Contract Airline Services

"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


T.H.ursday with Tom Hill
(Photos taken at Harris Hill, glider site, in Elmyra New York.)

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given about flying and emergencies is this:

"When you first encounter the emergency, 
wind the clock."

I'm sure lots of you are saying, "huh?!" Yep, that's the advice: "Wind the clock." What does it mean? It means do not jump to conclusions and make a bad thing worse. 

Back in the bad-old-days of analog watches -- those were days when people actually wore watches on their wrists, by the way -- military aircraft were configured with simple clocks that rarely kept good time and always seemed to need winding. It took a lot of winding before the second hand moved. The advice was really a way to distract you after first encountering an emergency. There's lots of goodness to this advice. I'll explain.

When I first entered training and was taught how to deal with emergencies, one thing I was not taught was "calm down." The typical emergency exercise was a quick affair requiring prompt and immediate action. Most instructors didn't appreciate delays or deep thought by their students. Such actions were perceived as ways to stall, which were rewarded with more problems on top of the initial indications. Your failed engine might turn into a fire problem. If that didn't cause action, then the instructor would add more -- say, the wing would catch fire -- until there was no way to solve the problem, which resulted in an inevitable crash. Of course, the desired effect was prompt, immediate action by the student. Students learned to assess and tackle emergencies as quickly as possible, which looked like some sort of karate exercise with all the switch accusations and lever pulls some solutions required..

There's a problem with this training approach. Most emergencies will not result in immediate catastrophic failure. Except for a few things, modern aircraft are not so vulnerable that single points of failure will result in dramatic results if not dealt with immediately. In fact, if the problem was so large that imminent death might result, the problem may have no solution at all, leaving the pilot with nothing to karate chop through.

The real problem, and one we have all seen first hand, is inaccurate diagnosis. Inaccurate diagnosis causes the aircrew to solve the wrong problem. Most of us multi-engine pilots know the hazards of grabbing wrong levers and accidentally shutting off a good engine, leaving the bad one to burn away. Every few years the Air Force relearns this lesson--don't shutoff the wrong engine. We have lots and lots of procedures and techniques institutionalized to prevent this type of thing from happening, yet the problem persists. That is because the basic problem was not addressed -- accurate diagnosis. This leads to the advice: "Wind the clock."

The Air Force teaches its aviation neophytes a saying to help deal with emergencies: "Maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, then take proper action. Land as soon as conditions permit." This is simply the spelled-out version of "wind the clock." Nowhere in this litany does it say "karate chop through the emergency." In fact, it emphasizes what is most important, and in the right order of importance.

After Test Pilot School, I went back to the F-15 schoolhouse to get re-qualified. I had been out of the F15 for three years. Part of the discipline pounded into us at TPS was the discipline of the checklist. As powerful as it is, using a checklist step by step by step takes time. This is especially true if you're flying by yourself. The auto-pilot doesn't work, it's night, you're in a simulated cloud. It can take forever for some.

The F-15 community prides itself to a large degree on the thoroughness of its training. Graduates know the aircraft inside and out. This is especially true of the emergency procedures. So thorough is the training that there are no memorized procedures on the checklist. There are no CAPS or Boldface for aborting on the runway or for engine, fire, thrust-loss on take-off and such, as you would with other aircraft. How do they get away with that? Because the training makes you memorize the whole darn thing. Sure you have a checklist but it's for "reference purposes only," meaning you should have accomplished all the procedures before referring to the thing -- which kind of ignores the whole point of a checklist, doesn't it? 

One day, I was in my final practice emergency procedure simulator, during which the operator/instructor got to dial-a-disaster any way he wanted. It's supposed to be tough, a rite of passage in a way. Unfortunately, I disrupted his plan for my death and destruction by tackling the important things first, then diligently reading and confirming every step on my checklist. Of course, this took a lot longer than he planned. We didn't cover as many scenarios as he thought we would. And, I didn't crash once. We ran out of time before we got to his favorite epic Kobayashi-Maru style failure, which always caused a student to crash.

During the debrief, we had a disagreement on the utility of checklists. The instructor accused me of using it as a crutch for my seeming lack of knowledge about the aircraft. Of course, I disagreed. In retrospect, I think he was more upset about not being able to do his full dial-a-disaster plan than my use of checklists. At least I hope that's what he was upset about.

To this day, I make it a point to brief my crew mates that I won't karate chop my way through an emergency, "just 'cause." I had better have a really good reason to do procedures off of memory, versus reviewing them in the tech order first. Yes, there are times when you will do things from memory -- there was the pumping the gear down on final at night in Anchorage, which is a great learning story. But mostly, stick to the checklist. And wind the clock.


Photos by Tom Hill


  1. Tom, I always agree with two things:

    A - NEVER jump to conclusions


    B - always do the checklist even if procedures are rote.

    Basics maybe elementary, but they can also save your (and your passengers') life. Happy weekend.

    1. Jeremy, these are the best two things you could do! Saving lives is the best course of action.

      Thank you so much for the comment!

  2. Tom, I love this post. And so do the 346 viewers who read it too! Your posts are "the" officially the most popular these days and I cannot thank you enough for writing.

    You give us so much to think about, and tools to take away for life. This is the meaning of learning through the lives of others.

    Now... back to the post. NWA had a "Red Boarder" checklist. The items that had been done by memory at all my previous airlines were not put on paper. Why? Because we did not have to rush to do them.

    But... at the top of this checklist there was a statement:

    "Fly the Plane"

    Another way of saying, wind the clock. Take your time. Breath. Prioritize. Then action the emergency.

    Thanks again for another great post!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Karlene. I do like writing them.


  3. Tom, that's true. I believe there's nothing better than following what the manufacturer's has in perspective.

    The flight training in the Air Force base their training around the aircraft manufacturer's principles.

    If you had the discipline and learned with passion and performed in the way you have just said above, then we have a good synchronization between man and aircraft.

    Even if the procedures are too simple or too complex, we always have to make sure with them. Conclusions? Never. We always have to seek for solutions, but not come in to a conclusion in these cases.

    But here is the question: Why does airlines has the power to change their procedures checklist? Why they have this right?

    Tom, you write interesting stories! Keep on with the good work. ;)

    Karlene, big hug!


    1. Alex,

      I'm not an FAA aircraft certifier but I've worked with those guys a lot. When it comes to checklists there are essentially two sets. One is the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM) checklist. The other is the operator's checklist. Both are "certified", meaning they've been approved the the appropriate airworthiness authority. For example, my flight group flies a Beech 1900 which is in service all around the world. Most operators use the OEM's checklist because they don't have reasons to do anything else. Or, more likely can't justify the expense to do anything else. We don't use the OEM checklist because it doesn't flow well with our operation. It doesn't use the same definitions for words. The product isn't formatted the way we like our items formatted. There are lots of differences between our checklist and the OEM. But, to have our checklist we essentially needed to have it flight certified by our airworthiness authority prior to use. In other words, we expended the extra resources to make our checklist look like an air force checklist.

      The good thing for us, my little group, is the Chief Pilot for the C-12J (Beech 1900) in the USAF is one of our four pilots. We talk constantly on how to improve our documentation. in fact, we're about to complete a gigantic rewrite of the whole pilot's tech order to make it look more like the other USAF King Air tech orders. Literally he spent weeks working on it.

      I'm pretty sure the FAA and the major operators do the same with their operating manuals. All operators do things just slightly differently for many reasons. As a result, there's a lot of effort spent making sure the documentation not only meets the operator's needs but also fit the requirements of the OEM.

      That all said, there is a philosophy associated writing emergency procedures such as what I wrote about the F-15 community. Sometimes the philosophy makes no sense to you but there's a reason. For example, the Boldface (or memorized procedure) for Abort for the T-38 is THROTTLES - IDLE, WHEELBRAKES - AS REQUIRED. How obvious is this? You're stopping so of course you're reducing power and sure you're using brakes as required. People might think to themselves why make such an obvious thing a memorized procedure? That's because the major audience of this procedure are new USAF pilots. If you have to abort in the T-38 it can be quite "exciting" dependent on the conditions. So, "they" wrote the checklist to support the most obvious user, inexperienced pilots.



    2. Thanks for your comment Alex. And yours too Tom. When I put the 757 into service in Guyana, I wrote their emergency checklist. Why? One example: Boeing's original stated they assumed most pilots had the experience flying at altitude and knew to put their oxygen on.
      Not true. Many assumptions and abbreviations. But lessons learned and experiences make editing normal operations a necessity, and airline specific.
      Thank you both for your comments!


Thank you for your comment! If your comment doesn't appear immediately, it will after I land. Enjoy the journey!