Takeoff Checklist — Easy as A-B-C
By Jim Bair
My basic philosophy on takeoff checklists is that they must include the items that can really do you or your equipment damage (seems obvious) and be easily useable (or they won’t get used). Paper checklists can get very long in an attempt to be so complete that nothing gets missed. This may actually detract from safety by taking the pilot away from the really important task at hand - simply flying the aircraft. Or they end up not being used while flying a single seat machine. When I learned to fly gliders, which are pretty simple machines, I learned a pretty simple alphabetical checklist that covered the biggies and was simple enough to memorize and do away with the piece of paper that gets lost or simply deemed too hard, resulting in no checklist being accomplished. This checklist covers the basic important items in most light aircraft. (Personal philosophy: If you can’t preflight and get a machine started without a checklist, then you need to use a written checklist until you know your machine well enough to get through the basics without that checklist.) At the airline where I work, we fly airplanes with hundreds of switches. At least, it looks like hundreds.
Okay, it’s a few less than that, but there are quite a few. And the philosophy is that if you know what they do, then you use a flow pattern to position them correctly. It’s much faster than a written checklist and just as accurate if used always the same way in a disciplined manner. If a student doesn’t know the craft well enough to get it preflighted and started without a written checklist, then I won’t solo him or her.
My personal procedure is to preflight, start, and taxi using aircraft knowledge and flows. I get everything set up for takeoff and then use my takeoff checklist to make sure nothing critical was forgotten. If I find something I have to position correctly for takeoff, I make a note to myself that my flow failed somehow and my backup system caught it. I need to do better next time. A checklist is a “check” list, not a “do” list.
Avionics and Altimeter – Is the radio frequency and volume set correctly? GPS destination? Departure routing? (Especially important at a tower-controlled field.) Altimeter at field elevation or zero depending on the situation. Is it set where you want?
Belts, Buckles, and Backseat – Seatbelts, chinstraps, visors, goggles, rear seat belt buckled, or if there is a passenger in it, is he or she secure? No loose things, etc. If solo, backseat is secured, seat belt fastened, and rear seat empty. Many goggles, gloves, fuel caps, etc., have rested nicely here until takeoff when they launch themselves straight back into the prop.
Controls and Trim – Every control is checked for freedom of movement, proper direction of movement, and proper positioning for takeoff. Flaps, spoilers, trim, etc.
Direction of Wind, Doors, and Windows – People have accidentally taken off downwind. Double check and don’t do something so stupid that people will later wonder what you were thinking. Make sure the doors and windows are latched. It’s annoying when they pop open around liftoff time.
Engine – Run-up is done. All engine controls are positioned correctly for takeoff. (Prop, mixture, choke, carb heat, etc.) All operating temps are appropriate. If you don’t know how to do a run-up and mag check, prop check, etc., without a written checklist, go back for more practice or instruction.
Fuel – How much do I have? Is the selector valve on? Is a fuel pump required for this aircraft?
Emergency on Takeoff – Back to E for one last thing. How long is this runway? Can I abort on the ground right up to Vr? If airborne, where will I go if I’m suddenly a glider? Should I drift to the downwind side of the runway after liftoff? Where are open fields? Where are obstacles? This is the catch-all that puts me in the right frame of mind to go flying. What is my plan for problems and how will it change as I climb out? How will the wind affect my plan?
It all goes much quicker than it might appear, because in reality it’s all done prior to actually doing the checklist. This is just to verify everything is done. If I have a passenger, I do it out loud. The passenger quits talking if I’m talking, so I’m uninterrupted during this critical portion of preflight prep. The passenger also gets the message that this flight is being conducted in a professional manner and his or her safety is important. (Actually, it’s my safety that’s important, but if I live, so does the passenger.) As a result, I build the habit pattern of doing this checklist the same every time whether dual or solo. It works in my trike, my airplane, and my helicopter. I’ve seen and heard stories of people taking off with the choke on (and engine subsequently quitting at about 300 feet above ground level), flaps not set correctly, trim forgotten, doors flying open at rotation (mildly distracting), gloves and goggles going through the prop at liftoff, wrong GPS destination set, no clue where they’re headed after liftoff, etc. This is designed to cover the major things that people screw up.
Jim Bair is a former Navy fighter pilot. When he’s not at work in a Boeing 747-400,he enjoys flying hang gliders, sailplanes, helicopters, aerobatic aircraft, and trikes. He’s an FAA Certified Flight Instructor and Designated Pilot Examiner for sport pilots and sport pilot instructors. He provides instruction in fixed wing airplanes and weight-shift trikes and can be contacted at www.SportAviationUnlimited.com.