Do we really need a checklist? (in response to Air Facts: Is Your Checklist Really Necessary)
I say "yes, absolutely we need a checklist for our Cessna 152."
Professional pilots and those that fly every day, probably don't need a checklist to fly a Cessna 152. By the time the pilot reaches the professional levels, they have figured out the basic trainer aircraft and can probably fly them without a checklist with one arm tied behind their back.
But, a checklist is not for those normal days when everything is going right. The checklist is there for those days when things go wrong, for when fatigue starts to creep into operations, and/or when distractions start multiplying. At the end of a 4-day trip with five legs flown so far, that checklist will catch the fact that the flaps are not in the correct position. Or, during an inflight emergency, the checklist catches the missing landing gear, or the thrust reversers not being armed. During the emergency, the checklist is a wonderful crutch, perhaps catching the one item that allows for a safe landing or troubleshooting step that solves the problem.
A poorly designed checklist that has the pilot chasing switches around the cockpit will not be used. Too many pages, and the checklist never comes out of the pocket. We’re not getting any younger, so tiny fonts on a checklist are out. A red font color without enough black shading, makes the checklist disappear at night. Using a cumbersome checklist at the wrong time can lead to problems (do the Before Landing well before the Final Approach Fix/short final!). Any checklist is worthless if the pilot does not have a strong checklist discipline to use a checklist, a discipline that starts with the first steps towards a Cessna 152. Start skipping the checklist in the trainer, and that habit won’t be there when emergencies strike, when you most need the habit of reaching for a checklist.
I find pilots evenly split between the multiple page checklists and the short one-page versions. Students seem to prefer the multi-page versions, to help them get used to the processes of flying. Then, if the students fly often, they graduate to the single-page versions, no longer needing to be reminded of every step in a preflight. I also find a multi-page checklist allows for the pilot to re-familiarize with flight after having been away for a while, setting the mood for the upcoming flight. Once aloft, however, the pilots are reaching for the one-page checklist.
During an emergency, the stress level goes up, tunnel vision starts, and the pilot will only remember those things that are overlearned. Those things are habits. If the pilot does not have a checklist habit, or once had one but got complacent and stopped using a checklist, during an emergency, the thought to reach for a checklist may not be there. The pilot has effectively denied themselves the resource a properly-designed checklist will give.
This is why we, the Master CFIs at Qref Media), do our upmost to ensure a useful checklist. We test fly our checklists, ensuring students and experienced pilots can, and do, use each one. I make no claims of being perfect, occasionally a typo does miss my bleary eyes, but if we find a mistake, we get it corrected. We refrain from long legalese warnings that separate procedures and distract from the conduct of the checklist. In some, usually older aircraft, we add in missing steps or procedures, using industry best practices to offer guidance when the Owner’s Manual lacks, or resolve checklist conflicts, even contacting the manufacturer and type clubs for answers when needed.
To keep the font size readable, we split the one-page checklists into two cards, one for the normal procedures, one for the most common emergencies the aircraft or instructor will throw at the pilot. Each item in each checklist is reviewed, do we really need it? We’ll also grudgingly accept a few more pages in the emergency section of the multi-page checklists to allow for QRH (quick reference handbook) style procedures as we know emergencies can be stressful enough for pilots to forget basic items.
We’ve taken the research about checklists and their use and applied it to our avionics and glass cockpit checklists. The question we ask for each procedure is how do I get this box to do what I want, when I want, and will it work every time. Long explanations are left for the manufacturer’s manual and the many training courses out there. Inflight, especially single-pilot IMC, we don’t have time to read or scroll through the why.
I developed the avionics checklists because as an active flight instructor, I would face many GPS units weekly, if not daily. Sometimes even the same unit has different button sequences for different software versions, which makes it more confusing. I like multiple layers of defense against problems inflight, so If I forgot a procedure or the proper button-press sequence, I knew I could go to my checklist, find the procedure, and execute it before the passengers or ATC knew there was an issue. In no way does this replace my responsibility as a pilot to be familiar with the operation of the electronic boxes, the training I do on each unit before the flight, and good old-fashioned practice. However, if using a checklist means I get the job done safely, and without embarrassment, I’m all for it.
The last 50 years of human factors research is clear. Pilots that have good checklist discipline (they have a strong habit of using their checklists) make better decisions during emergencies and make fewer mistakes in normal flying. A checklist is one more layer of defense against pilot-produced problems inflight. The downside is that a poorly designed checklist will cause more problems than it solves, thus beware of the poorly-designed checklist.