# Does the FAA have a best practice for highlighting memory items on a checklist?

voretaq7 mentioned the following two months ago in an answer:

The process of designing a good checklist is an interesting Human Factors problem - there's a lot of literature on it but it's way out of scope for this site. The usual solution to badly designed checklists is that pilots get frustrated and write our own.

Funny he mentioned that, because I'm frustrated with a badly designed checklist and I'm writing my own.

Are there FAA-specific best practices for creating checklists in general and highlighting memory items in this specific case?

By this I'm referring to underlining, red-boxing, font changes, color changes, and so on.

• uhm, I feel this is borderline. might be better off in UX.SE
– Federico
Jul 12 '15 at 16:58
• I've edited to make it less UX-centric but migration would be fine too. Jul 12 '15 at 20:34
• @Federico, I fear ux.se is a bit too computer user interfaces-centred while checklists are mostly aviation-specific things. That said, it probably still makes sense to also try asking there. Jul 13 '15 at 9:46

The short answer is to use color in some way.

I couldn't find anything very detailed on this: there's plenty of general checklist information out there from the FAA, NASA, universities and so on, but nothing that goes into specific details on how to use colors, fonts or the other things that you mentioned.

There is an FAA report called The Use and Design of Flightcrew Checklists and Manuals that was part of the response to the Northwest 255 crash. Unfortunately it's from 1991 so some content is already dated, and it's aimed at part 121 and 135 operators with multiple crew members, but it's an interesting report anyway.

Their main recommendation on memory items was simply to reduce them as much as possible because memory is very unreliable compared to checklists, but again that's in the context of multi-member crews. As for design, layout, formatting etc., they did make some specific recommendations (see section 4.1 and Appendix A) and the most applicable one to your question seems to be the use of color-coding. They strongly recommended the use of color as a general method, e.g. headings in yellow for "abnormal" items and in red for "emergency" items.

Interestingly, the report says that at that time (1991) airlines resisted using color because of the costs of printing, but today it seems to be the generally accepted way to highlight critical checklists and items. However, each checklist provider has their own approach to coloring headers, text, blocks or even entire pages.

I don't think there's any such thing as a standard 'style guide' for checklists, so if you're making your own then you can obviously do whatever you want that works for you. But the 1991 report noted that most checklist problems were caused by missing or inaccurate items, so make sure you get the content right before you break out your paintbrushes :-)

• Good answer. One thing; most theories of graphic design assume the results will be viewed under a sufficiently bright white light. That's not always the case in an aircraft; your map light might be dim, or even a different color (red is common for military use to preserve night vision). That can cause normally high-visibility design elements to dramatically lose contrast; for instance, under red light, red text or lines on white paper disappear, and blue and green.become indistinguishable from black. It might never be a problem, or it can cause entire checklist steps to be indecipherable. Jul 16 '15 at 20:08
• @KeithS The 1991 report mentioned that a study found that black type on "bright lemon yellow" paper gives the best readability in varying cockpit lighting conditions. Of course that was specifically about checklists, not charts or anything else. And yellow "abnormal" text on yellow paper wouldn't work so well :-) Jul 16 '15 at 20:12

There is no guidance as far as I am aware of.

Most good pilots make their own checklists for smaller aircraft. Generally speaking different pilots like different levels of detail and size formats for the checklist. So, you might have one pilot with an 8.5" x 11" monster checklist with a lot of detail and another guy who is using an index card strapped to his forearm.

I would keep the color and symbology to a minimum. You cannot see color at night. Also, other people may need to use your checklist or may look at it (like a flight examiner). You do not want to have cryptic elements on a checklist that could be misinterpreted.

There is an advantage to simplicity.

"Checklists" are discouraged, "Worklists", "DoLists" and "Flow" are the new thing. They rely on some pilot memory and familiarization. How the pilot remembers is up to his own style, but usually a top to bottom, left to right "Flow" (explained later) is used.

The FAA realizes that counting on some pilot memory is safer that meticulous checklists. For example when US Airways Flight 1549 flown by Chesley Sullenberger ditched into the Hudson river, Jeffrey Skiles was unable to complete the checklist for sea ditching - it was too long.

There are a number of industry articles including one I wrote on the subject.

1) The Navion Flyer - Jan 2002 - What does it do? - Checklist
2) Sport Aviation - June 2011
3) Avweb (Thomas Turner) - "Checklists and Flows"
4) EAA Experimenter - 2013 - Do You Use Your Checklists?


The FAA now encourages a combination of memory and task reference. An explanation will follow.

Unless you fly a transport category airplane, or fly under an operating certificate such as FAR Part 135 charter rules, there is no FAA requirement to use a checklist, or what checklist to use.(2)

The FAA uses two primary FAR's to violate pilots that have had an accident and misused a checklist...

FAR 91.103, *“Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight,
become familiar with ALL available information concerning
that flight.”*
FAR 91.13 that forbids, *“careless and reckless operation.”*


Checklist = is a meticulous list of items to check or set and provides a specific order in which the items on the list are to be accomplished.

Worklist or Flow = conveys concepts rather then specifics. It is a reference as the pilot accomplishes a task and is dependent on the pilots memory and familiarity with the aircraft systems.

A checklist is what’s called action orientated. That is saying that it tells us each action we must take. A work list is task orientated. That is to say, it is goal orientated and looks at the big picture, and does not get bogged down in superfluous detail.

One example I gave in my article was comparing the two with a B727 opp.

"The checklist not only incorporates the normal procedures but also has the emergencies. This one list does it all. The checklist took 9 items for one of several checklists on radio operations. The work list has only 4 items and serves as several checklists rolled into one. That is a 60% savings in space even if we don’t consider that it eliminated other checklists."

"You might be asking yourself if a work list is really this good in the real world? Well, Captain Kunz told me that before they adopted the WorkList for the B727, he was wading through over 500 pages in the checklist, and as was mentioned before, a normal takeoff covered up to 300 items."

"After they adopted work lists to the B727 cockpit, the worse case scenario on the WorkList for a takeoff was about 60 items and the total number of pages for normal op’s was around 10 pages long. That’s about an 80% reduction in the takeoff list and a 97% decrease in the total size of all normal op’s. Needless to say, in an emergency the pilots were able to use the work list more times than a checklist and the work list is much easier to remember."

Think of a work Flow as working top to bottom or left to right. When we say "check instruments", without detailing each instrument it is understood the pilot will work left to right or whatever suits his style. The B727 Checklist had about 130 items on the "before landing" list. A quick look at YouTube shows the before landing "WorkList" of a modern jet is now about 5 items!

This reduction in workload is primarily due to reliance on warning systems and the pilots memory and familiarization of the aircraft systems.