Checklist Discipline

Why do pilots stop using checklists?

Safety experts use words like familiarity or complacency. It might be because many general aviation pilots have never been told about the difference between a do-list and a checklist. They are actually the same document; it’s just a matter of how you use it.

When we first learn to fly or we check out in a new airplane, we tend to use the checklist as a do-list. Think about the preflight or the before-takeoff checks you performed when you first started flying. You looked at the first item on the checklist and you did it. Then you looked at the second item and did it, and so on, until you got through your checklist. That makes thechecklist a do-list.  But, as you got proficient, you developed habit patterns for each task and you became comfortable to the point that you may have thought you didn’t need the checklist anymore. Professional pilots call this habit pattern a flow pattern; but the difference is that after they do the flow pattern, they then review the checklist and make sure they didn’t miss any items on the checklist for that task.

Looking at the pre-flight checklist for example, you should do your normal interior cockpit checks and then review the checklist. Next, do the exterior inspection using the habit pattern you have developed, and when you are done, back yourself up with another review of the checklist. With my military background, I actually do two exterior inspections. The first time around the airplane, I do everything the crew chief used to do before I got to the airplane: take off the tie downs, check and drain the fuel sumps, check the oil and clean the canopy if necessary. Then I do the pilot’s preflight: check the brakes and tires, look at the control surfaces, check the pitot tube and static port, and generally check the physical condition of the exterior in a sequential walk around of the airplane. Now it’s time to review the checklist and make sure I didn’t miss anything the operating handbook says I need to look at.

Review the Checklist after the Pre-Flight

Once in the airplane, I use a flow pattern from left to right across and down the center console to make sure all the switches are in the right place, the circuit breakers are in, and the fuel system is properly configured. Now it’s time to review the Before Engine Start Checklist. Some manufacturers are better than others about organizing their checklists in a good flow pattern.  If your checklist is not well organized for a flow pattern, that’s all the more reason to develop a logical flow pattern and then follow up with the checklist.

With the engine started, it’s time to set things up before requesting taxi to runway. My before-taxi flow pattern is actually more detailed than the manufacturer’s checklist: I get the ATIS, set the altimeters, program my fuel management system, get my clearance (if  IFR), load the flight plan (IFR or VFR), set up the departure instructions with the heading bug and altitude alerter, and set the transponder.

With a G1000 aircraft, you can simply take a tour around the bezel of the PFD and then do the same thing around the MFD. Your PFD tour should prompt you to check you commfrequencies, verify the baro and course settings (you can check the baro setting on the standby altimeter too), your flight plan, any annunciations, your transponder setting, CDI nav source, your PFD display settings and the inset map. On the MFD you can check the nav frequencies and heading bug selection for your departure leg, do your auto pilot checks, verify the altitude alert setting for your first level off (or clearance) altitude, check your engine details including resetting your fuel counter to the current fuel on board, and set your map view to include a sanity check of the route you have programmed in the FMS, and then scale down to be able to monitor your taxi route. Now use the checklist to verify your flow pattern covered all the required items.

Two things to check as you taxi are the brakes and the flight instruments. Other than that, you should be head out of the cockpit paying attention to your taxi route to avoid wrong turns, a surface deviation, or an inadvertent runway incursion.

In the run up area, it’s time for another flow pattern before you back yourself up with the before takeoff checklist. I also use the CHORRD before takeoff checklist for myself in addition to the aircraft checklist to make sure I’m ready. I review the Conditions, Hazards associated with the conditions, Operational considerations because of the conditions, Runway available/required,Return immediately after takeoff, and the Departure procedure VFR or IFR.

Once you’re in the air, do the same sequence of flow pattern and checklist for the takeoff and climb checks, your level-off and cruise checks, descent checks, before landing checks, after landing checks, and shutdown checks. You’ll quickly find that the checklist is a friend and not a burden because it’s no longer a do-list and you might surprise yourself with a V-8 moment every now and then.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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