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Checklists are not do lists

Build professional habits from the beginning

Like aircraft manuals, checklists are written in blood. When an incident occurs, a checklist or procedure is written to keep it from recurring. In this respect, checklists are as much memory joggers as they are a means of assigning liability to the pilot in command. While checklists were never intended to be a step-by-step "recipe" for flight, initial flight training usually requires them to be used as both recipe and memory jogger.

Let's say your primary student is on his or her first flight and you want him to perform the engine start. In this case, a step-by-step recipe approach to a checklist makes sense. For example, Battery--show him where the switch is and how to turn it on. Mixture--show him that, too. Throttle--demonstrate how far to "crack" it. Then have him yell, "Clear!" to no one in particular. (Make sure you explain why you say that before twisting the ignition key.) This is the orientation, or "recipe" phase. But during the debrief, you should explain that checklists are not "do" lists. Instead, they are a means of confirming that you did all you were supposed to do. After this, ask your student to study the checklist so he can perform his prestart flow from memory, and then review the checklist prior to turning the prop. This method of checklist usage is standard for virtually every multicrew aircraft in the piloting profession.

I never grasped this concept until I was learning to fly DC-9s. At that time, I was still in the do-list mode. I had spent decades teaching people how to fly, and yet no one had ever taught me that I could set the switches and then review the checklist. Wow--what a concept. It's not a checklist; it's a "check-off" list, in part because complex aircraft require a multitude of switches be set prior to engine start. If the MD-11 checklist was a do list, I'd need an extra 20 minutes to get airborne. Students will find it much easier to transition to more complex aircraft if this checklist technique is taught from day one.

There is another way that instructors can be helpful. Once your student masters checklist usage, why not have her "call" for the appropriate checklist and then you read it to her? OK, I admit I'm pushing boundaries here. After all, a designated pilot examiner will not read a checklist during a checkride. However, using this approach might actually help your students become better professional copilots, because verbalizing items gives you a better chance of ensuring they'll get done. In larger aircraft, the kind equipped with voice recorders, it's also a way to cover your--well, you know what.

Checklists can only minimize human mistakes, because we see what we want to see, especially true when we are tired. Here are some examples: I was darting over the airfield in an A-4 and broke hard into a 60-degree-bank, 4-G, 180-degree turn. I leveled the wings on downwind, and put the landing gear down. I called, "Base, gear down," then started another 180-degree turn to final. I made a habit of checking the gear three times--first, when I put it down; second, while turning base; and third, on final. As I was checking the gear on base, I discovered it was still up, even though I had reported it down. For whatever reason, I had failed to lower the gear handle. How could that happen? I don't know, but it did, and reviewing the checklist saved my day.

Later, I was a first officer in the MD-11 and my captain happened to be a check airman. He didn't have the correct minimum altitude set for the approach, and I knew it. He had been a pain the entire trip, prompting me for this and that, and I couldn't wait to read the checklist to point out his error. "Minimums," I said, reading from the Approach Checklist. He responded with what he had set, to which I replied, "I don't think so." He looked at his setting and adamantly gave the same answer. Well, my answer was the same, too. Getting increasingly agitated, he rechecked his setting and realized it would have put us 100 feet below the ground instead of 200 feet above it. Yes, correcting him felt good, but my point is, verbalizing the checklist is what saved us.

Not convinced? A fellow captain flying internationally shared this one with me. His first officer wasn't feeling well, but was the pilot flying anyway. The local altimeter was 992 millibars. The captain read, "Altimeters, 992," and the FO responded, "992." The problem was the FO had 29.92 inches set in because he failed to reset his altimeter to the local setting. The difference between 29.92 inches of mercury and 992 millibars is more than 500 feet, and the captain didn't notice this right away. Had the altitude miscompare not alerted him, they could have had a problem.

"But I'm instructing in a Cessna 172," you say. "We don't set minimum altitudes, have retractable landing gear, or worry about transition altitudes and millibars." True, but this is about developing a checklist mentality. What happens if you are prepared to land and you must suddenly go around? Let's say that you forgot to adjust your fuel mixture, switch fuel tanks, or turn on the fuel boost pump. Remember: Perform your checklist items first, and then review the checklist to ensure completion.

Emergency checklists are handled differently in single-engine versus multiengine aircraft. Experience has taught me that there isn't time to dig out a checklist if your single engine quits at low altitude. (And it's not fun, either.) In this case, your students must know emergency procedures by heart. However, if you are flying a multiengine aircraft that has any kind of performance, an engine failure should be more of a nuisance than a crisis. Here, you are better off flying the aircraft, reducing the drag, trimming the aircraft, and--when you are ready--digging out the checklist.

Every pilot grows into his role, and experience breeds wisdom. Your students gain their initial aviating knowledge from you, so arm them with information worth clinging to.

Mark W. Danielson is a retired Navy pilot who currently flies for FedEx. He has been a CFI for 26 years and has flown more than 11,000 hours.

By Mark W. Danielson

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