Pelican’s Perch #1: Throw Away That Stupid Checklist!

Say again? You heard correct, just toss it.


First, welcome to this, my first column for AVweb. I’m free to say what I want, without fear of censorship and only enough editing to keep me from embarrassing myself with major errors in spelling or grammar. That’s nice, but it does mean I can’t blame my editor for content, and all remaining mistakes are mine alone. Hmm, maybe I should re-think this…

Why “Pelican’s Perch”? Well, I like the old Pelican, and resemble it in someways. I’m not very graceful on the ground, I’m always looking for my next meal, and I’ve long aspired to its grace in the air.

Now, about that checklist. Sorry folks, but I’ve never been able to see the need for using a written checklist in a single pilot airplane. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean I jump in and go without an organized method, either!

“Heresy!” some will cry. Yes, I know, the airline regulations do require them. But, have you noticed that a lot of folks will say they use checklists, or will tell you that you should…and don’t? Ever seen a CFI preach the use of one to his students,then go fly a charter without doing so? Or hear the advice, “Forget ’em, unless you’re getting a checkride”? Ever wonder how they (er, we) do it, safely and successfully?

I don’t use written checklists, and I suggest there’s a better way, one I have used in solo operations in everything from the proverbial Cub to the North American B-25 with a high degree of success. To date I have no regrets and I cannot recall a single case where it got me in trouble. On the other hand, I can recall with shame almost forgetting to do the “before takeoff” checklist in a 727 one frosty morning in Chitose, Japan, and nearly forgetting to do the landing check about 3 AM one morning in San Francisco at the end of a long night flight from Japan, thereby very nearly becoming the first man in history to belly-in a 747. A written checklist is no good at all if you don’t use it, and you are just as likely to forget a written one as you are a mental one. If you can remember to perform a written checklist, you should be able to remember to perform a mental one, with only the basics.

Go with the Flow

My “system” employs a “flow pattern” that is logical and orderly and covers every switch, control, and instrument in the cockpit. In my Bonanza, it starts at the fuel valve under my left leg, continues across the bottom of the panel from left to right, up to the door handle, the radio master, left across the engine instruments, and finishes up at the flight instruments, checking each and every switch, instrument, and control for proper position for takeoff (or engine start), or for proper indication. Nearly everything has a story to tell. For example, you might skip the manifold pressure gauge, but that would be a mistake, because it should show ambient pressure which should correlate very closely with field elevation, corrected for the altimeter setting. This is an excellent check of the accuracy of the instrument.

If this concept is new to you, the first time through the flow pattern will take an hour or more in a complex single, because you will need and want to think it through very carefully, considering just what you’re looking at and what it should show. This is also an excellent learning exercise in any airplane. In an airplane that is new to you, similar care will be needed to establish an efficient, thorough flow pattern for that airplane.

I use this flow pattern religiously before start to set the cockpit up for takeoff, frequently during flight (how frequently depends on the airplane), again on the descent, and finally, after landing (for the next takeoff). The flow pattern before engine start is the most thorough, covering everything in the cockpit. That will also work for subsequent operations, but whole areas may be skipped. For example, on the “flow pattern” I perform just before takeoff, I know it is sufficient to make one “pass” across the lower panel, the same as I did on the pre-start, end up at the door handle, and done. I think of that as a subset of the pre-start flow pattern.

As a final check just before takeoff I use the archaic “CIGFTPR,” and just before landing, the classic “GUMP.” I know, they don’t make sense, the first doesn’t even make a word, and I admit both have unnecessary items in them, but having used them for nearly fifty years, I’d rather not change now. They are old friends, and I am comfortable with them. Please make your own, ones that are comfortable for you. Make them as universal as possible, you may fly something else someday.

Check, Not Do

A key point here. The CIGFTPR/GUMP checklists are true “check” lists, not”do” lists. For example, the “C” is obviously for “Controls.” This is not the time to check them, the flight controls should have been checked for “Free, full travel, and correct” on the original cockpit setup, or during the taxi to the runway. As you do this final check your “response” should be, “Yes, I did do the full control check already,” and it is not necessary to check them again. If you come to this point and realize, “Ohmigosh, I forgot!”, then you need to stop everything, think why you forgot, what interrupted you, why are the controls unchecked at this point, when they should have been. You should consider yourself as having made a major mistake somewhere along the line, and you must reprimand yourself in a constructive fashion, so that you do not make that mistake again. This self-critique is a key element in all of flying (if not in life itself!). At this point, having failed to perform the flow pattern properly, it is not sufficient to just check the controls, and keep on going.

We do something very similar in the 747, adding only a very short written checklist that assures each crew member that all the others have done their jobs, as well. Boeing popularized this method (over a lot of shrill screams of protest!) with the introduction of the 747 in the early seventies, and it works very well indeed. Once pilots become accustomed to it, I’ve never known one who wanted to go back.

Plan for Mistakes

What about that time when you will forget the checklist, whether you use a written one,or a mental one? Woe unto the pilot who says, “I’d never do that,” for he will one day learn a hard lesson. Much better to admit right up front, “Yes, I could do that, how can I avoid it, or better yet, how can I minimize the harm, when I do?” Plan for the mistakes, because you will make them.

One handy trick is to set up your cockpit after landing, for the next takeoff, to the maximum extent possible, using the flow pattern. Yes, I do understand you may not be the next person to fly the airplane, but by doing this you may save someone else, or the airplane, or yourself.

After engine start, lean your mixture as much as possible. Go ahead, pull that red knob out aggressively, it is absolutely impossible to damage your engine at any power setting below runup power, on the ground. If you lean it until the engine runs rough, then enrich it barely enough to make the engine smooth (and I do mean barely, no extra fuel, at all), it is then impossible to get enough power to take off, and the wheeze you’ll get at initial power application is an excellent reminder that you may have left some things undone. Operating “super lean” on the ground will be kind to your engine, too, keeping valves and plugs clean, and keeping your engine cooler. Yes, I said cooler. You might consider the act of going full rich for takeoff a reminder to yourself to make sure you have done your usual routine, whatever it may be.

On landing, I leave my mixture fully leaned for cruise, or for maximum EGT to keep engine temperatures up during low power operations, and I set my prop at a very low RPM (1800 RPM) for noise abatement. Those of you who run your prop up to a high RPM are not making friends for General Aviation around your local airport. Along with these two things, you must teach yourself that any need for high power will require mixture, prop and throttle together, which is not a bad habit, in any case. On initial takeoff roll, any missed approach, or any major increase in power, it is “Mixture, Prop, Throttle.” Airplanes with levers all in one area make this an easy one-handed operation, my Bonanza is a bit more difficult with vernier controls.

If You Must Use a Checklist…

If all this is too radical for you, then please do yourself a favor and give your current written checklist a very hard look, with an eye towards deleting unnecessary items. You should realize that the only portions of your POH that are approved by the FAA are “Limitations.” Everything else is “suggested,” including the manufacturer’s checklists, which are usually written by committees of lawyers doing the old “CYA.” Even worse are some of the old military checklists, most of which seem to cover everything in the cockpit, and which are rarely used by warbird operators. One DC-3 I used to fly had 132 items on the pre-start check, something only an insane check pilot could enjoy, or perform.

By way of example, take heaters, or lights, or radios. None will kill or injure, if forgotten, so why have them on a checklist? If you forget your transponder, the worst that will happen is that ATC will say, “confirm squawking,” generally with a little chuckle, because they know what you did – or didn’t do.

For items to put on your new checklist, consider fuel, because the consequences of not having enough, or having the wrong tank selected are so catastrophic. Similarly, “Controls” is a worthwhile item, because history teaches us that this is a major killer. Flaps? Well, maybe the flaps on the airplane you usually fly are not critical, but we’re trying to come up with a checklist that will serve for most anything, and flaps are pretty important on many airplanes. Similarly, an incorrectly set trim tab can be a nasty surprise on many airplanes, so I think it should be included on any pre-takeoff checklist.

In summary, use a consistent, logical, well-thought-out plan, follow it always, and then have a short final check (mental or written) for only “The Killer Items.”

Be careful, up there!

NOTE: This column generated considerable controversy. (There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s why we asked John to write: to make us all think about what we are doing.)Unfortunately, a good deal of that controversy appeared to stem from misunderstandings about what he wrote, generating more heat than light on the subject. Others apparently agree with John’s points, but for some reason think he shouldn’t say what he said. In his next column, “Checklists Redux,” John clarifies some of the points that appear to have been misunderstood by some readers and he then goes on to expand upon the subject of checklist use.

Don’t miss reading “Checklists Redux.”