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Teaching Checklists

The cockpit of a typical trainer may not be as sophisticated as the flight deck of a modern airliner, but to a student pilot just learning to fly, even the inside of a venerable Cessna 152 can seem like a maze of gauges, indicators, and switches. Fortunately, a well-written, well-organized checklist of normal procedures can help students to sort through this maze and become comfortable in their new environment. Unfortunately, most manufacturer-supplied checklists leave a lot to be desired. That's where you come in.

Why not provide your students with a checklist for the safe operation of their trainer from the first lesson? After all, the checklist is just another tool. And pilots love all the neat little aviation tools and gadgets that distinguish them from ordinary folk. They buy flight computers and plotters for planning their cross-countries, and fuel samplers for checking fuel. Pretty soon they have to purchase a flight bag just to haul around all of the gizmos they've bought.

But a good checklist is far more useful than most of those other doodads. In fact, it is a vital tool whose purpose is to ensure that the pilot will properly configure the aircraft for flight, maintain this quality throughout the flight, and do it consistently on every flight. In this regard, a good-quality checklist is one of the best pieces of safety equipment to have on board an aircraft.

But if a checklist (or any other tool for that matter) is to do its job, we must use it, and use it consistently. Which means that it must be handy and easy to use. If it is cumbersome, it'll be stuffed into a seat back or side pocket where it will forever cohabitate with an old oil rag or can of aircraft polish.

A good checklist is not difficult to create. Any word-processing program or even a typewriter can be used to create a document that is far easier to read and use than the manufacturer's checklist buried in the pages of the POH.

Before you get started writing your own checklist, you may want to consider these design guidelines developed from research conducted by NASA. Strict adherence to these guidelines should result in a very usable and legible checklist worthy of lamination and regular consultation.

Graphic Design

First off, a checklist must be convenient to use, permit easy storage, be small enough to fit in the lap if possible, and be very legible. Thus, attention must be given to the checklist's actual physical size as well as its graphic layout. A good, handy size is approximately eight-and-one-half inches by five-and-one-half inches. For easy readability at normal distances, choose a font size that will render the characters at least one-tenth of an inch high. Avoid using more than two different fonts. And use both upper-case and lower-case characters rather than all capitals. Research has shown that this allows better, faster recognition of the word. If you insist on using all upper-case letters, the first letter of the word should be slightly larger (a couple of points) in order to enhance the legibility.

Since the checklist will be used in varying lighting conditions from bright sunlight to dim nighttime cockpit light, use ordinary black characters on white paper for maximum contrast. Finally, print your checklist on high-quality paper with a laser or inkjet printer and then laminate it with anti-glare plastic to keep it in good shape.

Checklist Content

To be effective, a checklist must group and order the items that need to be accomplished for the safe operation of the aircraft into a sequence. Normally, a checklist is grouped into various tasks or sections named after the segments of flight. For example, a checklist may consist of the before engine start, start, taxi, before takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, landing, after landing, and shutdown tasks. To determine the titles for your sections, begin by working with the manufacturer's checklist. You can then rename the sections as you desire. You can also add items as appropriate. You should not delete items or change the sequence of items unless there is a valid reason to do so and the safe operation of the aircraft or its systems is not compromised.

One concept to keep in mind as you begin grouping items together is chunking. Chunks are created when two or more items share a common factor that aids in "gluing" these items together. Chunks can be employed in designing the structure of the checklist for a long task by grouping the items according to the system they affect. Since short-term memory is capable of remembering seven items, give or take two, each chunk should include no more than nine items. For example, a section entitled "engine runup" could include just those items associated with checking the engine. Even though you check other items at approximately the same time - such as the free and correct operation of the controls - you may want to put these items in a separate section.

Flow patterns are another concept that needs to be considered for an effective checklist design. The checklist items should be arranged in a logical order with a good flow to promote muscle memory and coordination of eye and hand movements. (Just remember how hard it was to learn how to tie your shoes before your finger muscles "memorized" the sequence of tying the knot, and you'll have a good example of how helpful muscle memory can be.) Optimal flows based on biomechanics move from left to right and up to down. So take advantage of your cockpit's geography. It provides an additional marker as to where the pilot is in conducting the checklist.

Be sure to include a completion call at the end of each section such as, "before takeoff checklist completed." This serves as a cap at the end of the section and allows the pilot or crew to mentally move from the checklist to other areas of the operation with the assurance of completion and minimizes the effects of interruptions (such as calls from air traffic control).

The most critical items should be placed at the beginning of the checklist because the first items have a greater probability of being accomplished. An-other good idea is to duplicate critical items (for instance flaps, fuel, and trim) in more than one section. Remember that the checklist must also follow the systems operational sequence of the aircraft. For example, the pilot must prime the engine before start, not after.

Try to keep the number of items to a minimum and still include enough items to be thorough. Sort through required items and nice-to-have items. For example, should the checklist tell the pilot to note the time before takeoff? A long checklist with many items can be a nuisance, which means that it may not be used consistently. A long checklist also takes more time to complete, so the pilot is more likely to be interrupted before finishing it. Moreover, a pilot has a greater tendency to lose track of where he is in the checklist if it is too long. Abbreviate what can be abbreviated, but be sure to include enough detail so that you cover everything that needs to be accomplished.

One of the most important checklist design elements is phraseology. A good checklist uses proper terminology, reducing the opportunity for errors. When writing your checklist, avoid ambiguous terms such as set, checked, or completed. The checklist should use the actual status, condition, or value of the item being accomplished. For example, consider the phrase "Flaps set." What that means depends on what aircraft you are flying. Instead, the checklist should read, "Flaps - 10 degrees."

Checklist Use

Once you've created your checklist, it's time to put it to the test. Have a red pen handy and be prepared to make additions, deletions, and modifications as you start using it in actual aircraft operations. Because of this, it's probably best not to laminate your first attempt or ask your students to test it.

There are three common philosophies regarding checklist use. The first is that the checklist should be used as a to-do list, with each item being read aloud and then accomplished in sequence. In the second philosophy, the checklist is used as a reminder. The pilot first configures the aircraft using his memory and flow patterns and then compares the status of each item to the checklist to verify that each required task has been accomplished. The third philosophy is that of challenge/response, and it is great to teach to students who want a career as a pilot. With this technique, one crewmember reads each checklist item (the challenge) aloud while the other crewmember accomplishes the task and then states the proper response. Of course, this can be tough when you're alone in the airplane.

No matter which philosophy you prefer, the use of any checklist provides a greater level of safety than not using one. It's vital that you communicate this to your students.

The checklist can be thought of as one of the least expensive yet most effective safety devices available in the cockpit today. To help your students develop positive attitudes toward checklists, design your own and use them during every lesson. Customize them to your location, training situation, and teaching style. By making them handy and easy to use, you can help to ensure that your students will use them consistently.

By Christopher L. Parker

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