Maniacal Mnemonics

As the saying goes, checklists are just that—“check” lists, not “to-do” lists. Beppe Giacobbe/Morgan Gaynin

OK, picture some far-in-the-future archaeologist exploring an area that ancient maps call North America and stumbling on an odd-looking site—long strips of concrete radiating out from a once-paved, open area. Combing through the ruins of a nearby structure, he unearths a barely discernible, crumbling document covered with peculiar characters. If only there were accompanying hieroglyphics, this could be a Rosetta stone—the key to deciphering the language of a long-extinct, strange culture.


Any of these sound familiar? Well, if you’re having trouble reading them, try researching and collecting 57 (and counting) mnemonics that pilots have devised as memory aids to replace or augment printed (and electronic) checklists.

Mnemonics are devices or patterns of letters we use to assist in remembering something, such as “CIGARS,” “WIRETAP” and “PAVE,” which cleverly form a kind of phony word that’s easily remembered. “GUMPSCLIFF,” “FMUBS” or “BUMPFH” aren’t words; you can’t say them—at least, I can’t without slobbering all over myself—but they’re still mnemonics, with each letter representing another word or phrase.

In my opinion, if you’re memorizing “TTMPPFFISCH,” or worse, “The Man From IHC,” to use as before-takeoff checklists, you might look for another instructor.

Checklists were on my mind when a video of the 1980 Saudi Airlines Flight 163 tragedy arrived in my inbox. I saw it years ago at an FAA accident-training course and never forgot how ugly and utterly devastating it is. Shortly after takeoff from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in an L-1011, warning lights alerted the three-man crew to a fire in the baggage or rear-cabin area. Their reactions (or lack of)—the denial, agonizingly slow response, and absence of CRM or crew coordination—is beyond incompetence and hard to accept. Incredibly, they ignore emergency checklists for this, the ultimate emergency in any airplane: an inflight fire.

After landing the L-1011 back at Riyadh, nearly 30 minutes elapse before they’re clear of the runway and stopped, despite emergency equipment surrounding the burning airplane. All 301 souls on the airplane died of smoke inhalation. If you watch it, you’ll weep.

It’s an extreme example, but an unforgettable reminder of the importance of checklists in any size or type of airplane and any kind of flying. I can’t speak to large air-carrier operations, but I know a little about checklists in my corner of the airplane world.

In truth, using only the familiar “CIGARS” for the essential before-takeoff items and “GUMPS” before landing will keep you out of serious trouble for VFR flights in most single-engine and light-twin airplanes. But the gold standard before launching in any airplane on any flight is the flow. Beginning at the same logical spot in the cockpit, you work left to right, up and down, looking at, touching, checking and setting every instrument, knob and gadget. Then, and only then, you pull out a written checklist (ideally one tailored for your particular flivver) and check to confirm you haven’t missed anything.

As the saying goes, checklists are just that—"check" lists, not “to-do” lists.

“Abnormal” or “emergency” checklists are a different story, and here you need large print and a format that’s easy to grab and read and follow—after you’ve accomplished the essential memory items. To quote Arlo Guthrie, now you gotta resort to “the boring method”—you memorize memory items.

Google “aircraft checklists” and be prepared for a wild ride. I fervently hope some of the wilder maniacal mnemonics you’ll find are really study guides for written and oral exams. Why else would you memorize “GAARF” to identify landing illusions, or “APTATEN” for items you’re required to report when flying “IFR”? (IFR is an acronym too.) And why else, indeed, would you memorize those FAA favorites—"PAVE" and “IMSAFE”—in the real world. Using “PARE” to get out of a spin (does “P” mean pitch or power?), “BUMPFH” as a downwind checklist, or “Max Says Winter Flying Gives Me A Backache” to configure for a VMC demonstration doesn’t work for me.

Interestingly, it was 30-some years after Orv and Will flew off Dayton’s Huffman Prairie—and at nearly the same spot—that the concept of formal, written checklists was born.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

In October 1935, military brass and manufacturing executives assembled at Dayton’s Wright Field to evaluate and choose a design for the Army’s next-generation long-range bomber. Boeing’s Model 299 was the clear choice; this aluminum-alloy airplane—with a 100-plus-foot wingspan and four engines—could carry five times the bomb load, and also fly faster and farther than competing Martin and Douglas designs.

All eyes were on what a newspaperman termed a “Flying Fortress” as it roared down the runway and smoothly lifted off. And then, at about 300 feet, it stalled, fell off on a wing, and crashed in a fiery explosion, killing the pilot and copilot.

Investigators found nothing mechanically wrong but discovered that the pilot, Maj. Ployer Hill, had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls before takeoff. The Army decided this four-engine airplane with retractable landing gear, wing flaps, electric trim tabs and constant speed props was too complex and awarded the contract to the smaller Douglas design. Boeing nearly went bankrupt (sounds familiar).

But the Army did purchase a few Boeing models for testing, since pilots were convinced that, despite its tragic debut, the airplane would be valuable to the Air Corps. Hill had been an exceptional pilot and chief of Army flight testing, so lack of training wasn’t the problem. But the airplane’s complexity was an issue; printed lists of items to check in all phases of flight were clearly necessary. After these lists were developed and implemented, the Model 299 flew nearly 18 million miles without an alarming accident rate, and the Army Air Corps ordered almost 13,000 of what would be called the B-17.

Using a checklist is like eating vegetables and exercising; you recognize the importance and comply, especially in complex or unfamiliar airplanes. But that resolve can break down when you’re flying an airplane you own and where you’re the sole pilot. And, be honest, how many of us religiously use a post-flight shutdown and securing checklist?

When I recently asked a buddy if he uses a written checklist in his RV-8, he said no. When I mentioned the flow, he said, “Oh, sure.” Then he sheepishly added that, since the ignition switch is hidden behind his iPad mount, on more than one occasion he’s put the airplane to bed with hot mags.

This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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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