Is your checklist really necessary?

I learned to fly in the Royal Australian Air Force on Tiger Moths and Wirraways. Our instructors were insistent about one thing in particular and that was we had to know all cockpit checks off by heart. Fumble a check and you were in trouble. Tiger Moth drills were simple while the Wirraway checks were more detailed.

After graduation as a RAAF pilot, postings could be to Mustangs, Vampires, Dakotas, Lincolns, or other types. Regardless of which aircraft one flew, the basic Central Flying School (CFS) drill applied, with perhaps a few extra items such as supercharger switches, automatic pilots, bomb door levers and gun safety switches. The perennial CFS (and thus RAAF) before take-off checks – known as Vital Actions — started with Harness, Hatches, hydraulics, Trims, Mixture, Pitch and so on.

There were no official mnemonics, so those with a memory problem probably invented their own, to be muttered quietly under one’s beard, lest the instructor hear. One was expected to learn cockpit checks by rote and half a century later I still use the RAAF basic cockpit drills when flying general aviation aircraft.

I first heard of written checklists back in the mid-1950s as the squadron QFI – known grandly in today’s airline parlance as check and training captain. The position called for the training of newly graduated RAAF pilots to fly Lincoln bombers.

Lincoln bomber
The author flew the large Lincoln bomber with no written checklist.

Although the Lincoln was a large four engine bomber similar to the wartime Lancaster, checklists were not used because cockpit drills were memorized. Before-start checks consisted of a left to right scan around the cockpit, setting up the desired switches and levers, checking various instruments and testing and setting trim controls. The same basic CFS scan applied to the Mustang as to the Lincoln and Dakota (for example), so that a pilot arriving on the squadron after having flown one of these types previously, would simply modify the basic drill to fit the Lincoln.

The after-starting engines drill also went left to right across the cockpit, except now that the generators and hydraulics were on line, the flaps and other ancillaries could be tested. We didn’t need something written on paper to remind us to strap in, adjust rudder pedals, prime the engines and check all clear. Heaven’s sake, old chap – these were airmanship aspects!

At the holding point we remembered the basic pre-run up drills which included temperatures and pressures normal (coolant temperatures especially on liquid cooled Rolls Royce Merlins), mixture rich, and all clear behind. Magneto checks completed, the pilot would launch into the well rehearsed Harness, Hatches, Hydraulics pre-take off Vital Actions as per Central Flying School teaching, remembering that with the Lincoln there was one additional vital action, and that was to make sure that the rear gunner had centralized his gun turret. If not centralized, the off-set drag would cause the aircraft to swing during take off.

Along came a new Wing Commander to command the squadron. He was a dynamic fellow with a bristling moustache who had flown Beaufighters against the Japanese during the war, and survived great hardships, including capture and imprisonment as a Japanese POW. As squadron QFI, it was my task to convert him to the Lincoln. For reasons lost in antiquity he was awarded the nickname of Big Julie – although not to his face, you understand.

“Sir”, I said to Big Julie as he sat strapped to the left seat, “We start the cockpit check for this aircraft from left to right, so please check that the bomb doors lever is down as the first item.”

The Wing Commander unclipped his oxygen mask, looked down at me coldly (I was sitting on a small dickey seat at a lower level than he) and said, “Where’s the aircraft checklist, Flying Officer?”

“Checklist, Sir?” I said blankly. “Checklist? We don’t have a checklist! It’s all up here, Sir,” pointing at my head with a gloved finger. I had forgotten that the man had been flying DC4s in the USAF where written checklists had been all the go.

“This aircraft has four bloody engines, weighs 80,000 pounds all up and has a crew of ten. This squadron is grounded until you get a checklist,” replied BJ.

We clambered heavily from the hot interior of Lincoln A73-66, down the ladder and waddled across to the crew room. I then spent the rest of the day designing a checklist. I tried to cover every knob, lever and dial in the cockpit with the result that the final result was ridiculously long-winded.

The next day a carbon copy-smeared checklist was proudly presented to Big Julie. The squadron flew again, albeit with disgruntled pilots glaring at me in the bar each night. It was soon apparent that my checklist was a monstrosity. After a few trips, the CO was beaten. Sitting strapped in the cockpit in the heat of the equatorial sun while I read his checklist and demanded the correct response had worn him down.

“Scrub the checklist, Flying Officer” growled Big Julie, and so with discarded checklists gathering red-back spiders and dust in the crew room, the squadron happily returned to the familiar CFS mantra of Harness, Hatches and Hydraulics. The intriguing part was that pilots rarely forgot the rote cockpit checks, but when forced to read from a written checklist, memories quickly faded and items were often skipped or missed because the checklist was too long.

With the introduction into Australia of American Cessna and Piper trainers with their associated Pilot Handbooks, printed checklists started to creep into general aviation.

I once gave a dual check to a student with 15 hours in his log book. Having both strapped in, the student announced that he had forgotten to bring his checklist and would I mind if he dashed back to his car to get it?

“Forget it” I said. “You don’t need a checklist for a Cessna 150” and asked him to get the show on the road. There was a moment of silence before the student replied apologetically that, without his checklist, he did not know how to start the engine. I felt sorry for him as he had been taught from his first instructional flight that checklists were A Very Good Thing to be used at all times – even for a walk around inspection.

A few days later, I was downwind in a Beech Skipper with a private pilot on a biennial check. He announced the before-landing checks as brakes off and tested, undercarriage down and locked, mixture rich, master switch on, magneto switches on both, primer locked, pitch control not applicable, harness and hatches secure, fuel and pump on, with more checks to come on final.

On completion of the review, we debriefed over coffee and the pilot was asked why he had stated “Gear down and locked” when it was plain to see that the aircraft was a fixed gear type. It turned out that his instructor, following school policy, had told him that one day he would probably convert to a retractable undercarriage type, with a variable pitch propeller thrown in for good measure. It was therefore yet another Good Thing to get into the practice of saying “gear down and locked” before landing.

I offered the view that if a rote check of gear down and locked was made, then logically the after-takeoff check should include gear up and locked, in order to be consistent with the policy that one day he may fly a retractable gear type.

Cessna 150 Checklist
Do you really need this in a Cessna?

More coffee was brought and the discussion turned to the remainder of the flying school downwind checks that he had been taught and their relevance to real life events. Magneto and Master switches on? One could argue that if the magnetos are off downwind, then a mayday situation is on the cards. Therefore, there was no point in checking that item. If the master switch is not on, the fuel gauges will be inoperative, the oil temperature gauge dead, the flaps won’t work and the radios and intercom kaput. If the cockpit doors are not closed, then there will have been lots of noise and vibration making it obvious what the problem is.

The proliferation of read and do checklists in small general aviation aircraft surprises me, particularly as these are designed to be flown by one pilot. I recall chatting to the smartly uniformed pilot of a visiting Trinidad. It was an immaculate aircraft with an impressive cockpit layout. While the pilot’s checklist was well designed and had lots of pretty colours, it was lengthy and included such read-out items as Check all clear for starting, taxi clearance received, ATIS received, cruise power set and a host of other reminders consisting of normal airmanship items which need not be included in a checklist. The pilot, whose shoulders were festooned with gold stripes said that as his flying school was primarily aimed at training airline captains of the future, and that everyone knew that airline pilots use checklists, it was considered a Good Thing to use checklists right from the start.

His logic escaped me. I would have thought that any literate person could read a checklist without first practicing for months ahead. Was that checklist really necessary to safely operate a small single engine trainer – or was it part of an airline image policy?

Watch a Boeing or Airbus crew carry out the before start drills. What may surprise you is that the challenge and response from the checklist covers only a few essentials – probably only ten percent of the total scanned items. Airline checklists are designed as a crew concept with a challenge and response of specific items after the actions have already taken place. A typical Boeing 737 before take off checklist consists of seven read-out items while the Boeing 767 has only four. In contrast, one sees in general aviation, lengthy parodies of airline checklists foisted upon bemused and bewildered student pilots who really do have the intelligence to learn items by heart if only allowed to do so.

Do you really need a massive checklist to fly a single pilot Seminole or Duchess? From the time a student first steps into an aircraft, he should not have to rely on a checklist as a crutch. To be ahead of the aircraft, he must know the cockpit checks instinctively and off by heart. It is unfair to have him learn illogical and superfluous drills that are not applicable to his aircraft type.

To deliberately call false cockpit drills such as gear down and locked in a fixed undercarriage aircraft, must inevitably instill in the student’s mind the concept that it is the correct call out that counts – not the logic behind it. The danger is that in times of stress they may risk reverting to the habit of calling gear down and locked without taking the appropriate action – when later operating these special design feature types. The before landing checks on a trainer should be reduced to essentials such as fuel system set for go-around, mixture rich, seats and belts secure. Any person of average intelligence can learn those items by heart without reading from a checklist or inventing a mnemonic.

One great satisfaction of being a flying instructor is the occasional pleasure of hearing a well thought out and logical cockpit drill (sans checklist, of course!). An unhurried Harness –Hatches – Hydraulics, takes me back in time to the crackle of Merlins and the lovely sound of a Sea Fury at full power. Checklists are indeed a Good Thing in the big jets, but I sometimes wonder are they really necessary in light aircraft?

35 Comments

  • I had a Beech Baron checkout with a CFI who told me, “Screw the checklist. I’ll give you this one: ‘Can I Go Flying Today Peter Rabbit, Dear Sir, Lights, Camera, Action.'”

    That equates to: C-Controls (free and clear); I-Instruments (set); G-Gas (proper tank[s]); F-Flaps (set); T-Trim (set); P-Power, R-Runup (check mags); D-Doors (locked); S-Seat Belts; L-Lights; C-Camera (Transponder); A-Action (self-explanatory).

    It worked in the Baron and works in every other aircraft I’ve flown, twin- or single-engine.

  • i was also taught to fly helicopters without checklists, more out of necessity. In a R22, you literally cannot take your hands off the controls to pick up a checklist, they require constant adjustment (in hover).

  • Doing any highly technical function without a checklist is borderline negligence. Flying without a checklist is just as absurd as flying without a pre-flight. Checklists are not a step-by-step process you use while doing the items on the checklist. They are a reminder/refresher to assure you are doing what needs to be done. With enough repetition the checklist becomes rote memory and that is the point. I have been in the AF for 22 years and I don’t leave my office without the proper checklist. I have also been diving for just as long and if I’m in a 20’ sedate dive or a 100’ student deep dive check out I refer to my checklist.
    Do I use all my checklists every day? No but they are always within arms reach. Check lists assure everything that needs to be done is done properly. You say you don’t need them that its all in your head, well how did it get there. Any tool that helps someone learn is a good thing. Check lists are just a standardized way to assure proper guidance. To ignore them because your “to good” for them is a bad way to teach new students and only inhibits their potential.
    There is no place in flying for short cuts.

  • seems to me some of this conversation is just semantics. You suggest not using a checklist – but think mnemonic reminders are a good thing – isn’t that just a ‘checklist’.

    Relying on memory is the real crutch – not the use of a checklist!! How many pilots that have landed a retractable gear-up – would have done so – had they used a written checklist?

    And I’ve also watched and talked to Airline pilots – they used a ‘flow’ method (just a visual checklist in my opinion) followed up by challenge and response written checklist.

    It’s a big world and I respect your choice to fly without the use of a checklist – but I would be hesitant to climb in the aircraft with you.

  • I am glad to see that there is some logic applied to flying somewhere in the world. Here in the States, the FAA has indoctrinated everyone with the idea that flying is not possible without printed checklists cluttering up the cockpit.

    I have never seen a bird use a checklist. I have seen a highly experienced FAA test pilot and an FAA Landing Gear Safety Specialist, in the same plane, resplendent with checklists, forget to put the gear down.

    As an aircraft engineer, I consider any design that requires some printed checklist to operate safely, a faulty design.

  • I think some people in favor of ‘checklists’ are missing the point. I totally understand the idea behind this article and agree 100%. But do I use a checklist? You bet ya. The author points to a critical issue that is rampant among GA pilots. Doing without thinking. Yes, even the “Harness, Hatches, Hydraulics…” technique is a checklist. But the real problem is with pilots who are either ‘buried’ in nailing every detail on a written checklist, saying the items on a checklist without doing, or being unable to perform the duties of PIC without the crutch of a checklist. Even if the ‘checklist’ is in my head, i can say every item without actually doing anything. Equally as dangerous as someone who doesn’t know how to fly without reading every word on a paper checklist. When I transitioned from the Cessna 150 that I learned on, to a 172SP, the only thing I didn’t know how to do was properly start the fuel injected engine. Sans checklist, I could have vapor locked it or not have gotten it started at all. I had the checklist and so I read it through before doing anything in the airplane. The rest of the checklist was essentially identical to the 150 check that was already familiar with. When I took my checkride, the examiner told me that part of what he was looking for, was my use of the checklist, however, on my engine out, I dropped the checklist on the floor accidentally. Did I squirm and fiddle and waste time trying to get the checklist so I could read it to assist me on the “Emergency” landing? No! Of course not. I performed the duties and knew what to do because the checklist was ‘in my head’ (as well as on the floor). So I don’t necessarily think the author means that everyone should throw away checklists all together (maybe he is, I could be wrong) but that a checklist is no good, if the primary airmanship of performing the duties of PIC can’t be efficiently and effectively performed without a crutch.

    • Well said, the ‘doing without thinking’ is ramped and relying on something/someone to ‘tell’ the pilot what to do next is dangerous. Understand what you are flying and understand the task that needs to be preformed, then you won’t forget.

  • CHECKLIST ARE ESSENTIAL THEY ARE A MUST LIVES DEPEND ON THEM WHEN YOU FLY YOU BECOME A DANGEROUS WEAPON COMPLACENCY IS A PROBLEM JUST FORGET YOUR MIXTURE OR FUEL SUPPLY SELECT VALVE OR CARB HEAT THERE ARE TO MANY ITEMS THAT CAN BECOME DANGEROUS YOU LAND ON A SCHOOL OR ANY POPULATED AREA YOU ARE A PROBLEM TO OUR SAFETY I ALWAYS USED MY CHECKLIST NO MATTER WHAT AND HAVE MISSED CRITICAL ITEMS RAN OUT OF FUEL OVER LOS ANGELES ONE TIME I NOTICED A RIGHT WING HEAVY CONDITION A P28 CROSS COUNTRY ME AND MY WIFE OUT OF SAN DIEGO TARGET FRESNO AND I SWITCHED TO BOTH TANKS AND WHEN I GOT TO FRESNO I LOOKED AT MY CHECK LIST AND IT SAID FUEL SUPPLY VALVE TO BOTH TANKS I REALIZED I MUST HAVE MISSED THIS ITEM I AM VERY CAREFUL NOW BUT SOME PEOPL E HAVE TO LEARN THE HARD WAY .

  • Checklists on downwind are useful. Not so much for ‘off’ conditions, but ‘partially right’ – are you sure you didn’t recently bump the alternator out of the system and you’re running only on battery? Or only running on the left mag? Better to find these out on downwind and take corrective action vs on final when they might get you. Safety in layers.

  • Maybe some of my younger pilot friends can get along without checklists…but I use checklists for everything I do in my life and aviation was the road. At age 74 years I don’t have the capacity for memory I had at 30 and I find it so easy to miss something without the checklist… I’m a safer pilot because of it. I have a checklist in my vehicle….did I forget my wallet? the keys? where am I going…? what do I need…?

  • I don’t think there’s any harm in having a written aide-memoire to make sure that you don’t miss something important. Why not use it if it’s there? In fact I use a halfway house, where I use the written checklist for all ground checks, but memorised checklists in the air, where perhaps you don’t have the time – say in an emergency – to get the list out and read it out loud.

    The other thing is that this is the way I was trained. It’s what Iam comfortable with. Why change something that works for me? And for someone who can’t afford to fly more often than once every three weeks or so, I still feel the need for a ground checklist, even though every line on it is as familiar as my pillow on my bed.

    Interestingly, though, yes I was trained to use the checklist like that, but my son, who learned to fly about 15 years later and at a different flying school, does everything from memory. That’s not to say, though, that when he’s doing his checklist from memory and I am flying with him as P2, I’m not running my list alongside his; I am indeed. That’s just good CRM….

  • So much chest beating! Couple of comments: 1.) There are old Pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are NO OLD BOLD PILOTS! If Checklists are good enough for people who flew the Space Shurttle, with all their Aeronautics Degrees, then they’re good enough for me.

    2. Why do we preflight? Because we don’t trust that the plane, left alone, has maintained the same “airworthiness” as when we left it. Therefore, we shake things on the ground to see if we can pull them apart on Terra Firma instead of having them fall apart in flight when there is a long final drop. Checklists are the same — We shouldn’t trust our minds to remember every nuance of a Garmin 500 electrical system, or what have you.

    3.) Macho guys die prematurely. The most common last words of all Dawin Award candidates are, “Hold my beer and watch this!” Be a wimp and use a check list. You’ll live longer to suffer the insults of the muscle-headed beach bully because you can’t remember which switches to flick, or something equally sarcastic.

    Frankly, I’m appalled at this article. Please, if you agree with the author instead of me, don’t use you’re real name. Your insurance company may be reading this…

  • Checklists are not the problem. They are essential. The problem is in that many do not use them right. You do not stare into your lap with the engine running, executing the steps point by point, and you certainly do not read them off aloud, in front of the passengers. Check lists that are “in air” (which happen to be short typically) such as before landing, or engine out, you memorize, and have the printed checklist AS A BACKUP. After all, what non-military pilot knows how he would react in a real emergency? His mind may freeze in terror. Checklists that are on ground, such as preflight or engine start/runup (which typically are long), you memorize and use flows, BUT after the procedure, you quickly glance at the checklist for 1 second to make sure you forgot nothing. And you NEVER do a walk-around preflight without a checklist in your hand, glancing at the sections as you complete them to ensure you left nothing out. If having a checklist in your hand during a preflight slows you down, you are doing a preflight sloppily enough that you might as well skip it, and pray the aircraft works. Finally, you do not use the checklists as the aircraft manufacturer made them – those checklists are FAA beaurocrat and lawyer creations. You intimately familiarize yourself with the aircraft, including equipment added after-market where applicable, and make your own checklist based on these and your own experience and needs, and modify it whenever it makes sense. One time, during primary training, I forgot to raise the flaps during a touch and go. My instructor raised them for me of course before anything dangerous could happen, but late enough that it scared the heck out of me thinking what COULD have happened had I been alone. Since then, my checklist includes an extra check that the flaps are up, so that this would never happen again. This use of checklists makes a safe pilot, and every single instructor whom I deeply respected has told me so.

  • Earlier in my career as an IT support tech, I can’t tell you how many times I watched people do a 5 – 10 step process from memory and skip one of the steps and wonder why it their computer wasn’t acting like they thought it should. Then when they would show me what they did with me standing behind them, one step at a time, confirming with me that each step was completed, their computer would magically work, and they thought I had a magic touch! I think this applies to the checklist debate: You think you have it memorized, but unless you can just check with a list of tasks to make sure that you haven’t missed one, you run that risk. You may not miss an item for months, years, but one day you will and a checklist would have solved it. A good book on this subject is “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande. You’ll notice that not everything is on a checklist, but what is there is often the things that get forgotten. As another commenter posted, it seems like you’re not so much against checklists as you are against the use of checklists without understanding the why.

  • I believe in knowing your checks backwards and forwards as well as using a written checklist. One complements the other. For my flights, I prefer to flow around the panel then review the written checklist. The current emphasis on getting a student into the airplane quickly leads to reading a checklist line by line since no time is allotted for truly learning a flow. As the FAA emphasizes in CFI training, your initial habit pattern is hard to change.

  • Vicki, well said about people getting into the aircraft fast. I have only once got into an aircraft I was about to fly, without doing a full walk-round first. That was on my solo cross-country qualifier. While having a cup of tea in the airport lounge prior to the final leg of my flight I had met another pilot from another flying school who was also doing his qualifier. I was just about to start the engine when I spotted the chap doing a full walk-round, and thought ‘heck, why haven’t I done that?’ and promptly got out and did so. Now I allow myself at least 15 minutes before every flight, in advance of engine start, to do the full alpha check. Time well spent in my opinion.

  • Interesting debate. I run my checks from memory, then grab the list for a quick cross-check. Somehow, I still manage to take off without turning on the transponder about 1/2 the time. I’ve been thinking I need to rewrite the checklist to put that somewhere more noticeable before I go for my checkride.

  • All the points of view here have merit. Perhaps the thing to keep in mind is the differences that encompass our “industry”. It is ridiculous for a C150 pilot to have a 200 page checklist that comes in a 3 ring 6 inch binder that would be more appropriate for a B747 and vice versa. And if you fly only 25 hours a year you may want to have that list handy to prompt you because unless you are regularly performing the task of flying you will miss/forget something – this is a simple function of being human. But perhaps more importantly when we publicize discussions like this and decry procedures proven at the highest level of our industry (someone used shuttle pilots from NASA as an example) to be effective tools in risk mitigations, we create the opportunity for opponents of GA to say – “See? Look a bunch of yahoos/cowboys who are flying willy nilly thinking they are better than the rest of us…” Conversely that someone does not take out the list and put the smiley face by each item on the start-up of their C150 does not diminish their skills or abilities, nor does it mean they have not followed the checklist. It may merely be reflective if skills, experience and complexities involved in their individual type of flying. By the way – did anyone make sure they turned off the coffee maker and locked the door when they left the house this morning? Gotcha – you used a checklist!!!! 🙂

  • I continue to search for the optimum checklist, you know not too much and not too little. GA needs to improve our safety record, proper use of a checklist is one tool to achieve this improvement.

  • I perform my pre-flight, pre-start, start, run-up and landing checklists from memory in my B55. I also study my POH and customized written checklists occasionally as part of my personal recurrent training. We all use checklists all the time. Whether in his head, electronic, or paper, every pilot has a checklist he follows and with which he is comfortable. I try not to become complacent about testing (i.e. Running through the checklist) to determine if my airplane is up to the task I’m about to demand of it. My checklists help me confirm it is and that the task (take-off, approach, landing, etc.) will be successful.

  • Tom’s Baron checkout and CFI experience (Nov 29) remind me of Michael Douglas’s laugh getter at the recent Oscar Awards.

    “A movie director goes into a bank to make case for project financing. In the dialog, the banker smugly comments about his moviemaking knowledge–how actors act, grips move scenery, soundmen record, set designers design, editors edit, etc.–and then asks, “But what does a director do?

    . . . The director goes into another bank.”

  • For me, checklists are indispensible ON THE GROUND! The list needs my full attention THEN, and the many chores of flying need my full attention when airborne. It’s easier to fix anything on the ground.
    Mnemonics work for me in the air.

  • Checklists should be just that, a checklist, not a “to do” list. Do the action and then check that it has been done. However, that said, the checklists for light aircraft are a joke. As the author rightly points out there are far too many items on them that should not be there. A checklist should contain the “killer items” only, those items that if you don’t get right can kill you; gear, flaps, trim etc. It was a wake up call for me when I saw the checklist for a B737 and just how few items were included.

  • Throughout my GA flying I have been trained for VFR and IFR single pilot operations. I don’t always have the ability to take a hand off of the controls or take my eyes away from scanning instruments and traffic to be able to read through a checklist (example: single pilot hard IFR with no autopilot). Airlines have two crew members for this purpose, but I do not. Because I train to fly alone, I memorize ALL airborne checklists for the most complicated aircraft I fly. Even in a C-150, I say “gear, not applicable,” etc. I do this for repetition’s sake and because I fly many different types of aircraft. To me, memorizing ground checklists is optional, and would merely save hobbs time and gas.

  • You say: Even in a C-150, I say “gear, not applicable,” etc. I do this for repetition’s sake and because I fly many different types of aircraft. To me, memorizing ground checklists is optional, and would merely save hobbs time and gas.

    The problem with inventing superfluous checks and using the words “not applicable” is it doesn’t make sense. You may as well insert things like Cowl flaps not applicable, prop pitch not applicable, rudder trim not applicable. Where does it all stop?

  • In small aircraft, Pilots use check list. Aviators do things by instint without even thinking about it.

  • at a local flying club we have 2 checklists both the planes. One written by a member that is in the clubs operating procedure and one created by the factory written on the dash of the aircraft. Every time there seems to be an incident the flying club checklist gets longer to prevent another incident from happening again, a new check one could say, instead of examine the reason the incident happened. Another pilot I fly with on a regular basis says the factory designed one on the dash of the aircraft is good enough for the factory its good enough for us and that we should examine the contributing factors to the incident instead of adding more checks and procedures. The written one is at the moment a full 8×11 sheet full and would be longer if possible

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