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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Your airplane?

Before you embark on any flight with more than one pilot on board, it is imperative to determine who is pilot in command (PIC), and how (or why) that designation will change in an emergency.

On November 14, 2002, a private pilot candidate and a designated pilot examiner (DPE) flying a Piper PA-28 learned this lesson the hard way after a failed recovery from a simulated engine-out approach to a field. Although the aircraft was damaged substantially, no one was injured in this accident.

According to the DPE, the flight test was progressing satisfactorily when he retarded the throttle in order to simulate an engine failure, to be followed by a simulated approach to landing. The DPE maintained control of the throttle in order to occasionally clear the engine during the descent. The student selected a satisfactory field and continued the approach. The student then applied full flaps and maintained airspeed of 70 to 75 kt.

When the aircraft was about 100 feet agl, the DPE called for the student to execute a go-around. The student reached over to advance the throttle, but saw the DPE's hand on the throttle quadrant and the throttle only halfway in. The student felt the power "kick in" and proceeded to retract a "couple of notches of flaps." At this point, the airplane began to sink at a high rate, and the student attempted to regain control and recover. According to the DPE, the student was properly executing the recovery when they struck the terrain.

After the accident, the examiner said that from the time he realized that they were going to hit the ground to the time the aircraft came to rest, he did nothing to assist the student pilot and found it odd that he did not attempt to help.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be inadequate supervision and the premature raising of the flaps before a positive rate of climb was established.

The Private Pilot Practical Test Standards emphasizes that a positive exchange of flight controls must take place between the student and the examiner. It states:

"During flight, there must always be a clear understanding between pilots of who has control of the aircraft. Prior to a flight, a briefing should be conducted that includes the procedure for the exchange of flight controls. A positive three-step process in the exchange of flight controls between pilots is a proven procedure and one that is strongly recommended. When one pilot wishes to give the other pilot control of the aircraft, he or she will say 'You have the flight controls.' The other pilot acknowledges immediately by saying 'I have the flight controls.' The first pilot again says 'You have the flight controls.' When control is returned to the first pilot, follow the same procedure. A visual check is recommended to verify that the exchange has occurred. There should never be any doubt as to who is flying the aircraft."

Although FAR 61.47 states that the student will be acting as PIC during a checkride, in this case neither the student nor the DPE was sure of who had control of the throttle. A positive transfer of throttle control did not take place, so no one was in command. During every flight -- whether it is a personal flight with another pilot or a checkride -- always know who is PIC before takeoff.

For more information, read Bruce Landsberg's article, "Who's in Charge" (November 1993 AOPA Pilot), available online.

Kristen Hummel manages the aviation safety database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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