Oh my, emergency procedures!
Most pilots are quick to pay lip service to knowing those procedures cold. Everyone can rattle off the blatantly obvious reason: an emergency can strike at any time, and if it does, you have no time to flip through the POH, so thou shalt be able to recite said procedures from memory faster than you can recall your date of birth or the name of your high school sweetheart.
And yet, an alarming number of students and licensed pilots have at best a vague recollection of most emergency checklists. Let's look into why this happens and how we can fix it!
It is difficult to blame student pilots for having a hard time with emergency checklists. Many students do not understand the reasons behind the procedures, so trying to learn them is akin to memorizing long repetitive verses in an unfamiliar language. Such a task is doomed to fail!
The first step towards memorizing the checklists is understanding the reasons behind the actions they call for. For that, you need to know your airplane. Of course, your instructor introduced you to the basics of how your plane works, but that's only the beginning. Here is what you can do to begin building a more thorough understanding of the plane's systems:
- Read the appropriate sections of the Flight Training Manual and From the Ground Up to gain a general understanding of different airplane systems. Supplement that information with reading aviation magazines and/or online resources.
- Read the POH section that describes your plane. What kind of an engine does your plane have? How are the flaps actuated? What power sources are used for what instruments? How do the brakes work? What kind of a fuel system does your plane have?
- Ask if your school has some sort of a systems knowledge test for the planes in its fleet - that will help you check your understanding.
- When doing the walk-around, ask yourself: "Do I know what this weird doohickey is? What does this thingamabob do?" Ask your instructor if you are not sure!
- When completing a checklist (e.g., pre-start, pre-taxi, pre-take-off), ask yourself: "What is the purpose of this item? What am I checking? What indications are abnormal and what would they mean? What is the purpose of doing this or that checklist item? What would happen if I failed to complete it?" If you don't know the answer to any of these questions, ask your instructor (perhaps after the lesson, when you're not paying for the plane rental!).
- Hang out around the hangar/flight school and listen to people talk. You can learn a lot by osmosis! Just make sure the person you are listening to knows what they are talking about (i.e., are they the head of maintenance or just an overconfident pre-solo student?)
- Read the journey log entries and figure out what they mean. Ask your instructor if you're not sure.
2. LEARN THE PROCEDURES
Now that you have a better understanding of how the plane works, you can start making sense of what can go wrong with it and how you can fix it. Here are the steps that will help you memorize these checklists:
- Pick an emergency. Read over the procedure in the POH. Make sure to read both the checklist and the amplified procedures sections, which clarifies how and why the checklist items are performed. Make sure that the order of the steps and the reasons behind performing each step are clear to you.
- Memorize the checklist. Alas, there is no way getting around this part. Even if you understand the procedure and can probably figure it out from scratch as you reason through what to do, you won't have time for this during an actual emergency. Fortunately, now that you understand the procedure, memorizing it should be easier. A few things can help you with this step. One is flash cards: the very act of making them will help, and, once you have them, they are easy to carry around and review whenever you have a spare minute. Another is using mnemonic devices: the way I remember the checklist for dealing electric fire in flight is a poem I wrote as a student... It's awful poetry, but I guarantee you I'll never forget that checklist!
3. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Unfortunately, this is a case of "use it or lose it": You have to keep reviewing these procedures to keep them fresh in your memory.
- Review the checklists on the ground. It is not a bad idea to review them before EVERY flight - it sounds daunting, but as you keep doing it, you'll be able to whip through them in no time, and you will have the security of knowing that you do remember them if you happen to need them on that flight. In some military environments, pilots are only allowed to fly after writing down the plane's emergency procedures on the same day. I might suggest doing this before you get to the flight school, because once you are there, you have far too many other things to worry about, like the walk-around, the pre-flight briefing, signing the plane out, performing the final weather check and so on and so forth.
- Your review will be even more effective if you do it in the actual plane. Most flight schools won't mind if you want to sit in an airplane after a flight, as long as no one else has booked after you. Say the checklists out loud and touch the controls as you are calling them out.
- Finally, practice in flight! Hopefully your instructor already asks you things like "Okay, the engine is on fire, what will you do?", but if not, get him or her to do it. Make it as realistic as you can without compromising safety (i.e., pull the throttle out on a simulated engine failure, but do not actually pull out the mixture or turn off ignition; just touch those to indicate you'll be shutting them off to secure the engine).