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Reducing Cognitive Load

Flying an aircraft as a single pilot can be very demanding and rewarding as well. So many pilots find themselves getting “behind the aircraft” once the external forces of weather, congestion or rapid changes to their planning are applied. These external forces place a load on our cognition which degrades our effectiveness as pilots. The keys to reducing this cognitive load is a systematic approach to managing your self and your cockpit as a single pilot.
In this article I will try and provide a fresh insight into the basics of flight deck management.

Checklist Basics

Where is your checklist anyway? Have you seen it lately? How are you using it? Unfortunately the proper use of checklists is almost always overlooked in a pilot’s initial training. This can lead to a bad habit of neglecting the checklist. Once formed, it is always there, on every flight you take. After you fly the same airplane for a while, you might be inclined to never look at it again. After all you know everything right? Wrong. Don’t fall into the trap of complacency.

The proper use of checklists is very important on any airplane. Even a seasoned Captain of a 747 uses checklists. If you want to fly like the pros, then use your checklists and use it properly. If that’s not enough to convince you, how about some hard facts.

In March of 2000, the Engineering Department of Oregon State University conducted a study on the significance of checklist misuse in aircraft accidents. The study was based on a sample survey of accidents and incidents summarized in the NTSB database. In a review of 300 randomly chosen accidents, they found that improper checklist usage was listed as a contributing or primary factor in 15% of the accidents. The most frequent error was the improper use of checklists, which included such things as forgetting to check one or more items on the checklist. The second most frequent error were the checklists not being used at all.

To better understand the checklist concept, let me give you an example of how checklists work on an airline flight deck. In airline operations, both pilots are included in the execution of the checklist. Normally this is known as Challenge and Response.

For example, the Captain might call for the “Before Start Check”. This is known as opening the checklist, or opening the loop. Once this is done, the First Officer will execute the checklist along with the Capt. Once the checklist is done, the First Officer will state: “Before Start Check Complete” This is known as closing the checklist, or closing the loop. Here is an example:

Keep in mind that during this exchange, both pilots are actually holding the checklist (usually there are two copies). It’s not stuffed under the seat or in their flight bag. You may be wondering why any of this is important to you as the single pilot. After all, you are the only one flying the airplane. There is no one to work the checklists with, right? Kind of, but not really. In a sense, you are the Captain and the First Officer.

You are responsible for every task on your flight deck. Navigation, communication, fuel computations, weather developments and not to mention keeping the aircraft on a predetermined heading altitude and speed. This is the most demanding type of flying that there is in the civilian world. In this environment, organization is crucial, both mental and physical.

Physical organization is finding your pen to copy a clearance or having your route of flight highlighted on your chart. Mental organization is just as important to you as the single pilot in IFR.

Nobody will tell you when you’ve made a mistake, or forgot something, so it is very important to continuously check and recheck your work. Always ask yourself what is next. Since you are the single pilot, you can use a wonderful technique known as Self- Reporting. Self Reporting is an excellent controlling tool which can be used to replace an assistant or the “pilot non-flying”.

Self Reporting

So what is self reporting and how does it work? Self reporting is a dialog you carry on with yourself during crucial phases of flight. Talk to myself? I know this might sound crazy, but it’s not. Holding an internal dialogue is quite normal and useful. Let’s be honest. Just about everyone talks to themselves from time to time. Any basketball fans out there? Remember when Carl Malone of the Utah Jazz used to go to the line. Have you ever seen his self talk? He does this for a reason.

Most athletes use self talk to get psyched (motivated) or to remain focused. Research has proven that self talk is beneficial in a wide variety of situations. I have seen students vastly improve with self reporting.

Also by hearing ourselves, we are more likely to remain focused and strengthen our concentration. Have you ever read something you didn’t quite understand? How about a confusing test question; directions that didn’t make sense, or a note from someone that was poorly written. How often do you find your self reading it out loud so you can grasp the concept or better understand? Probably more often that you think. On the subconscious level, where perception takes place, the mind understands and receives these spoken words. It decodes the information to form ideas through stimuli in the thought process…. Now back to flying.

The first place you will begin to use self reporting or self talk is through the use of your checklists. Remember, you are the Captain and the First Officer, so you will call for checklists, execute them and close them when complete. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you are flying an aircraft that has retractable landing gear.

After departure you complete your duties (retract the landing gear, flaps, turn off any lights, fuel pumps…etc) You contact departure and you are on your way. It’s time for the climb check or after takeoff check. Taking the checklists in hand you will say aloud “Climb check”. At this point you have called for, and opened the loop on the climb check. Now you check your work against the printed checklist.

You should do this aloud as well. Remember, your duties were done silently already, you are just checking your work. Once all items on the checklist have been checked, you will close the checklist by saying aloud “Climb check complete”. The important point here, is that you verbally open and close the checklists.

Remember by doing so, you are reinforcing your actions with verbal statements. All the checklists for your aircraft should be executed in this manner. Also, for those of you who might be getting ready for a check ride, the examiner will love to see this.

Hooks & Packages

By now you are fully aware of how a checklist should be executed. Next comes the question of when exactly should you do it? One of the biggest obstacles of flying IFR is the mental organization. I have seen so many students get lost in all the tasks of IFR flight. They begin a checklist, until ATC gives them a clearance. After answering ATC, they look at the chart to find an airway or a frequency.

What happened to finishing the checklist? No time for that, because now they are trying to tune the NAV radio. Before you know it, the aircraft begins to slowly drift off of the heading. “Forget about the frequency, I have to fly this thing!” Here comes the rain, “what’ s the inbound course?” “Where am I?” Have you ever felt this way before? Sure you have. We all have, especially when upgrading to a faster airplane. By having no organization pilots will try and do everything at once.

We naturally feel that everything has to be done right now. When you have no starting point and no ending point, you get completely lost in what you are doing. You will start ten things and never finish half of them. So how do you stay ahead of the airplane? It’s all about a magic little system known as Hooks & Packages. I have watched as my students were transformed by the use of this system.

If once you felt like you were flying about 3 miles behind the airplane, now you will find yourself sitting around waiting for things to happen, which is exactly where you want to be. As I said earlier in the article, anticipation is a key to flying IFR.

So what are hooks and packages? Let’s talk about hooks for a moment. Think organization. A hook is a specific point or place during a phase of flight in which you mentally link a task or duty; a trigger. Let’s say that you have a garage full of tools, but no toolbox. How would you ever find what you needed for a job if your tools were scattered all over the floor?

If you were on a schedule to complete this job, you would waste a lot of your time trying to find specific wrenches and screw drivers. If you hung those tools from hooks on the wall, you would have an organized work space. You would save so much time on the job not having to sift through them on the floor. It works the same way with mental organization in the airplane. Let’s go back to the climb check. When do you do it? Your first hook is going to be the altitude of 1000’ AGL.

That is your hook and that is when you will execute the climb check. You will do this every time you fly. Always at 1000’ AGL. Think about this, would it make sense to move the tools around on the wall of the garage? Of course not. It would be like rearranging your clothing drawers each week. If you need a 3/16 wrench, then you go and take it from it’s hook. Need socks? Then go to the sock drawer. The same holds true for mental organization. So once again, you will perform the climb check at 1000’ AGL every time.

Now what if you are busy at 1000’? Easy, you place the checklist in your lap to remind yourself, and then execute it as soon as you are finished with what you are doing. On most jet aircraft, the climb check isn’t done until 10,000’. In demanding airspace and weather, there have been times where I have had to complete the climb check as late as 12,000’. The important thing is that you do not forget to do it. Doing it a little late is better that not doing it at all, but really try and make it work at 1000’.

So what are packages? Packages are predetermined duties for specific phases of flight. Every flight can be divided into many different phases such as ground operations, takeoff, cruise, descent, approach and missed approach. Each of these phases has a varying level of workloads. As you know, some can be much busier than others. We use the hooks as a bridge between the phases and the packages.

So far you know one phase (takeoff), one hook (1000’ AGL) and one package (climb check). There are a few rules to using the packages. You must have the packages committed to memory. It would defeat the purpose to have the packages written out on paper and read them throughout the flight. To get the full benefit of this systems you must learn it, know it and consistently use it. Remember to always include these into your self reporting and do one package at a time. Do not open a new package until the one at hand is complete, just like opening and closing the loops on the checklists. This is very important to maintain mental and task organization. Remember, once you began to change things around and overlap packages, you are rearranging your clothes again. Try to do it the same way every time. Focus on systematics.


After reading this article, you should have a good understanding of the basic concepts required for instrument flight. As you can see, a strong foundation is crucial to your continued success and proficiency as a single pilot in IFR. By understanding the classification of instruments and how they are linked together, you will be able to use a combination of the Control / Performance, and the Primary Support systems in your flying.

Remember the key concept of Control / Performance that a predetermined attitude plus predetermined power will give you predetermined performance (PDA + PDPw = PDPf). It is also important for you to review the common errors, and understand how to avoid these.

The use of checklists with respect to opening and closing the loops is important, as are the use of Hooks & Packages. The main theme of this article and many of the articles to come, is mental organization. As this series progresses, you will learn more hooks and more packages.

Focus on your systematics, and try to form a habit of doing your checklists and packages the same way each time. This is the key to staying organized, and staying well ahead of the airplane.


About Michael McCoy

Michael is a Professional Pilot Instructor, Graphics Designer and Multimedia Producer specializing in Aviation content. He is also a speaker and presenter who helps organizations leverage the power of communications through Digital and Social Media. He has been a contributor in Aviation related stories for major network television and radio. Michael is also a musician who plays the drums, trumpet and some guitar. He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor of Science. He lives in Savannah, GA.


4 thoughts on “Reducing Cognitive Load

  1. I remember once I was directed to enter the pattern using a long left base for the runway. I was about 7 miles out so I tried to close my flight plan with flight service while I was waiting to get to the class D, but you had to listen using the VOR freq. for that airport. There was a weather message being broadcast and, to make a long story short, the FSS guy decided to chastize me for trying to use it. His converstaion distracted me from my pre-landing checklist (I didn’t use the paper copy because of this distraction) and thought I was set for landing after rushing through it. When I turned to final, I heard the tower say,” Aztec XXXX, check your gear”. I forgot to lower the gear! I felt like and idiot but made an uneventful landing. It was the first time I almost made that common retract mistake that makes everyone think “How could that dumb@ss forget to lower the gear?” Well, now I know- distraction and not following your checklist. Good post.

    Posted by jcabsep | January 7, 2012, 9:24 am
    • The airlines use something called a “gate” or “slot” when landing. This is a point along the final approach where everything has to be completed and the aircraft has to be completely established and stable. It’s based on your altitude and can change based on VMC or IMC. We utilized this in the SwissAir program while flying Senecas. In VMC the gate was 500′ AGL. When approaching in IMC the gate moved up to 1,000 AGL. This is a good rule of thumb for piston aircraft. Jet aircraft have a much higher gate.

      This is your last stop on final to have everything ready. The rule is that if you reach the gate and you aren’t established you must go around. Established is defined as speed +10 /-0 knots, altitude as determined by the VASI, PAPI or 3º descent angle to reach the Touchdown Zone, sink rate 500 – 700 FPM and bank angle within 10º. It also means that the aircraft is fully configured and all checklists are complete.

      I’ve flown with a lot of crew members who will do a “sanity check” at the gate and actually call out the configuration of the aircraft: “…gear down, flaps 40º, spoilers armed, hydraulics checked, on speed, runway 23R cleared to land”. This is a good technique especially as a single pilot.

      As they say in aviation: “there are those who have and there are those who will”. No one is perfect and mistakes happen. What makes a solid pilot is the ability to self assess and apply corrections when needed.

      Thanks for the feedback, and happy flying.

      Posted by Michael McCoy | January 7, 2012, 10:07 am
  2. Great post Michael. My 13 year-old son has about 5 hours in the air; he aspires admission to Embry-Riddle and a profession in commercial flight. An early understanding of the importance of mental organization, and solidly integrating systematics into procedure will serve him well. We’ll eagerly await more in this cognitive series!

    Posted by Lauri | February 9, 2012, 10:26 am

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