What are the problems with checklists?

The Checklist Manifesto Checklist have become an important part of aviation and have gone a long way towards making aviation much safer – especially given how complex flying a plane has become. However, no safety procedure is ever perfect and all will have their share of flaws or issues that those who use them will need to be aware of.

Hence, a recent thought provoking post by John Ewing for his Aviation Mentor blog about the problems with checklists is well worth reading. To first put things in perspective, John noted that he has recently read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande which deals with checklists for the medical profession and he noted that he believes that checklists are both appropriate and useful in aviation.

However, John then pointed out that he’d:

…be remiss if I didn’t point out that many aircraft manufacturer checklists are woefully inadequate, incomplete, and in some cases they even contain incorrect information. One manufacturer’s After Landing checklist for a late-model aircraft in which I instruct contains just one task: FLAPS UP. Don’t mistake this simplicity for elegance, because in point of fact it is inadequate. Checklist procedures continue to be spread throughout Approved Aircraft Flight Manuals, due to the manner in which aircraft and their components are certificated, and this may lead a pilot to incorrectly conclude that all of the manufacturer’s checklist content is irrelevant.

He then pointed out two other issues with the use of checklists:

  • Familiarity Breeds … Complacency. John noted that doing the same routine countless times and you may soon start skipping the use of the checklist and instead do the tasks from memory or through the use of a flow check or mnemonic. However, John recommends variety. For example, once in the air you can “mix things up by alternating between the checklist and a flow check or a mnemonic backed up with the checklist.”
  • Infrequently Used = Easily Forgotten. John pointed out that doing abnormal or emergency checklists may make pilots feel clumsy or confused – especially in a stressful situation. Hence, such checklists should be reviewed from time to time while sitting in an armchair or in a simulator.

However, John also noted that he has seen “numerous landing gear system problems for which there was no checklist.” Hence, the key to such situations will always be:

don’t be in a hurry. Think very carefully and avoid impulsively jumping to any conclusions or simple explanations. If you have another pilot or a passenger on board, involve them in the process even if that only means you talking out loud and them listening to your thought process. You can learn a lot by listening to yourself talk.

At the end of his post, John wrote that the “only thing standing between you and a fatal error just might be an open mind and a good checklist” – a point well worth noting by all pilots.

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