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Concerns about checklists

By Don Parcher

April 9th, 2013

This is interesting. I checked Wikipedia to see what it had to say about checklists and, after some paragraphs detailing the use and advantages of checklists, I found the following:

Excessive dependence of checklists may hinder performance when dealing with a time-critical situation, for example a medical emergency or an in-flight emergency. Checklists should not be used as a replacement for common sense. Intensive training including rote-learning of checklists can help integrate use of checklists with more adaptive and flexible problem solving techniques.

I agree.


  1. On October 28th, 2013, toddbu said:

    I’ve been a long time fan of checklists ever since my discovery that they were a key factor in making the moon landings a success. I’d debate the quote above that checklists are not for time-critical situations. In fact, I’d say that it’s the opposite. If you haven’t done so already, read the book “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Dr. Atul Gawande. In his book he cites the case of UAL811. In this incident, a 747 lost a cargo door over the Pacific Ocean resulting in total decompression and had to make an emergency return to Hawaii. As told by Dr. Gawande, the pilots relied on a checklist to safely guide them back and credited the checklist with their safe return. Also, during the Apollo 13 mission, several checklists were used to return the men safely to Earth after an explosion in the O2 tank. I don’t remember the exact source, but there is a story where Gene Krantz (the Flight Director) had a checklist that he relied on for “when all else goes wrong” which guided him in the first few minutes following the O2 tank explosion. Additionally, new checklists were developed on the fly to handle the CO2 problem in the LEM and the power-up sequence for the CSM. The only thing that I can think of related to Apollo 13 that wasn’t part of a checklist was the decision as to whether to do a direct return or a free return trajectory. Since the free return trajectory was the option chosen and was already built into the contingency plan then no checklist was necessary, but had a direct return been chosen then you could be sure that they would have developed a checklist before telling the astronauts to start throwing switches.

    I’m not saying that you should never rely on common sense, but if someone has taken the time to think about an emergency in a non-emergency setting then you’re probably better to rely on what they’ve thought through than to try to handle things on your own in the heat of the moment.

  2. On October 28th, 2013, editor said:

    toddbu: Great comments! I agree with you but I think there’s general consensus that there are situations in which a person, e.g., a pilot, may not have time to physically refer to a checklist. In those cases, the applicable checklist needs to have been memorized.

  3. On May 29th, 2014, ThisIsMe said:

    editor: a memorized checklist is still a checklist :)

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