Saturday, February 26, 2005

Inappropriate Checklists

Kristopher's blog entry inspires me to rant about checklists.

A checklist is a list of essential items to be completed at some particular stage of flight, so essential that the flight could be jeopardized if any is missed. Therefore even though you do the same things every day, every leg of the flight, you continue run through the checklist to ensure everything is done properly. The list might be printed on a bit of paper, displayed on a screen that pops up on your EFIS, or committed to memory as part of a mnemonic. In a two crew environment the non-flying pilot reads or recites the checklist to the flying pilot, who answers each item with "check" or "on" or "down and locked" as appropriate to the checklist.

In a perverse sort of logic, the checklists you use multiple times per day are usually read off the list, while the ones you hope to use never in a career are committed to memory. I'm not complaining about that. In an emergency your checklists may not be immediately accessible, and memory checklists always end in "consult emergency checklist." Some vital emergency checklists are displayed on the dashboard, on a manufacturer's placard. This always amuses me, as I picture some panicked pilot, all training forgotten in extremis, suddenly pausing to read the sticker that has been in front of him so long he no longer sees it.

Here's what I don't like:

  • Written checklists intended to be completed while flying VFR in single pilot airplanes
  • So let me get this straight. You're flying an airplane at over a hundred knots, towards the airport, the area with the highest concentration of air traffic along your whole route, and this is the time to stick your head in the cockpit and read a bit of paper? Memorize the pre-landing checks. Memorize where to put your hands to do them. Look out the window and complete the checklist while maintaining a watch for traffic.

  • Checklists shared between dissimilar airplanes
  • I don't know how this one gets past Transport Canada. The company has a fleet of aircraft, not quite the same. They get one company checklist approved. So the checklist includes "rear cargo hatch secured" in an airplane that doesn't have one. Or it says "fuel selector fullest tanks" in an airplane restricted to landing on inboard tanks. These don't just waste time. They are dangerous. If an item doesn't have to be done, it shouldn't be on the checklist. Not only is it a waste of time, but it teaches pilots to skip checklist items. So when they are flying the airplane with the rear cargo access they read "rear cargo hatch secured" and think "nope."

  • Checklists that don't match the panel layout
  • A checklist should be a flow check. If your checklist involves selecting, reading, or confirming the positions of fourteen items then the checklist should be written in such a way that your eye or hand sweeps over the panel in order. If you have to constantly jump from the overhead panel to the dashboard caution lights to the centre panel and back to the throttle quadrant you're going to get confused. Checklists that don't flow result from modernizing a panel without changing the checklist, or bringing a new type into a fleet and simply addding or subtracting items from the already approved checklists to accomodate the new type.

  • Fossilized checklist items
  • This could also be covered by the previous two gripes, but is so spectacularly annoying that it gets its own item. Sometimes items exist on a checklist even when the reason for them being there has died and rotted away. One company I flew for had a speed callout shortly after takeoff. The captain who trained me always called for flap retraction immediately after I called the speed. Then I flew with another captain and he asked for reduced flap before I had made the call. In cruise I asked to cross-check our airspeed indicators, as I hadn't realized I was late on the call. "Flap retraction has nothing to do with that speed callout," he said. But he didn't know what it was for. I asked more senior captains until I discovered that the speed callout everyone was diligently making had no function whatsoever. It had been the rotation speed of the aircraft in another configuration.

    That's just so wrong. It's like pushing in the cigarette lighter every time you brake your truck to a stop, because your old truck was standard and you always had to push the clutch in on it.

    Now I've ranted so long about printed checklists that I don't have time to pillory the cute but useless mnemonics that started me off. Another time.

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Checklists are why they quit leaving the blocks in the B-17's rudder on takeoff (how they lost the first prototype and started using checklists, in the US at least).
    One good thing about short precise and large-lettered checklists stuck were your eye strays across them all the soak them up sublimnally. That's how I found one day I had learned the NATO alphabet.
    Wun, Tu, thu-Ree, Fo-wer....

    Isn't 'item one' always 'procure proper checklist"?

    And if they can't keep current magazines in the racks, how can they keep correct and current clean (legible) checklists on all aircraft?