Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do we need a checklist?

The Question:

Do we really need a checklist? (in response to Air Facts: Is Your Checklist Really Necessary)

My Thoughts:

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.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Eighteen Study Tips

1.    Find a study method or two and use them. Many use flashcards. Write the checklist name on one side, the checklist on the other. If you were able to get the flows, limitations and emergency memory items, know them all before you arrive for ground school. If you were able to get your hands on the expanded checklists, know your limitations, flows, and memory items, then start working on the expanded checklists. Each flow item might have a seven-item checklist with it, know what those items are and what you are looking for. The harder you work before class, the better prepared you’ll be once you get there.
2.    For limitations, you could make a worksheet like the ones available on this site. Run through the worksheet every morning and every night, and in a few days, you’ll find the knowledge starting to stick. When you’re first starting, only put the number correct at the top of the page. Dating them so you can see your progress and the ones constantly missed helps motivation.
3.    Know memory items verbatim. If the company says “Reverse Thrust – Apply Maximum until Stopping Assured”, be able to spit it back that way. It’s standardization. “Thrust Reversers – Maximum” doesn’t cut it. When everyone says and does the checklist the same way, you can then work together immediately with the rest of the pilot group, and better be able to adapt to unusual situations.
4.    When trying to memorize verbatim, one technique is to write the material on one side of the flashcard, and write the name of the flow or memory item on the front, as well as the first letter of each word in the checklist. For example: “1. Reverse Thrust – Apply Maximum until Stopping Assured” becomes “1. R T – A M U S A”
5.    If you have time, learn required limitations verbatim as well as being able to explain what they mean. Then start working on the other limitations. You are responsible for all of them, so make life easy on the line and know them before starting ground school.
6.    When in class, indoc is not the time to slack. Pay attention in class, take notes, review those notes at night, read all the assignments, take notes on those assignments. There will be a test (or three). Ops Spec (C055 & C078), duty limits, exemption 3585, when you can board, what happens when a pax gets disruptive, baggage weights, limits, memory items and so on. Don’t read ahead of the assignments if you haven’t mastered the previous and assigned materials. Make flashcards, the process of making them will help you to learn the material.
7.    If you have a relevant question during class, ask it. Chances are the five guys next to you have the same question. However, class time is very limited, sometimes you may need to hold your question until before or after class.
8.    There are plenty of gouge sites and commercial sites charging you for a version of the  material your company provides and is paying you to learn. Read your company materials first. If you insist on using third-party materials, use the questions, look up the answers in company materials.
9.    When in class, what your previous airline did doesn’t matter. You were hired by the current airline to fly it their way. Pull the big red FLUSH handle in your brain and dump that previous aircraft and company. Learn and master this one.
10.  Many companies have paper tiger rooms that are available 24/7. Take advantage of them. If you can, find your sim partner early and get together to run flows, callouts, and maneuvers. Reach for each control. If you make a mistake, start over from the beginning. Once you and your partner have mastered the basic flows, start adding the expanded items. Switch up with other classmates occasionally if possible. Flight instructors know that you best learn materials when you try to teach it, so practice teaching your classmates the materials, and have them practice teaching you.
11.  If you’re exhausted by the end of that night’s homework and practicing flows, callouts, and maneuvers is impossible, go to bed. Get up early and hit the flows in the morning, before class. Thirty minutes of practice while refreshed and awake each morning before class adds up and you’ll be able to spend more time on assigned reading each night. By the time you’ve completed indoc and systems, you should have a good handle on the requirements and CPTs/formal paper tiger practice will be much more productive, as well as once you hit the sim.
12.  While reading through the manuals, you might have a question to ask the instructor. One instructor gave everyone a pack of large Post-It notes, and instructed everyone to write their questions and stick them on the page. In class, ask the questions. It worked. Page markers are useful, especially when organizing your notes.
13.  During systems, one student took time at the end of each day to type up his notes. His studying included the re-phrasing of his notes into the computer system, plus he discovered the gaps in his knowledge. The next day in class, he filled those gaps. His study was efficient, and his tests were easy.
14.  Another pilot, when faced with a new aircraft, and/or company, sits down the night he receives the aircraft systems books, and makes flashcards. Every switch, button, knob, and so on gets a flashcard. On the back he lists what happens when the switch is moved, knob turned, button pushed and pushed again, light illuminates, and so on. He first tackles the overhead panel, then works his way across the cockpit. You can get bogged down in EICAS messages, skip those until the major systems are done, then come back and card the important EICAS messages. It takes time, and more complicated aircraft might take several hours for this process to be completed. The systems exam is the first deadline, the oral exam the second, the checkride the third, and once out flying, each flight is the continual deadline.
15.  Now that you have a ton of flashcards, make your studying efficient. Some systems use 7 boxes for flashcards, I use three. The first box holds all the new cards. The one on the right are the ones I got right. The ones on the left are the ones I didn’t know. When I start a flashcard session, I start with the box on the left, then add the new ones. I’ll usually hit the left box items twice in a study session. Every other day, moving to third day, then week, and so on, I review the box on the right. If I miss one of those, it goes into the left box.
16.  When faced with a long open book exam, usually at the end of indoc and usually with a time limit, just like you did on your knowledge tests, go through and answer every question you know immediately, saving calculations and those needing research for later. Pay close attention to wording. You might think you know the answer, but one question might state “beginning” while the source in the manuals states “ending”. This is also a test of your attention to detail. The second time through, answer all of the questions that need calculations or research, but don’t spend more than the time it takes to look up the index and/or chapter table of contents, then read a few paragraphs on the page to find the answer. If the answer is not readily apparent, skip it and go to the next. You’ve probably earned a passing grade at this point. Now go through the exam again and research the tough-to-find answers. Finally, review the test making sure each question has an answer. These last two steps will take you from barely passing to the 90% and higher, which allows better absorption of trick questions or areas the entire class misunderstood. This process does not work on those exams that do not allow for review of previously answered questions.
17.  Sometimes the company will show you how to read the releases, then you won’t touch them again for two weeks, after systems. Every other day or so, re-read the practice problems and work them. The faster you become at calculating weight and balances plus takeoff numbers, the more sim time you’ll have to practice maneuvers.
18.  Once the company allows it and you have your crew badges, try to jumpseat on a company flight or two, solely to observe the procedures in motion. 
Good luck with the studying!

Dear Regional Airline New-Hire Pilot:

Dear Regional Airline New-Hire Pilot:

Congratulations! You’ve earned a flying job with an airline! You’ve beaten out 10,000 or more applicants for this coveted slot. Some of you may have started flying only a few years ago, some much longer. In any event, welcome! This flying job is the corner office with a much better view than any penthouse office.

Here are some tips to get you through the training and keep you out of the pitfalls that have cut many an aspiring pilot’s career prematurely short. This career can be fun and exciting, but it does take some hard work at times.

1.    Set three alarms a few minutes apart. Might as well get into that habit now. Don’t hit snooze, get up with the first alarm. Set the last alarm to give you enough time to get downstairs to the airport shuttle. Remember, cell phones can suddenly change time zones, front desk computers and reps forget or are not reminded to make the wakeup call, you could have set the alarm incorrectly, the alarm clock radio could lose power, or a variety of excuses for not alarming. You, on the other hand, have very little in the way of excuses for why you missed your show time. On probation, and for many companies, even after probation, being late is a firing offense. Don’t go there.
2.    Pack lightly. If you can’t carry it on, or gate check one bag (plus flight kit and/or lunch/computer bag), you’re taking too much stuff, even for a 7 day trip. For the two months of initial training, a second checked bag will be acceptable, but avoid it if you can.
3.    Smile, smile, smile. Your flight got delayed, cancelled, re-routed. Then the hotel didn’t have your reservation, and by the time everything got settled, you got four hours of sleep. When asked how was your trip, your trip was fine.
4.    Thank you. A thank you might be what got you the job. Remember to use the phrase generously once on the job. The gate agent with the key to a seat on the airplane home has only dealt with whiny, selfish, demanding, and usually unreasonable people all day. You might be the only ray of sunshine that day. The gate agent might not reciprocate, but you’ll avoid further irritating the gate agent, and avoid her desiring to take out her frustration on you. One call to your CP and you’ll not be in a pleasant place with respect to your job.
5.    Pack the night before. If by chance two of your three alarms failed, you’ll be able to absorb the lost time and still make your show time without panic.
6.    Keep you ID secure. Put your ID badge into the same spot every night, preferably into a pocket of a uniform item you never travel without. You don’t want to miss your flight nor want to experience the joy explaining to the CP and TSA about why someone attempted something nefarious with your badge.
7.    Stay out of the CP’s office. About 2% of the pilots cause the CP’s 80% or more of the work. Refrain from activities that would cause you to come to the CP’s attention in a negative fashion.
8.    Alcohol. Some guys can handle sipping one drink 12+ hours from show the night before. They can take it or leave it. If you can’t, avoid it. Avoid situations where the brews are cheap and easily refilled. One $1.50 special is not worth a career. If you need help, get it. Employee Assistance Programs are confidential until it is time to approach the employer, and the FAA, many airlines, and the rest of the pilot group would rather have you sober and working than on the streets after having caused an embarrassing incident. Because of the 24/7 news media, TSA, and passengers spring-loaded to assume the worst, many professional pilots avoid alcohol entirely while on trips.
9.    DUI/DWI can end your career. While you might consider a low-paying entry-level job to be just that, there are plenty of well-paying career flying jobs out there. You can’t get the time needed for those jobs if you’re sitting in jail.
10.  Build a bridge and get over it. If a personality conflict develops, stop it, even if the other guy is a Packers fan. Find agreement, agree to disagree, change the subject, let the other guy be right, put on your big boy pants and move on. This is not high school.
11.  Eliminate the “frat party” mentality. You might be just out of college, or even still attending online. Great! Enjoy the freedom of being an adult. But, as a professional pilot, you now have duties and responsibilities that require you to act like an adult, not a frat boy just off pledging. This means you will need to study, possibly harder than you’ve ever studied before. You will have plenty of late nights during new-hire school, but they’ll be from studying, not partying. Wait until you’re past probation to party.
12.  Be nice to everyone. The hotel staff knows you’re new-hire crew. The company may even ask them how you behaved. The Golden Rule Plus applies here. You have to take it, but you can’t give it.
13.  Flight plan the household for your absence. Create a QRH for the ones at home. If the water heater blows, there should be money and a number to call for a plumber. If a kid gets sick at school and the other parent is working, have a neighbor, friend, and/or baby-sitter to be the caretaker until the other parent gets home. You already have procedures for local weather events and fires, I hope…
14.  Tell life to wait. Pay bills early, stop paper delivery, have the post office hold your mail. Arrange your life so that you can dedicate a month or two to the learning process. If a hotel is offered, take it. Get away from the house and family and the problems they bring. Talking to the wife and kids is fine, but keep conversations short, and don’t be talking to friends about whatever when you need to be studying. As much as possible, instruct family members to handle situations themselves. You don’t need the distraction. They’ll need to do this while you’re away flying the line. In the same vein, it’s not fair for you to get mad if the situation wasn’t handled the way you wanted it to be. Use the CRM skills you’re learning and find agreement. It will take patience and understanding from all parties. When you’re in ground school, you need to be in ground school. Close the mental box labeled family and open the one labeled pilot until you’re done studying for the night. Then you can open the family box slightly and reconnect.
15.  If a true emergency develops at home, you may need to postpone training until the situation is resolved. Postpone before failing training. If the company is mad because you left to go to your wife’s hospital room after a nasty car accident, the company might not be where you want to work. A hangnail or a water heater explosion might not be an emergency needing your attention and permission to repair.
16.  Study. Study. Study. More tips in the next post.
17.  Take some time for yourself each day. It may only be 15 minutes, but not taking this time is a fast track to burnout.
Once on the line
1.    Respect your elders. The captain has more experience than you in that airplane. However, none of us are perfect, thus you need to catch the captain’s mistakes and prevent him from being embarrassed. Don’t worry, the captain will catch many more of your mistakes.
2.    Respect yourself. First year pay is low and you may qualify for food stamps. So, get them, but refrain from standing in line while in uniform. Pay might be embarrassingly low, but if you embarrass the airline, you may end up with no pay and be looking for another job. Keep yourself looking and behaving like a professional. Some things won’t go right, you’ll face delays, possibly training delays, early calls, crew scheduling, cancelled appointments, and so on. It does get better.
3.    Welcome to the seniority list. Your performance goal must be excellent or you should find another profession. However, while perfection is expected, it won’t get you upgraded faster than the other guy. Your time will come, eventually. Those that fret over every month’s move in the numbers burn out quickly. Those that relax and enjoy themselves, sheesh you’re flying and getting paid too, are far more pleasant to be around and seem to live longer.
4.    No slacking! Once you complete IOE, you’re released to the line. Keep observing your captains and learn their job as well as yours. When you get to upgrade initial, you don’t want to be cramming last minute. Upgrade teaches how the airline expects you to be a captain; it’s not new-hire systems ground. Some places find that around year three in the right seat, FOs start to slack. Don’t do that! Keep the elephant manageable and take it in small bites. Each month, pick a system and become an expert in that system.
5.    Studies show crews that follow policies and checklists are 85% less likely to have an incident. Why be one of the 15%? When on the line, continue to follow policies and checklists, then you won’t be sweating recurrent either.
6.    Jumpseating is a privilege. Ask the Captain of that flight for permission, no matter what the last crew’s response was. Be happy with anything received, even a seat at the gate to wait for the next flight. Show up early enough to have multiple flights to get back to base and have the funds to buy a ticket if the need arise. If the weather is turning sour, show up early enough to miss the weather as well, even if that means an extra day in the crashpad.
7.    Avoid the F/As. There are some wonderful people working as F/As. There are some that can’t wait to have a sugah-daddy or sugah-momma. Others are extremely jealous of your position for some strange reason and will do anything to destroy you.
8.    Jokes are fine and dandy, but know your audience before telling them. Also, know what time to tell them. Remember anything said with the beacon on is recorded and could be broadcast on the evening news. Remember too, anything said to the controllers is being recorded by thousands of wannabes and busy-bodies, anything juicy is bound to be broadcast on breaking news, which always seems to happen during the biggest Hail Mary play of the game. It sucks to have the game interrupted to hear your cheery voice telling a controller something best kept to the bedroom behind closed doors.
9.    The uniform. Polyester might seriously chaff, but if it is the company uniform, smile and enjoy. Remember there is a reason why there are Halloween costumes for folks to pretend they are police officers and pilots and why there are cautions to watch out for the F/As. Some gals just love a man in uniform (Change this as needed for your situation).

Congrats again on getting hired. We hope the above tips help you in training and beyond.