Mnemono-Maniacal Moments

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.

“You sure?”

“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.

Copy your weather briefing with SACrED WiNd, pull out your whiz wheel and remember that True Virgins Make Dull Companions, or, if it’s Sunday, Tell Vera Mac Didn’t Call. On a clear day review TOMATO FLAMES (alternately GOOSE A CAT, A FAST MOOSE or ATOMSx2). Remember, though, that if the weather turns ugly you’ll need GRAB CARD or DECARAT. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t forget RAW FAT.

Before climbing into your machine, AVIATE and ARROW, and then do a preflight and get the thing started (for which you’ll need a real checklist). Now it’s simply CRAFTS from Clearance Delivery/Ground Control and CIGAR at the run-up area. Call the tower and BLITTTS as you line up on the runway, or use RECIT, HATS, Lights-Camera-Action, Can I Go Fly or Today Peter Rabbit.

Airborne at cruising altitude you FLARE and enjoy the CAVU weather until — I hate it when this happens — the engine quits. If there’s no fire it’s simply ABCDE. But if you see flames, intone that MA GOT MAD AT DAD thing. For an off-airport landing remember OWLS or PL(ease)START, but should the flames die out on the way down, FAST just might get you restarted.

Whew, that was close.

It’s just not your day because now the weather is deteriorating. Since you GRABCARD’d this morning you know you’re legal to file IFR. But this area is a nonradar environment so you review IPTAFNNR (I Play The Accordion For Nothing, No Reason), FAMEP or HAMSACC. OK, go ahead and file with FSS, copying the clearance with IPTATNTNR (I Place Time Above Type; Next Time; Next Remark). Now it’s just a matter of MAILMAN before the instrument approach with TTTTT at the FAF. You perform a pre-landing checklist with a simple (I kid you not) OBUMMMPFFITCHH. ... Some of us prefer GUMPS.

On the ground and off the runway you MFACTS (or FLARE again) and taxi to your tiedown, where you MIDGET.

When you exit the airplane, remember to speak real English to the line guy.

There are more, but I’ve used up half my allotted words, and besides, spell-checker is completely useless here. Bottom line, of course, is use whatever works for you but use something ... mnemonics, an antique wrinkled card, a plaque on the panel, the POH or the electronic checklists on your G1000.

As you know by now, most of my “wisdom” comes from having learned the hard way. Like the importance of pre-landing checklists (that GUMPS thing). I was doing some proficiency flying in one of Miami Valley’s Beech 18s with chief pilot Kevin Uppstrom (usually the guy being checked) putting my feet to the fire. We shot an ILS approach into Connersville, Indiana, missed, and on the go he failed an engine. Well, I was spectacular — breezed through the memory items, pulled out the emergency checklist, simulated feather and cleaned up the airplane. We came around in left traffic and my speeds and altitudes were a thing of beauty. As we turned a close-in final I remarked to Kev that he’d probably never seen anything done quite so elegantly. He agreed, suggesting only that I might want to put the landing gear down.

And then there was a short trip out to Highland County Airport to attend the funeral of a freight pilot, Sue Soderstrom — a story I’ll tell you later.

Now, nobody else flies my 180, and it lives in a hangar, so I’ll admit my preflight often consists of checking that the tires are round, the fuel caps are on and nothing is dripping. An old friend, Bobby Strunk, a retired US Airways captain, has a lifetime of experience in DC-3s and stuff like Beavers, T-6s and a Staggerwing Beech. So I showed him the 180’s only nasty habit — a tendency to bound down the runway on that damned spring steel gear — and told him to use the airplane whenever he wanted. He took it somewhere, filled it up with gas and put it to bed in the hangar. As usual I was in a hurry when I arrived at the airport, so I did my “abbreviated” preflight and started the engine. As usual 72B fired right up, but then it quit. I tried again ... nothing. I primed ... nothing. I cursed and tried again, but now it was getting late and if I was going to make it to the funeral, I had to start driving right now.

The guys in the maintenance shop across the ramp said they’d take a look at it and I was on the road. Late that afternoon when I got back to the airport and walked into the shop, the three guys just kept working away with their heads down. Finally I asked if anybody had looked at 72B.

“Yeah, we fixed it.”

“Well, what in the hell was the matter with it?”

“It was the fuel selector.”

“The fuel selector was broken?”

“No, but you’ve got to turn it to ‘on’ or the engine won’t run.”

It seems Capt. Strunk was accustomed to turning fuel selectors to the “off” position on shutdown and I was accustomed to ignoring the position of the fuel selector when I started my airplane.

But it won’t happen again because now I use a very simple mnemonic, CTTFSIITBDD — Check That The Fuel Selector Is In The “Both” Detent, Dummy.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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