On this January morning in Ohio, I pulled on the “heat” knob in the J-3, which is as effective as pulling “cabin air” in a Piper Warrior in July. ... You can hope but you know nothing’s going to happen. We were holding short of the grass runway and my Sport Pilot applicant in the back seat had fished out a grimy, plastic card to read the “before takeoff” checklist. Now, I’ve always been fascinated with checklists — especially homemade, “personalized” varieties. There was a corporate Queen Air that hauled around a CEO so devout (or scared) that the checklist called for the copilot to place his hand on a Bible mounted on the throttle quadrant during takeoff. But this Cub’s homemade checklist was short and sweet. I was squirming, which, like leaning, is a sure sign to applicants that something’s not right. The problem wasn’t the checklist; it was the pilot who wasn’t doing the stuff he read. After run-up we breezed through “flight instruments — set” and he announced we were ready to go.
“Uh, yeah, let’s see. ... Oh, I guess the altimeter should read the field elevation.”
I waited and squirmed some more. The instrument read about 500 feet higher than where we actually were at Red Stewart Field, but nothing was happening.
Finally, “So what is field elevation here?”
“Gee, ah, well, I don’t remember but I guess it’s on the chart.”
Silence. Papers rustling around in the back. The baggage door banging.
“Uh, I guess I forgot to bring a chart.”
Not an auspicious start but I chalked it up to nerves. So we shut down and he ran back to the office to retrieve a sectional. And finally we did go flying, but the ride ended with a pink slip when things went further downhill from there (he passed with flying colors a couple weeks later).
As you know, checklists come in bewildering varieties, from the wrinkled, barely readable specimens stuffed inside pockets or seat backs to elegant screens in glass cockpit airplanes. But I think the most curious and interesting are “mnemonic” checklists. This word refers to mental games or techniques we use to learn or remember items of information. Hang around a flight school and listen to instructors coaching students; you’ll hear all sorts of gibberish that is supposed to key the pilot to perform checklist items without consulting a piece of paper or a screen.
When I started really looking into what’s out there, I was overwhelmed at the number, the variety and the insanity. ... Do people actually use these? I mean, if you’re dumb enough to get yourself into an inadvertent spin, are you smart enough to chant PARE and remember what the letters in that word mean?
P – uh, power off, or is it “pull”?
A – ailerons to neutral, and, oh yeah, I think it also means to put the flaps up.
R – rudder opposite the spin and hold, or maybe rpm, push (or is it pull) on the prop?
E – elevator “through neutral” (whatever that means).
And of course you’ll intone MA GOT MAD AT DAD when the engine catches fire in flight:
M – mixture, idle cutoff
A – aviate
G – gas
O – off (and don’t forget the auxiliary fuel pump)
T – throttle, idle
M – master switch off
A – air vents closed (except for the overheads)
D – drag, lower flaps and gear
A – aviate, again or still
T – turn (actually means slip but the T fits better)
D – descend
A – aviate, unless you’ve already spun in
D – door open for off-airport landing
But if you’re hooked on mnemonics (my tongue is firmly in my cheek), here’s how to “simplify” your next flight.