Thursday, August 18, 2011

Making a Checklist

The question:

Should I make my own aircraft checklist?

The answer:

I write checklists for Qref, see, so I am biased for the ones we’ve made, but I’ve also learned a few tricks for making an effective, efficient, and safe checklist. Making your own checklist can be a great education, but it can also be a lot of hard work.

Here are some suggestions on writing checklists:

  • Make sure you can read your checklist during the day AND at night, including under a red flashlight. (Yes, I'm aware of the NASA study that says civilian pilots should use white lights at night, but in my experience, many pilots are using red or blue flashlights.)
  • Make sure your font size is large enough that you can read the checklist. The average age of the active pilot population hovers around 45, not exactly spring chicken's eyes.Adjust accordingly.
  • Pilots that fly frequently tend to not use the checklist unless is it out of their way while flying. This means don't make it bigger than an IFR chart, front and back. It's why we create two pages for our Qref Card checklists, one for normal procedures, the other for emergency procedures. For our Normal Procedures checklist, everything from Preflight through Run-up is on the front, Takeoff through Shutdown and Securing is on the back.
  • For those that don't fly frequently, we offer the multi-page checklist that goes into great detail for each procedure.
  • Include POH supplements in the checklist. One manufacturer has five checklist items that change four times through the supplements, and when the aircraft has all four items installed, they don't tell you which setting to use. If you can't find the answer from the POH and supplements, ask the mechanic. If the mechanic doesn't know, ask the factory. They'll find out. (My inquiry caused a revision to the POH so us mere mortals can understand what is needed)
  • Find yourself forgetting something every time? Put it in your checklist.
  • We check circuit breakers several times in the preflight process. Why? It's been our experience that if a circuit breaker is going to cause a problem, it'll do so during one of the preflight checks. Find the problem on the ground, not in the air. It might be a good idea to do the same with your checklist.
  • Does the manufacturer POH give you 11 pages on how to wash the airplane and 2 on how to fly it? Some of the procedures, especially the vexing emergencies, come from FAA publications and long experience watching students make the same mistakes over and over again. What is the first step of an engine failure? Turn towards safe terrain!
  • Number the items on each procedure to make it easier to find your place should you be interrupted. If that is not possible, restart the checklist. We find pilots better able to recover and remember their spot if the items are numbered versus bulleted or listed without numbers.
  • If making a book checklist, order your emergencies by system and type. Tabs are helpful as well.
  • Nothing prevents you from solving several performance problems ahead of time. Instead of interpolating, use the most conservative numbers. It's what the airlines do. Run all calculations at least twice to ensure you come up with the same answer. Test fly these.
  • Many pilots run the before start checklist as a "Do" list. The takeoff checklist is run as a "Review, then Do". Climb through Before Landing checklists are mostly ignored if in a multi-page checklist, or "Do then Review" if a single page checklist. After landing and securing are both run as "Do" checklists. We try to make each procedure able to be completed in the pilot's preferred way. Make your checklist in your preferred way.
  • If a checklist has you chasing a bumblebee around the cockpit, looking here, there, and everywhere, sit down in the cockpit and find a better order. Some times this will not be possible, and sometimes you'll find a way only after you've flown the aircraft a few times or an instructor provides some direction.
  • Find and read every study you can on checklist design and human factors. We've come a long way in the last twenty years.
  • Test your checklist in the cockpit before flying.
  • Test fly your checklist, preferably with an instructor on board. You may need to make changes and test fly again, possibly a few times.
  • Finally, if you laminate your checklist, do so with non-glossy “luggage tag” thickness laminate. IIRC, this is the 5 MIL thickness. Make a few at a time, so if you accidentally leave one in a rental aircraft, you’ll have another to replace it.