Recently, I flew with a pilot who has been flying the same type of airplane for about 40 years. He’s now in his late 70s. Besides being sloppy with all his flying techniques, I noticed that he didn’t use a checklist. When I queried him about this, he told me that he’s been flying for so long that he didn’t need the checklist. My response was that, as we all get older, our memory gets worse, not better, and it was too easy to forget something, no matter how long you’ve been flying the same airplane or a similar one.
The instructor asked what I could do to help him make the case for checklist use.
A big part of the problem, in my opinion, is that instructors often do a lousy job of teaching checklist use. Think about your own exposure to learning about checklists. Unless you trained in the military or in a professional flight academy, you probably were taught to use a checklist step-by-step in starting the airplane, and when performing the engine run-up and Before Takeoff checks. Then, you stuffed the checklist in the seat pocket or threw the Pilot’s Operating Handbook onto the back seat and went without for the remainder of each flight. Once you passed your checkride and were out flying on your own, you were probably tempted to stop using even the start-up and Before Takeoff checklists. After all, you now knew how to fly.
In your opinion, you didn’t need those training aids any more. Unless you later became a professional pilot, flying as part of a multi-pilot crew, you probably retained this attitude toward checklists. Then, you may have found the checklists to be so detailed, long and convoluted that it became easy to miss items (even the critical ones), and you tend to focus so much on the checklist you forget you’re in command of a rapidly-moving piece of machinery in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
No wonder, so many times, we forget something vital that can lead to a mishap.
I changed my attitude about checklists one day over southwestern Missouri. I had flown from Wichita, Kansas to Springfield, Missouri, about an hour’s flight. For expediency and flexibility I was using VFR Flight Following. After dropping off a passenger, I departed for the return to Wichita. It was late morning and cumulus clouds were beginning to build, so between dealing with traffic and maneuvering between the cloud build-ups I was pretty busy. Soon, I was level at 8,000 feet westbound and out of the Springfield area. After a while, I noticed I had forgotten to lean the fuel mixtures and was still burning about 22 gallons per hour per side. Now, I’d only flown an hour to Springfield and I expected to fly a little over an hour back to Wichita, so if I’d never found my omission I would not have had a problem. But, if I had been planning this second flight all the way to Denver, for example, or if I had originally left with less than full fuel, or if the weather worsened and I needed fuel to fly to an alternate, I might have run out long before my preflight planning suggested I would. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was some sort of reminder I could use to be certain I’d not forgotten things like mixture and switching fuel tanks and retracting cowl flaps? Then I remembered – there are checklists that cover all these things.
Do, then check
The proper use of in-flight checklists is to confirm you haven’t forgotten anything. We don’t call them “do-lists” (items we need to do), we call them “checklists” (things we need to check were actually completed). Manipulate the engine controls, or get the airplane into configuration, or transition into a new phase of flight, then check that you haven’t forgotten anything by referencing a checklist. This accomplishes the goal of having checklists in the first place – not as learn-to-fly training aids (although they are good for that also), but as a safety aid to compensate for human factors.
If any cockpit task screams out for backup with a printed checklist, it’s selecting and activating a GPS-guided approach before descending toward the ground in actual instrument conditions. VFR or IFR, GPS navigation significantly improves position awareness and arguably has the potential to increase safety-of-flight across the board. But GPS systems are much more complicated than non-GPS equipment, and each model of GPS and associated displays has its own operating logic and pilot interface.
If I’d had the practice and discipline to use a Cruise checklist after level-off, for instance, I would have immediately caught my failure to lean the mixture after departing from Springfield that day. Level off, get everything set, then pull out the list and make sure you’ve not forgotten anything. That’s how to use a checklist.
We use checklists because as pilots we must constantly fight:
Complacency. Doing the same thing over and over again makes it easy to forget something once and think it’s been done. Having logged hours of flying, and years of flying the same type of aircraft, lulls us into thinking there’s no way we’d miss some vital task. The accident record says otherwise.
Distraction. Traffic, weather, passengers or unusual situations steal our attention away from the routine flying tasks. Stress – from family, scheduling pressures, and other non-flying concerns – diverts our concentration from the cockpit.
Fatigue. Face it, few of us get as much sleep as we really should. Often, our flying is done after a long day’s work, or bunched between other activities and responsibilities on weekends. Ironically, the more flying time we have, the older we have become, and age makes us more susceptible to fatigue. Flying itself is a fatiguing activity, from the noise, turbulence, workload and the duration of flight; mild hypoxia from flying even at low altitudes can make us tired long before other symptoms appear.
Fixation. A form of distraction, fixation is when a specific object or activity demands so much attention we forget everything else.
Forgetfulness. Like the instructor at the beginning of this article said, the older we get the more forgetful we seem to be.
We can’t avoid complacency, distraction, fatigue, fixation or forgetfulness. That’s why we have to have a backup…in the form of printed checklists, and the skill to use them.
Here’s my challenge to you:
Learn to use the Before Start, Start, Before Takeoff, Climb, Cruise, Descent, Approach, Landing and Shutdown checklists. If your airplane doesn’t have a printed list that covers what you need (for instance, GPS approach selection and activation), then write one customized to your needs. Make checklists short and usable, covering the vital things-that-can-hurt-you steps.
Sit in the airplane and run through each checklist, actually moving switches and controls if it’s safe to do so on the ground, until you know the checklist procedures well.
Keep your checklists handy in flight and, after you complete each transition, confirm your actions by running through the list. Make checklists as much a part of your flying as trimming off control pressures.
Use this newfound familiarity with the checklists not to convince yourself you know it all and don’t need a reminder, but instead as reinforcement to head off the effects of complacency, distraction, fatigue, fixation and forgetfulness. Do, then check.
If you’re an instructor, insist on this level of checklist use. Lead by example, using checklists every time you fly.