Helicopter Checklists - Aviation Checklists

Can checklists become to much of a good thing?

The purpose of a checklist is two fold; one, to ensure that nothing of importance is missed, forgot or skipped; two, to present the items in a sort of logical order so that the flow actually makes sense. A checklist is not meant to prevent a pilot from running a memory sequence as there are many times when a memory sequence is necessary, but after that memory sequence, the pilot can look back at the checklist and ensure nothing was missed then resume normal procedures at that point.

There is no doubt that checklists improve safety, but what about when checklists are used as an attempt to make a smart pilot out of a dumb one for all events throughout the job? Is there a point when to much of a good thing becomes a bad thing? I think so, there comes a point when checklists become pure madness. The FAA easily gets tunnel vision, and so do those in charge of making policy when they get bored (see the article on stupid); this becomes exceptionally problomatice when an inspector can tie his/her name to something that they think will get them recognition. They can then take this back to headquarters and say, "Hey, I did this, this week". It doesn't have to actually improve safety, it just has to show that they did something; their job has been justified for the moment.

There is a long history of accidents where pilots became so entrenched in their checklists, and procedures that they have completely blocked out common sense options and thinking and have actually killed hundreds of people because they stricktly adhered to checklists and procedure. Here are just a few examples:

  • Chicago IL - A DC-10 engine broke free of its pilon during departure landing on the runway behind the airplane. The tower controller asked the pilot if he wanted to abort the take-off, but the pilot stated he was committed. Instead of engaging common sense and standing on the brakes and accepting a runway overrun accident where there was a chance of survival, they departed and rolled over after airborne crashing and killing everyone on board.
  • Lexington Ky - A commuter jet cleared to take-off on the long runway, departed on the wrong runway, one that was to short. Instead of standing on the brakes and accepting a runway over-run accident with a chance of surviving, they pulled the airplane into an early lift which resulted in a stall, roll-over, and crash killing everyone on board.
  • Washington DC - A 737 crashed into the Potomac after striking a bridge during its stalling descent. The pilots never firewalled the throttles despite knowing they were stalling because the instruments indicated that they had the proper throttle settings. What they didn't know is they had accumulated excess ice while awaiting departure.

I know this is a helicopter web site, and these are airplane accidents, but the point doesn't change. There are many dead helicopter pilots and crew because of procedural failures. My point is that you can't fix everything with another checklist. The checklist shouldn't be used as a stupid patch. You have people who are simply not going to do their job right no matter how many checklists you write and require though many companies do this to keep the pilot costs down and crashes within an acceptable frequency. They'll say otherwise, but that is exactly what they are doing.

There are a number of dead helicopter pilots and crew because they didn't follow procedures whether or not they had a checklist or known procedures in place. The fact remains that you can't make people become responsible, nor cause them to follow procedure when they should, and engage common sense when they should when you only teach one way of doing things. This is where senario based training comes into play, but could be more effective if options were discussed that could just possibly include some common sense instead of fist pounding policy, procedure and checklist which is not a cure-all.

Remember in the early days, like flight training for example, where all the checklists were basically derived from the POH (now also known by a bunch of other terms)? When you are flying privately under part 91, for the most part not much has changed. However, if you are flying for a company, especially a part 135 company, there can be many more checklists. All approved by the FAA because in their eyes, checklist = a good thing. There's that tunnel vision thing again, they know nothing else.

The POH included many checklists, for example:

  • Preflight
  • Pre-start
  • Start-up
  • Take-off
  • Before Landing
  • After Landing
  • Shut-down

Don't misunderstand me, checklists are good, but as far as the FAA is concerned, you can never have to many checklists. As an example, at the part 135 company I fly for, they have tried to apply a stupid patch via checklists for every condition that a pilot might encounter during the typical day on shift. I maintain that at some point, checklists are not only counter productive, but actually hamper safety in that there will come a point where not just pilots, but all crew involved just don't take them serious. The FAA would like it if operators could come up with a checklist for that to, because remember, checklist = safety.

During a discussion with a pilot friend of mine about how rediculous some rules are, he stated two things, first he stated that for a particular rule to have been made, "someone actually had to do something that stupid". He also stated, "rules are made so stupid people can play to". The FAA and operators use checklists in that same way; they take them to extremes in an attempt to make the inadequate pilot appear to be a conscientious pilot, and sooner or later he will fail, after all, they are two different animals. This is demonstrated all to often when the inadequate animal rears its ugly head tearing out of the thin conscientious cloak. By making the system stupid proof through rules and checklists, operators can keep pilot costs lower though the accidents still occur.

Back to the FAA approved part 135 checklist mentioned a moment ago. We have not only the common POH checklists, but with the approval of the FAA, we now have a hitch change checklist, shift change checklists, crew brief checklists, flight acceptance checklists, and in addition to the aircraft checklists, we have a company pre-departure and pre-landing checklists.

Checklist = safety, to the point where some pilots may begin to simply check boxes because that is how rediculous it has become trying to apply the stupid patch in the form of checklists under the oversight of the organization of the FAA.

So now that we know that checklist = good thing, when is to much of a good thing not just counter productive, but counter to safety? END Jump to Top