically. I submit that one reason for this is the development and use of written checklists. There are checklists for pre-flight, starting engines, pre-taxi, taxi, pre-takeoff, landing, etc., etc. Then there are the emergency checklists, including engine failure, cabin fire, and engine fire. We have laminated copies in our aircraft and they are kept handy to reach when needed. Checklists have been a tremendous boon to aviation safety. However, like all good things, checklists can be abused, nor are they perfect.

There are two principal methods of checklist use: The “flow list” and the “do list.”

A flow list is a checklist, which in its completion, the pilot acts from memory and generally flows from one item to the next in a logical path, often simply because of proximity in the cockpit.

The instrument panel offers a logical path to scan or flow from one instrument to the other, including both flight and engine gauges. The pilot then uses the written checklist to confirm and verify his or her actions. This aids focus and provides a double check on actions.

A do list is one in which the pilot does each item in sequence, step by step, as listed on the written checklist, checking off each item as completed. Do lists must be completed in functional sequence, such as priming and starting the engines(s), and the pilot can often combine these tasks.

For example, the engine start sequence may be presented as a do list item, but usually the pilot does the actions in sequence after reading the checklist and then confirming by a second reference to the checklist. It is not unusual to complete all steps in a do list prior to actually starting it, and then reviewing the actions leading up to that point as if using a flow list.

The real point here is that whichever type of checklist is used – flow or do – attention to what is going on and a double check are good things.

When dealing with a complex airplane with extensive systems, checklists are an absolute necessity!

Aircraft using advanced cockpit equipment and a factory installed multi-function display (MFD) generally contain built-in checklists for both normal and emergency operation of the aircraft and its systems. In these aircraft, the use of checklists is mandatory, if for no other reason than for the operation of the advanced equipment. Each item needs to be checked off before the pilot can move to the next item.

When using any checklist in single-pilot operations, the pilot must be aware of some key elements. Unlike the airlines and other two-pilot operations, you are the only pilot. Where those other folks have one person reading a checklist and the second pilot responding with the correct status response, you have nobody but yourself, and – if you are lucky – an able helper in the right seat. Thus, it is very easy to skip an item on a checklist. Even when putting your finger on the last item read, it is very easy to skip one line. If that line happens to relate to a critical item, this can cause issues.

It is amazing how many times I have seen a pilot reach for a switch or control lever and then not set it in accordance with the checklist. None of us are immune from this. Knowing this, I double-check everything. This just makes the error rate less, but is no gaurantee of error elimination.

A second issue with checklists relates to the fact that passengers, particularly those not used to flying, are filled with questions. They have the disturbing habit of asking a question at critical moments of the flight (i.e. takeoff and landing), since that is when an action attracts their attention. The concept of a sterile cockpit is very hard to enforce under these conditions. The result is a very high probability that a critical item will be missed unless a checklist is used.

If your passenger happens to be of an age to read, consider asking for their help and have them read the checklist and compare your response with that item on the checklist.

This brings to mind an incident a few years ago involving a student on a private pilot checkride and an examiner. The student, not a shy person, was told by the examiner that it was the student’s responsibility to maintain cockpit discipline and that he should just treat him, the examiner, as his uncle. During pre-takeoff procedures, with the student using the appropriate checklist, the examiner started asking questions and chattering on. After awhile, the student looked over and said in a loud voice: “Uncle Norm,  just shut the h— up.” The instructor was proud of his student’s response and was pleased the examiner passed the student with much merriment by all.

One of the more prevalent issues with checklists, in my opinion, is when they are used as a substitute for being a competent/knowledgeable pilot.

For example, when a pilot is walking up to the aircraft, it should be inspected to see if it is level on the ramp. An aircraft tilting one way or another might suggest a bent landing gear strut. At the minimum, the oil dipstick might give an inaccurate reading. The point being, a conscientious pilot can add any number of items to an unwritten checklist.

Flight emergencies are a time when checklist items must be accessed from memory. Once the emergency is manageable, if time permits, we can use the emergency checklist to ensure that everything has been completed. We need to practice and drill emergency procedures in our minds as part of our regular proficiency training.

Then, too, there are the tried and true old standbys, CIGARS and GUMPS checklists, which we all know by heart. The following list gives examples.  Adjust for your own airplane.  In this form they represent more a mantra than a checklist. However, the function is the same.

Before Takeoff: CIGARS
C: Controls & Cowl Flaps
I: Instruments: Flight & Engine
G: Gas: Selector Valve, Quantity, Set Fuel Flow Monitor, if installed.
A: Attitude: Flaps, Trim, Auto Pilot Off.
R: Run-up: Carb Heat, Mag Check, Cycle Prop, if variable pitch.
Radios: Nav/Com/Transponder.
S: Safety: Doors & Windows Closed & Latched, Seat Belts Buckled, Passengers Briefed.

Before Landing: GUMPS
G: Gas: On Both or Fullest Tank, Boost Pump, if required.
U: Undercarriage: Down & Locked.
M: Mixture: Full Rich or As Per Pilot’s Operating Handbook.
P: Prop: In, if variable pitch.
S: Switches: Including Lights.

When getting checked out in a new type of airplane, it is almost mandatory that checklists be used as “do lists,” particularly if we haven’t had time to study the list in advance. It might also be a good idea to use a checklist in studying the airplane before a checkride.

A quick search of the Internet will generally result in a source for checklists. Aircraft type clubs can be a great source for such information. There are times when a checklist is not available.

The first checklist, which might not exist, is the “Arrival-At-The-Airport Checklist.” That one might run something like this:

Airport Arrival Checklist
Car: Parked & Locked.
Ego & Worries: Left behind and out of mind.
Mental Focus: On upcoming flight.
Situation To Cause Flight To Be Cancelled: Defined & Reviewed.
Flight Plan: Filed
Approach Airplane
No Visible Damage
Airplane sits parallel with parking surface.
Control Lock: Removed.

There could be an additional checklist before leaving the aircraft after a flight:

Before Leaving Aircraft
Radio & Other Electrical: Off
Mixture, Master & Magnetos: Off
Rotating Beacon: Left On
Control Lock: Installed
Paperwork: Completed
Doors & Windows: Locked
Aircraft: Secured.
Flight Plan: Closed

In summary, checklists have become invaluable and indispensable to safe flying. We need them, and should use them and remain watchful in their use. Checklists are obviously not the total answer, but they are significant in maintaining our flight safety.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certificated Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Readers can email questions and comments to: harlgren@aol.com or call 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirplane.com).

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This entry was posted in Aug/Sept 2015, Columns, Columns, Flight Safety, Pilot Proficiency and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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