The checklist in the rotary wing cockpit: Understanding what, why, and how.

Do helicopter crews have as good an understanding of the proper use of checklists and checklist philosophy as their airline pilot brethren? Like everyone else, I have worked with checklists since I first set foot in the world of aviation. They are omni-present. But my in own experience – as far as I can recollect – I was never taught anything specific about the ‘correct’ way to interact with them.

Many of those who populate the rotary world are not brought up in a multi-crew environment from the beginning of their aviation careers like most airline crews are. On the contrary, the likelihood is that they served apprenticeships in the single pilot cockpit, where interaction with a checklist is necessarily very different. Even many military pilots come from a single pilot background for much of their careers. Those that don’t will still recognise that there is a less rigid application of the multi-crew SOPs in military flying than what they might have encountered subsequently in the civilian world. All of this leads to a different upbringing in our relationship with the checklist, and perhaps not as complete an appreciation as to how to use it and why they are so important.

The role of the checklist in how we interact with and operate aircraft is integral to the liveware-hardware interface between human and machine, and as such deserves more attention than we often give it.

The role of the checklist in how we interact with and operate aircraft is integral to the liveware-hardware interface between human and machine, and as such deserves more attention than we often give it. A checklist’s exact use, benefits, weaknesses, contradictions, and even failings are often a source of opinion and comment. Nevertheless, understanding its design philosophy – and when it is being used ‘correctly’ or incorrectly’ with respect to this – is central to our being able to make informed judgements about how we choose to use it in a practical context. If the operation requires us to adapt the use of the checklist or use it in a non-standard manner, then we should at least understand that we are doing so, and why. 

Understanding the value of your checklist

It may be a relatively humble piece of on-board equipment, but having a proper understanding of what your checklist brings to your performance, and what it offers you, should help you give the respect it deserves!

Here are ten things your checklist does for you:

Recall and memory functions

1. Helps your recall in the process of configuring the aircraft.

2. Provides sequences for motor movements and eye fixations around the cockpit panels. 

3. Provides a standard foundation for verifying aircraft configuration that will protect against any reduction in your psychological and physical condition.

4. Provide a sequential framework to meet internal and external cockpit operational requirements.

Crew co-ordination and Communication

5. Facilitates mutual supervision (cross checking) among crew members.

6. Enhances team situation awareness in configuring the aircraft by keeping all crew members “in the loop.”

7. Distributes crew workload by dictating the duties of each member thereby helping to achieve optimum crew coordination.

Supervision, Standards & Standardisation

8. Allows for standardisation of crews across operations and fleets, promoting an improved baseline standard.

9. Serves as a tool for supervision, quality control management and regulatory oversight over the crew in the process of configuring the plane for the flight.

10. Helps to overcome problems associated with high or low crew gradient when called upon as a well established SOP.

There is also an eleventh function that depends upon you having a sound understanding of the above. It turns out, that research has shown that when crews have a true understanding of the importance of the checklist, then the checklist itself promotes a positive attitude to the procedures that they contain, meaning greater compliance and adherence to SOP.

When crews have a true understanding of the importance of the checklist, then the checklist itself promotes a positive attitude.

Proper checklist philosophy and usage

There are two different methods that can be used to conduct a checklist correctly. Some operators will combine the two depending upon the nature of the tasks, but which philosophy is in use should be clear, and how they are to be used set down as a standard procedure.

Challenge-Verification-Response.

Under this philosophy, the crew use their memory and other techniques to configure the aircraft.

Then, once the initial configuration is complete, the checklist is used to verify that several critical items have been correctly accomplished. 

The process of conducting this checklist method is as follows: 

  • Pilot Flying calls for the checklist.
  • Pilot Monitoring calls the checklist item from the list.
  • Both PF & PM together verify that the item is set properly.
  • PF then calls the verified status of the item, and so on. 

Note that under “challenge-verification-response,” the checklist is a backup for the initial configuration of the plane, providing redundancy, as a ‘second check’.

The Do-List. 

This method can be better termed “call-do-response.” In this method, the checklist is used to direct the pilot in configuring the aircraft by following the list through step-by-step. 

The process of conducting this method is as follows: 

  • Pilot Flying calls for the checklist.
  • Pilot Monitoring calls for an item. 
  • Pilot Flying positions or sets the item to the correct position, and then announces the new status of the item.
  • Once the item is accomplished, the next item is read and so on.

Therefore, the configuration redundancy employed in the challenge-response method is lost with this method as the aircraft is configured only once as part of the check. It is worth emphasising that in both methods the task of verifying the status of each item is the responsibility of both pilots (also conceived that way for reasons of redundancy). 

Common Errors in Checklist Usage

Verification and redundancy

Probably the most common deviation in following this checklist philosophy properly is the failure to fully involve both pilots in the verification process. In both challenge-verify-response and Do-list formats, the verification of the status of each item on the list should be confirmed visually by more than one crew member to ensure redundancy.

Another common deviation which can occur is the Pilot Monitoring carrying out both the challenge and the response part of the list. This tends to happen in situations of high workload for the Pilot Flying, or when workload – particularly communication – on the part of the whole crew, gets in the way of a suitable time window for the running of the list before reaching the point the aircraft needs to be configured. 

There might be times when this situation cannot be avoided, but it is important to understand the effect of running the checklist without the interaction of the rest of the crew. The mutual redundancy that is built into the procedure is lost. Furthermore, the process becomes vulnerable to all the elements that the checklist is designed to prevent:

  1. With no one monitoring the process, the rigour and quality execution declines.
  2. The person running the list is more susceptible to skipping through items or skimming down the list depending on time pressure after the quick initial configuration of the aircraft.
  3. As it is no longer a formal crew event, it becomes more vulnerable to distractions such as ATC communications, outside scan, starting an engine during etc.
  4. Running the list against a previous check of configuration means that it is once again based on memory, and not on a step-by-step challenge-and-response.
  5. The situation awareness of the configuration of the aircraft is lost for the rest of the crew.
  6. The rest of the crew are unable to verify that the list has been run and completed properly.

‘Chunking’ the list

Chunking is a ‘short-cut’ to proper usage of the checklist that can develop overtime and become normalised. This is when several challenge items are called together in one “chunk,” by the person running the list, and the other crew member replies in turn a series of chunked responses. 

This short-cut undermines the concept behind the step-by-step challenge-and-response procedure and once again introduces a reliance on the pilot’s short-term and long-term memory as to the order and completion of the checklist, which, in fact, is exactly what the checklist is supposed to prevent.

Not calling completion

The completion call is a redundant action. In most cases crew members know that the checklist is completed. However, this is the only reliable feedback available to indicate this. Some operators write the completion call as the last item in each task-checklist, making the call itself the final checklist item. Some choose not to list this call in the checklist, but still require the pilots to make the completion call. 

Distraction is a common cause of poor aircraft configuration and checklist discipline. In a high workload or time-pressured flight as can be the case in many helicopter tasks, this becomes a high risk area for error. Calling completion of the list introduces an opportunity for the person running the list to confirm that all items actually have been completed. It also flags to the rest of the crew that aircraft has been configured for that phase of flight, and that discrete task of running the checklist is now over, allowing attention to be moved on to other things.

Ambiguous responses

Many checklists have variable responses on the list to allow for different aircraft configurations. For example, the words “set,” “check,” “completed,” etc. indicate that an item is accomplished. However, these words should ideally not be used to respond to the challenge. Instead, the response should always portray the actual status, position, or the value of the item (switches, levers, lights, fuel quantities, etc.).

The checklist in the rotary wing cockpit.

Like so many other aspects of rotary wing aviation, the design and philosophy of checklist use is inherited from airline operations. This is all very well, but it is useful to acknowledge that some important differences exist in the way many helicopter operations are crewed and function, compared with line flying in the commercial air traffic sector.

Rotary wing flying can present challenges to the proper use of the checklist. Acknowledging these pressures is a good start in mitigating their potential misuse.

For example:

Crew configuration

  • Single pilot ops are more prevalent
  • Single pilot ops can include non-pilot crew members
  • These can include non-pilot front seat crew members 
  • Multiple aeronautically trained crew allow for the option of non-pilot checklist reading/checking/monitoring

If helicopter crew is made up of more than just two pilots, or one pilot supported by other crew members a wider range of options is available as to how we can, could, or should interact with checklists. In my past military flying it was not uncommon to make use of non-front seat crew to assist with the reading of emergency and even normal checklists. Back in the days when airliners flew with Flight Engineers, things also worked this way. In a high workload situation it was seen to be a logical use of all available (human) resources in the aircraft. Or just good CRM. Obviously this depends on a well trained and drilled crew-member to be able to understand and read the checklist effectively.

Flight profiles

  • In rotary wing flying typical flight sectors are shorter, less uniform, and often interrupted by other, non-routine or unexpected tasks.
  • Traffic patterns, landing and approach briefs and recces can be more time constrained.
  • A typical flight can often contain many high workload periods compressed together or unevenly distributed in an unpredictable pattern. 
  • The urgency of the mission can sometimes prevent proactive workload management distributing tasks more evenly, or allowing extra time.

One hard working helicopter I have flown had logged 20,000 flying hours, but amassed over 60,000 landings. That amounts to more than three landings for every flight hour, instead of the more likely figure for an airline jet of three flight hours for every landing. Those statistics suggest a some helicopter crews might have up to 9x less time to interact with the same set of checklists that an airline crew has during a flight.

I know that the above example is overly simplistic, however, it is illustrative of a problem inherent to helicopter operations. I have listened to complaints from one operation that I have worked with that the (original, un-tailored) normal checklists that had accompanied the entry into service of their new helicopter was so extensive that they physically didn’t have time between each phase of flight to run the required lists and configure the aircraft, often arriving on scene for training or an incident before having worked through all the preceding lists. This kind of workload management problem is not uncommon in the sort of short hops often encountered in HEMS or SAR type operations, and can create the conditions for non-compliance with SOPs, under the category of “violation for organisational gain,” or not following the checklist because it doesn’t work “in the real world.”

Tailoring checklists to rotary wing tasks

Do these differences require us to interact differently with checklists to an airline crew? Fundamentally, the answer is no. However, we do have to account for the human desire to find the fastest, quickest, or most efficient way to work. In a questionnaire studying the reasons why we don’t always follow standard operating procedures, over 40% of people agreed that practicality – “they are unworkable in practice”; “they make it more difficult to do the work”; “they are too time consuming”; “they are unnecessarily restrictive” -was a key factor. A similar number identified optimisation as the main reason: “people usually find a better way of doing the job” or “it does not describe the best way to carry out the work.” A checklist design and a checklist philosophy that does meet the challenges of the way we are operating our aircraft will soon become a source of violation of SOP, and normalisation of deviance by crews.

Should then we be considering the different nuances to checklist design in the rotary wing world in more depth? Probably. 

It is the Operators’ responsibility to create and adapt type specific checklists to the nature of their operations. However, this is not always a straight-forward job. The versatility of the helicopter and its role flexibility can create the problem of how to integrate a variety of roles or tasks into a single checklist or set of lists. Or how to maintain a concise selection of checklists. A rotary wing operation that includes a variety of roles from load-lifting and winching to fire-fighting and HEMS, onshore and offshore, might have to balance the risk of proliferating ever more tailored lists, against the dangers of paring down to an overly generic one. Whether sufficient time and thought is put into the design and content of these is dependent upon the motivation, responsiveness, and the culture of individual companies.  

Whatever the challenges that using a checklist might present to us, we should still think of it as a trusted friend. The volume and complexity of what we know, and how we are expected to perform, has exceeded our ability as individuals to do so correctly, safely, and reliably. Using a checklist is like a cognitive net which catches our built-in mental flaws and shares the responsibility for errors. Furthermore, its use has been shown to establish a higher standard of baseline performance in all of us, so they will also make you a better aviator!

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