Often, single-pilot operators don’t use checklists like pilots of crew-type airplanes. Yet the reason checklists exist is to ensure that nothing is forgotten, that the airplane is fully configured for the current or next phase of flight. With no First Officer acting as a backup and quality control, the Captain of a single-pilot airplane is entirely dependent upon his or her own actions. We need checklists more than the crew of a two-pilot airplane, yet we typically use them far less.
Probably the most important checklist in terms of ensuring that nothing can harm airplane occupants or cause damage to the aircraft is the Before Takeoff checklist. Once the engines are started, this is the one checklist single pilots are most commonly trained to use. What is arguably the second most important checklist, however, doesn’t even appear in most Flight Manuals and Pilot’s Operating Handbooks. I challenge you to write—and develop the discipline to actually use—a personalized Approach checklist.
From the NTSB:
The owner of a Beechcraft Baron 55 flew approximately 80 nautical miles to pick up his friend, who was a commercial pilot, and four passengers. A lineman stated that after landing, the owner parked the airplane next to the fuel pump and requested that the main inboard fuel tanks be topped off. The lineman topped the left tank, and as he was walking over to the right tank, the commercial pilot requested that he “…leave the right tank down an inch or two.” The lineman obliged, and stated that between the left and right main tanks, he added a total of 40.3 gallons of fuel to the airplane. The lineman also stated that he overheard a conversation between the two pilots, during which the owner stated “we have 15 gallons in each of the auxiliary tanks.”
Several witnesses observed the airplane on final approach for its destination, and stated the airplane appeared to be high above the threshold, and fast. Surveillance videos captured the airplane floating down the runway before touching down briefly and bouncing several times. The airplane became airborne again near the last third of the runway. As the airplane climbed, it drifted to the right of the runway centerline and began a gradual, climbing left turn to about 50 feet above ground level. The airplane appeared to level off, then began to descend, before pitching up abruptly and rolling to the left as it descended into trees and terrain.
Initial examination of the wreckage revealed that the airplane struck the ground in a slight nose-low attitude about 300 feet from the departure end of the runway. The wings and engines separated during the accident sequence but remained within 20 feet of the fuselage in their approximate and respective locations relative to the fuselage. The right propeller separated from the engine and exhibited span-wise gouging and curling in an “S” pattern. The left propeller remained attached to the engine. The blades were positioned to a flat pitch with little chord-wise damage and minimal curling.
There are many lessons to be learned from this event, and we’ll likely glean even more once the NTSB investigation is complete. It appears that once the pilot got the Baron airborne following his balked landing attempt, however, the flight succumbed to a stall during a go-around…an unfortunately common contributor to fatal accidents. However, pilots who know the airplane type suspect that a second, common contributor may have played a part. The vintage Baron involved in this accident was equipped with independently selectable auxiliary fuel tanks. Those tanks are limited by the manufacturer to be used in level flight only—a limitation that, as far as I’ve seen, applies to auxiliary fuel tanks in all airplanes so equipped. Pitching the nose up for climb can unport the fuel in the auxiliary tanks, causing power interruption or a total engine failure.
There are similar warnings that prohibit using auxiliary fuel pumps for landing in some airplane types, while other engines require aux pumps to be on for landing. Almost every airplane type has one control or another that should be set a specific way for landing. Forgetting one of these things in a busy arrival or traffic pattern, or if you’re a little tired or distracted at the end of a long day, can have disastrous consequences. That’s why you need the quality control of using a pre-arrival checklist.
From the POH
One reason pilots don’t often use the Descent checklist, I believe, is that there’s not a lot on the checklist in most Pilot’s Operating Handbooks (POHs). There are a lot of pre-landing items on the Before Landing checklist, but short final is not the time to be diverting your attention to read through a printed checklist. So, we do what we need to do “Before Landing” from memory, and we forget that the Descent checklist even exists.
Let’s look at the Descent checklist for our example airplane, an early B55 Baron:
Altimeter – SET
Cowl flaps – CLOSED
Windshield Defroster – AS REQUIRED
Power – AS REQUIRED
Fuel Selector Valves – MAIN
There’s that all-important fuel selection step. But “Power – AS REQUIRED”? How helpful is that? It’s understandable how pilots can think they can omit backing up their actions with a printed Descent checklist.
How about the Before Landing checklist? What does it contain?
Seat belts – FASTEN, SEAT BACKS UPRIGHT, SHOULDER HARNESSES FASTENED
Fuel Selector Valves – CHECK (MAIN TANKS)
Fuel Boost Pumps – OFF, OR LOW AS PER AMBIENT TEMPERATURE
Cowl Flaps – AS REQUIRED
Mixture Controls – FULL RICH OR AS REQUIRED BY FIELD ELEVATION
Landing Gear – DOWN
Flaps – DOWN
Airspeed – ESTABLISH NORMAL LANDING APPROACH SPEED
Propellers – LOW PITCH (HIGH RPM)
That’s a lot to remember. But have you ever referenced the printed Before Landing checklist in flight? As I said earlier, most likely not—there’s not enough time to pull out the checklist and read it as you’re closing in on the runway, and if there were time, the last thing you want to do on short final is to take your eyes off the airport with more than quick scans of your panel.
So we have critical pre-landing tasks, some of which appear on a Descent checklist we rarely use, and most of which are on a Before Landing checklist we don’t have time to use. What to do?
The Approach Checklist
I suggest you create a personalized Approach checklist that contains the critical items from the Descent and Before Landing checklists, customized to the equipment on board your airplane. Use your Approach checklist during your descent but before you begin an approach procedure or enter a visual traffic pattern. Write your checklist down on a kneeboard or other temporary location, and try it out a few times to see how it works. Once you’ve test-flown your Approach checklist, make a more permanent version. Force yourself to use it every time you fly until it becomes a natural part of your pre-arrival routine.
For example, when I was teaching in Barons at the Beech factory we made an Approach checklist:
Altimeter – SET
Landing Lights – ON
Mixtures – FULL RICH OR AS REQUIRED BY
Fuel Boost Pumps – OFF (LOW IF SURFACE TEMP E XCEEDS 90°F)
Fuel Selector Valves – MAIN TANKS
Seat Belts and Shoulder Harnesses – FASTEN
Avionics – CONFIRMED SET FOR THE APPROACH
This checklist acknowledges that a lot of what you’ll do before landing won’t happen until you’re on final approach, and you’ll do it from memory at that time. Gear down, flaps down, propellers set for the missed approach…like many pilots I use a mnemonic on short final to get those items (“Full flaps, Full props, Gear Three green, Yaw damper OFF). That doesn’t preclude me from setting the majority of the Before Landing items further out from the airport, and quality control-checking my work using my printed Approach checklist.
You might choose to get more specific with some of your Approach checklist items. For example, you might add “GPS/VLOC Switch – GPS FOR RNAV APPROACH, VLOC FOR ILS” or similar. If your airplane is pressurized, add a step “Pressurization – SET FOR LANDING” to your customized checklist.
The Before Takeoff checklist is arguably the most important checklist once the engines are running. Most pilots do a good job of using the Before Takeoff checklist to confirm they have everything set for departure, I’ve found that most pilots do not use a printed checklist to ensure everything is ready for landing, yet this is the second most important checklist, as is obvious in many NTSB reports. To make a pre-landing checklist more usable, and train yourself to actually use it, I suggest you write and adopt a customized Approach checklist.