During the startup, taxi and takeoff section of the flight the actions of the pilot are based on numerous variables and his/ her ability to process that information and take sound decisions based on that. During taxi and cruise, pilot workload is usually low and the situation is relaxed.
After takeoff the aircraft continues in the climb phase and flies away from the busy airspace. The pilot sets the aircraft up for cruise power and speed and turns on course when clear of the airport environment. Depending on the type of flight, VFR or IFR, departure control or a flight information service will then be contacted.
The workload for the pilot can be medium to high if he is flying a complex airplane and is changing power, speed and trim settings during this phase and needs to change frequencies and contact ATC during departure.
After takeoff and clearing any obstacles, the aircraft usually climbs with maximum power until required to change to cruise climb speed. Depending on noise abatement, flight school procedures or personal preferences, most pilots change configuration at at least several hundredth feet AAL (>500 ft).
This configuration change consist usually of flap retraction, speed increase to cruise climb and a change from takeoff power to climb power. As a result the aircraft will oscillate through several pitch motions, adding to the workload of the pilot while he re-trims and stabilizes its flight path.
Unless you know the aircraft really well and are able to compensate immediately.
Airspace around airports can be quite busy, most accidents happen in this relatively confined area. For this reason some organizations and flight schools assign an area of 5 miles and 2000 ft as safety window or critical airspace. Aircraft and crew within this space should be not be distracted by passengers and or other non essential issues.
For slow moving and low flying aircraft and altitude of 2000 ft might too high, so 1000 ft AAL and 3 miles would be more appropriate.
Needless to say that the pilot is busy manipulating the aircraft while flying away from the airport and close to the ground. It is best to wait until you are outside this critical area before you start shuffling maps, talking to passengers and preset the navigation radio's to the next VOR or GPS fix.
If you fly a lot with passengers in, for example, sight seeing operations it advisable to inform them before engine start and taxi that you are going to be busy until well clear from the critical area / airport. This will keep distractions to a minimum at a time where you are really busy. Should you have a crew isolation switch on your intercom... you might as well use it.
When established outside the airport critical area, pull out your checklist and verify each related item on the list. This is what checklists are for: a backup tool so you do not forget anything important. It also shows professionalism to your passengers.
During the climb you need a way to remember the assigned altitude or flight level so that you will not bust it by going any higher. Write it down on your knee-board or electronic flight bag (EFB), dial it in de ADF, or buy a suction cup pointer and stick it on the altimeter. Anything will work as long as you stay with it.
When reaching your altitude you will need to make another change to the aircraft configuration: an increase from climb to cruise speed and the need to re-trim. Lowering the nose over and re-trimming means you are busy until the aircraft stabilizes on the desired airspeed for the power setting without busting your altitude. Those of you with an autopilot will certainly benefit from this!
From this point on everything should be smooth sailing. Unless you need another altitude change due to terrain, weather or by request of air traffic control.
This is a very helpful device, but make sure you know exactly how all of its functions operate and what will cause it to disengage. Other than that it is very useful for the cruise portion of the flight. Keep in mind that over reliance has caused accidents in the past.
Keeping the quick reference guide onboard or in your flight bag can be a great help.
The cruise portion of the flight is ideal for weather and engine monitoring, actual workload is low and there is time to see how things are going. Weather updates can be obtained from ATC or ATIS and, should it be needed, the decision to fly to an alternate can be done in time. This will help in keeping a low stress cockpit.
During cruise to your destination there should be ample time to prepare the descent and approach for landing, our next article highlights the finer points on that.