Don’t laugh, but using simple checklists can turn you into a better pilot.
Have you driven to the field, only to realize later that you left an important piece of gear at home? Have you taken off and then remembered that you skipped an important step in your preflight? Did your nervousness before a maiden flight doomed it to failure? Have you gotten excited on a contest day and forgotten to do something you had never forgotten to do before?
I have. We all have.
We are human and we are fallible. We make mistakes all the time. Our brains are wired for creativity and for exploration, not for paying attention to boring details.
Human memory and judgment are flawed, specially under stressful situations. The more distracted and pressed for time you are, and the more complex the task, the more likely we are to make mistakes.
Even if we have the knowledge, it can be a challenge to apply it correctly and consistently every single time.
Checklists are a way of coping with complexity.
I know. Checklists are not sexy. They are not fun. Any idiot can preflight a model airplane, or so you say. I am sure you feel it is a matter of pride to go through and remember every step required.
If you think reading from a checklist is silly, forgetting an important step is even sillier. Trust me on that one.
A checklist is not a comprehensive how-to guide. A checklist is a quick and simple tool designed to help experienced RC pilots.
Using a checklist is not dumbing things down, but rather being systematic. They are a way of building your confidence level when you are nervous or distracted, like right before a maiden flight or a contest.
A checklist is not a formula for success. It is just a tool that lets you be as good as you can be every time. A checklist improves the outcome without an increase in skill level. Think of a checklist as a complement to your experience. They let you easily take care of the routine steps so you can focus on what really matters.
Good checklists are precise, efficient, and easy to use even in stressful situations. They do not try and spell out everything. They should only try and provide reminders of the most critical and important steps. Above all else, they need to be practical!
Keep checklists short and to the point. Do not bother writing down obvious steps that you are unlikely to forget to do. Also, the longer the checklist the less likely you are to follow it.
Write them using action verbs. Do not write down “throttle”. That is ambiguous. What are you really trying to say? Similarly, writing down “check throttle” is equally ambiguous. A much better step on the checklist would be “Throttle Off”. Clear and simple.
A checklist will be much more effective if it is tailor made to your specific personal needs. You know what steps you need to carry out. You know better than anyone else what steps you need to be reminded of.
I prefer the so called “Do, confirm” checklist review system. Do the steps first, then confirm that they were carried out by reading the checklist. This system works best for tailor made checklists.
The other system for going over a checklist is called the “read, do” style. In this system, you read each checklist item right before you do it. This can be slower, but is easier to modify on the fly.
Keep a checklist to between 5 and 9 items. Focus on the most important items. The ones that are most harmful if skipped but are still possible to skip in error. Use uppercase and lowercase letters for ease of reading. Keep it simple and easy to read. Do not overuse color coding.
Checklists need to be tested and revised based on the test results. Put a revision date on it. You will never get them right on the first try.
Here are some resources to help you think about and put together your own checklists.
Appropriately enough, the first is a PDF containing a checklist for creating checklists. As an elaborate example, then I included a PDF for a sample checklist for a full-size Cessna 172.
There is a website for others to share checklists that they have created. I’m sure you will find many ideas for checklists there. Sorry, but it does not seem to contain any sample checklists for model airplanes.
A popular book, called The Checklist Manifesto, talks about the introduction of checklists to intensive care units. There is a lot of food for thought in the book about checklists in general.