Pilot Counsel

When must a pilot use a shoulder harness?

June 1, 2007

John S. Yodice owns a Cessna Turbo 310, which he flies for business and pleasure.

The FAA has issued an interpretation of the regulations that clarifies when a pilot must use a shoulder harness. Explaining this interpretation gives us a good opportunity to briefly review for pilots the more comprehensive regulations governing the use of seat belts and shoulder harnesses that are contained in FAR 91.105 and 107. A pilot's responsibility under these rules falls into three separate areas: briefing, notification, and use.

Briefing. These regulations impose a briefing requirement on the pilot in command of an aircraft (but not some balloons and airships). They tell us that prior to takeoff, the pilot in command is responsible to ensure that each person on the aircraft is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten the seat belts and shoulder harnesses. We all, I am sure, have experienced these briefings in our airline flying. This is a simple, but potentially critical, requirement with respect to relatively inexperienced aircraft passengers. Of course, some aircraft and some seats are not equipped with shoulder harnesses, in which case the briefing requirement applies only to the seat belts. This is a one-time requirement. It applies only to takeoff. It need not be repeated during the flight. As we will see, that's different from the notification requirement.

Notification. In addition to meeting the briefing requirement, the pilot in command also must ensure that each person on board the aircraft (except those same balloons and airships) has been notified to fasten his or her safety belt and shoulder harness (if installed) prior to taxiing, takeoff, and landing. So, there are at least three times that this must be done. The requirement is only to notify. The pilot in command is not responsible to ensure that the passengers actually use the seat belts and any available shoulder harnesses, although most pilots do.

Use. In understanding the use requirement, it is important to distinguish between crewmember use and passenger use. A pilot ("each required flight crewmember") must use a safety belt at all times during takeoff, landing, and while en route (technically, while at the crewmember's duty station). On the other hand, an installed shoulder harness need only be used during "takeoff" and "landing" (the subject of the interpretation). The shoulder harness need not be used en route, although it is probably still a good idea. And, even when required during takeoff and landing, if the shoulder harness interferes with the pilot's performance of required duties, it does not have to be used during the times that it causes interference.

Although, as we have said, the pilot in command has a duty to the passengers to ensure that they are briefed and notified, the pilot is not required to ensure that the passengers are actually using their seat belts and shoulder harnesses. Rather, the rules impose this requirement directly on the passenger. Passengers (including pilots who fly as other-than-required flight crewmembers) are required to use their safety belts and shoulder harnesses during movement on the surface, takeoff, and landing. Passengers are not required to use their seat belts while en route. It is probably a good idea to insist that your passengers stay buckled up while en route even though it is not required.

Exceptions. There are some exceptions to these requirements. For example, for seaplane operations, the person pushing off the seaplane from the dock and the person mooring the seaplane at the dock are exempt from seat-belt and shoulder-harness requirements even though the seaplane is moving. This exception also applies to float-equipped rotorcraft. There are two other exceptions, but they typically don't apply to small aircraft certificated for single-pilot operation. A flight crewmember may be absent from his or her station (and hence exempt from the seat-belt and shoulder-harness rules) to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft. A pilot also may be absent from the duty station to attend to physiological needs (for those of us lucky enough to fly aircraft with facilities to meet such needs).

The interpretation. The questions answered in the interpretation are, what is a "takeoff" and what is a "landing" in determining when a crewmember must use an installed shoulder harness? The questions were posed to the FAA in the airline context, but the answers apply in interpreting FAR 91.105. The FAA defines takeoff as the act of beginning flight in which an aircraft is accelerated from a state of rest to that of flight. Technically, the takeoff is complete when the aircraft becomes airborne, however close to the ground. So, at any time after the aircraft breaks ground and it is safe and expedient to release the shoulder harness, a pilot may do so. Landing is defined as the act of terminating flight in which the aircraft is made to descend, lose flying speed, establish contact with the ground, and finally come to rest. In other words, the landing begins when the aircraft is made to descend in preparation for establishing contact with the ground and coming to rest. The harness could be put on at the top of the aircraft descent or at any other point during the descent, but this task must be accomplished before the aircraft establishes contact with the ground. The FAA intentionally does not prescribe a specific time or event during the landing phase at which the shoulder harness must be put on, as for example, 500 feet above the surface. The FAA leaves that to the judgment of the pilot, within the pilot's overall responsibility that the aircraft not be operated in a "careless or reckless" manner in violation of FAR 91.13(a).