Contrary to what most non-pilots think, a lot of flying is actually very mundane and uneventful. There is a saying among pilots that flying is 99% boredom punctuated by 1% moments of sheer terror, indicating that routine flying can quickly become exciting - but not in a good way. Something that’s always helped me stay on top of the airplane - maintaining good situational awareness and preparedness should an emergency occur - is the HARPEL check.
The HARPEL check is something I was taught years ago in ground school when I was a student at Pacific Flying Club. Basically, when you find yourself in an airplane and with some time on your hands wondering what to do next, you can put yourself through a quick HARPEL check. This pertains more to VFR pilots but can likely be of use to IFR pilots too:
- Is my DG (directional gyro) synchronized to the magnetic compass?
- What is my current heading? What do I want my heading to be?
- What is my next heading? When do I change to that heading?
- What is my current altimeter setting? Is there a better (or more local) setting I can be using?
- What is my current altitude? What do I want me altitude to be?
- Am I OK at my current altitude? What are the nearby airspace considerations I need to be aware of?
- What is my next planned altitude? When do I need to start ascending/descending next?
- Who am I talking to now? Who should I be monitoring on COM 2?
- Who will I be talking to next? Can I preload any upcoming frequencies into the standby boxes?
- Do I need any clearances?
- Is my turn coordinator ball centered? Do I need to adjust trim(s)?
- Are my heading bugs and GPS’s set properly?
- How is the fuel situation? What is my endurance? Do I need to change tanks?
- Do I need to turn on (or off) any lights?
- How is my engine doing? Is the MP and RPM where I want it to be?
- What are my temps and pressures like? Should cowl flaps be opened/closed?
- Do we need to apply carb heat?
- This is pretty self explanatory, but am I leaned properly?
- Am I running where I want to be? Eg. rich of peak, lean of peak, etc.
I’ve found this mental checklist to be both easy enough to easily remember as a simple mnemonic while also having enough coverage to catch most of the things that could be overlooked in the cockpit.