A Checklist for Your Checklist

by Peter Barnes, Senior Aviation Underwriter, Avemco Insurance Company

April 2020

Everyone has heard the line about retractable-gear airplane pilots: those who have already landed gear-up and those who will. Similarly, there are two other kinds of pilots: ones who use a checklist for every flight, and ones who will wish they had. Come to think of it, some of them might be the gear-up pilots.


There are only a few reasons why you might not use a checklist. One is the belief that you know the airplane so well in every phase of flight that you don’t need any reminders. If that’s you, then nothing I can say here is going to change your mind. Another possibility is that the checklist you’re using seems like too much work or takes too long to wade through. Or maybe it’s several pages long and ends up on the cabin floor or crumbled up in a seat pocket.


I’m not here to tell you how to write a checklist, what form it should take, or whether to put it on an iPad or laminate it. I’ll leave that to people more qualified than I am. Like Gene Benson, a  FAASTeam Lead Representative, human factors expert, CFI with more than 8,000 hours of flight instruction, and frequent contributor to these Avemco PIREPs. Gene has an excellent video series on making effective use of checklists and modifying or creating your own. See them at GeneBenson.com.


I will, however, make two strong recommendations: #1 the only useful checklist is the one you use. Make sure your checklist is relevant to you, the airplane(s) you fly, and is user-friendly enough to refer to in all phases of flight. It should also be readable and compact to be viewed and used in turbulence.

#2 Consistency of use is the most important thing you can accomplish. Just like any other endeavor, consistency is how habits are formed. After a while, you will be so familiar with your checklist that you will memorize parts of it, and the temptation will be to run your checklist from memory. Be careful. It’s easy to omit steps this way.


And consistency means referring to your checklist even when it seems unnecessary to do so. For example, any shut-down checklist will include installing your gust lock. But on a calm day when you’re just running into a restaurant for lunch, the gust-lock seems excessive caution. Do it anyway. Install it every single time you park the aircraft, if only for a few minutes. Otherwise, you’re bound to forget it on a day when it turns out you did need it.


Some checklist items should be run from memory first, like emergency items you don’t have time to look up.  Fire or smoke in the cockpit, a rough-running engine or one that has quit all together can’t wait for you to pull out your checklist and dutifully read off, “Pitch for best glide.” And looking for the best place to land has nothing to do with reading a checklist. The first crucial steps should happen immediately and automatically. That’s why part of your pre-flight should include refreshing your memory of your emergency checklist so it will be in the front of your brain if this turns out to be the flight when you need it. Again, consistency is crucial. Add this step to every pre-flight, bar none. After the emergency is somewhat under control, you can pull out the written checklist to make sure you do everything else in order: Brief passengers, crack open the cabin door, etc. When an emergency happens, and adrenaline and panic kick in, the chances are overwhelming you’re going to forget some crucial items. 


Ultimately, the reason why you use a checklist is that flying an airplane is not as simple as driving a car. Even a little Cessna 140, with no flaps presents challenges that make a checklist worthwhile. Your checklist can also help you avoid that embarrassing call to the insurance company to fess up that you forgot to remove the cowl plugs.

Let us know your thoughts on the checklists you like to use by contacting us at [email protected].


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Peter Barnes, a Senior Underwriter at Avemco, is a private pilot with 39 years of insurance experience. Over the years, he has insured an assortment of aviation risks from simple to complex general aviation aircraft, helicopters, and turbines flown for business & pleasure, industrial aid, and commercial exposures to ground-related aviation risks from airports to FBOs, MROs, AOGs and OEM operations. 

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