One checklist that works in every airplane

4 min read

Do you fly the airplane, or is your checklist really the PIC?

It may sound funny, but an awful lot of pilots are slaves to their checklists, blindly following them as if it’s a set of assembly instructions for a piece of furniture. If the checklist said, “Airplane – Crash Into Ground,” some pilots might follow those directions right to the ground. You can and should do better.

ChecklistLet’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with checklists. On the contrary, they are a critical part of safe flying, and even airline pilots with 25,000 hours still religiously follow one on every flight. In fact, pilots’ checklist obsession is starting to be copied by other professions. An influential book, The Checklist Manifesto, argues that checklist discipline can improve safety and efficiency in fields as diverse as banking and medicine.

While checklists are important, it’s critical that you use them the right way: as a check or a backstop against error. It is not a “do list” where you read, then do, then verify. This approach makes you an unthinking computer, instead of an airman with critical thinking skills and context. So next time you’re running a checklist, think–don’t just do.

But that’s just a start. I think there’s an even better way to use checklists: the flow check.

Printed checklists are a good way to stay disciplined, but sometimes they can get in the way. You may get overloaded because of weather, Air Traffic Control, passengers or some mechanical anomaly. At these moments, it’s important to be able to think about your airplane and understand the big picture. That’s why I like flow checks so much; you think about every system in the airplane, but in an organized way.

Start at the left side of the panel and work your way all the way across to the right side, pausing on each switch or gauge to think about what it does and which way it should be set. Check the engine gauges: everything green? Check all the light switches: where they should be? How about the GPS and radios: are they set up properly?

I like to do this after leveling out in cruise, when I have plenty of time to move deliberately. It’s a great way to double check my previous checklist usage and make sure nothing was overlooked. I also do a flow check after shutdown, right before I leave the airplane for the day. It can take 10 minutes or 30 seconds, depending on your airplane and your experience.

What’s so helpful about the flow check is that it can be used in almost every airplane, from a J-3 Cub to a King Air. Especially as you transition into more complex airplanes, it’s easy to get confused or overwhelmed by everything that’s new–avionics, controls, instruments and systems. But the principle of the flow check still holds. The single level throttle may be replaced by six levers in a turboprop, but you do the same procedure: pause and make sure each is where it should be.

The left-to-right flow is a great starting point, but you can also make up your own abbreviated flow checks, too. When I used to fly a Cessna 210, I used a “1, 2, 3 check; 1, 2, 3 check” after takeoff. This meant: gear up, flaps up, cowl flaps open (these three handles were close to each other); and throttle reduced, propeller control reduced, mixture leaned (these three controls were all in a row). If those six things were done, the rest could wait. This easy-to-remember flow saved me more than once in busy airspace, because it was quick and intuitive.

Beyond using flow checks as an everyday procedure, they also make a great training exercise. Sitting in the cockpit–even with the engine off–and going over every part of it in a disciplined way is an excellent way to learn the systems and the layout of the switches.

It’s also a good opportunity to practice your emergency procedures. As you check the ammeter, consider what you would do if it showed a discharge. How about an overcharge situation? This type of “what if” planning isn’t paranoid, it’s safe flying.

Just remember that flow checks are a complement, not a replacement, for printed checklists. Regardless, they can be a great addition to your flying tool kit. More than anything, they keep your head in the game.

So next time you’re droning along with nothing to do, perform a quick flow check. You may catch a mistake, but you’re almost guaranteed to learn something.