General aviation checklists are often long and contain unnecessary detail. As pilots flying under FAR Part 91, we have the freedom to create our own checklists, and there are some great advantages to doing this. Pilot-created checklists can be shorter, more relevant and better organized than the POH versions. Most importantly, writing a checklist offers a chance to truly get to know the airplane because it requires careful scrutiny of every item in the POH checklist. I wrote my own checklist for my Baron G58 when I bought it in 2015.
First, we should consider how checklists are used. It is less efficient and more time-consuming to use a checklist as a “read-do” list – reading an item, then looking up to check a control or position a switch. I am a firm believer in a “do-verify” type of checklist, also known as a flow. For the initial cockpit check, for example, I start at the top right corner of the control panel and work my way down across the bottom, over the left side, and end up in the throttle quadrant. This way, I can accomplish over a dozen checks and tasks before looking at the checklist to make sure I’ve done all of them. Because they come in a logical order, I am less likely to miss something and more likely to spot it if I have.
My checklist is in an IFR Flight File made by AERO Phoenix (available at many online pilot shops). This holds NACO or Jeppesen-sized paper approach plates in transparent plastic sleeves. It’s also lightweight with a durable plastic cover and is easy to tuck between my left leg and the sidewall when not in use. I print out the checklist on a total of eight pages, cut them to size, and place them in the sleeves. These include emergency procedures (two pages), normal procedures (four pages), start conditions (one page), and a weight and balance chart (one page). The font is Helvetica Neue (clean typeface, no serifs) with a 14 point size for headings and 12 point for the lists.
Flying under Part 91, there is no requirement to use any specific checklist or to use one at all. FAR 91.501 – 91.503 details the requirements for checklist use by operators of heavy or multi-engine turbine aircraft. While not required for us, they are worth reading as an example of when to use checklists and what they should contain.
Safety Alert For Operators (SAFO) 17006 is also important. The FAA urges pilots who are using pilot-written or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) checklists to “meticulously compare” these with the POH checklists and aircraft placards. While not binding, this is just good advice.
Shortening and Organizing
This took several detailed trips through the POH checklists and a fair amount of hangar flying. I started by including everything in the POH, then moved items around to where they made more sense, and eliminated others completely. Wherever possible, I grouped items into flows, so I could carry out a series of tasks before looking at the checklist again. These flows form the backbone of the checklist. I also focused specifically on keeping safety-critical items, things I tend to forget, and anything that could improve safety over the POH checklist. Here are a few examples.
For the Baron, the POH places preflight cockpit checks in two places, one before the walk-around and one after. There are several more preflight tasks sprinkled in other checklists, such as the runup checks. I consolidated these tasks to complete almost all of them before the walk-around via the flow I mentioned earlier. Another goal here was to do as much as possible before starting the engines. Minimizing head-down time with props turning on a ramp, in my view, improves safety for those outside the plane. It also saves gas.
Other changes can improve flight safety. I moved the “Controls – free and correct” step from the engine runup to the beginning of the preflight cockpit checks. Any unusual sounds, like a cable or control surface binding, are best heard when the engines are not running, so it makes more sense to perform these checks with the engines off.
As a pilot gains familiarity with an airplane, some items become unnecessary. My engine start checklist is now two items instead of nine in the POH. Some of the dropped items are common sense, such as “Magnetos/start switch – start (release to BOTH when engine starts).” It’s a safe bet that all pilots understand this is how to get the engine to start making noise. If they don’t, they will remain safely on the ground. The two I kept are “Switches – OFF, THEN SET,” and “Oil pressure – CHECK.” The first step reminds me to verify the Avionics Master and any battery-draining accessories are off before powering up the Masters, and the second to check the oil pressure after starting – a critical step that is easy to miss.
Starting a cold Continental IO-550 is easy to do with a flow: Masters and alternators on. Mixtures/props/throttles full forward. Cowl flaps open. Boost pump low to check operation, high until fuel flow peaks, then off. Throttles closed, then open half, clear, then start the engine. Verify oil pressure is up before doing anything else. The other start conditions – hot and flood starts, for example – sit on another page, so I don’t have to wade through those before running the after-start checks.
The landing checklist is even shorter: “Gear – down,” which is the single most important item. I reinforce this with the airline practice of keeping my hand on the gear switch until I see three green lights. A final flow, what I call the over-the-fence checks (completed on short final, about when I cross the airport fence), includes gear down, props forward, and click the autopilot disconnect switch to shut off the yaw damper. I’ve forgotten that last step more than once; it’s hard to move the rudder on the rollout with the YD engaged. Putting it into this flow solved the problem, as would placing it in an earlier checklist.
This is an iterative process. I didn’t bother printing the first few versions on nice paper since I found missing items, poor or inefficient flows, and extra steps, even after many dry runs in the hangar and my home office. Every year, while the plane is in for its annual inspection, I submit the checklists to the same process – I dismantle and inspect them, making whatever changes are needed.
Pilot-made checklists are a great chance to improve efficiency and safety. Even better, it is an opportunity to learn airplane systems in much greater detail because it requires the pilot to consider each item in the POH checklist. Hangar flying is a critical part of creating a checklist. The best way to develop flows is by sitting in the pilot’s seat, touching the controls, rehearsing tasks, and taking notes. These flows then become the basis for the revised and improved checklist.