ORIGIN OF THE CHECKLIST

 

On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air
Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build
its next-generation long-range bomber.

It wasn't supposed to be much of a competition. In early evaluations, the
Boeing Corporation's gleaming aluminum-alloy Model 299 had trounced the
designs of Martin and Douglas.

Boeing's plane could carry five times as many bombs as the Army had
requested; it could fly faster than previous bombers, and almost twice as
far. A Seattle newspaperman who had glimpsed the plane called it the "flying
fortress," and the name stuck.

The flight "competition," according to the military historian Phillip
Meilinger, was regarded as a mere formality. The Army planned to order at
least sixty-five of the aircraft.

A small crowd of Army brass and manufacturing executives watched as the
Model 299 test plane taxied onto the runway. It was sleek and impressive,
with a hundred-and-three-foot wingspan and four engines jutting out from the
wings, rather than the usual two.

The plane roared down the tarmac, lifted off smoothly, and climbed sharply
to three hundred feet. Then it stalled, turned on one wing, and crashed in a
fiery explosion. Two of the five crew members died, including the pilot,
Major Ployer P. Hill. (re. Hill AFB, Ogden, UT) An investigation revealed that
nothing mechanical had gone wrong.

The crash had been due to "pilot error," the report said. Substantially more
complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to
the four engines, a retractable landing gear,  new wing flaps, electric trim tabs
that needed adjustment to maintain control at different airspeeds, and
constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic
controls, among other features.

While doing all this, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on
the elevator and rudder controls. 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.

They could have required Model 299 pilots to undergo more training. But it
was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill,
who had been the U.S. Army Air Corps' chief of flight testing. Instead, they
came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot's
"checklist", with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and
taxiing. 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 this new plane was too
complicated to be left to the memory of any pilot, however expert.

With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total
of 1.8 million miles without one accident. The Army ultimately ordered
almost thirteen thousand of the aircraft, which it dubbed the B-17. And,
because flying the behemoth was now possible, the Army gained a decisive air
advantage in the Second World War which enabled its devastating bombing
campaign across Nazi Germany.