Make the Most of the Checklist

Examining the why and the how of the obsequious tool that is one of the first things a pilot learns is how to use.

I appreciate the convenience of online shopping, but there are just some times you want the sport of The Hunt. I have just returned from Boeing Field/King County International Airport (KBFI) with a new sectional, TAC, and 2024 FAR/AIM and a checklist for a Cessna 182N. One of my clients acquired this 1970s-era Cessna, and is working on her IFR ticket. I was at KBFI for a story, and happened to see the remaining pilot supply store, National Aviation was open and under new management. 

In the past, The Aviator Store was the pilot supply store at KBFI, and National Aviation, located across the way, mostly carried hardware for aircraft, but they did have some sectionals and cockpit supplies for aviators in training. I wasn’t sure if they would have the paper I wanted because digital is so prevalent these days. The new National did not disappoint–the checklist had to be ordered. It is now in my possession, added to my checklist collection organized by make and model. I supposed I could go digital for this too, but I prefer a hard copy as a teaching tool. Digital is wonderful—I use ForeFlight too—but I don’t feel I am doing my job as a CFI if I don’t teach my learners how to use both paper and electronic. 

One of the first lessons a pilot learns is how to use the checklist. It is one of the items the applicant is tested on during their check ride. Show me a pilot carrying a checklist as they preflight their aircraft, and I will show you someone who had good training.

Yet a colleague told me how a family member became concerned watching him as he used a checklist during the preflight inspection. He was taking his folks up for a scenic flight. The colleague had been flying for several years and his father mentioned he thought he really should have this process memorized by now—especially since he was now flying for a regional airline.

Upon hearing this the colleague pulled out his metaphorical instructor cap and explained that checklists are always used—it doesn’t matter if you have 1 hour or 1,000. Develop these habits now, he said, because when you reach that job in corporate or commercial aviation you will nary make a move without consulting the checklist. (Full disclosure: As I helped turn him into an instructor, when I heard this story, I positively beamed with pride.)

The savvy instructors teach their learners that the checklist is not a crutch, but a means to ensure that items are checked systematically, and provide the pilot with the metrics for acceptable operation, for example the acceptable level of a power drop when testing magnetos. If you are interrupted during the flow of the checklist, back up three items, then resume.

If you rent aircraft, you probably have learned that checklists grow legs. People put them in their kneeboard or flight bag and accidentally walk off with them. The smart flight schools have extra aircraft-specific checklists available, and often have them for purchase. Buy one of your own and put your name on it in large letters.

In addition to the procedures set forth by the manufacturer (which are often photocopied directly out of the pilot’s operating handbook or aircraft flight manual), on these FBO checklists you’ll likely find a page or two of procedures specifically required at the FBO such as “rotate propeller to vertical position after flight to indicate the need for fuel.”

The FBO-centric instructions can vary, and as the law of primacy is strong, it’s not uncommon to take those procedures with you when you change schools. This can create challenges. For example, one school may have a rule that empty oil bottles need to be placed in the back of the aircraft because the line staff collects them at the end of the week and uses them to determine how much oil the fleet is using, while at another FBO this practice is construed as leaving trash in an airplane. Always ask about the quirky rules and procedures so you don’t become ‘that guy.’

If you are flying at a school with many aircraft, be wary of ‘musical checklists’ where, like the game musical chairs, the checklists can go missing from one airplane and the renter or even the CFI takes one from another to complete the flight. This practice is usually frowned upon greatly.

Some FBOs add the checklist to the checklist. At the end of each flight, the pilot is to walk around the aircraft to make sure it is tied down securely, then pause by the tail and verify the Hobbs and tach numbers are properly recorded in the dispatch binder and the checklist is clipped in the dispatch binder.

Making Your Own Checklist

Some pilots make their own checklists. In many cases it can be very beneficial as you can tailor the checklist to your specific aircraft, needs, and the way you process information.

Begin by referring to the POH or AFM, and use the information there as a template.

Take special note of supplemental information that is aircraft and avionics specific and adjust accordingly. Note power settings, mixture settings, temperatures, fuel flow, and airspeeds for different procedures such for approaches. Include notes on setting up the cockpit before each flight, such as how to load a flight plan and operate the avionics, if appropriate.

You may want to add additional dialog as part of the passenger briefing for those times when the person sitting next to you is a passenger with a pilot rating. In addition to the briefing you give your non-flying passengers, (sterile cockpit, don’t touch the controls, seatbelts, egress, etc.) let the person know if you want a division of tasks, for example, having them work the radios while you fly.

You may want to include a page of local frequencies so you don’t have to fumble for them during the flight, or even add notes on the VFR approaches into the local airports if they are geographic specific, such as “maintain 1,400 until crossing over shoreline.”

If you create the checklist on the computer, it’s easy to go back into the file and make adjustments as desired or needed. An office supply store will have the means of trimming and laminating the checklist if you so desire. Pro tip: Run the checklist through the laminator twice to make sure it stays laminated.

Making your own checklist is often a good exercise for pilots in training, as it requires them to study the POH, and it shows the instructor how the applicant processes information. This can lead to better instruction, as the CFI can adjust their delivery method, if need be.

Where Checklists Came From

It was an aviation accident that led to the adoption of the preflight checklist. On October 30, 1935 a Boeing 299, the prototype of the B-17, took off on a test flight from Wright Airfield in Ohio. The aircraft reached an altitude of approximately 300 feet, then stalled and crashed. Two of the five men on board were killed. The post-accident investigation determined that the pilot forgot to release a new control lock on the aircraft’s elevator. It was suggested that the pilot was overwhelmed by the airplane’s complicated instrument panel full of dials and switches. There was just too much to keep track of in this modern airplane.

Boeing fixed the issue by creating a checklist with specific action items for engine start taxi, takeoff, and landing. 


New to Flying?


Already have an account?