Who's the Boss: Pilot in Command

September 7, 2012

pps

Ron Golden

Ron Golden

  • Attorney, Counsel to AOPA
  • More than 30 years of aviation legal experience
  • Serves on the Board of Directors, Seaplane Pilots Association
  • Pilot since 1975, owns a Cessna Cardinal RG

Early in our flying careers we learn that the pilot in command (PIC) is responsible for the safe completion of a flight. If there is a violation of the FARs during the flight, the PIC is likely the one in trouble with FAA. It may be good to be the king, but it comes at a price, so you better know who is the king!

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So what happens when you fly with another qualified pilot? Have you clearly established who is the PIC? Most of the time, it can be pretty simple to determine. However, in my years of advising pilots who are members of AOPA's Legal Services Plan*, now part of the new and expanded Pilot Protection Services, it is surprising how frequently a dispute arises about who is the PIC on a particular flight. The dispute usually arises after the flight. And if there is a dispute it generally means there has been a problem of some kind.

For example, what about the situation when you act as a safety pilot for another airman while flying in simulated instrument flight? The FAA has issued interpretations indicating that you can agree ahead of time who will be the PIC. And you can agree to switch during the flight. That is, you can agree to be PIC for only the period during which the other pilot is under the hood.

What if you go flying with another airman who, unbeknownst to you, does not have an appropriate medical certificate but is otherwise current and appropriately rated in an aircraft that he or she provides? A recent enforcement case indicated that once you become aware of the fact that the other airman may not legally serve as PIC, then you will likely be considered the PIC if the flight continues.

Flight instructors get special treatment. Here are some quotes from a decision involving an enforcement case against a flight instructor:

"Regardless of who is manipulating the controls of the aircraft during an instructional flight, or what degree of proficiency the student has attained, the flight instructor is always deemed to be the pilot-in-command."

"In the event that a flight instructor desires to give ... "passive" flight instruction, he [or she] should do so on the ground because any flight instruction that is given during flight time creates at least a prima facie case that the person giving the instruction is pilot-in-command."

So a flight instructor giving flight instruction in an aircraft will be presumed to be PIC, even if the pilot receiving instruction is appropriately rated and current in the aircraft.

But we know the flight instructor will not always be the PIC. FAA has issued interpretations indicating that a flight instructor may give flight instruction even if he or she does not have a current airman medical certificate, so long as he or she does not act as PIC or required crewmember for the flight. So clearly the FAA intends for a flight instructor to be able to give flight instruction in some circumstances without being the PIC. Presumably the flight instructor will ask the person receiving the instruction to agree to be PIC during the flight.

In short, who is the PIC on a particular flight involving two current and qualified airmen may not always be as clear as we think. It is a good idea to discuss it in advance and have no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who is responsible. Fortunately, it is never an issue on most flights. But if it does become an issue it will likely be a much more awkward discussion to have when an FAA inspector is asking the question. Especially if you do not know the answer! Finally, remember that "logging PIC time" is a different issue than "being PIC" ... but that's a different discussion for another day.

For more information, please call 800/872-2672 or visit www.aopa.org/pps.

* Legal coverage provided by the AOPA Legal Services Plan. See Plan Description for complete coverages, exclusions and limitations.

Ron Golden