Letter Re: Aviation-Style Checklists for Survival, by Andy W.

In the 1940s, the accident rate among aircraft in the United States was horrendous, especially for small private aircraft. Many lives were lost and airplanes mangled due to often preventable causes. By the mid-1950s, the accident rates had dropped by 30-50%, depending on what numbers you look at. What happened to make such a dramatic change? The answer is the prevalent use of checklists for all phases of flight. Every aircraft today, from a tiny Cessna to a giant airliner, has checklist for every procedure from preflight inspection to securing the aircraft after parking.

Checklists are important for a few reasons. The first is human nature and complacency. If you do something often, it goes into muscle memory and you don’t really have to think about it anymore. As a result, you might start to take shortcuts. How many times have you gotten in your car and realized that the radio was turned up way too loud, or the air conditioning left blasting from the previous hot afternoon? It’s because your complacency in driving let you forget these minor details of configuring your car. You don’t really need a checklist for driving, because most of these minor changes don’t have any impact on safety and are more annoying than anything else. However, forgetting to set the flaps or change fuel tanks on an airplane can have dire safety consequences, and so good pilots use checklists on every single flight.

The second reason checklists are important is stress. When your airplane’s engine is on fire and smoke is filling the cockpit is not the time to be deciding on how to handle that type of emergency. That time is when you (or better yet, the aircraft designer) are calm and not under any stress or time pressure. In those circumstances you are far more likely to make sound, correct decisions than when your heart is hammering and your hands are shaking.

A final great, and often overlooked, reason for checklists is that it gives your mind something to do. Instead of bouncing around, trying to figure out a coherent plan, your brain is given a very linear progression of small tasks to accomplish. This keeps you from getting panicked or freezing up, because all you have to do is follow the list. Your mind won’t have time to ponder how scary or dangerous your situation is, because it’s preoccupied with the checklist tasks.

Checklists for Survival

Survivalism has many of the same aspects as flying does — it’s a potentially dangerous activity that requires specific actions to accomplish successfully, and has very small margins for getting those tasks wrong or out of order. Because of this, I think aviation-style checklists are an excellent resource for survival in a wide variety of circumstances. I do not think that survivalists should use a set of generic set of checklists generated by someone else. You know your circumstances and resources better than anybody; for this reason it’s very important to develop your own checklists that take these into account. A childless couple living in the suburbs will have vastly different checklists than a large family living in the country, and what may work for one may be a sure-fire recipe for failure for another.

So how does an individual or family develop checklists? First, try to be specific about the circumstances where the checklist applies. “Natural Disaster” is too vague for a checklist, but “Forest Fire Near Home” is specific enough to be very helpful in that circumstance. You could also have “at home” and “away from home” checklists, since the response to an EMP (for example) would be much different depending on if you are at home or not when the event happens. You can also reference one checklist from another (i.e. “if condition X, go to Y checklist). This means you’ll end up with a bunch of checklists. If you look at pilot shops (sportys.com and marvgolden.com are a couple online) you can find checklist binders and similar ways to organize your checklists.

Try to lay out your checklists in small chunks that don’t require much thought. Anything that requires decisions should be broken down into sub-tasks as much as possible. The goal is to have all your decisions already made. And order things logically — for example, it makes no sense to put “check fuel level” after “leave home.” Check the fuel first, when you might be in a position to do something about it.

A Sample Checklist

Here’s a sample based on our forest fire example. Don’t criticize it too much, I’m just pulling it off the top of my head!

Forest fire near home:

  1. If heavy smoke is present, wear filter mask or respirator and goggles.
  2. Family in vehicle 1 — send to nearest safe area.
  3. Move vehicle 2 to locate for rapid egress from area.
  4. Turn on outside water spigots.
  5. Using hose, spray water on roof and walls to retard fire damage.

If smoke becomes heavy, or flames are visible, use rapid bugout checklist.

Hopefully this gives folks some ideas on how to use and organize their checklists. The more scenarios you can envision and make checklists for, the easier it will be to have a plan for something when it happens. You might be able to adapt an existing list to an event for which no list exists, but that requires more thought than we’d like to expend under stress. Finally, let me stress this is not a magic wand that will make all things go smoothly, but it does increase your chances of doing to the right thing at the right time, and in my mind that is worth a whole lot.