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Sweating the details

Consider the consequences of ignoring checklists

Several years ago, I was flying with a student near Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, when I noticed a plume of black smoke rising from the airport. As we passed overhead we saw flames erupting on the taxiway. It was obvious that an airplane was engulfed in the blaze.

The pilot, flying a rented Beech Bonanza, had attempted a landing after a short flight from Richmond, Virginia. About a mile out on final, observers on the ground noticed that the Bonanza's landing gear was not extended. Despite frantic radio calls from pilots on the ground, the Bonanza contacted the runway with its gear retracted. Everyone expected the aircraft to slide to a stop, resulting in little more than embarrassment and an expensive repair job.

But the unexpected happened. The pilot attempted a go-around. After putting 60 propeller strikes in the runway, the aircraft climbed to about 30 feet and stalled. The left wing dipped and hit the runway. The aircraft cartwheeled onto the taxiway and exploded. The pilot and his passenger were killed. The NTSB report noted that the pilot had only two hours in type.

Another similar accident occurred in Brookhaven, Mississippi, when a Beech C55 Baron landed gear-up after an IFR approach. The pilot attempted a go-around after the propellers struck the runway. The aircraft stalled and crashed, killing the pilot.

The pilot of a Cessna T310R landed gear-up in Groveland, California. He attempted a go-around after the aircraft and propellers hit the runway, but he was unable to get airborne. The pilot and his passenger walked away from the substantially damaged aircraft. When these airplanes hit the runway and their pilots realized that they hadn't lowered the gear, poor judgment came into play. No one should try a go-around after the propellers have contacted the ground. Statistics show that the pilot who lets the aircraft skid to a stop will usually escape injury, and - after repairs - the aircraft will fly again.

All three gear-up landings could have been prevented. The chain of events that led to each accident began with a failure to use a prelanding checklist. Often a pilot intends to use the checklist but is distracted by a radio problem, heavy traffic, passengers talking, or a difficult IFR approach. Some instructors pull the landing gear circuit breaker to simulate a failure and forget to reengage it. Pilots sometimes complete a prelanding checklist but delay extending the gear for operational reasons, then forget to do it.

Many pilots who have been flying for a long time believe that they can conduct most operations in their sleep. I occasionally fly with a very experienced pilot who refuses to use a checklist. He almost always forgets to turn on the master switch before trying to engage the starter, neglects to set the directional gyro, and overlooks turning on the transponder. On landing, he forgets that the mixture should be full rich, and, once on the ground, seldom remembers to install the gust lock. Fortunately the aircraft we fly has fixed gear.

All of these things are missed because he doesn't use a checklist. Small things? Yes. But it reflects an undisciplined approach to flying that could get him into serious trouble some day. The more complex the airplane, the more dangerous it is to not to use the checklist.

For example, in 1987 a Douglas DC-9 crashed after takeoff from Detroit Metro Airport, killing 156 people. The evidence indicated that the flaps and slats had not been deployed for takeoff. Neither pilot had recited those critical items from the taxi checklist.

Most students I fly with use the checklist religiously for startup and runup. But once we are in the air, the checklist goes in the back, never to be looked at again. What about emergencies? Would the student know what to do in case of an engine or electrical fire? Loss of elevator control? Engine failure? Students and seasoned pilots alike should be thoroughly familiar with the emergency section of the checklist and know almost automatically how to react in case of a problem.

A busy traffic pattern is not the best place for a student to have a checklist in his face. Familiarizing the student with such memory devices as GUMP (gas, undercarriage, mixture, and prop) will at least keep the student from making a gear-up landing. Even if your trainer is a no-frills Piper Tomahawk or Cessna 150, introducing this popular mnemonic early gives your student a good foundation for an eventual transition into a complex aircraft.

In the FAA's Practical Test Standards for the private pilot exam, almost all of the areas of operations conclude with a requirement to refer to the appropriate checklist. This is something examiners are looking for in pilot candidates, and it is obvious that the FAA considers the use of the checklist a serious matter.

If pilots don't like the checklist that comes with the airplane, they can make their own. Custom checklists can cover items the manufacturers miss, such as "Transponder - Alt. - or Window shut." Homemade checklists don't have to be fancy, but they should cover every operation required for every phase of flight. List emergency procedures on the back.

Remind students that they should always have a checklist in the airplane, and encourage them to use it.

Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Richard Hiner

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