November 30, 2010
When I’m taxiing around airports worldwide, I’m always amused to see that they still have windsocks. It’s maybe the only thing from the first days of aviation that you’ll still find at modern airports. It’s low tech, but it gives a clear indication of wind strength and direction…at least to anyone who’s looking. Many pilots probably don’t even notice the windsocks at major airports. After all, you don’t really need them. Most large airports continuously broadcast the local weather, including winds, and the tower will normally state the winds when clearing a plane for takeoff or landing.
So why are they there? Maybe they’ve survived because they’re virtually maintenance-free and provide a simple backup in case the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) fails. I like to think of them as a link to the early days, giving us a connection to Wilbur and Orville. The windsock is familiar to every pilot who has ever flown, all the way back to 1903. It’s hard to think of anything more universal in aviation.
Another item that’s been around a long time is the checklist. I don’t think the Wrights had one, but it wouldn’t surprise me. With very simple planes, a pilot might be able to get away with just depending on memory to cover all the items “necessary to live,” but in the airline world everything is backed up by checklists. The organization and content of the checklists will vary from airline to airline, but the underlying concept is the same: Humans make mistakes, and we need to check that we’re doing it right.
I was a new First Officer at a regional airline in the early 90s, and we were departing Pittsburgh, heading back to Dulles airport in Washington D.C. I had been on the job long enough to be very comfortable with the pace of getting engines started, running checklists and configuring the plane for takeoff.
On this day, we had a very short taxi to the active runway. I had just started the second engine and completed the After Start checklist when the tower cleared us for takeoff. The Captain keyed his mike and acknowledged the takeoff clearance, and started taxiing onto the runway. I realized we hadn’t done the Taxi checklist or the Before Takeoff checklist, and I began reciting both lists as fast as I could get the words out. It was a race to see if I could finish before the plane became airborne…and it was close. There were some serious items on those checklists that affect safety of flight, including takeoff flap setting. My memory is a little fuzzy now, but I’m pretty sure I was selecting takeoff flaps as we accelerated down the runway.
I remember feeling angry about being put in this situation. Then I got mad at myself. I could have (and should have) put a stop to it just by speaking up and telling the Captain we weren’t ready to go. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t fall into this trap ever again.
The root of the problem was being rushed. It’s when we get taken out of our normal pace of doing things that we tend to miss items or make mistakes. Checklists are only good if we take the time to use them. And that’s why our training hammers home the point: Do it methodically, and take your time. One of my early simulator instructors, a retired Air Force C-5 pilot, had a great piece of advice for how to handle emergency situations: “If you’re going to do something stupid, do it slowly.” I’ve heard some old-timers say the first thing to do in any emergency is to wind the clock. The point is that you don’t just rush to react — you take a breath and handle it in a measured pace.