Checklists and CRM by Deanna Wallace

Checklists and CRM by Deanna Wallace

When I was new to the aviation world, just acquiring my certificates and ratings, I would watch corporate aircraft of all sizes taxi onto the local ramp and enthusiastically greet pilots with my opinion on what a beautiful aircraft they had and how I couldn’t wait to fly one myself one day. Every now and then a crew member would make my day by allowing me to climb aboard and take a peek around, teasing me that “if I could get it started, I could take it for a spin.” Of course, I knew nothing about starting a turbine engine and their aircraft was safe from a flight by this fledgling pilot-in-training, but it didn’t keep me from dreaming about the day I’d be qualified to fly a turbine-powered aircraft myself … or even get the engine started.

Four years after beginning my flight training, I finally got the opportunity to fly right seat in a King Air 300 as a contracted co-pilot. I was not type-rated, but I was a quick learner and decent on the radios. The pilot-in-command (PIC), a wonderful man named Joe Wright, was a flight instructor that took the time to teach me the nuances of the airplane, share stick time, and mentor me in the corporate aviation world he had operated in for decades. He did not legally have to have me in that seat to fly the Part 91 operation, but he utilized me as if I were a required crewmember on every flight, in contrast to a PIC I later flew with that told me to sit on my hands and touch nothing. Both equally shaped my attitude toward flying in a crew environment.

Almost 20 years later, typed and single-pilot qualified on the King Air 300/350 airframe myself, I rarely leave with an empty right seat on trips. There are simply far too many eager aviators looking for a professional mentor and turbine experience for me to depart without a co-pilot, even one not experienced on the airframe. It matters not to me whether my co-pilot holds a private pilot certificate or is an ATP, they add value to the trip, reduce my workload when properly instructed, and, in turn, they gain valuable experience within the corporate sector that is difficult to come by for many aviators. I love introducing pilots to turbine aircraft, new performance considerations, and known, but formerly unused, phraseology … perhaps you remember the struggle the first time you had to remember to use the term “flight level” for altitudes or “torque” for power settings.

I mention all of this to say: mentors are important, attitudes are everything, and how you were introduced or how you may introduce other pilots to a dual-pilot, crewed cockpit will shape interactions with every other pilot (positively or negatively) in cockpits where crew (or cockpit) resource management (CRM) is a key component of a well-executed flight. Sadly, in cockpits where a single pilot is all that is required, CRM is a vastly underrated resource that many fail to use.     

In early August, the NTSB released the full docket of information for the King Air 350 crash in Addison, Texas, on June 30, 2019. While it does not include the final findings on the cause of the accident (that will come later), it gives those that like to study such things a lot of detail and insight into the information gleaned regarding the pilot, aircraft, environment and other potentially contributing factors. As a lifelong student of human factors, accident investigation and analysis has always fascinated me, as the vast majority of accidents have some sort of human factor component as a major or contributing factor. While the NTSB will provide us with the official cause of this accident, a couple of human factor items in the informational docket stood out as something we can all take away regarding CRM and checklist usage.

From the very first flight hour, checklist usage is drilled into student pilots by flight instructors. As pilots progress through training, they memorize mnemonics, phrases, flows and emergency checklist items that keep them on track during high workload times, but there is never a phase of flight when a checklist should not be referenced immediately preceding or immediately following a change in flight conditions. My personal preference is using a “flow” during normal operations and following up with a checklist rather than using the checklist as a line-by-line, to-do list as the pilot is reading it. I believe knowing how your aircraft should be configured, how that configuration makes it behave and what cockpit indications should look like during each phase of flight is important to recognizing when something is abnormal or wrong. With that being said, experience should never be used in lieu of proper checklist usage, as even the most proficient pilot can have contributing factors that cause them to misstep from time to time. A checklist is cheap insurance against missing something critical to a particular phase of flight.

During the course of the investigation into the Addison accident, the NTSB took several witness statements that indicated the PIC disregarded checklist usage as a normal course of action. Statements from known acquaintances and other co-pilots included phrases such as, “pilot did not utilize the checklist during the normal operation of N534FF,” “bad about using checklists,” “not strong on using checklists” and that the PIC was “impressed with anyone who could climb into the airplane and take off with minimal use of a checklist.” The cockpit voice recorder from the accident aircraft was noticeably void of any audible checklist callouts by either the PIC or co-pilot from the time preceding engine start until they were cleared for takeoff. The PIC was a vastly experienced pilot with over 16,000 hours of total time, most of that in jets, 3,100 hours in turboprops and 1,100 hours in the King Air 300. He was presumably proficient with 200 hours of flight time reported within the last 12 months preceding the accident. With all that experience, he likely knew the airframe procedures well and I can imagine he rarely missed anything critical to a particular phase of normal flight, despite his non-use of checklists … otherwise we would have been reading about an accident earlier than this one.

Whether the PIC’s disregard of pre-takeoff checklist usage contributed to a missed item critical to the safety of the flight is yet to be determined, but the practice certainly did not help the situation. Checklist callouts and challenges are a great tool in the CRM toolbox when flying with someone in the right seat … even a non-pilot, front seat passenger can read a checklist for verification by the pilot flying. An added bonus is the use of checklists, even abbreviated, is a great tool to help a co-pilot new to the airframe learn aircraft systems, normal configurations and parameters.

Another standout item in the released NTSB documents was the lack of recorded communication between the PIC and co-pilot specific to the operation of the flight. Although the co-pilot was not typed in the 300 series, he did have PIC time in other King Air models and would have been familiar enough to have been of some use in the event of a briefed emergency. On this particular flight, there was no CVR recorded pre-departure crew briefing and acquaintance statements described the PIC as a “’gear up, shut up’ kind of guy’” and “the ‘old cantankerous captain’.” This type of attitude by a PIC lends itself to a marked lack of one of the best CRM tools around, that of the challenge. When a crewmember is led to believe that they are not actually needed, that their input is lesser than the PIC’s opinion, or that the PIC should not be challenged, a breakdown in effective cockpit communication occurs and the pilot not flying is relegated to passenger status, not that of a valuable crewmember. A proper and thorough crew briefing prior to takeoff should have included elements pertaining to an engine out scenario prior to and after V1, as well as what is expected of the pilot not flying immediately after liftoff.

Items such as guarding the power levers, adjusting the friction locks, when to raise flaps, turning on the yaw damper, etc., are all items I like to brief prior to the takeoff, especially for co-pilots new to flying with me. If you have a capable co-pilot and are not utilizing them to decrease your workload so you are better able to troubleshoot abnormalities during and immediately following takeoff, I highly recommend you review your procedures and see what duties you may delegate (at your command). Start looking at CRM and proper checklist usage as valuable tools that can be used to safely execute a planned flight, as well as foster an appreciation for safety and communication in other pilots you fly with.

Deanna Wallace has amassed over 6,000 flight hours since she started flying in 1997 and is a 20-year Gold Seal CFI/CFII/MEI with more than 2,000 hours dual given. She holds a Bachelor of Aviation Management from Auburn University and a Master of Aeronautical Science from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Deanna is single pilot typed in the King Air 300/350 and flies all King Air variants regularly, including the B100 with TPE-331 engines. Through her East Texas employer, Casey Aviation, she flies Part 91 managed King Airs, ferries aircraft worldwide and actively instructs owner-pilots in the PA46 piston and turbine series aircraft.

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