• Allen Rathey

Learning from the Pilot's Checklist

The B17 was called ‘too much airplane for one man to fly' until engineers provided a simple pilot's checklist.

When the B17 bomber was first introduced to the army in the 1930s, it was revolutionary: It had four engines instead of two, a 103 foot wingspan, was built of sleek aluminum-alloy, carried 5x the number of bombs requested, could fly farther and almost twice as fast as other bombers, and it bested the designs proposed by Martin and Douglas. It was dubbed the “flying fortress” by a reporter. The army planned to order 65 of them.

Then came the test flight at October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, as army brass observed. The B17 rose off the runway, climbed to 300 feet, stalled, then banked sharply and crashed to a fiery end killing the experienced captain and one of the other 5 crewmen. The investigation showed no mechanical issues.

The cause? Pilot error. It was more complicated to fly than previous aircraft had been, and the pilot, Major Hill, had “forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls.”

From the book The Checklist Manifesto:

“The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, ‘too much airplane for one man to fly.’ The army air corps declared Douglas's smaller design the winner. Boeing nearly went bankrupt.”

“Still, the army purchased a few aircraft from Boeing as test planes, and some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable. So a group of test pilots got together and considered what to do.”

“What they decided not to do was almost as interesting as what they actually did. They did not require B17 pilots to undergo longer training. It was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill, who had been the air corps' chief of flight testing. Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot's checklist.”

“Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced. In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage. But flying this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any one person, however expert.”

“The test pilots made their list simple, brief, and to the point − short enough to fit on an index card, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. It had the kind of stuff that all pilots know to do. They check that the brakes are released, that the instruments are set, that the door and windows are closed, that the elevator controls are unlocked − dumb stuff.”

“You wouldn't think it would make that much difference. But with the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the B17 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident.”

“The army ultimately ordered almost thirteen thousand of the aircraft ... And, because flying the behemoth was now possible, the army gained a decisive air advantage in the Second World War, enabling its devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany.”