April 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 11 
Commercial Airplanes

From safe to safer

Boeing's Electronic Checklist marks 10 years of enhanced safety for pilots and travelers


Dan Boorman demonstrates how to use a Boeing Electronic Checklist in a 777 simulator.Flying an airliner can be complicated. Technical glitches, pilot complacency or unexpected events all can open the door for errors. That's why checklists are an essential element of a pilot's job. Pilots use printed and electronic lists to make sure critical procedures are done right and flights are safe.

Since its debut 10 years ago, the Boeing Electronic Checklist has become increasingly popular among 777 operators. It's touted as a major contributor to increased safety and efficiency in flight operations; Boeing believes so strongly in this tool it has included it on the new 787. The Electronic Checklist eventually will become part of every airplane Boeing delivers.

"Most airlines and pilots praise the 777 and its performance," said Frank Santoni, chief 777 program pilot. "The checklist works so well, we often don't even really think about or mention it. So when I hear that praise, to me that's a huge endorsement."


The Boeing Electronic Checklist system is a digital display on the 777 flight deck. It's designed to replace a pilot's stack of hundreds--literally--of paper checklists, with lists automatically displayed at the touch of a button.

The ECL has its origins in research and development conducted by the Boeing Flight Deck Research group in the late 1980s, said Dan Boorman, Boeing Flight Training Technical Fellow. The research team, led by Bill McKenzie, who now works in Flight Test, used accident study data to show that many accidents were caused by crew errors--especially checklist errors. In later research, Boorman studied more than 20 years of accidents, analyzing hundreds of crashes and their probable causes. While many crashes were the result of training or airline-specific issues, errors involving checklists played a part in several instances.

Boeing is committed to doing everything possible to make its products even safer. And with a new product under development at the time--the 777--the timing was perfect to merge cutting-edge technology with increased safety.

A normal checklist showing the steps pilots and crew must complete in a particular situationThe ECL system includes all normal and non-normal checklists required for safe operation of an aircraft. Normal checklists are used for routine tasks such as preparing for takeoff or landing. Non-normal checklists are for situations that can go wrong with an airplane's systems, such as an engine fire or electrical malfunction. Non-normal checklists advise corrective action, list consequences of inaction and can suggest how to fly an airplane differently in a suboptimal situation. There are about 10 normal checklists and about 300 non-normal checklists.


Among the benefits of ECLs are

Increased safety. ECL normal checklists automatically are displayed in the proper sequence for each phase of flight, making it highly unlikely a pilot would skip a checklist. This is important, because in paper form some checklists can have several sections or span many pages.

ECLs also require pilots to acknowledge each step in a sequence. Some steps are tied via sensors to certain aircraft functions and will not allow a pilot to bypass a step until it is addressed--a problem known to occur in situations when pilots use paper checklists, with disastrous results (see box below).

Customization. Airline customers may customize their ECLs, with support from Boeing Commercial Aviation Services. Although Airbus offers ECLs on its A320s, A330s and A340s, these versions are one-size-fits-all checklists and can be augmented only through paper supplements.

Stand-alone capability. Another advantage to Boeing's checklists is they're designed to stand alone. This means the captain or first officer can perform the tasks on the list and address a situation without having to pull up other synoptics (screens with system status displays) to supplement the checklist.

Increased crew efficiency. By having checklists available at the touch of a button, 777 pilots no longer spend time thumbing through a book of paper checklists. Crews, when faced with unexpected situations, have the proper checklists for emergency procedures available. Electronic checklists also have been shown to decrease training time.


From the beginning Boeing ECLs were designed to work seamlessly with the 777's avionics. Thanks to their tremendous success, ECLs now are being designed and tested for integration into the 787 flight deck. The ECL is also a proposed feature of the 747-8.

While ECLs currently are not available on other Boeing aircraft, the checklist system someday may be retrofitted to other airplane models through Boeing's Electronic Flight Bag product.

"We haven't yet got it designed for EFB, but to me that is the logical place for it," Boorman said. "I believe that within 10 years the Electronic Checklist will be an integral part of every airplane we deliver, making safe flight even safer."


Accident avoidance

The Boeing Electronic Checklist system was designed, with customer input, as a response to documented problems with paper checklist systems. What follows is an example of an actual accident involving paper checklist errors, when a line item was skipped during a normal procedure. This account comes from a paper written by Dan Boorman, Boeing Flight Training Technical Fellow:

In 1996, a flight crew in Houston was on approach with the first officer as the pilot flying. The captain accomplished the In-Range checklist, but inadvertently skipped over the line item "HYDRAULICS--ON & HI." This item ensures that both engine-driven hydraulic pumps are set to high flow, enabling normal operation of landing gear and flaps.

The flaps did not extend normally, nor did the landing gear. The approach speed was far above normal, and as a result the captain became overfocused on the goal of landing instead of executing a go-around.

Ground proximity and aircraft configuration aural warnings sounded due to the gear-up condition, but the pilots were saturated by the airplane control task and failed to identify the meaning of and attend to the alerts. The Landing checklist was neither called for nor accomplished.

On short final approach, the first officer questioned the decision to land. The captain responded by taking control and landing the airplane gear-up. Fortunately, the airplane avoided impact with ground obstacles and the passengers and crew evacuated safely.

Had an ECL been installed on the airplane, a line item box would have clearly highlighted each step as it was performed on the In-Range checklist. The line item box does not move down the checklist until previous steps have been performed. This would have provided a visual cue or reminder and prevented the pilot from skipping the line item, thus averting the gear-up landing.

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