Using the Checklist – a Sign of Strength

The checklist in our aircraft is something that can be looked at in many different ways. Some pilots would never think of flying without  using a checklist. Others think that using one would indicate a sign of weakness. Most pilots are somewhere between both extremes.

I’ll now do my Cliff Claven impersonation and explain (whether or not you’d like to know about this stuff), how the checklist was “born” and how it saved Boeing from bankruptcy.

In 1935, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build its next-generation long-range bomber.  Martin submitted a stubby little twin engine called the Model 146 (shown at left); Douglas submitted the DB-1 (also a twin); and Boeing submitted their Model 299. On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, a small crowd of Army brass and manufacturing executives watched as the Model 299 test plane taxied onto the runway. It was sleek and impressive, with a hundred-and-three-foot wingspan and four engines jutting out from the wings, rather than the usual two. The five man crew was led by Major Ployer (Pete) P. Hill. The co-pilot was Les Tower, a Boeing employee. The plane roared down the tarmac, lifted off smoothly and climbed sharply to three hundred feet. The bomber then stalled, turned on one wing, and crashed in a fiery explosion. Three of the five crew members survived. Les Tower and Major Pete Hill died. (Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah is named after him).

Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the Boeing bomber required the pilot to attend to the four engines, a retractable landing gear, new wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain control at different airspeeds, and constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls.

While managing this complex aircraft, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The Boeing Model 299 was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.”

The Army Air Corps declared Douglas’ stubby little DB-1 the winner, called it the B-18 Bolo, and Boeing nearly went bankrupt.

< Douglas B-18 “Bolo”

A group of test pilots got together and considered what to do. They considered that Major Hill was the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Chief of Flight Testing, so requiring more training for Model 299 pilots wasn’t the answer.  Instead, these ingenious test pilots came up with a simple approach. They created a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing.

The Army eventually ordered thousands of the Boeing aircraft, which became known as the B-17 Flying Fortress.

As an instructor and evaluator in the Air Force and the airlines, I noticed that pilots were usually very diligent with the checklist. However, they would too often read a step, do it, and then return to the check list – skipping a line or two because they forgot where they were.  That was very painful to watch. I’ve learned that to use a checklist this way, one must keep a finger on the checklist to keep one’s place. The “to-do” method can work, but it’s not the best way to do things.
In 1986, my checklist philosophy changed when Northwest Airlines purchased Republic Airlines and they introduced the Republic pilots to their flow pattern – checklist method. From memory, one follows a logical flow across the controls and switches, correcting and testing. Then, pilots used the check list – to insure nothing was missed. Today, most airlines and professional pilots use this method. I use this method in my Mooney. After doing a simple flow pattern before start, I back it up with the check list. During landing, I might use a G-U-M-P-S check, but I back it up with the checklist. If there is anything I don’t want to miss, it’s the landing gear.

Sometimes, when we use an unfamiliar Emergency checklist, we have no choice but to use the “to-do” method. Just remember to book mark your place with a finger.

You might want to consider an iPhone app. Foreflight has a free one, Checklist Lite, and Checklist Pro (about $20). Check them out at

Now you know the story behind the checklist. It’s just a piece of paper, but it’s written in the blood of Les Tower and Major Pete Hill. I hope you’ll find a way to conveniently check everything in a flow and then verify with the checklist. Using it is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and professionalism! Although it was created to save Boeing and the B-17, it’s still saving lives – every day.


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