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Pilot Insights – Who’s Flying?

Pilot Insights – Who’s Flying?
Notice Number: NOTC6069

Tell me if this situation sounds familiar:  You are flying with a friend in her aircraft.  All is well until you set up for landing and hear ATIS is calling for some strong gusty crosswinds. Although you have more total flight time than your friend, she has a lot more experience in this particular plane. Not dissuaded by the rough winds, your friend executes a safe, albeit scary landing. After exiting the runway, you each say, “I never would have done that if I was by myself, but I figured you knew what you were doing.”

Or maybe you can identify with this situation: During a flight with your buddy in the left seat, you notice that he seems engrossed in his iPad. You then realize that the plane has wandered off course and altitude a bit, so you nudge it back to wings-level.  Your partner notices your action, but does not say anything.  After a while, you again notice the aircraft veer off course, and you correct it a second time.  A few minutes later, Center asks if you are on your requested heading and altitude, since you seem to be straying from your intended flight path and are no longer at your hemispheric altitude.  After a bit of embarrassed radio conversation, the airplane is back on desired heading and altitude.  The two of you then look at each other and simultaneously say, “I thought you were flying!”

These two situations highlight the importance of determining who’s really in charge during a flight. Let’s start by reviewing some common misconceptions about pilot in command (PIC) time. Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) section 1.1defines Pilot in Command, while section 61.51 describes who can log PIC time.  According to 14 CFR section 1.1:

Pilot in commandmeans the person who:
(1) Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;
(2) Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and
(3) Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

Note that nothing in this definition relates to actually manipulating the controls.

14 CFR section 61.51, on the other hand, deals with logging PIC time, and it states in part, that a person can log PIC time:

(e) (i) When the pilot is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is rated, or has sport pilot privileges for that category and class of aircraft, if the aircraft class rating is appropriate…

So, there is a bit of conflict between who logs PIC time, and who acts as PIC. For the purpose of this discussion, I want to concentrate on “who’s in charge here?”

In both of these situations, we need to address who has “the final authority” and who has been “designated as PIC.” I often think that when two pilots fly together, the topic does not come up because one or both pilots may feel embarrassed or intimidated to mention it.  After all, the PIC is the person responsible to the FAA and the insurance company if something goes wrong.  And secondly, when declaring who is PIC, you are agreeing that in an emergency, that person will be telling the other what to do.  Hmm.  That could be touchy.

Here is how I handle that.  Whether I am flying with a friend I know well, or with someone I just met, we agree — on the ground — who will be in command. In our pre-flight briefing, we agree on our destination and what we plan to do while enroute.  And of course we agree on who is PIC.

Then there is the question of who is actually in charge of manipulating the controls: PIC, or the non-PIC. Obviously, the person who is actually flying needs to be qualified to do so, but again, both of you need to agree on this.  A conversation such as this can provide a simple solution:
“Would you take the plane for a minute?”
“Sure.  I’ve got it.”
“Right.  You have the plane.”

Then, when you are ready to take the plane back:
“OK, I’ve got the plane again.”
“Roger, you have the plane”
“I have it.”

A little communication goes a long way in preventing that, “Oh, I thought you were flying situation.

Christopher Hope, Master CFI
2015 FAASTeam Representative of the Year
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Amanda Michelle (Younkin) Franklin 3/14/1986 – 5/27/2011 Click for information on Amanda