It's as good a subject to start with as any: checklists. If your experience was anything like mine, a good chunk of your primary flight training probably involved digesting and memorizing – or at least being able to summarize – checklists. Even though I appreciated the utility of checklists, I felt like the ones I learned weren't that well suited to me. More on that in a minute.

Like many things in aviation, checklists were introduced because of an accident. The Boeing B‑17 prototype crashed in Ohio in 1935 due to improper configuration on takeoff, and the accident investigation cited the airplane's complexity as a causal factor. The first aviation checklists were introduced to avoid a repeat disaster. Most pilots take it as a truism that checklists are a good thing, and I won't be debating that here. The history is interesting, though, and helped me understand how we got to where we are today.

The Status Quo

As a student pilot learning in the Cessna 172, I quickly identified four types of checklists:

  • The ones in the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) or flight manual, available in both short and "amplified" versions. As a diligent pilot, I was expected to memorize the bold entries, particularly for emergency procedures.
  • The ones on my handy CheckMate cockpit card, which were based on the POH checklists. By the time I finished my checkride, I knew most of these checklists by heart.
  • The mnemonics and pithy phrases, FAA-promoted or otherwise, that are taught widely: GUMP(F)S, A TOMATO FLAMES, I'M SAFE, AVIATE(S), AR(R)OW, "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate," "Pitch, Power, and Trim," "Landing Gear, Landing Flaps, Landing Clearance," and more.
  • The flow patterns and scans used in the cockpit to make sure the airplane was configured and operating the way it should be.

In short, I had to memorize a lot of checklists. Some of them were aggravating, too – items on my store-bought preflight checklist card weren't arranged in the same order I ended up performing them, and both the POH and the checklist card broke certain tasks into needless extra steps. The different checklists covered the same material in confusingly different ways. There was a lot of friction and redundancy using these checklists.

I have to admit I soldiered on with this for a while, figuring it was just the way things worked. It wasn't until after I bought my own airplane that I became fed up with the status quo and designed my own checklists. I haven't looked back.

Simple and Personal

I now fly a Lake Amphibian, and due to the complexity of water landings, my instructors taught me to use only flow checks on the water. I still wanted a checklist for land operations, though, and rather than having two sets of procedures, I unified them: I built checklists around my flow patterns. Here's an example:

Landing Checklist Item Recited Version Action
Lights (As Required) "Lights" Touch and position the light switches
Prop Forward "Prop" Touch and position the prop control lever
Mixture Best Power "Mixture" Touch and position the mixture lever
Say Type Aloud "This is a water landing." Visually check gear position
via windows/mirrors
Gear, Flaps, Water Rudder:
  • Water: Up, Down, Up
  • Land: Down, Down, Up
"Up, Down, Up. Gear is up." Touch and/or point at handles,
then check indicator lights
Hydraulic Pressure "Hydraulic Pressure" Touch and/or point at the hydraulic gauge

My custom checklists combine as many of the "checklist types" as possible. Nearly every flow has a phrase or mnemonic associated with it. On land, I recite the phrase and perform the flow, then back it up with the physical checklist; on water, I just recite and perform the flow. The procedure is exactly the same.

Checklist Usability

After I worked out a good set of procedures, I did a few simple things to make my checklists more usable. First, I used colored headings for normal procedures, emergency procedures, and reference information. (A friend of mine went one step further and created four separate physical checklists, each with a colored binding for easy identification: ground, VFR, IFR, and emergency. I like his system.)

Next, I ensured the reference information on my checklists was actually useful. I included my aircraft's "V-speeds" and the air-to-air radio frequencies commonly used by seaplane pilots. I also summarized control tower light gun signals, since I'm unlikely to be digging out a book if I see a red or green light from the tower. One future revision I'm considering, based on input from a fellow Lake pilot, is a table of airspeeds and fuel burn numbers for common power settings.

Finally, I went through a couple of iterations on my checklists. I printed one, flew with it, and then penciled in changes. After a few weeks, I incorporated the revisions and printed a new one. I did this a few times until it stopped changing. I also shared the checklist with other Lake pilots and applied their feedback. (One somewhat surprising suggestion: disregard the flight manual's best glide speed of 60 miles per hour. It leaves the airplane with too little energy to flare.)

My custom Lake checklist is available here for your perusal. I designed it to be printed double-sided, cut down the middle, and laminated, giving me a primary and a spare. Feedback is welcome.

Closing Notes

As a heavy user of checklists, NASA has funded some excellent research into the subject over the years. Their report "Human Factors of Flight-Deck Checklists: The Normal Checklist" is a bit lengthy, but is a very interesting read. They also published "On the Typography of Flight-Deck Documentation", which is worth reading. You'll probably recognize some of the recommended practices in the manufacturer-provided checklists for your airplane.

Finally, if it's not already obvious, I'm writing with private pilots and general aviation aircraft in mind. Commercial airplanes are a different world!

Safe landings.