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Efficiency: New panel, new checklist

I’ve seen my share of checklist missteps

With her old avionics,  some even inoperative, it was time to bring my 1968 Bonanza  Niky  into the twenty-first century. Her panel makeover turned out to be a total gut job save for the analog accelerometer and an antique Mathey-Tissot wind-up clock that I deemed quaint.
P&E Efficiency

Her new panel features all glass with added redundancy to provide increased safety during our family adventures around the country. When I picked her up from the avionics shop, I pulled her worn checklist from the side pocket and noted that many items no longer apply, and some were missing. I made my way home but resolved to secure an appropriate checklist.

In a 2017 Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO), the FAA warns of the dangers in using purchased or personally developed checklists. The alert cites an accident in which the pilot referenced a purchased checklist to manually extend the gear, which subsequently collapsed on landing. The investigators found the procedure did not match that in the operating manual and cited the pilot’s use of the erroneous checklist as a significant contributing factor.

As an FAA examiner, I’ve seen my share of checklist missteps. On a recent exam the candidate consulted his checklist from a third party and reported a value for maneuvering speed that was much higher than the number in the aircraft operating handbook. The SAFO advises anyone who uses such a checklist to “meticulously compare them with the manufacturer’s checklist and placards” to confirm consistency. I suspect that many don’t actually perform such a verification.

Where does one find a checklist for an aircraft like Niky? The original operating handbook checklist lacks procedures for any of the modifications she has had over her 52 years. Well-meaning friends offered me their checklists for similar models, but the attendant pitfalls are the same as those of a purchased checklist. Thus, I decided to research the best practices for generating a safe and effective checklist.

Human factors experts Asaf Degani and Earl Wiener conducted a field study in which they observed airline crews as they used checklists on commercial flights. In their 1993 paper Cockpit Checklists: Concepts, Design and Use , they discuss the purpose of checklists and offer advice for their optimal design and use. The authors note that an effective checklist is the result of a balancing act that ensures inclusion of all critical items, yet the product is not so lengthy that it promotes poor usage. While their study centered on transport category operations, their recommendations apply to general aviation just as well.

The author’s   Bonanza recently received a full panel makeover, which included an  all-glass cockpit. It called for a new checklist procedure.Degani and Wiener present two dominant methods of running a checklist. The call-do-response method is a cookbook approach in which the pilot completes each item before moving to the next line. But a skipped item can easily pass unnoticed using this method. The challenge-verification-response method starts with the pilot completing a task flow from memory and uses the checklist as a backup to ensure all items were completed. Many commercial operators use this latter method.

Using advice from the Degani-Wiener paper (see “Advice for Checklist Design and Usage,” sidebar), I designed a checklist that is faithful to Niky’s operating handbook and incorporates procedures for her newer features. Whenever possible, a task checklist is designed to be completed using the challenge-verification-response method.

Checklist items. I started with the checklist from Niky’s 1968 Pilot’s Operating Handbook and Airplane Flight Manual and crossed out any items that no longer applied. For example, her pressure system is gone so I eliminated the associated references. I added checklist items from the documentation for her new equipment like the standby alternator and avionics package. I replaced most response items such as Set and Check with the desired status.

Order. The most time-consuming part of the process involved deciding on an order for checklist items. For example, before her panel upgrade, I could start Niky’s engine as soon as I turned on the master switch but now I can’t reference her engine gauges until the primary flight display boots up. I also switch fuel tanks to verify proper fuel flow from both tanks, but that item should be done well before the takeoff roll, so I placed it soon after engine start-up. Earlier this year, I read a Pilot Workshops “Tip of the Week” by Seattle flight instructor Bruce Williams in which he advocated snapping photos in flight to help establish configuration figures for IFR operations. I took that advice one step further by taking a video of Niky’s panel from start-up until the takeoff roll. I noted that it took 20 seconds after turning on the battery switch for my engine instruments to appear and that time is perfect for verifying that all circuit breakers are in and the appropriate lights are on. The video also reminded me of the location of various switches, gauges, and controls so that my flows could concentrate on a certain equipment grouping or involve a sweep across the panel. After all, an efficient checklist that incorporates natural flows will increase my likelihood of using it correctly.

Task checklists. With the item list in an appropriate order, I divided it into a sequence of tasks corresponding to the phase of flight in which each should be completed. Such a segmented checklist reduces the likelihood of skipping a step and facilitates jumping right to the appropriate task checklist during a busy phase of flight. The longest task checklist I used has about a dozen items.

Format. I formatted the checklist using the easy-to-read, sans-serif font Arial on white paper. Normal task checklist titles appear in black and listed items and response values in gray and charcoal, respectively. All emergency titles appear in red. I personally don’t like looking down at a checklist in the final stages of landing, so I placed a copy of the Before Landing task checklist on the panel.

Helpful charts and tables. Niky’s checklist includes other helpful items like a diagram of her light switches and circuit breakers in case the cockpit lighting is insufficient to locate them at night. Tables for recommended airspeeds and tire pressures on the checklist facilitate quicker access to such frequently used information than the POH provides.

Updates. Although the checklist is now laminated, I regard it as a work in progress, so I carry a fine permanent marker to make changes. After landing on a recent flight with my friend Lawson, I opened Niky’s cowl flaps during the ground roll. He asked why I didn’t open them in the pattern since I would want them open if my approach had ended in a go-around. I made a note of this great idea and have incorporated it into the current version.

While accepting a friend’s checklist or buying one might be tempting, ensuring that the information is correct and complete might even take more time than generating your own. The process of generating Niky’s new checklist was as valuable to me as the beautiful and easy-to-use result.

Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor ( and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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