They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Having been stabbed by a pen and poked by a knife, I have learned that taking the phrase literally is at your own risk. But, taken metaphorically, we can apply the wisdom imparted by these words to aviation.
In the early days of flying, a brief walk-around was followed by starting up the engine, adding some power, and away we go. That still happens to a lesser degree with aircraft like the Piper J-3 Cub, but for the most part we’ve gotten away from such a cavalier approach to making approaches.
Starting with the Boeing B-17, pilots have been conditioned to use a written checklist for nearly every phase of flight. And why not? If we make a grocery list, we don’t have to worry about forgetting the one thing that sent us to the store in the first place. Using a checkbook register keeps our finances organized. I’ve used checklists that had only two items, but they were important items. Quickly done, too.
It’s easy to get complacent in an aircraft with which you are intimately familiar. I have enough hours flying in a pre-GPS, pre-fancy-schmancy 172 that I could undoubtedly walk up to it, get in, start it up, fly it from A to B and back, shut it down, and walk away looking at the checklist. And I used to do that.
Until the day I got a phone call from the flight school informing me that I had left the master switch on and drained the battery.
We are supposed to use the checklists that the manufacturer gives us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tweak them or add to them. Many do. As you fly bigger, faster, more advanced airplanes, there are more checklists. Quick Reference Handbooks (QRHs) are go-to books filled with all manner of checklists for nearly every conceivable scenario. Airlines and flight departments routinely add to them. Mine has included some supplemental information on various approaches (setting up the avionics), de-icing procedures, and other rarely used procedures.
The key here is the initials: QR—Quick Reference. It’s just that. It’s an easy-to-find, easy-to-use cheat sheet to make sure that an expensive airplane doesn’t get damaged by doing something wrong, even if at first glance the pilot believes it is “obvious” what needs to be done.
There are other examples of the written word. Placards are a great example. You are being given free information, right in front of you! Jets and turboprops are loaded with placards. Use them!
Airline pilots typically fly 80 hours a month, and if they skip a checklist, they feel…uncomfortable. They know something isn’t right. They will not feel OK until they know it has been done. So, they do it, even if they’ve done it thousands of times. If a pilot who makes a living flying more hours in a month than most pilots fly in a year is dedicated to the use of the written word to fly safely, shouldn’t we all be the same way?
Even if you have “memorized” the checklist, you need to use it. In fact, when you memorize it, you need it more than ever, because your complacency will eventually catch up to you.
The written word is a powerful tool. Don’t be afraid to use it.—Chip Wright