Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Protecting Your Freedom to Fly

Safety Publications/Articles

Instructor Tips

Who's Got The Plane?

The federal aviation regulations (FARs) spell it out: The CFI is the pilot in command of all training flights undertaken by a student while the former is acting as an instructor. In that capacity, the CFI has overall authority and responsibility for those flights.

Given his or her assessment of the student's abilities, however, the CFI may, for training purposes, elect at certain times to relinquish hands-on control of a particular flight and give the student increasing authority and responsibility for the moment-to-moment conduct of the flight. Typically that assignment is part of a lesson plan, and the details of that assignment are adequately defined. For example, a CFI might say, "I've described how approach-to-landing stalls develop and the techniques employed in recovering from them. I've demonstrated both entry into one and recovery from it. Now let's see you do one." In this case, a specific flight situation was identified, and responsibility for accomplishing it was specifically assigned to the student.

But what if these parameters are not clearly defined? What if the role given to each person in the cockpit during a given flight situation is not equally clear to all on board? What if it's uncertain - even if only in the eyes of one individual - who has the plane? We have all read about airline incidents in which it was subsequently determined that uncertainty about authority and responsibility played a key role. It's crucial to keep in mind that role ambiguity can cause grief in the primary flight training environment as well.

I experienced this once as a student, flying with an experienced CFI. The preflight was uneventful, and the takeoff roll had begun. The Cessna 150 was clearly accelerating. Scanning the instrument panel, I was primed to call out "Airspeed alive!" when the airspeed indicator's needle began to move, as I had done numerous times before. Much to my surprise, this time it didn't move. As we were racing down the 3,500-foot runway, I quite clearly brought this rather unusual condition to my instructor's attention: "Airspeed not alive!" with an implicit request, and hope, for direction. In the past, if I had either performed a technique incorrectly or a dangerous situation was developing, the instructor would tell me what to do or take control of the aircraft.

My CFI did not respond. I was inclined to pull the power off, bring the yoke back, and jump on the brakes. Other considerations, however, began to run through my mind: Had we gone too far down the runway to abort? Had we committed ourselves to attempting a takeoff and to an uncertain-at-best flight in ground effect? Was my instructor, by virtue of his silence, leaving this decision up to me - or did his silence mean that, from his experienced vantage point, we should continue down the runway as we were?

I became increasingly concerned. What action, if any, should I take? What actions, if any, did I, as a student, have the authority or responsibility to take in such an unusual situation? I repeated my words with considerably more emphasis: "Airspeed not alive!" At that point, my instructor calmly told me to proceed with the takeoff and to keep the ascent relatively flat. The flight, which involved going around the patch once, was followed shortly afterwards by a demonstration of how best to remove bugs from an aircraft's pitot tube.

On another occasion, with another instructor at a different airport, I was on final in a Cessna 172. This instructor's presence had certainly been felt during the introduction to go-arounds. I realized that I was slightly high and fast on short final to a 2,400-foot runway. Landing from that altitude was not going to be possible. I initially pushed the nose down in an attempt to lose the altitude, although - not surprisingly - this caused the airspeed to increase further. When I brought the nose up to a more reasonable approach attitude, more of the runway was under the nose than I had ever seen there before. I thought to myself, This is not going to work.

The option of going around always existed, and I knew that I was competent in doing so. However, I had never exercised that option without direct input from my instructor - and the only reaction from the right seat was silence. The far end of the runway was increasingly and uncomfortably close. In an act of perceived self-preservation and possible challenge to the instructor's authority, I announced, "No! I don't like this," added power, and executed a go-around. "Good decision," the CFI replied.

In both instances, the CFI and I had entered into what I would refer to as the Zone of Ambiguous Authority and Responsibility (ZAAR). The ZAAR refers to the psychological space in which it is unclear either to the student, CFI, or both as to who has the authority and responsibility for dealing with a specific flight situation. The consequences of entering the ZAAR can range from minor to major. Under the least trying of circumstances, the CFI and student will gradually sort out issues of authority and responsibility. But the message is obvious: To maximize the chances of the CFI-student duo coming out of any given flight intact, maximum effort should be made to stay out of this particular zone in the first place.

The airlines have clearly spelled out in their training and operations manuals what the authorities and responsibilities are of the pilot flying and the pilot not flying. It's all there in black and white. In the primary flight training environment, on the other hand, there are no manuals that define specific authorities and responsibilities. Furthermore, those very parameters are constantly changing throughout the flight training process. As a result, and in this specific regard, the interpersonal primary flight training environment is considerably more complex and demanding than that found within the well-standardized airline cockpit.

It's incumbent upon both the CFI and the student to regularly revisit this issue, if it's not part of their existing discussion regarding each and every flight they share. For example, during a preflight discussion of the departure stalls that will be introduced and practiced during a given lesson, the CFI might describe how inadvertent accelerated stalls occur, how one recovers from such an event, and who in their cockpit would be responsible for the recovery should such a stall develop.

But the student shares this responsibility. As part of their training, students are taught the importance of asking crucial questions and obtaining important information - weather and traffic information from flight service and tower personnel, for example. Similarly, the student should be encouraged to ask enough questions to ensure that he knows at any given time not only what he will be expected to demonstrate technically but how much authority and responsibility he will have with regard to the particular flight situation. If an accelerated stall develops, what can he expect from the instructor?

Increased communication between the student and CFI will also be helpful in keeping the training aircraft's occupants out of the ZAAR. The CFI can only know for sure what she observes; i.e., the student's actions. If that is all the information the CFI has, she can only surmise what the student is actually thinking. To reduce the possibility of misreading a student, CFIs should encourage the student not only to demonstrate particular maneuvers, but perhaps more important, to explicitly describe - both before and during such maneuvers - the student's complex considerations in making it happen. Discussion of the actions the student intends to take if something goes awry would also be appropriate.

It is only after such discussions, including an appropriate exchange of ideas and together with appropriate demonstrations, that the CFI can truly feel comfortable when the student authoritatively says, "I've got the plane!"

By Jesse J. Tepper

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports