Decades of experience have established the consistent use of checklists as a “best practice” in aviation. The practical test standards for almost any certificate or rating back this up by laying a heavy emphasis on checklist usage (while also allowing it to be deferred at times when immediate reference to the written document would be impractical or unsafe). It’s a habit worth instilling early, since checklists tend to become longer and more complicated as aircraft get bigger and faster, raising both the probability and consequences of missing something crucial. Checklists have even found their way into the operating room; surgical teams having learned that they significantly reduce their error rates.
For all their virtues, though, checklists can also present some dilemmas, starting with the question of which to use. Aircraft built before 1979 may not even have been furnished with them by their manufacturers (aside from a few terse placards on their panels).
Aftermarket companies fill some of these voids, but their offerings may not be as specific to a given model and year as its pilot might want. Nor are they necessarily as complete as you’d like: One popular choice for the 180-horsepower Piper Arrow doesn’t list a best-glide speed. (To be fair, neither does the slender “Operator’s Manual” that came with the airplane.) Owners and operators of uncommon models (including most homebuilts) may not even have that option, leaving them with no recourse but to write and refine their own thereby, at least initially, running that same risk of leaving something out.
Surprisingly enough, neither the practical test standards nor the regulations specify whose checklists must be used. FAR 135.83, for example, merely requires the operator to provide its pilots with “a cockpit checklist.” Practical test standards typically use phrases like “Completes the appropriate checklist”; what’s appropriate is presumably for the examiner to decide.
When available, manufacturers’ checklists at least have presumptive authority. They may, however, suffer from problems of their own. While they should be complete, their flow may be terrible—requiring the pilot to climb in and out of the cockpit more than once, for instance, or skip back and forth across the instrument panel. More seriously, burgeoning liability concerns have come to burden them with items that can cause more trouble than they save if some later item is overlooked. When a new private pilot who had trained in another model crashed a Cessna 172 during an attempted full-flaps takeoff, for example, it was widely assumed that he’d extended the flaps during his preflight inspection and missed the call to retract them again. As it turned out, the preflight checklist for that year’s 172 never mentioned extending the flaps. But later models did, raising legitimate questions about whether checking a system not essential for normal flight justifies even temporarily putting the airplane into a configuration in which it cannot climb.
Likewise, the taxi checklist for the Piper Seminole calls for checking the crossfeed position on the fuel selector valves. Aside from the inadvisability of putting the pilot head-down while the airplane’s in motion, the Seminole’s fuel selectors have their “OFF” position between “ON” and “CROSSFEED.” The NTSB implicated this feature in a fatal crash in Florida in which the airplane took off with one selector turned off, causing its engine to quit shortly after liftoff. It’s not certain, of course, that the pilot failed to move the lever all the way forward after the crossfeed check, but it’s certainly plausible. Diamond’s procedures for its DA40 exhibit a similar quirk. The pre-taxi checklist calls for switching fuel tanks and running the engine for at least 60 seconds, while the before-takeoff list specifies setting it to the fullest tank. There are sharp differences of opinion among DA40 pilots over whether any useful purpose is served by switching away from a tank on which the engine is running perfectly well, especially before legs short enough not to require a tank change in flight.
All these are good reasons for owners or operators to make up their own checklists instead—as are the desire to improve flow, include local specifics such as home-field frequencies, and squeeze the whole thing onto one or two compact laminated cards. Of course, doing this involves both obligations and risks. To make sure nothing’s omitted, it’s essential to cross-check your own version against the manufacturer’s (if any) and panel placards, plus the procedures outlined in the operator’s manual or pilot’s operating handbook. Next it must be field-tested: first by pilots who know the aircraft well and then, after any needed revisions, by students under instructor supervision. The result should be checklists that are more efficient, easier to manage, and tailored to the details of your particular operation. The risk, of course, is that you have to be able to prove your version is functionally equivalent to the original. Otherwise, if anything unfortunate results, you can expect it to be held against you. Some plaintiff’s attorney is sure to seize on the fact that you weren’t using an approved manufacturer’s checklist, even if that had nothing to do with the accident.