Before I could fly solo in the Air Force T-37 jet trainer, I had to successfully demonstrate to my instructor that I could complete a blindfold cockpit check. Sitting in the cockpit on the ground with my eyes shut, my instructor had a list of switches I needed to locate and activate, to make sure I could find them in a blind situation (bird strike, smoke in the cockpit, night electrical failure, etc.). He started off easy, asking me to move the right-side throttle to the cutoff position. Next, I had to find the radio and change the channel. Prior to digital control heads, each click of the radio’s control knob locked another frequency into place. After finding each dial, I counted clicks while rotating them to a new value. We relied on this same frequency changing technique when flying in close formation.
From there I found the fuel shutoff handles, gear handle and flap lever, canopy jettison, and about a half dozen other key items. Then my instructor directed me to pull a specific circuit breaker. With side-by-side seating, I started reaching for the panel of multiple disjointed breakers in front of me when he quickly said, “I’m just kidding.” My reply was, “I’m not.”
I found the panels and then I figured out where the top row was. I counted down to the correct row and then over to the breaker he requested, and I pulled it. Yes, I got the correct one. Was it overkill to have memorized the layout of the entire circuit breaker panel? Perhaps. But even in my Cessna P210 today, I have memorized the location of three key circuit breakers: the landing gear pump, the electric trim, and the alternator.
Many of us don’t fly as much as we’d like to, and most of us don’t fly anywhere near as much as a full-time professional pilot. Quickly finding any switch in the cockpit might be a crucial task, especially in the dark. For pilots who rent or fly different airplanes, switch positions are likely to vary. Think about a pair of Cessna 172s that came off the factory line right after each other—40 years ago. Their cockpits would have been identical back then. With all the possible modifications and upgrades over the years, it’s not likely these two airplanes have the same panels and switches today. How many of you have flown an airplane with the gear handle on the left and the flaps lever on the right, and then seen another with the gear handle on the right and the flaps lever on the left?
Whether you fly the same airplane or different airplanes, I recommend a simple routine. Every time before you fly, and before you turn on the master switch, find the time-critical circuit breakers you need in that airplane. Then spend 30 seconds doing a full scan of every switch and knob in the cockpit, just to refresh your memory.
Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,900 hours total time during his 35 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”