Forget the Checklist Already!

I recently sat in on the debrief from one of my student’s check rides.  The Designated Examiner had overall positive things to say about the check ride, although there was a question of judgement for using me as her instructor.  She passed the check ride with flying colors but there was one debrief item that I thought was pretty profound.  The examiner said that she should have more “flow” before going to the checklist.  She knew the flow but because it was a check-ride, I imagine she erred on the side of caution and used the checklist religiously.  After all, that’s what I taught her.

I teach usage of a “flow” for a lot of things.  Preflight, maneuvers, emergencies, etc..  A flow is simply a methodical way of doing something by memory when time or necessity dictates that something needs to get done.  In the airlines, this methodology is gospel.  A pilot must memorize numerous flows at different phases of flight which are to be done prior to running a checklist.  Pre-start flows, Before Takeoff flows, Crew coffee run flows and more.  

The Airplane Flying Handbook (AFH) says “The checklist is a memory aid and helps to ensure that critical items necessary for safe operation of aircraft are not overlooked or forgotten.”  It goes on to say that the checklist is just that, a “check” list, not a “do” list.  The checklist should not be used as a crutch, it should be used only as a confirmation that you have completed all of your appropriate checks.  There are a couple commonly used checklist methodologies.

Read and Do
The Read and Do method is quite simple.  Get a checklist out, find the checklist section you are looking for and read each item, line by line, as you perform the function.  This would seem to be counter to what the AFH says.  In most cases, it is an out of order and sometimes illogical list.  Do you really need to turn the Avionics switch on more than once?  It also does nothing to engrain what you are actually checking into your head.

Do then Read
As the name implies, you perform a function before you get a checklist out to verify that you have accomplished everything necessary for that section.  This is my preferred method and the one I teach.

Do you actually need a checklist?  There is nowhere that I have found in the FARs where a checklist is a required document.  There is also no requirement that if you do have a checklist that it has to be the manufacturers checklist.  The ACS/PTS have a Special Emphasis item listed as “Applicants Use of Checklists.”  It does not say that it has to be a manufacturers checklist and in most cases, it isn’t.

I good friend of mine owns a pristine Bonanza.  He is a former Marine, USAF pilot, Navy Top gun pilot and retired Northwest 747 pilot.  He has flown most fighters that we have had over the past 30 years.  He is an extraordinary wealth of knowledge, so, when he talks about aviation, everyone listens.  For his aircraft, he created his own checklist consisting of the minimum critical items and that checklist is meant to be used AFTER performing the flow.

Do you really need a checklist to start the airplane?  Let’s try a simple memory aid that I use for a lot of areas of training.  “Floor to the door.”  Let’s start our 172, shall we?  Fuel selector on both, Mixture Rich, Throttle cracked (or 1/8″), Carb Heat cold, Master On, Prime as required look out the window, now turn the key.  I’ll bet that engine fires right up.  A quick check of oil pressure should complete that checklist.  Quick, someone with a 172 checklist tell me if I missed anything.

In the G1000 C182 there are 25 items on the Before Takeoff checklist.  In the airplane I fly for the airlines, there are 9 items on the Before Takeoff checklist.  When I attempted to read and do the G1000 Before Takeoff checklist, I had to taxi back to get more fuel before I was done!  Do you really need a checklist item to switch to the tower frequency?  If so, let’s get out the IMSAFE checklist again.  What about cabin windows and doors?  I’ve flown with several pilots who will skip over that item saying that they will get back to it, only to takeoff with their window wide open.  So much for Read and Do.  

Let’s take an engine failure.  If you have an issue at 1,000′, you will have little time to react before you are on the ground.  With 1,000′ of altitude above the ground, you will be landing in approximately 2 minutes.  It will take about 15-20 seconds to recognize that you have lost your engine.  It will take you about 10-15 seconds to pitch for best for best glide and another 20-30 seconds to find a landing spot.  It will then take another 15-20 seconds to get out the checklist and find the section on engine failure and somewhere around 30-45 seconds to run through that checklist using Read and Do.  After that, you need to get the Forced Landing checklist out and run that, which includes some kind of briefing to your passengers.  You’re already on the ground by this point, or at least very, very close to it.  

Now let’s “flow it” using the Floor to the Door again in our trusty 172.  Fuel selector, is it on both  (Maybe change it to the left or right)?  Quickly adjust the trim ALL THE WAY nose up and then two full turns nose down.  Mixture rich, Carb heat on, primer in and locked, attempt a restart if the prop has stopped.  I’ll bet you can get this flow down to 5-10 seconds with practice.  That’s an extra 1.5 minutes to find and fly to the most appropriate landing spot and IF you have time, getting out the written checklist to verify you got everything done.  Remember rule #1 in aviation?  FLY THE PLANE.

Not sure how to “flow” your favorite airplane?  Grab an instructor and tell them you want to develop a flow.  And if you want to read a good article about checklist usage, check this one out from retired Captain John Laming.

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5 thoughts on “Forget the Checklist Already!”

  1. Good article but also important to note not all DPEs feel the same way. I recently passed my CFI initial ride and the use of checklist, especially during an emergency, was a talking point for DPE. He explained that at the airlines (he is a retired Captain), all emergencies use a checklist as opposed to a flow. So I think it is a good idea to ask the DPE what their preference may be up front. Just my $.02

    1. Congrats Hector!
      It isn’t a feeling as noted above and in this case, he is incorrect. Not every emergency will allow pulling out the checklist before completing what ALL airlines have (including American), called “memory items” or “immediate action items” or “bold faced items.” Whatever they are called for that operator, they are done before (or in concurrence with the copilot in a crewed environment) a checklist is followed. Once those memory items (call it whatever is easiest) are done, then absolutely produce the checklist and follow it. In a high altitude pressurization failure, if getting out the checklist occurred before donning the oxygen mask, everyone would be dead, like Payne Stewart’s crew found out. Hence the memory item to “Don Oxygen Mask” and then grab the checklist. There could be one memory item or ten but depending on the emergency, there are memory items. In every airline, across the globe.

      Getting out a checklist following an engine failure 200’ off the ground in a single-engine; not going to happen. Why bother with a takeoff brief in that case if there’s time for a checklist?!

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