How the Pilot's
Checklist Came About

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Last updated 09/10/12
History written by John Schamel

This page contains a brief history about the development of aviation checklists used in aircraft today.

October 30, 1935
Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio

  The final phase of aircraft evaluations under U.S. Army specification 98-201 (July 18, 1934) was to begin. Three manufactures had submitted aircraft for testing. Martin submitted their Model 146; Douglas submitted the DB-1; and Boeing submitted their Model 299. Boeing, a producer of fighters for U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, had little success in commercial airliners or bombers for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Boeing’s entry had swept all the evaluations, figuratively flying circles around the competition. Many considered these final evaluations mere formalities - talk was of an order for between 185 and 220 aircraft. Boeing executives were excited - a major sale would save the company.
At the controls of the Model 299 this day were two Army pilots. Major Ployer P. Hill (his first time flying the 299) sat in the left seat with Lieutenant Donald Putt (the primary Army pilot for the previous evaluation flights) as the co-pilot. With them was Leslie Tower (the Boeing Chief Test Pilot), C.W. Benton (a Boeing mechanic), and Henry Igo (a representative of Pratt and Whitney, the engine manufacturer).
The aircraft made a normal taxi and takeoff. It began a smooth climb, but then suddenly stalled. The aircraft turned on one wing and fell, bursting into flames upon impact.
Putt, Benton, and Igo - although seriously burned - were able to stagger out of the wreckage to the arriving safety crews. Hill and Tower were trapped in the wreckage but were rescued by First Lieutenant Robert Giovannoli, who made two trips into the burning aircraft to rescue both men
Both men later died of their injuries. Lt. Giovannoli was awarded the Cheney Medal for his heroism that day, but he died in an aircraft accident before receiving it..
The investigation found "Pilot Error" as the cause. Hill, unfamiliar with the aircraft, had neglected to release the elevator lock prior to take off. Once airborne, Tower evidently realized what was happening and tried to reach the lock handle, but it was too late.
It appeared that the Model 299 was dead. Some newspapers had dubbed it as ‘too much plane for one man to fly.’ Most of the aircraft contracts went to the runner-up, the Douglas DB-1. Some serious pleading and politicking by Air Corps officers gave Boeing a chance to keep the Model 299 project alive - 13 aircraft were ordered for ‘further testing’. Douglas, however, received contracts for 133 aircraft for active squadron service. The DB-1 became the B-18.
Twelve of those Boeing aircraft were delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia, by August, 1937. The 2nd Group’s operations were closely watched by Boeing, Congress, and the War Department. Any further accidents or incidents with the Model 299 would end its career. Commanders made this quite clear to all the crews.
The pilots sat down and put their heads together. What was needed was some way of making sure that everything was done; that nothing was overlooked. What resulted was a pilot’s checklist. Actually, four checklists were developed - takeoff, flight, before landing, and after landing. The Model 299 was not ‘too much airplane for one man to fly’, it was simply too complex for any one man’s memory. These checklists for the pilot and co-pilot made sure that nothing was forgotten.
With the checklists, careful planning, and rigorous training, the twelve aircraft managed to fly 1.8 million miles without a serious accident. The U.S. Army accepted the Model 299, and eventually ordered 12,731 of the aircraft they numbered the B-17.
The idea of the pilot’s checklist caught on. Other checklists were developed for other crew members. Checklists were developed for other aircraft in the Air Corps inventory.

End of article.

References:
Gilbert, James "The Great Planes", 1970
Jablonski, Edward "Flying Fortress", 1965
Jones, Lloyd "U.S. Fighters", 1975
Above article written by John Schamel
 

About the author …

John joined the FAA in 1984 and has been an Academy instructor since 1991. He taught primarily in the Flight Service Initial Qualification and En Route Flight Advisory Service programs. He has also taught in the International and the Air Traffic Basics training programs at the FAA Academy.

History has been an interest and hobby since childhood, when he lived near many Revolutionary War and Great Rebellion battlefields and sites. His hobby became a part time job for a while as a wing historian for the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

John’s first major historical project for the FAA was to help mark the 75th Anniversary of Flight Service in 1995.


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