The Finer Points: Check the ‘Do List’

The magic-bullet solution to ensuring nothing amiss in the cockpit goes unnoticed.

Finer Points
Most pilots don’t use checklists and even fewer use them properly.Skitch

Short final was normal. Winds were manageable, we were cleared to land and the airplane touched down straight and on the centerline. In no particular hurry, we slowed and exited on the taxiway abeam our hangar line when my student said to me, “Why is my 430 dark?”

Face palm. I knew instantly why the Garmin 430 was dark and not showing the normal moving map display but I let my eyes do the dance anyway to confirm. First to the ammeter ,which showed a deep negative draw, and next to the alternator circuit breaker, which was popped in the “out” position. I hadn’t looked at it since the run up and neither had my student. I was quick to understand this because I know how to solve this problem. I know how never to be “that guy,” but on this particular day my magic-bullet processes failed me.

You see, I was having a mental battle with myself walking up to the airplane to start the lesson, even during the taxi to the run-up area. I was trying to decide how militant I was going to be with this student. After all, this wasn’t my “regular” student. This was a high-performance endorsement for a pilot who just upgraded to a new airplane. I needed to stay aware of immediate goals. He was anxious to go fly and I was feeling pressure to focus on his ability to do it safely more than I felt it was my responsibility rebuild some part of his fundamental flying protocol — which is a process that takes some significant time and effort.

For every mistake there is a procedure that might prevent the possibility of the mistake from occurring. Most pilots know the procedure we failed to perform as proper use of checklists, and I have a very specific way of teaching it. I can tell you from the instructor’s seat, most pilots don’t use checklists and even fewer use them properly. On this day we counted ourselves among them. To correct the errors I made on the flight and to set the record straight once and for all, let’s discuss.

The checklist has two distinct purposes:

  1. To make sure you don't forget some critical item during any particular operation.
  2. To make the operation redundant.

In a two-crew environment this is accomplished by the pilot flying calling out loud for the checklist and the pilot monitoring reading it aloud. There are two pilots, four ears, four eyes, and two brains in that cockpit. The paper is read and the process is redundant. It’s not this way for the single-pilot operator. For the single pilot the operation must be performed very differently. If the paper is simply read, there is no redundancy. Fifty percent of the mission goal is lost. To deal with this we use flow checks.

Finer Points
Most pilots are shocked to find out they usually perform less than 10 percent of the possible checks.Skitch

Simple patterns of eye movement across the panel to guess at what needs to be done before reading a list that confirms we didn’t miss anything on that first attempt. That is a redundant procedure. A “check” list is a list that is read to confirm nothing has been missed in an initial attempt. A “do” list is a list of items read in order completed one by one as the pilot progresses through the list. A checklist is redundant. A do list is not.

From the right seat I see pilots skip items on do lists regularly without ever knowing they did. In my mind, I think “Where’s the checklist for the do list?” There are times when this is acceptable. In technically advanced aircraft, perhaps the start up or shut down could be performed safety as a do list, for example. In flight, however, a much more systematic approach is the magic bullet to never experiencing what my student and I did on this particular flight.

I teach a flow check around the cockpit for each climb, level off, or descent. It doesn’t matter much how it moves as long as it’s standard. For me this starts at the mag compass, moves down to the left across the HI, the engine gauges, across the breakers to the power, mixture, fuel and cowl flaps if so equipped. This is a guess at what needs to be done and is followed by a review of the appropriate checklist, to be performed for every climb, level off and descent.

Each flight has a finite number of these and I’m usually able to tell my students the percent they missed, the percent they performed and the percent they performed redundantly. Most pilots are shocked to find out they usually perform less than 10 percent of the possible checks. Done properly, however, it becomes a bullet proof way of assuring you are not missing anything and are the first person onboard to know of any issues with your systems.

If you truly examine your climb, cruise, and descent checklists you will see that many of the critical items on these lists overlap, and a change in configuration like this is a great time to scan the engine gauges, for example. I have had numerous students tell me years later how many failures they caught immediately with this procedure, and I can testify to it myself. Private owners can place a simple placard on the panel somewhere and with a simple flow of the eyes, followed by a review of the list, continue to operate in a redundant way.

It’s not enough to do the first climb checklists, or one cruise checklists 30 minutes into the flight. You must build this scan into your standard way of operating and note of how many opportunities you take and how many you miss to observe any system failures.

On this particular flight, I made a fateful internal decision to let my student (and myself) wait a little bit on the procedure we know works and that ended up biting us. Fortunately, other circumstances hadn’t lined up to form any accident chains, but I took the lesson very seriously. I won’t let myself forget that just because consistency can be difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done every time. We don’t fly airplanes because it’s easy. Maybe we even fly airplanes because it’s hard.

Jason Miller is the creator of The Finer Points of Flying and a CFII with more than 20 years of aviation experience and thousands of hours of instruction given. He is a member of the FAA safety team, a speaker for AOPA’s Air Safety Institute and was nominated by the FAA for the 2009 Flight Instructor of the Year Award.