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Military pilots are instructed throughout training that they must learn all checklists off-by-heart (in the RAF anyway). This way things get done much quicker, primarily in the event of an emergency when the immediate actions must be performed like 2nd nature.

A recently PPL-qualified pilot friend of mine informed me that he refers to his reference cards for every set of checks. The checks for a Cessna-152 were much much more brief than for military trainers.

I was wondering what the standard is for general aviation, and whether there is a requirement to learn at least engine-failure immediate actions?

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    $\begingroup$ This article on memory item checklists in commercial aviation might be of interest to you. There's been a bunch of research on this. A key phrase to search for is "memory items" if you want to read further. $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton Mar 19 '15 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ Related: What are the differences between checklists and flows $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 19 '15 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ In the US military we don't necessarily have to memorize them all by heart, but emphasis is definitely placed on speed and efficiency (although accuracy trumps speed and we commonly preach no fast hands in the cockpit, especially during emergencies) $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Mar 19 '15 at 18:07
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In the US the closest thing to a standard, and the requirement (per the FAA's practical test standards), is that you make appropriate use of checklists.
As mentioned in that video "appropriate" leaves some room for common sense interpretation (clearly your first course of action if your engine dies in flight should not be to open the operating manual to the Engine Failure In Flight checklist and begin reading: That would NOT be "appropriate").

I expect most other countries have a similar view on the subject.


As far as what gets memorized, the checklists for most simple aircraft (for our purposes let's say that's anything with a single piston engine, unpressurized, with 6 seats or less -- your average Piper/Cessna/Citabria/etc.) can be memorized. They're not that long and there's not that many of them.

Time permitting a good pilot will generally still refer to the printed checklist even if they did the entire thing from memory, if only to read off each item and make sure they didn't miss anything.


More complicated checklists (like what you might find on a 737 or a C-130 for example) will usually have a set of Immediate Action Items (often called "Red Box Items" because many manufacturers put them inside a big red box at the top of Emergency or Abnormal checklists).
It's generally expected that the flight crew have the Red Box Items committed to memory and be able to complete essentially on instinct.

After completing the Red Box Items all the really important stuff is done, and there is hopefully enough time that it's now appropriate to pull out the checklist (or Quick Reference Handbook), verify that the Red Box Items have all been done, and run through the rest of the items.

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The upside of memorized checklists is that you can execute the checks much more quickly; the downside is that many of the detailed troubleshooting checklists used for non-normal conditions that arise in commercial aviation are much longer than a pilot can reasonably memorize. However, the idea behind it is sound -- normal checklists are a checklist, not a reference for how to operate the airplane day-to-day.

As a result, commercial operators and private pilots use flows (i.e. a series of control movements, sequenced for efficient performance and checklist compliance) in conjunction with their checklists for normal procedures and memory items, and modern (i.e. "glass cockpit") transport aircraft provide checklist prompts through the ECAM or EICAS display system that are used for non-normal conditions and the non-critical portions of emergency checklists.

See this answer for an excellent example of how an emergency checklist (engine failure) and its matching flow work together in a light aircraft.

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I don't know of any standard, but it is definitely a wise idea to learn the emergency procedures very thoroughly. One reason for this is that every flight is different. Even routine stuff like the run-up tends to have some new quirk or difference every time. If you have the checklist down pat, it makes it much easier to deal with whatever unique thing is happening.

During a fire, for example, if you are fumbling with a checklist and do not already know the procedure thoroughly, valuable seconds will be lost while you are reading through the items. You want to know it so well that all you have to do is glance at the item and say "ok now I do this". In other words, the checklist should just be a reminder to what you already know.

In the United States there is no absolute requirement to know the checklists thoroughly ahead of time, but an applicant's likelihood of failing a practical test will definitely increase if they don't, because your chance of making a mistake or getting flustered is greater if you do not know the checklist by rote.

Also, I would note that in US practice you MUST use physical checklist or the FAA examiner will fail you in a test. Memory is not considered an acceptable substitute for a physical checklist by the FAA.

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