John Deakin's first Pelican's Perch column, "Throw Away That Stupid Checklist," generated considerable controversy. (There's nothing wrong with that, it's why we asked John to write: to make us all think about what we are doing.) Unfortunately, a good deal of that controversy appears to stem from misunderstandings about what he wrote, generating more heat than light on the subject. Others apparently agree with John's points, but for some reason think he shouldn't say what he said. In this column, John clarifies some of the points that appear to have been misunderstood by some readers and he then goes on to expand upon the subject of checklist use.
It had been my intention to make each column entirely different, but given some of the questions and responses to my first column, "Throw Away That Stupid Checklist!" I think a follow-up is in order. Apparently, a lot of people read the headline, or the lead, or scanned the column quickly, and came to some unfortunate conclusions.
General Douglas MacArthur once said "Never give an order that can be understood; give orders that cannot be misunderstood." While I'm not trying to "give orders" here, I shall try harder to follow that principle in what I say!
For starters, the headline might be rewritten to say "If you're using a stupid checklist, throw it away and make a new one." I did not intend to suggest throwing away all checklists!
I believe all the above meets the letter and the intent of the FAA, the FARs and the PTSs. Some will disagree on the "mental" checklist. On a check ride, I would be delighted with an applicant who used this method, and many FAA people have agreed with me when we have discussed this subject. And yes, some have reservations, and a few disagree.
It is worth noting that a lot of highly experienced pilots read that column, agreed with me in principle, but said, "John, you just can't SAY that!"
Yes, I can say that, I MUST say that. To not say it would be less than honest, in my opinion, because I believe it.
If you have an issue with something I say because you disagree with the concept, I can respect that, and I hope we can have a thoughtful and open minded discussion about the topic. Telling me I "can't say that" simply because it might upset someone's apple cart, well, that does nothing to further safety and it won't save lives, so don't expect me to buy it.
I hate to see a pilot walk to an airplane, climb in, fire up, taxi out and go without any evidence of a systematic, thoughtful method, and no checklist at all (mental or written). This is the pilot who will takeoff with the wrong tank selected, or the pitot cover on. This is the pilot who will NEVER use a written checklist, no matter how many times the FAA preaches it to him. This pilot is operating on habit, sort of "intuitively," and will someday pay a fearful price, perhaps taking innocent passengers along. Such a pilot is clearly outside the limit of any PTS or good common sense, in my opinion.
It is my hope that such pilots may see some benefits to "my method" (which is not mine at all but has been and continues to be used by many experienced pilots), and thereby improve their own operation over what they are doing now.
At the other extreme is the pilot who does a walkaround, with a long, detailed checklist in hand. Look at the checklist, look at the airplane, look at the checklist, look at the airplane. This is fine for a new pilot, who may not know what to look for, or even the pilot who is learning a new airplane. Airline pilots do this sort of thing (we call it an "Expanded Checklist") when transitioning to a new airplane. But in general, I believe the long, detailed checklist is a crutch, a learning aid, to be used to develop the knowledge of the particular airplane, and then put aside. Need a refresher? Sure, by all means, go out and do a preflight without it, then immediately do another preflight with it, and see what you can learn, see what you forgot the first time -- if anything.
This same pilot then jumps in, and turns to the next long, detailed checklist. Some even do a runup with checklist in hand! Then another long one for "Before Takeoff." And, so it goes.
Why is this so bad? After all, everything is getting checked, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. The human mind is a funny thing. Using this method, even with the best of intentions, eventually the checklist is done in a very mechanical, robotic fashion, and while everything may even be set in accordance with the checklist, what about the exceptions? From long observation, I do not believe it is possible for most people to work efficiently this way, and maintain the constant thoughtfulness that flying requires. The detailed, written checklist actually distracts attention from the airplane, and the operation. I believe too much attention is being paid to "form," and not enough to "substance." I confess, I can't do it, but your mileage may vary. I would never fail this person, or this method, it is certainly within the limits of the PTS and FARs though my experience tells me this is also an accident waiting to happen.
But, as a professional pilot and instructor, I believe the "flow pattern," backed up by a short mental checklist is "safer," in the usual General Aviation, SINGLE-PILOT aircraft. If you must use a written checklist, then make it a very short one, "killer items" only.
Now, if this is what you got out of my first column, then thank you. If you got a different "picture," then I apologize for not being clearer the first time.
Many have asked me "What in the world does CIGFTPR stand for?" I'd prefer that each pilot makes up their own checklist acronym or reminder, but for what it may be worth, here goes my old standby, first heard as an impressionable kid in about 1945, at the airport where my dad was learning to fly.
Controls. The correct "response" to this is not to check the controls again, but to think "Yes, I clearly remember, I have indeed checked the controls already, and they were free, clear, and operated correctly." It's also not "wrong" to check them again, but they should have already been checked.
Instruments. "Yes, I clearly remember, and I have previously checked all the flight instruments for proper indications during taxi, proper settings (radios?), and during the runup I observed that all engine instruments were normal."
Gas. "I have enough gas for the flight, the proper tank is selected, and all indications agree. Oh, and boost pumps (if required)."
Flaps. "Yup, they're set for this takeoff."
Trim. "1, 2, 3, Set for takeoff, with this load, I clearly remember setting them."
I no longer believe the final two items ("P" for prop, "R" for runup) are needed on this checklist. The prop should have been pushed fully forward during the cockpit setup "flow pattern," and it should have been checked for function during the runup, and left fully forward. It is very unlikely it will be left in any position but full forward after all that, and even if it is, you should immediately catch it on the takeoff roll, when you check for full takeoff RPM. Uh, you DO check that, don't you?
I have never forgotten a runup in my life, so I don't think that needs to be on a checklist, either. If you can't remember to check the prop, the mags, and maybe carburetor heat, you have no business messing around with airplanes.
Suppose you come to one of those "killer" items, and find you just can't remember, or you really haven't checked it already. Oops, major boo-boo, and not just on that one item! You have just revealed to yourself that you haven't been paying sufficient attention overall, or that you got distracted at some point, or that you completely failed to do a proper "flow pattern." You need to halt the operation, and "start over," this time paying attention. No, you don't need to taxi back and shut down, but you need to think where it was that you went astray, and correct everything after that. This won't happen very often!
Be careful, up there!
John Deakin is a 32,000-hour pilot who
worked his way up the aviation food chain via charter, corporate, and cargo flying; spent
five years in Southeast Asia with Air America; and joined Japan Airlines 31 years ago,
where he is a 747 captain. He also flies his own V35 Bonanza (N1BE) and is very active in
the warbird and vintage aircraft scene, serving as an instructor in several aircraft and
as an FAA Examiner on the Curtiss-Wright C-46.
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