Like so many things in life, from cooking a turkey to getting an education, a typical flight progresses in phases. The way the human mind seems to work, we like to put things into “beginning,” “middle” and “end” categories. While helpful with most things, this structure doesn’t do justice to the way a flight really works. It’s simply more complicated. The beginning of a flight, for instance, has several key components, from pre-flight to climb, with many, many steps in between.
If you think those steps are easy to understand and incorporate into your flying routine, congratulations. You’re an experienced pilot. But many new pilots, and many not-so-new pilots, have a hard time coming to terms with all the chores the cockpit requires of them, and this uncertainty can cause anxiety, distraction and mistakes, all of which can lead to bigger, potentially hazardous problems.
A way to greatly mitigate the risk of cockpit confusion is to think in terms of phases as a kind of mental shorthand for a checklist (which one can always use to double check).
It works like this. Let’s say you’ve just gotten to your final requested cruise altitude of 5,500 feet. You level off and relax, right? Wrong! You’ve just embarked on a new phase of flight: cruise, and every time you’re in a new phase, there’s something (usually a few things) to do. In this case in my airplane I make sure I have the aircraft configured for cruise--for me, this means, in part, ensuring I didn’t leave the flaps extended! I make sure the boost pump is switched off, again something I should have and probably did do previously, I make sure my altitude is correct and that my autopilot, if engaged, is doing what it’s supposed to be doing (tracking nav now instead of heading, if I was on vectors, for example). Once leveled off, I then set power and run quickly through a flow to make sure I’ve got the rest of the airplane configured properly (landing light off, a/c or heat on, seat back reclined a bit) for the cruise phase. Only at that point will I run my “cruise” checklist on the MFD.
While these things might seem like second nature to an experienced pilot, this is not the case for many new pilots, or for pilots just learning a new model or type of aircraft. Breaking up a flight into phases helps organize the mental processes and reminds us to check the right kinds of things at the right kinds of times. It’s really no different from a GUMPS check on final. For every different phase, there’s stuff to be done. Thinking in terms of phases helps us remember to get all that stuff done efficiently and reliably.