Just about every airline or corporate flight department—and for sure the military—has a certain number of checklists that are considered to be memory items. That is, they are considered so important that, when needed, the pilot doesn’t have time to look up the checklist and go through it line by line. Therefore, the checklist must be committed to memory. Some of these are fairly obvious, such as certain fire warnings, sudden cabin depressurizations, or a rejected takeoff.

Most of the time, the carrier determines the checklists that are designated as memory items, and there is usually a bias toward certain items based on the experience of the company, or of the fleet manager. Sometimes, the memory items are determined by one of the local FAA oversight personnel—again based on his or her past experience and/or unfamiliarity with a particular airplane—and sometimes by the manufacturer. Some carriers take things overboard and have far too many memory items.

But what about non-memory-item checklists? Are any that are not memory items actually memory items? Yes. A common example is the rejected takeoff.

Considering the speeds at which a rejected takeoff can take place, this makes sense. In nearly every jet airplane, the speed brakes should extend when the thrust levers are brought to idle, thus killing the lift of the wings and getting the weight of the airplane back on the tires, which improves stopping performance. The operative word is “should.”

Some operators have a specific rejected takeoff memory item that includes checking or manually deploying the handle, and thus the speed brakes. This shouldn’t really be necessary, because you can feel immediately if the speed brakes have deployed, but somewhere, somebody decided this is a good idea. And so it is.

Another non-memory-item memory item is the wind-shear recovery procedure. Again, this is something that is occurring in a fast-paced, dynamic environment, close to the ground. Considering the severity of the situation, it isn’t the time to be pulling out a manual to look something up.

Generally speaking, a memory item is something that you only have one chance to get right, and survival may depend on the outcome. But, as I mentioned, airlines can go overboard with this as well. At my first carrier, we had to memorize an unnecessarily complex emergency evacuation procedure that was too easy to mess up, and would have been difficult to perform correctly in the stress of an emergency with adrenaline pumping and your mind racing. A good memory item is one with only a couple of steps, and when possible, it is similar to other checklists to ease its recall.

However, the procedures that are not necessarily referred to as memory items but need to be committed to memory are just as important. Learn them, commit them to memory, and review them, so that when you need them, your performance is flawless.