How and when the checklist should be used, and why single-pilot IFR demands a different approach.
My aviation career began like many; learning to fly in a humble Cessna 172 with a nearly-starving CFI at a non-controlled, rural one-runway airport. For me, the airport was Just Plane Fun Airpark in Nacogdoches, Texas; a short grass strip hewn from an East Texas pine forest. Literally stumbling onto the airport (actually looking for a job, not a pilot license), I was offered a ride in the back of a 1956 Cessna 172 to observe a training flight.
Within a minute after takeoff, I was enthralled by the shift in perspective that happens when you leave the ground, but I also loved the manner in which the student went about the work of flying. It was not haphazard or random; there was a definite order, a “way it should be done,” and I liked it. I was in desperate need of a disciplined approach to life in my youth, and the systematic way that the pilot organized the flight just looked right.
During my private pilot training, the checklist was used during the start and run-up, but once the airplane left the ground the checklist disappeared. Using a checklist for every touch-and-go just didn’t seem to happen, so the checklist was relegated to the space under the seat, only to be found after being back on the ground for shutdown.
As my aviation training expanded, checklist use did not. During my instrument rating training, the CFII half-heartedly expected me to use the checklist, and I used it a lot more during commercial pilot training. It seemed like I’d get more “checklist discipline” when approaching the date for a practical test so I’d look more professional with the examiner. But after the practical test was over, checklist use drifted back to the ground checks before flight, and relegated to the sidewall pocket for the flight portions.
It was not until I joined Uncle Sam’s Army as a rotary wing pilot that I learned all about the importance of a checklist. Every flight from day one was with another pilot in the other seat, ranging from an instructor in the early days, to a Pilot-in-Command when I was assigned to my first unit, and then to a co-pilot for much of the rest of my career. Checklists were drilled into our routine, and not just during run-up and taxi…we’d use the checklist for every phase of flight. But, this was a multi-crew aircraft, and there was no excuse for not using the checklist. The checklist was performed by the pilot-not-flying (PNF) reading the checklist and the pilot flying (PF) responding. With one pilot not flying, it’s easy to safely run the checklist, even in a tough phase flight.
When I left the regular Army, I became an airline pilot and the checklist was again used prolifically in those two-pilot aircraft. Literally every phase of flight included a checklist and the same “call-out and response” format. This is as it should be, and there’s no doubt it is appropriate for the safety record of the airlines is exemplary. But, the Army and the airlines both have two-pilot cockpits, and it’s difficult to replicate those procedures in a high-performance, super-advanced, single-pilot airplane operating in hard IFR.
Fast forward to today and I see a wide range of cockpit flows, checklist use and cockpit procedures. To be forthright, most of the pilots that see me for training have reverted to their early days of flying, and only use a checklist during start, run-up and taxi. A few don’t even have a checklist in the cockpit, and some have four or five different varieties of checklists yet don’t use any particular one regularly. Checklist use, both how and when, is at random.
What a Checklist is Really For
So, how should a pilot manage the cockpit? The airlines and military have proven that checklist use contributes to safety, and we in the general aviation world should also use checklists. But, how should they be used without a second pilot in the cockpit most of the time?
In my opinion, the checklist should be used exactly as it sounds: a “check” list, not a “read and do” list. By this, I mean that a pilot should conduct the items that are listed on the checklist for various phases of flight from memory (some call this a “flow”), and then the checklist should be used to “check” and make sure that everything is accomplished.
For instance, the pilot should takeoff and then conduct a flow of tasks found on the after takeoff checklist from memory, and then run the after takeoff checklist by reading down each item and confirming those tasks were completed. Then, the same is done for the climb, cruise, descent and approach checklist after those phases of flight are encountered. Once on the ground, the airplane should be brought to a full stop off of the runway and the after landing checklist can be accomplished by either the “check” list or the “do” list method.
I am strongly against a pilot using a checklist as a “read-and-do list” in flight. A read-and-do list means that a pilot will read one item on the list, do it, and then refer back to the check list again for the next item to accomplish. The read-and-do list method is simply too slow for single-pilot operations. I’ve seen many well-meaning and serious pilots get completely behind the airplane by trying to read and do while in a critical phase of flight. Try hand-flying an ILS while reading a checklist and I’ll show you an approach that is ugly at best, and downright dangerous at worst. There’s only one time that a “read-and-do list” method is acceptable in single-pilot IFR, and that is while the airplane is NOT moving on the ground.
This article first appeared in the most recent issue of MMOPA Magazine and was used with permission.