Who's in charge?

November 1, 1993

Responsibility may be the most misunderstood word in the language. Ask any parent who's tried to explain to an errant child how the world is supposed to function. It's not easy work. Responsibility is a fundamental tenet in aviation. Many of the safety problems in general aviation relate to responsibility and who's in charge.

In fact, the entire product liability flap hinges on responsibility. In this country in the past decade or so, we've chosen to measure responsibility in dollars and do most of the work with Other People's Money (OPM). This may be an excellent financial planning concept, but it has definite limitations in aviation. Encyclopedias have been written on the topic of liability and responsibility, much of it under the guise of safety, but from a pilot's perspective, it really is much simpler. We can't measure survival in dollars. It's measured in much more earthy terms.

The term "pilot in command" (PIC) has an authoritative ring to it, and as student pilots, most of us lusted after the privilege. Because the flight instructor is generally held responsible for students, the accident rate in training is quite low — less than half of what it is in personal flying. We know exactly where the buck stops, and competence must be proven by the student periodically to continue to exercise the privilege.

The acronymm "SIC" usually means second in command and applies to large aircraft, but I'm going to corrupt it for the moment into "sort of in command." When you look at hundreds of accidents, you realize there was no PIC. Instead, the pilot was acting as SIC.

First, take the landing accident, far and away the most common. We probably bend more sheet metal in landing mishaps and spend more dollars repairing that damage than any other pilot-related causal factor. Why? There are hard landings, short landings, overshoots, and crosswinds that exceed the airplane's or the pilot's capability.

Because we don't have autoland autopilots on our airplanes, all of the work is done by the person handling the controls. No one else can be held responsible for pilot errors that lead to landing accidents. Fortunately, not that many landing accidents result in injuries. We can take responsibility for routinely executing error- and incident-free landings by practicing more frequently and developing the skills to bring the bird safely back to earth.

Engine failure accidents are much less common but generally more serious because there is frequently not much maneuvering room or time to sort things out. Who's responsible? Who cares at that point? We want to survive by landing the aircraft as safely as possible. We can do a number of things to avoid such situations and stack the deck in favor of a safe outcome if a mechanical problem occurs. Practice engine-out maneuvering from time to time. Many multiengine pilots are not proficient at it. As a student, single- or multiengine, you benefited from lots of emergency landing practice, if only to liven up the instructor's day. Revisit those skills to avoid the SIC syndrome.

Take responsibility for flying only properly maintained aircraft. If you own it, you and your shop can eliminate the foreseeable problems. If you rent, don't tolerate poor maintenance. Sure, you can feel self-righteous on the way down and contemplate playing with OPM afterwards, if there's a bona-fide mechanical failure. But there may be a big hurdle to cross such as trees, buildings, or other assorted obstacles before then, and we sure don't want to be SIC in that situation.

In the early years of our industry, engines quit regularly. They were expected to quit, and pilots had a different and very healthy attitude concerning proficiency in dead-stick landings. They took responsibility, and many survived to fly again.

Weather-related accidents really are a misnomer. They should be called pilot-related accidents in weather. You can try blaming Mother Nature, but the legalities of that haven't quite been worked out yet. The classic case involving non-instrument-rated pilots blundering into unflyable conditions is repeated dozens of times every year. As SIC, they, or their heirs, frequently attempt to shift responsibility to anyone who has been even remotely involved. This sometimes includes air traffic control, flight service, or anyone who should have known about the weather and didn't make an attempt to stop the pilot. Some of the more convoluted regulations that we have to deal with grew out of legal hassles where a more pragmatic approach on the pilot's part would have had a much happier ending.

Pilots occasionally fatally misconceive their responsibility for terrain avoidance on an IFR flight plan. This generally occurs in a non- radar environment and involves a shortcut to get to the first navaid or to the airport, depending on whether you are coming or going. Who's responsible — controller or pilot? The rules say, in most cases, the pilot is, but because we are likely to be first at the scene of the accident, our motivation should go far beyond mere legalities.

There are very few times when we are victims of circumstance and it's somebody else's fault. But some of the greatest satisfactions I've had in my own flying have been solving or avoiding the difficulty that someone else created. The most notable occurred when a vacuum pump succumbed in solid instrument conditions and resulted in a no-gyro ILS down to 300 feet before breaking out. The aggravation was that the pump had been replaced only 25 hours earlier. My survivors would have been able to throw one heck of a party after the legal settlement, and I would have missed it. There doesn't seem to be much justice in that.

Federal Aviation Regulation 91.3 is one of the cleanest and most reasonable regulations ever conceived. It says, "The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." Period. It isn't often in today's complex world that we get both the responsibility and the authority to deal with our problems, all in the same sentence. It goes on to say that in an emergency, as PIC, we can do whatever is necessary to save ourselves, even if it means breaking another regulation. What a perfectly sensible way of dealing with the myriad of possibilities when the unthinkable or the unknowable occurs. When the question is asked, "Who's in charge?" step up to the plate and say, "I am."


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.