AIN Blog: Use the Checklist!!!

 - November 6, 2013, 8:47 PM
Cessna 172
A beautiful day to fly in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Once again I was reminded that I never stop learning about flying. This time it was a fuel-injected Cessna Skyhawk, which stubbornly refused to start after I landed and taxied to the gas pump to fill it up before putting it away. It was a gorgeous day in Southern California, light winds, incredible visibility and a fun flight out of Santa Monica Airport. 

After trying about four times to start the warm engine, I decided to do the smart thing and pull out the official checklist for the airplane. I had been referring to one of those crappy laminated checklists that seem ubiquitous in rental aircraft, and I’ve found that these are often skimpy when it comes to specific procedures, especially the hot start. Indeed, I had flooded the engine, and once I followed the correct procedure in Cessna’s flight manual, the engine started right up. (Forgive a brief digression, but Cessna could forever fix this finnicky hot-start by installing Champion Aerospace’s clever SlickStart hot-spark start-assist device, but for some reason no one at Cessna seems to think this is a good idea. Don’t ask me why.)

So, the lesson learned? Use the checklist, but also use the correct checklist.

Thinking about this later, I was reminded about a flight that could have resulted in a damaged airplane and potential harm to my family, where the checklist saved the day. 

We were flying a friend’s Piper Arrow to visit relatives; this was a quickly planned trip that in retrospect I probably should have relegated to the bad-idea department. Nevertheless, there we were, entering the traffic pattern at the destination, at about sunset (I was not night current, so there was pressure to land soon), one kid struggling with a full bladder (more pressure), and when I put the landing-gear lever in the down position, the green lights didn’t illuminate.

Every Piper retractable pilot knows what the problem was: I had switched on the nav lights because it was dark, and when the nav lights are on, the three green gear lights are dimmed so they don’t dazzle you at nighttime. In this particular airplane, the dimmer circuit was broken and the lights didn’t come on at all with the nav lights on, when they should have illuminated dimly.

There was an added factor; after takeoff, the gear had not come up promptly, which caused a little alert to wedge itself in the back of my mind: “Oh by the way, something might be wrong with the gear, so don’t be surprised if it causes trouble later.” Indeed, when the three green lights didn’t light up at the destination, my brain was primed for something to be wrong with the landing gear. And the thought that I might need to check the nav lights just didn’t occur to me.

We departed the pattern and tried the gear a few more times. Things felt normal, but no green lights. After circling for what seemed like a long time, but was probably about 10 minutes, I finally got smart and, using the available resources, asked my wife to read me the emergency checklist for the landing gear. Of course, the first item on that checklist is to try turning the nav lights off, and sure enough, three bright green lights shone forth. Thank goodness, we can land, and I don’t have to worry about a gear-up landing in my friend’s Arrow

That happened a while ago, so maybe I can forgive myself for not remembering the checklist lesson right away when I couldn’t get the Skyhawk’s warm engine to start. Hopefully I’ll remember next time: the checklist is your friend; just use it.