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Killer list

Checklists bury the crucial items

By J. Mac McClellan

The checklist for the Beechcraft King Air 350i that I fly weighs nearly two and a half pounds. There are 18 “final” items on the before-takeoff checklist.

Illustration by John Holm
Zoomed image
Illustration by John Holm

And that’s after you’ve been challenged and responded to 22 items on the “before taxi,” and another 20 items on the “before takeoff” list. That’s crazy.

Among the uncritical time wasters on the “final” list is making sure the blowers for cabin and cockpit heating/cooling are adjusted, and the interior lights are as required. Same for checking the cockpit door and the generator load.

Buried in that interminable list of 60 items to check from taxi to taking the runway are what the old-timers called the killer items. Those are the misadjusted or overlooked switches or controls that can finish you off in the first couple minutes of attempted flight.

On any list of killer items are flap position and pitch trim. On larger turbine airplanes the list also includes checking the position of the spoilers. Those have earned their position on the killer list, because with improperly set flaps or trim, many airplanes simply won’t fly. There have been tragic accidents caused by those overlooked items.

To be sure, the heavyweight checklist I fly with includes the killer items. But checking the killers has no bold type face or color change. They’re simply stuck on the list after checking the transponder and before putting the bleed air on low or auto.

Transponder operation is important, but nobody dies because they failed to set the proper code or transponder mode before takeoff roll. Same for bleed air switch position or generator load, which share equal billing on the list with the real killer items.

More than 30 years ago the FAA recognized that there are killer items, and that they are so important there must be a backup for the checklist. That’s why airplanes in the transport category, which includes all business jets except the light category, must have a takeoff warning system.

The warning system monitors pitch trim and flap position, the parking brake, and control lock. Incorrect setting of each of those items has been responsible for fatal accidents over the years. That’s why the takeoff warning system must prevent a takeoff attempt if the monitored items are not correctly set.

I’m not advocating for a complex takeoff warning system to be a certification requirement in all lighter turbine airplanes, but we could accomplish many of those goals by redesigning checklists so we really are checking the small handful of items that would likely prove fatal if not properly set. Look at the checklist that came with your airplane and I’m sure you can identify the real killer items.

On any airplane, pitch trim is critical. Airplanes with trimmable stabilizers typically don’t have enough elevator authority to control the airplane if the stabilizer trim is out of takeoff range. Even airplanes with trim tabs that do little to alter elevator authority can create such huge control forces if the tabs are improperly set that the pilot can’t overcome the force. Pitch trim earned its spot on the killer list over a long and tragic history of accidents.

Flap position is also universally critical. Larger airplanes won’t fly at any expected airspeed without correct takeoff flaps. And in lighter airplanes, too much or too little flaps change takeoff distance and climb performance so much that safety goes out the window.

Some pilots may want prop control lever position on their killer list, and I won’t argue. But you do have time on a takeoff roll to look at the prop rpm and abort if it is not as expected.

Pitot heat has earned a spot on the killer list to the point that all turbine airplanes in production now have pitot heat off warnings.

Some airplanes, such as the King Air, have a unique killer item.

In that case, it’s the throttle lever friction setting. Springs in the system pull the levers back toward idle if no friction is set, and a recent fatal takeoff accident was blamed on the pilot’s failure to set the friction and identify that one throttle had pulled itself to idle after rotation.

The key for each of us is to wade through the bloat that has swamped business aviation turbine airplane checklists, identify what can finish us off in the first couple minutes, and make that our real final before takeoff checklist and mantra.

There will be plenty of time to fiddle with the air conditioning after the airplane is safely away from the ground and under control.

J. Mac McClellan is a corporate pilot with more than 12,000 hours, and a retired aviation magazine editor living in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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