From the Bunker: Checklist (Brandon Litt)

This is the second in a series of posts “from the bunker,” interviews with the people behind the scenes at every hot fire and cold flow that takes place at XCOR. Today we talk about the role of Checklist with XCOR engineer Brandon Litt.


The team confers during a test day. Left to right: Doug Jones (Chief Test Engineer), Jeremy Voigt (Control), Randall Clague (Safety Officer), Mike Valant (Senior Engineer), Jeff Greason (Test Czar and CEO), Brandon Litt (Checklist), Derek Nye (A&P) and Geoff Licciardello (Test Engineer)

Bryan Campen: So what does Checklist do?

Brandon Litt: The checklist reader gives commands to everybody on the test crew. And no one does anything on the test stand, on the control box, with the DAQ, unless the checklist specifically tells them to do it.

It has been through so many iterations that it is now the best way to get the test done successfully and safely.

The speed at which I read the checklist really sets the tempo for the day. If I’m reading it pretty fast, people might be on edge. We might miss things or skip lines if it were too fast. So it’s nice to go slow and deliberately and make sure everything is done the right way.

But if I’m going too slow people might get a little bit sluggish and lose focus, so I need to keep things going at a steady pace throughout the day. I also have to make sure that the commands I give are called back to me by the rest of the team.

BC: Have you ever stressed anyone out by going too fast?

BL: Oh yeah, when I started I’d get comments –“slow that up” or “take a pause here”– I’d push the radio button a little too early and maybe cut someone off while they were trying to say something.

So I tell Red Team to open a valve,  wait for them to call back that they have opened that valve successfully, and then move on to the next step.

It requires a lot of mental focus to ensure that I am very precise.

I don’t just give commands. I wait for feedback.

BC: How many items are on the checklist?

BL: That’s a really good question. For a standard engine day we start with a rollout checklist, it includes all the things we bring with us when we get to the test site. We go through a stand setup checklist, which maybe has fifty items. Then we go through a control checklist which pretty much brings up the electrical system on the stand, and test every valve on the whole stand. It’s probably another fifty items. Then we go on to the pressurization steps for the engine run. The final checklist is only a few steps, it’s mostly verifications before we hit go.

BC: What are the best and most challenging parts of the job?

BL: It’s disappointing to go out there all day, read this checklist methodically, slowly, everything happens right, but for some reason we just have to call it a day, shut down and go home.

Counterpoint to that, it’s equally as amazing when do I do all those things, we push the button and that engine just works.

All of the positions on the crew don’t just do their respective jobs. All of the prep work in the hangar, and rollout, and for setting up the stand once you get out there, it’s a big group effort and everybody really has to chip in to get that thing ready to go.

So the checklist acts as that final verification. When everything is set up, if I am [for instance] trusting new engineers to do certain things during the setup, I’m going to verify those steps later in the checklist.

And rest assured I’m not just going to assume they were done correctly.