Making a List, Checking It Twice

Picture this. I'm sitting in the right seat of Richard Collins' Cessna 210 about to give him his flight review (née Biennial Flight Review, BFR). I'll admit I'm a bit intimidated. I'd really like to be able to make the review have some value for Richard, but I know that the idea I can actually find something to correct is as likely as my winning the Red Bull Air Race tour. But then as he gets ready to start the engine, I think, aha, I've found something to gig him on!

As we buckled our seat belts and settled in, I noticed he didn't get out a checklist. I restrained myself from pumping my fist in the air in victory, but I did smile smugly to myself. "I notice," I said, "you're not using a checklist. It's important to use a checklist so you don't miss anything," I said, sounding more pompous than I intended.

Richard wasn't chagrined. He responded by saying something like, "You're absolutely right. It is important to use a checklist. But you're wrong that I'm not using one."


Turned out Richard used his panel itself as the checklist. Starting at the lower left corner he touched each item as he moved across the panel and down the pedestal checking them off.

I conceded the point. He uses a checklist, it's just not portable.

Checklists are important. In fact the Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the private pilot's license under "Applicant's Use of Checklists" states: "Throughout the practical test, the applicant is evaluated on the use of an appropriate checklist. Proper use is dependent on the specific TASK being evaluated. The situation may be such that the use of the checklist, while accomplishing elements of an Objective, would be either unsafe or impractical, especially in a single-pilot operation. In this case, a review of the checklist after the elements have been accomplished would be appropriate. Division of attention and proper visual scanning should be considered when using a checklist … ."

In preparing for the practical flight test all of us had to be aware of the importance of using checklists. If not, we likely wouldn't have been able to convince the examiner of our ability to safely operate an airplane.

Most Pilot's Operating Handbooks (POHs) come with checklists for each phase of flight: preflight, engine start, run-up, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, pre-landing and shutdown. Typically there's a special section of the POH that addresses a wide range of emergencies. In addition to the checklists provided by the airplane manufacturers there are a number of companies that offer laminated, spiral-bound, airplane-specific checklists. And many pilots have designed their own checklists. A number of the new multifunction displays have a checklist function that can be accessed as soon as the ship's power is turned on. But, what's important is not the origin -- or presentation -- of the checklist but that it's used. Used religiously.

Richard's use of the panel is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I use my Cardinal's airframe as the checklist for my walk-around inspection. As I move around the airplane I trail my hand along the fuselage touching each item as I complete the check.

The airlines use a challenge and response system of working through a checklist. The copilot calls out an item, the pilot checks the item and responds out loud. There's no reason why we can't ask a passenger to read the checklist as we check the items and respond. Even alone in the airplane, saying each item aloud as it's completed makes it less likely you'll miss something.

Anytime you're interrupted or distracted at some point in a checklist it's important to go back to a point you know for sure you completed and pick it up from there. A call from a controller that interrupts a cockpit cleanup after departure has more than once resulted in a failure to close the cowl flaps, to delay adjusting the mixture and even raising the takeoff flaps.

Whenever you do something out of sequence it's imperative to go back to be sure you haven't skipped a step. Once, on a very frigid day, after preheating the airplane in the hangar I pulled it out and did the walk-around. Normally I remove the cowl plugs early in the preflight, but because it was so cold, I decided to leave the plugs in to retain as much of the heat under the cowl as I could. My plan was to remove the plugs after I completed the rest of the walk-around. I was about half an hour out from my first fuel stop when I suddenly realized I'd never removed the cowl plugs. Oops.

When Robert Goyer and I were doing a photo shoot of ground shots of a new Piper Saratoga we used a towbar to reposition the airplane. The pictures were of close-up details so there was no need to remove the towbar from the nosewheel. Finished with the last setup of the day, we climbed aboard to depart. Suddenly the airport manager came racing out in a car. As he pulled up in front of us he pointed at the nosewheel. We knew instantly what we were about to do to a brand-new Saratoga. Oops.

Unfortunately, even though we're conscientious of using checklists during the practical flight test, as time goes by we tend to let things slide. Familiarity breeds contempt -- and complacency. So as we get more and more comfortable with an airplane the tendency is to be less rigorous in using checklists. Luckily for us, the result of missing something on a checklist isn't always fatal but unless we catch the error ourselves, it is frequently embarrassing.

During a preflight, we often see what we expect to see, even if it's not there. A pilot prepared to fly his fabric-covered airplane. He performed the walk-around, got in and taxied out to take off. He advanced the throttle, raced down the runway and pulled back on the stick to rotate. The airplane didn't rotate; it ran off the end of the runway. The pilot wasn't hurt. But he was embarrassed. Particularly when he learned that the night before his partner in the airplane had taken the elevator home to recover it. The pilot insisted he'd done a walk-around and never noticed the missing elevator. Oops.

Then there was the pilot who found his airplane a little sluggish in flight and didn't realize he hadn't untied the tail tie-down ring from the cement-filled car tire used as an anchor. He discovered his oversight only when he landed at his destination and wiped out a fence with the dangling anchor. If you forget to untie one wing and advance the throttle to taxi, you'll find yourself going in circles. If you're lucky, the only damage will be to your ego and not to another airplane parked close by.

The various items on the checklist are there for a reason. Neglecting the "Flight Controls -- Free and Correct" item has caused a number of pilots to come a cropper. Occasionally, after maintenance the ailerons are incorrectly connected backward so a control input for a right bank results in the airplane banking to the left. A pilot's immediate response is to increase the input, which only exacerbates the problem. Even if the pilot realizes what's happening it's usually too late.

In another accident, the pilot of a Bonanza accelerated down the runway to take off but found when he tried to rotate that something was preventing him from pulling back on the control wheel. It turned out someone, unable to find a proper gust lock for the airplane, had dropped a flat-head screw into the gust lock hole to prevent the control wheel from moving. A check of "Free and Correct" would have prevented the pilot's embarrassment -- and the damage to his airplane. Oops.

It's a fair guess that virtually every pilot at one time or another has forgotten to set the directional gyro to match the compass heading. On the long solo cross-country flight when I was working on my private I was amazed at how much of a wind correction angle I had to hold to compensate for what I assumed was a really erroneous winds aloft forecast. It wasn't until I ran the checklist for the return flight that I realized I'd forgotten to check and reset the DG.

We all learned the memory reminder GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop and speed) but how many of us consistently use it? The number of gear-up landings would indicate that at least some of us neglect to use a pre-landing checklist, including one as simple to recite as GUMPS.

Some submissions to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) about the use or lack of use of checklists are illustrative:

• I know I didn't verify the gear in the down pos on the base leg due to talking to a jet landing on the xing rwy. While on final, I again went through the final chklist of prop full forward and saying 3 green, but again I don't remember verifying gear down and locked.

• I was practicing lndgs and tkofs at Columbus arpt. Prevailing winds favoring rwy 10. After performing 5 successful full stop lndgs, performing the 6th and last lndg, on apch I thought I had performed the lndg chklist. I apparently forgot to lower the lndg gear. Acft settled on ctrline of rwy and came to a stop.

• I announced I was taking off rwy 32, after a hurried taxi and applied full pwr. I did not look at my checklist as I always do. At tkof speed I began to rotate but the plane did not seem to respond … Nearing the end of the rwy with airspeed still climbing I hit the brakes hard and skidded to the left and off the rwy … Upon inspection of the plane the trim was found to be in an extreme nose low pos … Had I stopped and used my checklist I probably would've taken off normally and not turned a bad sit into a disaster.

After 22 years of owning my Cardinal I still use a laminated checklist that's always within easy reach in the pocket of the pilot's door. I also keep the POH in the back pocket of the passenger seat where I can reach it easily if necessary. And on several occasions in 22 years it has been necessary.

I think Santa Claus had it right. If you don't want to be naughty and want to be nice -- and safe -- you, too, need to have a list and be checking it twice!


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