Following the checklist regularly ensures you’ll know the steps to follow when you need them most.
When I was a young aviator in the US Army 21 years ago, I picked up some bad habits on deployment. I had become complacent about referring to the aircraft checklist for each flight and, instead, memorized a lot of it. I thought this meant my knowledge of my aircraft was thorough and that recalling checklist items from memory confirmed how much I knew.
When I started flight training, my bad habits showed like a red warning light on the instrument panel. I vividly remember being on downwind to land after a day of training, and my instructor made the callout for me to perform a before-landing check. I immediately responded verbally with the action steps and a “check complete,” all while my checklist remained closed at my side.
My instructor paused, gave me a steely side-eye glance, and asked if I was going to use the checklist for my before-landing check. He reminded me that using a checklist is a sign of professionalism, not an indicator of weakness or lack of knowledge.
I came away from that humbling experience with a greater understanding of the importance of following procedures consistently, every time. As a result, I’ve now developed some good habits—habits I encourage my students and other pilots to practice.
Rely on Memory for Emergency Procedures Only
More than half (52%) of all errors that happen during flight are procedural, according to The University of Texas at Austin Human Factors Research Project, the most common occurring when the pilot attempts to recite the checklist from memory. Many accident investigations list as causal factors the crews not using checklists and instead taking inappropriate actions that prevented or reduced the likelihood of landing safely.
Certain checklist items, of course, should be memorized so that the pilot can respond immediately during an in-flight emergency and aviate, navigate, and communicate appropriately. Once those emergency steps have been taken, however, the checklist should be consulted for guidance on subsequent steps.
An overly confident pilot who relies on memory can overlook key steps in the checklist, causing mistakes. Taking time and slowing down to confirm the steps in our checklists makes us methodical, keeps us familiar with the list, and prevents us from making rushed and potentially dangerous decisions.
To get yourself “into the checklist,” combine your discussions and training about checklists and procedures with your simulator training. That way, you can reinforce your checklist skills before you ever take flight. If you can’t train in a simulator, use cockpit drills to review and practice the checklist procedures in your own aircraft.
Employ a Multiple-Crew Cross-Check
In multicrew operations, cross-checking checklist steps with fellow flight crew members helps monitor and confirm the necessary steps and settings. Having a flight crew member read out the checklist steps and procedures using the call-and-response method for each individual step fosters assimilation of the checklist, establishes a rhythm, reduces errors, and increases communication between crew members.
Use the Checklist during Single-Pilot Operations Especially
The checklist becomes even more important without the assistance of another crew member to cross-check and verify our actions. When you’re operating single-pilot, take extra care to confirm the steps and double-check your settings. If you find yourself mentally skipping ahead, stop. Go back and check the steps you took against the checklist to ensure you didn’t miss anything important.
Ideally while flying, we’d minimize all distractions to focus on one task at a time. Sadly, this isn’t always possible, but remember: if you become distracted while going through the checklist, go back two, or even three, steps before the point at which you were interrupted to confirm you completed the previous items and are continuing to follow the checklist in the correct sequence.
Practice Your Checklist Skills Regularly
Take time to regularly practice your checklist skills and procedures to prepare for your next flight. From preflight to post-flight, using the checklist helps us maintain familiarity with the steps in our operational procedures so that in times of high stress, we know where we are in the process and exactly where to go to find the next step.
Ever since that first lesson in using my checklist for a before-landing check, I regularly review and practice the checklist items, whether in the simulator or in flight, before I need to perform them in the air. This keeps me in the checklist and familiar with its steps when I need them most.