From now on, I’ll always…

Airlines spend a lot of time crafting standard operating procedures (SOPs), which describe in exquisite detail how each part of a flight should be conducted. The goal is to fly every flight the same, with no deviation because the pilot is tired, it’s the last leg of the day, or the weather is nasty. This system allows airlines to schedule two pilots who have never met to fly an airplane they’ve never seen – and with no loss of safety. While there are some jokes about how pilots can’t go to the bathroom without checking the manual, the results speak for themselves: there hasn’t been a fatal accident on a major US airline in 10 years.

For the average private pilot, such formal SOPs are probably overkill and remove some of the flexibility that makes general aviation so rewarding. In my experience, many such personal SOPs either get ignored or managed around. With no co-pilot, dispatcher or cockpit voice recorder watching, private pilots can easily side-step even the best intentioned limitations.

Instead of this rigid approach, a few simple habits can prevent embarrassment – or worse. These are easier to remember and present less of a burden, but if crafted well they can still improve safety in a meaningful way.

Here are three little things I do on every flight, unwritten rules I follow no matter what I’m flying, what time of day, or what the weather. Each one of them was learned the hard way, after a mistake left me saying, “from now on I’ll always…”

Preflight – one last look

Cowl plugs
Did you remove the cowl plugs? Are you sure?

Before I get into an aircraft, I take just a few seconds to stand in front of it and look everything over. This isn’t a preflight (that should have been completed long before) but a chance to call timeout during the mad dash to take off. I look to make sure any towbars are off, cowl plugs are removed, and chocks gone. I check to make sure nothing is “dripping, dangling, or dragging.” I check that any baggage doors are closed and latched. And I do it all without looking at my phone or talking to a passenger – sterile cockpit rules apply.

Like many pilots, I first learned this lesson after I had to shut down the engine on a busy ramp and remove the chocks I had forgotten. I’ve also left a fuel cap off; fortunately I caught it before takeoff. These were embarrassing, but years ago I watched another pilot do far more serious damage when he tried to start a jet engine with the engine plug still installed. That simple loss of focus became a six figure mistake.

So no matter how crazy the pre-departure process is, I take a deep breath and look things over. Then, it’s time to go.

Before takeoff – fuel, flaps, trim

Everyone has their favorite verbal checklist (you’ve probably heard GUMPS or “lights, camera, action” before), but I like to say this one as I take the runway for departure. I call this my “killer items check” because if the fuel is correct (we have enough, it’s on the right tank, and the fuel pump is on if required), the flaps are set for takeoff, and the trim is set properly, you’ve probably covered the most essential items for takeoff. There may be work to do at 1000 ft. AGL, but during the busy moments of takeoff these are the things that absolutely must be correct or you could lose control. That’s especially true in faster and heavier airplanes, where an improper configuration is often fatal.

How did I learn this one? After an excruciatingly long takeoff roll in a Cessna 210 one day, as I staggered into the air at about 300 feet per minute, I noticed the flaps were up (10 degrees is normal for takeoff). The runway was long that day, which made it nothing worse than a mistake; on a shorter runway it could have been a big deal. I was proud of myself for not forcing the airplane to fly before it was ready, but I was not happy with my checklist discipline. In some larger airplanes, improperly set flaps or trim can be fatal. I told myself, “from now on, I’ll always double check fuel, flaps, and trim before taking off.”

Final approach – three green, three times

Gear handle
Three green, three times.

The GUMPS checklist works well before landing, and I use it in most airplanes I fly. But I also do a shorter checklist on base-to-final: “three green, three times.” I put the gear down and I don’t take my hand off the gear handle until I’ve confirmed I have three green lights. Then I check for three green again when the terrain warning system calls out 500 feet to go – I touch the gear handle and say it out loud. Finally, just before I cross the threshhold of the runway I do one last check in my head (runway clear, gear down).

Obsessive? Perhaps, but it’s cheap insurance. Over 20 years ago, I was in an airplane (not as PIC) when the excruciating sound of the fuselage hitting the runway ended the day’s flying. I learned that checking the gear down one time was not enough, especially when you get busy or distracted. One important note: I do this quick check in every airplane I fly, including the ones with fixed gear (a lot of my flying). It has to be a habit, so it has to be done every time. And yes, my co-pilot will often add “…and welded” when I say “gear down” in a 172.

Less is more

There are plenty of other habits that are important, but it’s important not to overdo it. If you have too many mental checklists, you may find yourself skipping them or forgetting them. I once listened to a pilot try to convince me that IPTAFNNR (I Play The Accordian or something like that) was an “easy” way to remember the elements in an IFR position report. I think for the once every five years I make one of those, I might just refer to the notes on my iPad app or the placard on my kneeboard.

I should emphasize that I’m not advocating that pilots ignore checklists. In fact, I’m a stickler for checklist usage in all but the simplest airplanes. For me, these few little rituals are a nice supplement to the complete aircraft checklist. One before I get in the aircraft, one before takeoff and one before landing. Trust, but verify, as the old saying goes.

What are your habits? Add a comment below.

23 Comments

  • SOP doesn’t stand for standard operating procedure. It’s standing operating procedure. There is nothing standard about SOP’s. They can change daily and are what is used at the moment, or standing at the moment. Its an old military term.

  • I always check flap position immediately before adding power on takeoff. Accidental 40 degrees flaps on a touch and go in a C-150 will get your attention.

  • I ALWAYS used a checklist that I had with me during the preflight, and during every phase of each flight when I was in the Air Force, during pilot training flying the Piper Cub, T-28, and T-Bird; flying the B-47after pilot training; flying the T-Bird, F-84, and F-86H in Mass. ANG; and finally in civilian life when we owned and flew a Cessna 182. Anyone, and everyone should ALWAYS use checklist… IN FACT, make a copy of what is in the Pilot’s Handbook for the aircraft you are flying…to be sure you check ALL the items noted…AMEN!

    • Joel – Just a quick hello from a long lost friend. Retired from United after 31 years (B-777 Captain for the last 10) and still living in Warren, NH. 5B9 is in pretty poor shape. I remember your work with the local kids, and enjoyed the few times my schedule allowed me to assist. Hope CA is treating you well. A Mooney 201 is in my future, as soon as I finish up with the State Senate (in my second term.) Best, Bob Giuda

  • Love acronyms & flows.
    Gumps works before start too (think about it)
    Gas-selector/quantities, Undercarriage- switch DOWN, Mixture-rich/as required, Prop is forward and clear, Seatbelts and Switches.

    Cigars for after start: Controls- free and correct, Instruments-check/set, Gas-again,
    Airframe is flaps/trims/doors, R-run-up, Safety brief pax.

    Turbine guys use line-up check:Strobes, Heats, Headings, Ignition, Transponder, SHH*T

  • Maybe you should also add to the “Before Takeoff” checklist a position for engine failure/ trouble: “500 feet staight ahead, if later: left traffic circuit at 1000 ft, notify Tower” or similar?

  • As an enlisted tow reel operator on Grumman US2C “Stoofs”… used by my squadron (VC-3) to tow aerial targets for the fleet (they would shoot their 5” 38 caliber deck gun)….yes….WW 2 “stuff” in the early to mid 1970’s from North Island Naval Air Station (San Diego/Coronado) California…………….I can tell you about landing gear.

    On more than one occasion after a few hours of towing target banners (they were about 10 feet long and looked like a dick…some had metal strips in them if the ship wanted to do radar shoots…they were reeled out to 8,000 fet or more behind us), as we were preparing to land….I would look out of the floor window hatch near my tow reel seat. I made it mandatory on all flights because a few times we were 500 feet over the threshold of the runway at North Island and the gear was not down. A 1MC call to the pilot and his co-hort would immediately start a go-around……or if still high enough after “fudge factoring” if they could do it……….the gear would start to come down. I asked the CO for an extra $50.00/Mo. in hazard pay due to our fledgling pilots trying to skid us in and kill us all…….he smiled at me and patted me on the head and said….”No………but I’ll talk to the specific Ensigns you told me about.” Didn’t matter…I still would look out – – upside down – – of that floor hatch way out prior to every landing and reming my “pilots” what we needed. They enjoyed my joke that it would take full power to taxi to our squadrons ramp if they landed with the gear up.

  • I like CIGAR TIP as my final check before rolling on the runway to make I have the important things covered. Controls, instruments, gas, altimeter, run up, trim, interior, pilot are you ready.

  • I agree with the article summation.
    I watched a popular aviation YouTuber fly with an owner pilot in his new light jet.
    The lengthy before takeoff checklist on the MFD was performed in all it’s legal CYA minutiae down to the part where he told YouTube guy to stow his Rosen sun visors.
    At the point where he got to controls, he SAID “controls free and correct”, he DID…
    Nothing.
    I watched it three times before I commented. My comment was removed. Nothing in an airplane is more important than flight controls.
    As a single pilot you especially can’t be having your head buried in the cockpit in a busy pattern reading legalise.
    Keep it simple, do it diligently.

  • Just finished my BFR yesterday. It was a good reminder to take your time with the checklist. When we stopped for lunch I forgot to turn the master switch off. The plane started fine,but the Hobbs meter was running during lunch. Increasing the rental cost.
    Read every single line so you don’t miss something really important.

  • The day I had the exam for my prívate pilot license,the inspector told me Two important
    things to be remembered: remember always to make the checklist and second : if there’s people looking for you passing through buzzing,go away. Your ego may betray you.

  • I’ve been standing in front of every airplane I fly after pre flight since I nearly took off in a Da40 with the rear door up… Good Article

  • I’ve recently adapted my checklists for two different airplanes to my Garmin Pilot app on my device for ease of checking the items off as I go. Both electronic checklists cover everything required in the AFM. I do use memory aids (or mnemonics) to complete the checklists when in the airplanes then verify by checking them off the electronic lists. The following cover the most critical items for me. CIGARS at run-up. Controls-free and correct, Instruments-set, Gas-quantity, shutoff open and correct tank, Attitude-trim set for aircraft load, Run-up-mag check, carb heat check, prop cycle, ammeter check, vac gauge check, Ts&Ps, Seat belts-snug, doors and windows latched.

    Then just before I move to pull up to the hold short line, I use Lights-set, Camera-transponder to ALT and correct squawk, Action-document takeoff time.

    The third short memory aid that I use just before I take the runway or power up for takeoff from the water came from my own mistakes in flying amphib floats. I use it for my land plane and amphib float plane. Since Lights Camera Action seem to refer to Hollywood, I adapted FUR (as in fur coats of the same lifestyle). Flaps set, Undercarriage up (in the water or I mentally prepare to put it up when I’m taking off from a runway) Rudders (as in water rudders) up.

    In flying amphibs, I have been very diligent about triple checking my landing gear before landing through the gear lights, switch position and a visual check of the gear outside through mirrors and then I check the lights one more time before touchdown coupled with the audible gear position advisory that I get in my headset. The mistake that I’ve made is after lowering the landing gear in the water to use as a bumper when beaching on rocky shorelines, I once tried to takeoff with the gear still down. A bit embarrassing with a few friends on board. If you’re wondering, a 185 won’t even think about getting on the step with the gear down. I also left my water rudders down once all the way back to the hangar. FUR just before taking off has cured both of these issues.

    GUMPS on my injected airplane and GUMPSC (C for carb heat) on my carbureted airplane have served me well. At shutdown I do Mixture, Master, Mags twice. Mags are critical on a float plane if you have a passenger in the co-pilot’s seat and you have to run across the bow wire to dock on the right side.

    There are many other checks, adjustments, corrections and fine tunings before, after and in between all of the above lists that just go with flying an airplane but these checklist items have kept me out of trouble so far.

    I’d like to hear more tips for accident free flying if anyone has some that serve them well.

  • A post flight reminder for ground egress egress from a Martin Baker ejection seat in the Phantom it was: balls, titty, titty, inside, outside, over the side. This reminded you to safe the lower ejection handle, release the two Koch Fittings on your shoulder straps, free you from you seat survival pack and your lap belt and leg straps, and get out of the cockpit. I’m sure they have another chant for todays aircrews.

  • Excellent advice and commit to routine. Kinda reminds me of the old saying in the world of construction “measure twice cut once”. Never hurts to be thorough.

  • Another great article John. One last look especially hit home. In my 40 years and 4000 plus hours I have managed to take off with a fuel cap off once, wacked off one tow bar, took off with the oil filler cap off twice (my plane provides immediate feedback on takeoff but a very messy cleanup), took off with the cowl plugs in once (before I bought plugs with flags), and have had to shut down to remove wheel chocks a few times. I hope your article saves many pilots from these embarrassing moments.

  • What we do is complex, and extremely dangerous if not approached correctly. We try to mitigate most of that danger with certain items, one being check lists. If we are interrupted during a walk around, and cannot remember where you are. It’s advisable to start at the beginning so nothing is missed.
    However some items should be committed to memory. Working in the circuit(Pattern) there should be no time to be looking at a written check list. Eyes should be outside, and hands should touch all items being called by memory. Try reading a check list at night when your making an approach.

  • I did my flying in Victoria BC, Canada. British Columbia is beautiful place to take up flying lesson and fly aeroplanes for a living.
    A pilot on a Cessna 172, took-off with the mooring block still attached to the tail. He thought he had done the walk around. A problem with following a checklist all the time, one gets very mechanical and begins to believe that are actually not correct. For example, eyes will see two greens and one red, but brain will register three greens as he is seeing that all the time when he selects landing gear lever down. It is very important as mentioned by John Zimmerman that pilots must actually touch and follow each items in ‘Read & Do’ checklist.
    Happy Flying !!

  • Even in the smallest aircraft, checklists are essential.
    I fly 3-axis microlights and have always had a written checklist, but they can always evolve.

    After taking off one day from a club meeting with the pitot cover still on, and getting some valuable practice in flying an approach without reliable airspeed indication, that item was added to the engine start checklist 🙂

    On another ocassion I left the battery master ‘on’ during lunch and an afternoon at the beach, despite it being included on the shut-down checklist. Fortunately, the Hobbs meter only turned with the engine, but the battery was discharged by the time I tried to start up. Happily, a friendly guy with his car and a set of jump-leads came to the rescue.

    An other time, I use a procedure borrowed from the airlines, when I’m practicing engine-off landings. I set a decision height, normally 200′ AGL, to decide whether I’m good to land or not, as our runway is only 300m (1000ft) with a lake at one end and a ditch at the other. At that height I actually call out (to myself) “Minimum” and reply either “Continue” or “Go Around”. That came from a close call with the canal, and a late decision to re-start the engine…

  • I actually walk around the airplane one last time before getting in. I’ve already completed the preflight but it seems as there is always one last thing to do before engine start. It may be one last stop in the bathroom or gathering passengers and getting everyone in the plane. But after everything is done, I walk around the plane one last time and confirm that it looks like it wants to fly. I check for no ropes, fuels caps on, chocks, etc., before strapping in and starting engines.

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