Guides or Gods?

You know how you have this picture frozen in your mind of where you were, and what you were doing, when some huge event happened, like the World Trade Centre nonsense? Well I can tell you exactly what was happening when, like a blinding flash of light, I suddenly knew what checklists were for. I was moments from crashing a serviceable aeroplane into the desert. But, before I tell you that story, I must give you a little background to my lifelong suspicion of checklists.

I did my PPL training on a dirt runway at Wonderboom in a yellow, 65 hp Piper Cub called Bravo November Romeo. When William T Piper made the first Cub, over 80 years ago, I have this picture of him striding round the factory telling people not to make things.

“What are you doing?”

“Making a fuel gauge, sir.”

“Are you mad? We don’t need those just use a lump of cork and a bit of bent wire.”

“And you? What’s that you are fiddling with?”

“A door handle, sir.”

“Stop it at once – just use a piece of bent wire. And what’s going on over there? Cowling fasteners? What on earth for? Just use bits of bent wire.”

“Master switch? For the battery, to work the radio and the nav lights? Chuck the whole lot out – and all that bloody wiring.”


From a Cub to a 747- would a generic checklist work?

Everything that didn’t make it fly was left on the ground. The result was a delightfully honest and simple little aeroplane that anyone could afford. Exactly what the world needed for flying training.

And having no radio had an interesting side effect – you could easily forget the aircraft’s registration – you only used it once each time you flew, and that was when you scratched BNR in your logbook at the end of the flight. ‘Radiolessness’ also simplified training – there was no need to chirp Bravo November Romeo half a dozen times on each circuit. Better still, one you didn’t have to keep listening for those three words to be superimposed on the stream of commands, complaints and abuse that flowed from the instructor.

For those who are wondering what all this has to do with checklists, I urge patience we are getting there.

You fly a Cub from the back seat, from where you have sovereignty over nine pieces of equipment: the stick and rudder, the throttle and carb-heat, the window- winder trim-handle, the mag switch, the nearly-useless little heel-brakes, your seat belt, and the door handle.

Before getting into the back you open the clamshell door, lean into the front, stick your hand under the panel and switch the fuel on. While in the front you also set the airfield elevation on the single-hand altimeter. You have to do this before you get in because you can’t reach the fuel cock or the altimeter in flight.

You strap yourself in, pull the stick fully back, stand on the heel-brakes, set the throttle, switch the mags on, and shout “Contact!” A helpful gentleman, who has been waiting at the front, steps up and turns the wooden prop.

After two or three attempts the little Continental makes a sort of rattly sewing machine noise and you are in business. You glance at the tower where you will see either nothing, or possibly a green light. Either way you are free to taxi to the threshold. Only a red light should deter you.

Your pre-takeoff formalities consist of three things: check the mags, set the trim, and confirm the carb-heat is off. That’s it. There is nothing else to do, and it doesn’t matter whether the doors are open or closed they are simply a ventilation device. So no checklist is really needed.

After takeoff, sorry – still nothing to do. On the downwind leg you might sing a little aria from Oklahoma, if you are so inclined. But there is still nothing for you to fiddle with. This inactivity grievously offended the soul of one of our instructors – the very correct and bristly little Major Pidsley. His Air Force background caused him to view our indolence on downwind as an affront to his profession. He therefore imported, from his war-time days, a landing checklist from a Lancaster bomber.

The Major always introduced himself as “Pidsley – that’s Papa India Delta Sierra Lima Echo Yankee” – a habit which caused us to question his sanity.

When we flew with him, we were obliged to memorise and recite a list of items that had nothing to do with a Cub. Thus, all the way along the downwind leg we would bellow, at the back of his head, a litany of things that didn’t need doing. The final object on this checklist was ‘bomb-doors’, which, as far as I remember, should be closed for landing.

Not surprisingly, the Major, who became known as ‘Bomb-doors Pidsley’, instilled in us a huge contempt for checklists. We were flying an aeroplane that didn’t need a checklist and using a checklist for which we didn’t have an aeroplane. The whole thing was a lump of military madness.

Less than a year after escaping the clutches of Major Bomb-doors Pidsley, I find myself in a very satisfactory situation. I have a brand-new Commercial Pilot License and brand-new flying job with a motor company. And I fly two brand-new Piper aircraft – a Cherokee 235, which we use for bush work – landing on salt-pans and farm roads; and a sleek Twin Comanche, which is for whisking the company directors off to important meetings, and even more important fishing trips.

It is a boom time for aviation, and for the motor business. I could not be happier. But I must return to the checklist problem. It’s a blistering summer’s day in February 1966, I am to depart from my base at Kimberley during the heat of noon and head north to a mine called Hotazell (which it is). There I am to collect my portly boss, Bert Potgieter, and whisk him back to Kimberley. The newness of the aeroplane and the blueness of the atmosphere lull me into believing that it will be a satisfactorily boring trip.

I have reached that comfortable, overconfident stage which happens to many of us at about 400 hours. We all go through it sooner or later. For some it comes as early as 100 hours, while we slow-developers may only become really dangerous as late as 500 or even 1000 hours.

My idea of pre-takeoff checks is an engine run-up, to check the mags, make sure the fuel is selected to good tanks and the pumps are on, confirm the door is properly latched and deploy a touch of flap. I accomplish all this in moments and Johnnie Molineux, the world’s most miserable controller, gives me clearance to takeoff on runway 29. I firewall the throttles and am rapidly approaching rotate speed when the aircraft foolishly tries to head for the right-hand side of the runway.

This is not good. I assume it to be a temporary condition caused by a blistering burst of wind, or perhaps a stray whirlwind that has crept sneakily down the tar where its foot-print raises no dust. I prod the left rudder firmly. But the stupidity continues so I prod more firmly, still believing it to be a fleeting bit of atmospheric lunacy that will pass within seconds.

I am wrong. We continue to head to the right and it is necessary to be more brutal with the pedals. I glance at the ASI to see if I am able to fly rather than be dragged through the red dirt at the edge of the runway. 80 mph is fine so I ease her off the ground. But the nonsense continues – she is still going sideways.

By now, any half-awake multi-engine pilot knows that one motor has changed its status from worker to passenger. With me, it takes a little longer – I am not even half-awake. I continue to believe that all will be well within moments.

In the meantime I am barely maintaining altitude and am unable to get the directional problem under control. We are now over the dirt. I have pulled the gear up, but we are struggling in ground-effect. Had a warthog nipped out of his home burrow to cause disquiet amongst the local insect population, said hog would have been well advised to keep his tail down. There is a slight stony rise in the ground beyond the end of the runway and I can see that we are not going to clear it. I now know that we had a density altitude of close to 8000 ft, which would be flyable if I had my finger out – but that wasn’t the case, so we were about to crash.

I glance round the cockpit for the cause of our unhappiness. It leaps out at me – the red mixture lever for the right engine has crept so far back that the motor has starved to death. I whack it forward and am instantly rewarded by an aircraft that flies straight as an arrow and climbs at 1200 ft per minute.

I have almost an hour alone with my thoughts to ponder this piece of lunacy. I know it’s of my own making. If I had used a checklist it would have prompted me to pay attention to that seemingly insignificant little item, throttle friction, which also frictions the pitch and mixture levers.

In fact a good check-list would also have prepared me for a power loss on take-off. My failure to tighten the friction nut, and my lack of preparedness for a mechanical fiasco, had brought me close to ripping the fuel tanks open on the hot desert rocks and being crisped in a ball of fire.

I vowed that from that day forth I am going to think and act like a professional pilot. I immediately begin to plan my new life with the zeal of a cult leader. I will start by paying homage to checklists. I will also buy a pair of aviator shades to go with the new image.

But no sooner have I made this decision than I blunder into a huge herd of dilemmas which toss me from one horn to another. Will a generic list work for all aircraft? Nope – Major Pidsley tried that, and it doesn’t work. So, should I use each aircraft’s own type specific checklist? No it’s not practical to carry a dozen checklists around in my shirt pocket. Should checklists be learned by heart? Should I use action lists like airline pilots – or do those only work in a two-crew cockpit?

And should I use generic checklists that contain ‘Not Applicable’ items? Hmm… not a great idea. And why not simply use the list out of the POH? Well, right now I am looking at a takeoff checklist for a Cherokee 180 C, and here are some of the things that it does not call for: harnesses, strobes, rudder trim, gyros, altimeter. And, of course, there is no mention of operational considerations like frequencies, pax briefing, departure planning and so on.

Another thing – how specific should a checklist be? Should the word ‘fuel’ automatically cover selection, quantities, pressures and pumps? I have a pet hate about one of these collective checklist items the word ‘instruments’. It is commonly used in flying schools and it drives me potty. What the hell does it mean? Which instruments? All of them? So that’s what the pupe does he gazes vaguely round the cockpit muttering “Instruments – okay” without checking a damn thing. Instruments should be checked individually – like “altimeter – set to QNH” (or airfield elevation). “Directional gyro – set to compass.” “Temps and pressures – in the green.” And so on.

I have to confess that I have never really emerged from that herd of indecisive dilemmas. There are just too many variables, so those of you who are expecting this article to terminate with a magic one-size-fits-all checklist – prepare to be disappointed.

But fear not – help is at hand. I’ll walk you through some hard-learned lessons on dilemma dodging so you can make your very own checklist decisions and hopefully come out with a unique, personalised, fool proof, rose-scented checklist philosophy that will one day allow you to die in bed.

Oops, sorry, the Gleitch says he can’t spare any more space this month, so I must keep the rest for next month.

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