Checklists: Revolutionizing Aviation Safety and Beyond

Today, the complexity of aircraft demands more than a kick-the-tires-and-light-the fires approach to flying. As aircraft became more sophisticated in the 20th century, the need for more organized flight procedures became increasingly vital to mitigate the risk for human error. One of the solutions was checklists, now an essential element of aviation safety and efficiency. Beyond aviation, checklists, whether traditional pen-and-paper to-do lists or more sophisticated apps, offer an effective approach to maintaining organization in any field.

Birth of Aviation Checklists

In a 1935 demonstration, a prototype Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber took off, stalled a few hundred feet above ground, and crashed, killing two of the five crew members, including the pilot. The prototype was advanced, able to fly faster and farther than other aircraft of its kind, but its controls were complex compared to similar bomber prototypes. While preparing for take off, the pilot failed to release the gust lock – the mechanism that keeps control surfaces like the rudder and elevators fixed while an aircraft is on the ground – causing the plane to stall and crash.

Following the tragic demonstration, some critics considered the plane too complicated to fly, but the manufacturer’s engineers and test pilots instead developed a simple solution: a pilot’s checklist for taxi, takeoff, and landing to improve. This checklist approach helped ensure consistently safe and efficient operations. Over time, checks and checklists became standard in the industry, and military, commercial and private pilots alike now follow both aircraft-specific and industry-standard checklists during all phases of flight operations.

Safety Regulations & Memory

The use of checklists in aviation continued to evolve, eventually becoming even more widely adopted in commercial aviation in the 1980s. Since then, accidents in commercial aviation have steadily declined. The FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations now require that airlines have an approved safety check procedure for each type of aircraft before starting engines, taking off, or landing (“normal” procedures) as well as in emergency situations (“non-normal” procedures) to improve safety and efficiency, and improve communication among crew members. Specifically, the checklists are required so that crew members do not need to rely on memory.

Learned tasks like flying an airplane are part of what is known as procedural memory. Despite expert training, however, memory can be significantly impacted by factors like sleep and stress. Adequate sleep improves the brain’s ability to both retain and recall information. Stress, on the other hand, can impair that ability. Not only can short-term stress impair memory, but long-term exposure to it may increasingly affect the brain’s storage and recall abilities. In short, humans are subject to a variety of conditions that affect the ability to perform even learned tasks. To combat this, checklists equip pilots and crew members with a mental safety net to avoid human error that may occur due to factors like poor sleep, stress, or simple distractions.

Prepare Your Checklist

In aviation, checklists take a number of forms from pre-flight checks to aircraft-specific, in-flight and emergency checklists. In other fields, they may take the form of simple pen-and-paper to-do lists, shared digital documents or more complex organizational apps. No matter the field or form, the benefits of checklists as a mental safety net can be improved by following a few principles.

Determine the Objective: What a checklist looks like depends on what it is used for. A grocery list with pen and paper may be fine, but a shared document among team members may need to be more involved.

Include Critical Tasks: At its core, a checklist is a guide to performing essential tasks. Avoiding the clutter of non-essential items helps to emphasize the importance of key actions. What these are depends, of course, on the objective and person making the list.

Use Clear and Concise Language: Like non-essential items, excessive or imprecise language can distract from the primary focus of a checklist. This can vary, depending on the list and person making it, but using clear, appropriately detailed language is integral to creating a successful checklist.

Use, Test, and Update: Just as the use of checklists in aviation has evolved, the effectiveness of a specific checklist can improve with use. Identifying weak or unnecessary features and refining them can improve a checklist’s effectiveness over time.

Safety may not be the primary concern in all fields, but the use of effective checklists can still function as a convenient mental safety net for organizing tasks to limit human error as well as improving efficiency. Whether in the grocery store, at the office, or on the tarmac, they offer something more than just kicking the tires and lighting the fires.

Fuel. Flight controls. Flaps. Prepare for take off…

- Rob Keele & Thomas Yarbrough