Pilot Memory Aids

Pilot Memory Aids

Introduction to Pilot Memory Aids

Memory aids for pilots come in all shapes and sizes. Typically “mental hooks” such as mnemonics, acronyms, and aphorisms (concise sayings, usually witty); but may also include checklists, mechanical reminders and electronic displays.

Pilot memory aids are typically used for:

  • learning
  • improving memory
  • making recall easier (quicker) and more likely,
  • reminding,
  • preventing the omission of actions at the appropriate time and place,
  • improving decision-making and problem-solving,
  • directing focus
  • increasing vigilance, and
  • encouraging appropriate attitudes and behaviours.

Memory Capacity

When pilots commence flying training they are quickly exposed to vast amounts of information (technical, operational, practical, theoretical) as well as having to learn, practice and develop their flying, flight and aircraft management skills. From “day 1” pilots learn to utilise mnemonics and aphorisms to remember checksprocedures and practices; and these techniques remain with them throughout their careers.

Learning to use effectively such memory aids can help pilots in at least two distinct ways:

  1. freeing-up working memory during routine operations, and
  2. directing the mind towards required actions during periods of uncertainty, or intense activity and/or emergency; i.e. preventing distraction from less critical issues.

Information Levels

Pilot memory aids are used for general through to specific purposes.

An example of a general memory aid may be the aphorism Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – this is a reminder of priorities and applies in any situation of uncertainty and emergency. It emphasises the correct and safe priorities, and can prevent pilots from becoming fixated on an issue of minor importance.

An example of a moderately specific memory aid may be the acronym Hasell which can be used prior to performing acrobatic manoeuvres - Height, Airframe, Security, Engine, Location, Look-out. These checks are “best practice” and not necessarily a legal requirement.

An example of a very specific memory aid might be an acronym for the emergency initial actions for an engine fire - SID – Shutdown engine, Isolate engine, Discharge fire suppressant.

Pilots flying simple aircraft (balloons, gliders, sports & leisure aircraft) and operating in a limited number of ways and environments, will tend to conduct all checks (and drills), both routine and emergency, from memory – remembered through the use of mnemonics. However, as the complexity of both aircraft and operations increase, pilots rely more on written procedures and checklists, including Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) displays such as Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) or Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS).

In commercial operations pilots tend to rely on memory aids more for improving their train of thought and focus when dealing with problems, assessing action options, and before making decisions, rather than for completing checklists. Furthermore, human factors principles dictate a challenge-and-response process between two crewmembers for conducting checklists and drills, in recognition of the susceptibility of memory to failure at critical moments.

Non-mental Memory Aids

Pilots will use the aircraft displays to aid their memories.

  • Mechanical or electronic “bugs” are used to indicate key information e.g. required track, take off/aproach speeds.
  • When included in a pilot’s scan, digital or analogue displays provide reminders e.g. radio frequencies, cleared altitude.
  • EFIS can sometimes be “arranged” by the user to provide information on demand an/or in a preferred layout.

When the situation demands, pilots have been known to use other visual memory aids, e.g. dayglow sticky labels on pulled circuit breakers, or a brightly coloured clipboard placed across throttles. These may be constant reminders that e.g. a system is not working, or fuel dumping is currently in progress.

The “ultimate” pilot memory aid is another crew member, specifically designated to pass information at a specific time, or when specific conditions are met e.g. the pilot monitoring calling 1000 feet to level or monitoring the anti-icing holdover time remaining.

This short section highlights the importance of Crew Resource Management (CRM) in aiding a pilot’s memory.


Many memory aids are simple aphorisms used to remember certain principles.

  • West is best, East is least – for applying magnetic variation to True tracks and bearings.
  • UNOS – Undershoot North, Overshoot South – to compensate for the lagging and leading action of compasses during turns (in the northern hemisphere).

Rules of thumb are common, although not always correct!

  • From High to Low, look Below! – this applies to the effects on an altimeter when either pressure and/or temperature change to a lower value. In both cases the altimeter will be over-reading.
  • Multiply groundspeed by 5 – to calculate the rate of descent required to fly a 3 degree glideslope.

General rejoinders to “pay attention” and/or “prioritise”.

  • Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – priorities in emergency and unusual situations.
  • Fly attitude' - a reminder that a pilot should gain familiarity with the aircraft type pitch attitude at various flight phases.
  • Pitch, Power, Performance” – priorities when executing a go-around.

Airlines tend to “design” their own memory aids to assist pilots in dealing with uncertain situations – problem-solving and decision-making.

  • DECIDE – Detect, Estimate, Choose, Identify, Do, Evaluate (for a more detailed description visit Choice).
  • DODAR – Diagnose, Options, Decide, Act, Review.
  • T-DODAR - Time, Diagnose, Options, Decide, Act, Review.
  • SAFE - State the problem, Analyse the options, Fix the problem, Evaluate the result.

Some memory aids concern behaviour and professionalism.

  • IMSAFE – self-checking for ability to operate: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Eating.
  • Look, Think, Act – a general reminder to avoid reactive and instinctive behaviour.

Some memory aids apply as constant reminders that improve situational awareness.

Checklists are often remembered through mnemonics and acronyms, however, these will be specific actions for a particular type of aircraft.

  • FLARE – Flaps, Lights, Auxiliary fuel pump, Radar transponder on, Engine mixture – example of after take-off checklist.
  • CIGAR – Controls, Instruments, Gas, Attitude (trim and flaps), Run-up – example of before take-off checks.

Briefings for all phases of pre-flight, flight and post-flight often follow set patterns to ensure all details are included. Pilots will use memory aids to achieve this, either written checklists or a mental hook. However, due to the importance of a comprehensive briefing in enhancing safety, pilots will more often use a written checklist, and in many cases this can be a requirement of the airline. For instance, a pre-descent briefing will need to cover many subjects: weather, top of descent position, descent profile, navigation, instruments, communication, terrain, approach, missed approach, diversion, responsibilities and crew tasks, contingency plans etc. Making an acronym to cover all this is not only difficult, but will expose pilots to memory and procedural errors.


Mnemonics, and other memory hooks, should not replace the use of checklists and the applicable legal and company requirements need to be followed. However, when developing any memory aid consideration should be given to the following questions:

  • memorability – can it be recalled easily?
  • reliability – can each item be remembered accurately and consistently?
  • relevance and need – is there a better, safer, procedure or system available?
  • confusion – is it possible that the memory aid, or elements of it, can be confused for another?
  • test – has the memory aid been tested under operational and emergency conditions?
  • system - if there is suddenly a need to develop a memory aid what has happened?

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