Flows…and Checks

Joe Marsh was the airport manager at Sedalia, Missouri, when I first began giving flight instruction 15 years ago (Joe’s now manager at Easton, MD — drop in and say hello for me!). Retired from the Air Force, Joe had served first as a navigator and then as pilot on lumbering C-124 four-engine, propeller-driven cargo airplanes. In the mid-1960s, Vietnam was a common destination for Joe and his crew.

As is common in wartime, some of the formalities of training must be thrown out the window in order to accomplish the mission. One day Joe was in-country and asked to pilot a C-47 (military, cargo DC-3) on a run into the jungle. Joe had never flown a C-47, and there was no one there to check him out in it (if there were, that pilot would have flown the mission instead of Joe). And so Joe Marsh climbed aboard the C-47, started it up, and flew the trip. Years later he told this eager, then-young flight instructor how he accomplished his self-directed “jungle checkout” by “moving all the shiny switches, and leaving the dull-colored ones alone.

Joe’s logic came from the knowledge (and hope) that any switch or control that was shiny metal became so through constant use — with jungle oxidation worn off an oft-used switch was brighter than the rest. If it was shiny, the logic goes, it’s important, so take a good look at what it does and where it is, and be ready to use it. Conversely, less-critical switches (example: pitot heat in a low-flown, jungle transport) would remain dull with a light coating of oxidized metal. Like I said, in Joe’s world, if it’s dull-colored, leave it alone.

If Joe’s logic was valid (and it worked for him!), all he had to do was to start at one side of the cockpit and work his way toward the other side, identifying the shiny switches and moving them as needed (using his good systems knowledge to figure out what was appropriate to move when); every time a new flight regime presented itself (Before Takeoff, Climb, Cruise, Before Landing), all he had to do was to repeat the process of working from one side of the cockpit to the other and adjusting switches and controls as needed. Joe quickly created order out of the chaos of this unfamiliar aircraft by using a rudimentary “flow pattern,” or sequence of events to make sure everything needed was done.

Now, it may be that I don’t remember Joe’s story precisely as it was told, or that he was pulling the leg of a newbie instructor pilot. Certainly I’d never recommend trying to fly an unfamiliar airplane without proper instruction unless a wartime emergency dictates. But regardless of exactly how exact this story may be or how wise we’d now consider the specific scenario, it’s a great illustration of the current state-of-the-art in airline crew flying technique.

Use your checklist.” How many times have you been told by an instructor, an examiner, or a magazine article to “use a checklist,” without ever really being told how to use it? Many pilots find checklists distracting, mainly because they aren’t used to using them, and don’t know what to do with them when they do. Consequently, pilots tend to develop Joe-style flow patterns, leaving the checklist stowed away. And that’s great … so long as you never get distracted … nothing unusual ever happens and you never forget anything. Trouble is, the National Transportation Safety Board tells of almost daily occurrences when “simple” steps are missed, contributing to accidents.

Insider’s Note: About 25% of all accidents involving retractable-gear aircraft result when the pilot simply forgets to lower the landing gear — perhaps the ultimate, “oops, I forgot” oversight.

When done correctly, flow patterns are amazingly efficient. Airlines have figured this out, requiring their pilots to follow precise sequences of events in all phases of flight. Aviation universities that specialize in airline pilot career path training teach flow patterns even in single-engine trainers — preparing pilots for the jet cockpit that’s hopefully in their future. Modern cockpit ergonomics, which tend to arrange switches and controls more logically than airplanes of the C-47 era, make flow patterns even more desirable.

So how can we reconcile the efficiency of cockpit flow patterns, with the seemingly foolproof method of using checklists? First, we have to recognize that the term checklist does not mean the same thing every time.

Three Types of Checklist

Bob Siegfried is a retired United Airlines captain. “Old Bob” (as he introduces himself; he started at UAL in DC-3s in 1951, and retired as a senior 747 captain in 1989) saw checklists develop over the years, and carried some of that learning into his off-the-airline-clock, general aviation flying. Bear in mind that Bob is not your average pilot. Although he’s genuinely modest about his accomplishments, he is an icon in the Beech Bonanza world, was instrumental in AOPA’s effort to work with the FAA through the process of Approach certification for GPS systems, and has been profiled by any number of aviation magazines including AOPA Pilot. Old Bob writes about his experience as a check pilot in a large flying club that operated a private DC-3 in the 1960s:

I had the job of bringing folks with widely varying experience levels up to speed in a relatively short time. I wrote three different sets of “Check Lists.”

The first was very much what I would now call a “Do List.” I called it the Familiarization Check List. It was patterned after the operational lists that my company used for the same purpose. Every move that was necessary for operation of that individual airplane was listed on my guide along with Check Lists where appropriate. I felt that any rated pilot who followed that list to the letter should be able to fly the airplane without missing anything. After going through it a few times, the pilot would develop a flow pattern that fit that airplane and its equipment. Once that level was achieved, we transitioned to a normal Check List.

The Normal Check List was the one I expected the crew to use during normal operations. It was in the form of a true Check List. It was expected that most items would be accomplished via the flow pattern that had been developed and the Check List was used to ascertain that all bases had been covered. That list physically contained the Emergency Procedures as well.

I then wrote up a Training Check List to be used primarily by the Instructor Pilots when giving training in the aircraft. On that list, the only Items were those that I considered ones that might cause extreme pain if the items were not accomplished. There is a tendency to not use Check Lists that are overly long, yet, since most of the pilots flying our DC-3 would not fly it very often, I wanted the Normal Check List to be on the overly complete side rather than just barely adequate. Consequently, it was unwieldy when used in a fast paced training environment.

I recommended to the pilots that, if they had not flown the airplane for several months, they read over the entire Familiarization List before flying the airplane. If they took it in hand and checked every item thoroughly, it required about forty-five minutes to complete. If they would then use the Normal List for most flights, it would help them regain a good flow pattern. I told them if they were making many short repetitive stops where the list became cumbersome they could revert to the Training Check List if it met their comfort level.

Very few of our individual airplanes are still in the same configuration as when they left the factory. In fact, it is rare for two airplanes in a row to leave the factory with identical equipment. To my mind, that means that each needs a specifically designed Check List. I generally rely on a flow pattern with a couple of specific checks along the way. If we forget to use the Check List, even the finest Check List does us no good at all.

So, there are three kinds of “checklists,” each with a specific purpose:

  • the Familiarization Checklist. Used for initial training, it is a “do list,” one where you read a step and then “do” what it says. Think of how you learned to start an airplane, step by step through the checklist items, until you knew the flow of events. This is an example of using a Familiarization Checklist — as a learning tool, to ingrain the “flows” of your individual cockpit.
  • the Normal Checklist. This is meant to be used in the day-to-day operation of the aircraft. Emergency checklists fall in this category as well. The Normal Checklist provides enough detail to prompt the pilot if his/her flow missed anything. The technique is to put the airplane in the desired flight condition or configuration using a practiced flow pattern, then refer to the Normal Checklist as time permits to verify you’ve not overlooked steps.
  • the Training Checklist. Designed to cover the safety-critical items in the stressful training environment, this checklist is meant to be used only when the pilot is very proficient in flow patterns in that particular airplane, or at points in the flight when there is not time to accomplish the entire Normal Checklist.

Back in the bad old days this Reagan-esque phrase described how the U.S. would negotiate nuclear arms reductions with the Soviet Union. Today it’s a good way to describe an effective method for flying airplanes, especially as a single pilot. Trust your ability to fly using efficient, well-rehearsed cockpit flow patterns, but verify you haven’t forgotten anything vital by reading the lists.

BOTTOM LINE: Student pilots use “do lists.” Professional pilots use “checklists.” Go with the flow — but double check your work.