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You Just Ran Out Of Checklists During An Emergency, Now What?

As pilots, procedures, checklists, and regulations largely govern the way we fly. Aviation today is safer than it's ever been; we've learned from past mistakes and have adapted our procedures and regulations to fit new safety trends.

With dozens of documents, from the AIM or an individual POH, to operation-specific manuals and checklists, it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong is covered by a procedure. But that's not always the case. Learning how to be appropriately creative in the cockpit is a crucial skill for any pilot. You'll probably face more than a few situations where creative problem solving is necessary. Here's what you need to know when that time comes around...

How Safe Are You?

Don't you just love reading Federal Air Regulations? Sometimes it feels like they never end! But regulations and procedures exist for a reason. And while aviation is just over 100 years old, we've come a long way in improving safety statistics. That's a good thing for everyone... And will make people much more comfortable to go flying with you!

In 1938, there were 11.9 fatal accidents per 100,000 general aviation flight hours in the USA. By 1964, that number was down to 3.34. And in 2013, that number was down to 1.05 fatal accidents per 100,000 general aviation flight hours. That's some serious improvement. One major reason for the decline has been the expansion of safety standards and regulations, which you can either choose to look at as a restriction to your freedom as a pilot, or an opportunity to fly in a more safe environment with your family and friends onboard. Want to know more about accident rates? Click Here.

When Checklist Deviations Become Deadly

It's no secret that skipping just one item on a checklist can have devastating consequences. Because of that fact, you're trained from the beginning to verify your setup in the cockpit with a checklist for every phase of flight. Take a look at the Gulfstream accident below, all caused by failing to do a flight controls check prior to takeoff.


As you know, checklists aren't limited just to normal operations, they cover abnormal situations and emergencies. What about everything else? The FAR/AIM prescribes guidelines for operating in and around weather, terrain, etc. In short, there are very few situations that aren't covered by policies, procedures, and regulations. So, first things first, stick to those checklists you have. They exist for a reason and are your primary way to stay out of trouble as you fly.

Swayne Martin

You Just Ran Out Of Checklists To Follow

Dr. Warren Jensen, the Aeromedical Director for the University of North Dakota and a former Air Force, NASA, and Air Traffic Control Medical Examiner said in an interview with us that "the real test for any pilot is identifying when there's no more procedures available to them and in turn analyzing what options they have to solve a problem...the more a pilot has in their toolkit of knowledge and experience, the more able they are to handle a problem creatively."


According to Dr. Jensen, in the earliest stages of training, student pilots are taught to avoid being creative in the cockpit. In one notable example, Dr. Jensen recalled a student pilot who began to lose electrical power on a solo night cross country. The student was worried the engine was going to turn off, so decided to land in a nearby field with engine power, instead of risking making a power-off emergency landing. Inadequate knowledge led this student to believe that their engine was going to shut down because of an electrical failure. Of course, that wasn't the case.

Once a pilot builds substantial knowledge and experience over their career, adding to a "toolkit" of resources, they're then taught to always look at a situation and ask themselves, "What else can I do here?" That's why when emergencies occur in the airlines, the First Officer often becomes the "pilot flying," while the Captain's role often shifts to problem solving inside the cockpit. Captains, in many cases, are placed in the highest position of authority for dealing with and solving complicated situations because of their knowledge and experience.


Electrical System Dying At Night

This became a reality for me last year, flying a 172 with a dying electrical system at night over rural North Dakota. Because the transponder and radio weren't operating, I had no way to contact ATC to let them know about our plans to land in Grand Forks (Class D Airport). Circling outside the airspace and squawking 7600 didn't get the tower's attention, because our transponder wasn't functioning. We couldn't safely divert to a non-towered airport, because with pilot-controlled lighting and no radio operation, there wouldn't have been a way to turn runway lighting on.

Swayne Martin

Talking with my friends in the plane, who were all pilots, we decided the best option was to call the Grand Forks Control Tower's phone number through the bluetooth connection on my friend's Bose A20 headset. Once we got in touch with them, they gave us light gun signals and instructions over the phone to enter their airspace and land. Situations like these don't have prescribed checklists. All it took was a little teamwork and creative problem solving to find a good solution. We used every resource available to us, even thinking about what kind of headset features we had available in the cockpit. Read more about this example by clicking here.

What This Means For Your Flying

So what does this mean for you? What's the best way to handle a situation where there's no clear answer or procedure? It all comes down to using every resource around you. The real creativity doesn't usually come from within, it comes from how you utilize the people and information around you to make a decision. If you're ever caught in a challenging situation and don't know how to make the next move, reach out to those around you. That means people in the plane, fellow pilots, air traffic control, or any other source of expertise. The best pilots aren't scared to reach out for help, and you shouldn't be either.

What situations have you used creativity in the cockpit? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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