The Simple Genius of Checklists, from B-17 to the Apollo Missions


The year is 1935, and the U.S. Army Air Corps is holding a competition for airplane manufacturers vying to secure a contract to build the military’s next long-range bomber.

Boeing unveils their state-of-the-art airplane B-299, later known as the B-17 Flying Fortress. A stunning design, in perfect working order. The test pilots are experienced and well-trained. They add power for takeoff, become airborne…

And then abruptly crash after climbing only a few hundred feet.

The checklist that started it all

The crash wasn’t caused by a design flaw, but rather a pilot error. While the new bomber could fly faster and further than any other, it was also very complex to operate. The pilot had to keep track of four different engines, the wing flaps, the landing gear, and much more. Preoccupied, he simply forgot to disengage a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls.

Instead of making the pilots undergo further training, however, Boeing came up with a simple yet ingenious solution – a pilot checklist.