If you are like me, rushing is a part of everyday life. A side effect of that is forgetting things because you rush around trying to get things done within a specific timeframe. Every morning, I get two kids ready for school from the time they wakeup to out the door within an hour. Juggling two kids, a puppy getting under your feet, school lunches and snack preparation in that hour, it’s chaotic.
This morning’s edition of organized chaos saw me executing things with military precision to the point that for the first time this week, both kids were ready ahead of time, which left me wondering what I had forgotten because life rarely goes that smooth. Getting in the car for the school run I realized that I had forgotten a vital lifeline, my all-important phone. Cue sending my son inside at a full sprint because now – we were officially running late. Welcome to the first week back at school after summer folks, situation; normal.
Now put that same scenario into aviation. My flight instructor was relentless about checklists. To the point, the aircraft I trained in had laminated checklists and an attached whiteboard marker with checkmark boxes so that you could physically check off items as verified on preflight and startup checklists. In addition to this, nothing was checked off the list until it was verbalized; you physically touched the item on the list and verified its correct status. Verbalizing again with a confirmation of the condition.
At the time, I thought it was a little over the top and that my 10,000+ hour instructor was just a little eccentric. However, looking back today, I know what he was doing. He instilled in me a systematic approach to starting the aircraft, taking the time to check and verify everything was as it should be, preventing me from making potentially fatal mistakes later on down the line. Much like my firearms instructor at the academy yelling at me to count my rounds, these are all excellent teaching methods to instill a best practice approach to doing things without thinking about them because they have become a habit.
Again, looking back to my example above from this morning, I have flown with literally hundreds of pilots over the last decade as an aviation journalist, and one thing sticks out time and time again. It’s the lack of people using a physical checklist and confirming every step they take. It doesn’t happen every time, but the example of people doing things with a checklist versus not, with the exception of the military branches I have worked with, is a massive slant towards those who don’t and rely on muscle memory. I get it. If you fly the same aircraft day in and day out, your muscle memory is set to that aircraft, and you know the preflight and startup sequence like the back of your hand. And then there is the school of thought known as “the flow”, where you methodically do each and every item the same way every time. This works when everything else is working perfectly.
Let me now throw a hypothetical curveball at you. Your agency or company just purchased an AS-350B3e (now called the H125), the newest “A-star” on the market from Airbus, for you to sling buckets. But you have been flying the AS-350B3 before this for several years. It’s essentially the same aircraft, right? Well, technically, yes. With one big difference, the H125 has dual hydraulics, and the B3 does not. Now the difference between the H125 and the AS-350B3e is that the early models of the B3e is that Airbus neglected to add a secondary hydraulic caution light on the caution warning panel in the early B3e initially, which is the one your company just bought (this problem has since been rectified by Airbus in the H125 and offered as a free fix for older B3e’s). However, it hasn’t been back to Airbus to have the additional indicator light put in.
Now there is a large fire burning just a few miles from your base, and there is an immediate risk to a nearby town. You hustle as fast as you can, getting on your flight suit, helmet, gloves, and maps to tell you where you are going. You switch on power and plug in your helmet to comms to get an early understanding of the fire you are about to fight. You rush through your startup from memory and pull pitch rising to 100, 200 feet and go to apply pedal input…..nothing, where are the hydraulics? Now you are out of control, and you pulled too much pitch on takeoff in your rush, so now you’re spinning out of control. We all know how this hypothetical story ends. If you don’t, look up the crash of the Colorado Flight for Life AS-350 in Frisco, Colorado.
The moral of my story is this. Be methodical and deliberate, slow down and make sure you get it right and don’t miss a small step that could mean the difference between fighting a fire or your family getting a knock at the door no one ever wants.