Paper Brain & Thinking Beyond the Checklist

By Scott Spangler on August 25th, 2009

JetWhine_Notebook In situations of information overload it’s easy to overlook or forget important things as the mind struggles to focus and make sense of it all. In the air, pilots rely on checklists and standardized procedures, and on the ground, as a reporter I rely on my notebook, a paper brain, if you will.

After any event of information overload, like EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, I  review my notes and list key topics on the back cover. More important than making it easier to find information should I need it in the future, it’s a double check to ensure something hasn’t fallen into the cracks between  short-term and long-term memory and the desire to share what I’ve learned with others. 

JetWhine_Standards A perfect example is the talk Airbus Test Pilot Terry Lutz gave at the Meet the Master Instructors Breakfast, held by the National Association of Flight Instructors. Standardized procedures and following checklists are good things, he told the flight instructors, but focusing on them exclusively, without thinking about the variables of a particular situation can be detrimental to the safe outcome of a flight.

He used US Airways Flight 1549 as an example. When geese turned the Airbus 320 into a glider, one of the first things Captain Sullenberger did was not on the checklist, Lutz said: he fired up the APU. My notes are sketchy on his technical explanation of why this was an excellent decision. It had something to do the effect of a dual engine failure on backup generators and how long the batteries last, but the point was clear: electricity is important to fly-by-wire airplanes, and the APU provides it.

First Officer Jeffrey Skiles and Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, cockpit crew of US Airways flight 1549 at the Honda Mainstage Pavillion. Captain Sully’s next good decision also came from thinking beyond the checklist, Lutz said, which says to “fly green-dot speed, the best L over D.” Immediately realizing he’d not make an airport, he flew at a speed that shortened the distance flown but increased the time aloft, giving First Officer Jeff Skiles more time to run the checklist and attempt a restart.

What led to these good decisions, Lutz said, was the captain’s diverse aviation experience in many different airplanes from fighters and gliders to a variety of transport category people haulers. His takeaway message to the instructors was clear: all flight training, from that first lesson at a grass strip in the country to earning a type rating in Lutz’s current ride, the A380, is structured to give the greatest result for the lowest cost.

Standardization is one way to make training most cost efficient, but the downside is the loss of aeronautical diversity, he continued. If pilots only focus on one way to fly, the Airbus way, the Boeing way, the pick-an-airline-or-flight-school way, they have no other experience to draw on when needed, and that limits their ability to think–and fly–outside the box filled with expected or anticipated situations. — Scott Spangler

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