Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

Who's the Boss

The buck stops where?

If you were going to get one federal aviation regulation tattooed on your wrist (not that we’re recommending it), it should be FAR 91.3. Why? FAR 91.3 (a) and (b) give the pilot in charge of any airplane sweeping command authority, much as the captains of ships enjoyed back in the days of sailing.
Who's the boss
Who's the boss

How sweeping? Well, it gives you permission, in advance, to break the rules: In an in-flight emergency that requires immediate action, you may deviate from the regulations to respond to that emergency. Of course, with this heady authority comes a heavy load of responsibility. You’re also directly responsible for the operation of the aircraft, and there’s no passing the buck if something goes wrong.

So who gets granted this special dispensation? The pilot in command, abbreviated as PIC.

Who is PIC? FAR 1.1 defines the pilot in command as the person who “has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight; has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating—if appropriate—for the conduct of the flight.”

So it’s the person in the left seat, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes the pilot in command is chosen by default. If you’re at the controls of a single-seat Pitts S1, you’re the pilot in command. At other times, regulations may dictate the relationship between multiple pilots, as can ratings, currency, medical certificates, type certificates, and other details. So, too, can assigned functions between the pilots. Finally, in some cases pilots are free to choose who is in charge. It’s important to note, however, that the highest-rated pilot does not automatically become the PIC. The pilot in command is the pilot in charge, not necessarily the pilot flying the airplane. In fact, it’s possible to be pilot in command without touching the controls for the entire flight. In theory, the PIC might not even be at the controls. The pilot in command is the responsible party, and that doesn’t need to be the same as the sole manipulator of the controls. Of course, on most general aviation flights, the sole manipulator of the controls is the PIC; and in big air carrier airplanes with multiple crew members, defining who is in command is fairly easy. But things can get muddled pretty quickly when two general aviation pilots fly together in a small airplane. While the buck has to stop with one pilot in the air, on paper there are times when two pilots can log PIC time for the same flight. That’s because in the muddled world of aviation regulations, there are distinctions between serving as pilot in command and logging hours as pilot in command. FAR 61.51 has been interpreted as saying that logging PIC time may be “different and distinct” from acting as the pilot in command. The most common example is during instrument flight practice using a view-limiting device. The pilot under the hood is the sole manipulator of the controls and can log his time as PIC, but he’s not in charge. Instead, the safety pilot, with her eyes on the outside world, is the actual pilot in command. How on Earth does that work? The guy under the hood is the sole manipulator of the controls under FAR 61.51, but under these circumstances a safety pilot becomes a required crewmember (even in an airplane that doesn’t normally have any required crew beyond the pilot) under FAR 91.109. So during hood time, they can both log. Again, this is a bookkeeping distinction. In actual flight there can be only one pilot in command. Another example of dual logging would be when a fully certificated and current pilot flies with an instructor to complete some of the flight phases of his or her FAA Wings program. The pilot manipulating the controls is the pilot in command, but the rules that govern Part 91 flight instructors (FAR 61.51) allow them to log all instruction time as pilot-in-command time, even if they are not acting as PIC on the flight.

Can a student pilot be a pilot in command? There are only two circumstances in which student pilots can act as pilots in command and log PIC time. First, student pilots are pilots in command when they are the sole occupant of the airplane—which is only logical, but wasn’t always the case. Prior to a 1997 rule overhaul of FAR 61.51 (d)(4), student pilots were considered under the command of their instructors even when the instructor wasn’t in the airplane. But under current regs, any student pilot flying solo with a current solo flight endorsement in his or her logbook is the pilot in command of the aircraft, and he or she can also log the time as such.

There’s only one instance in which a student pilot can serve as PIC with another person in the airplane. It’s not for instruction: Any time an instructor accompanies a student pilot, even if the student is the sole manipulator of the controls, the instructor is the pilot in command. It’s on your checkride. According to FAR 61.47, a student pilot is the pilot in command during a checkride for the sport, recreational, or private pilot certificates—not the examiner. This is because the regulations carve out an exception to the rules that student pilots cannot carry passengers by narrowly redefining a student pilot taking a checkride as a “flight test applicant” who can serve as pilot in command, and can log the checkride as PIC—even if, God forbid, you flunk it.

Democracy in the cockpit? There’s no democracy in the cockpit, but there is on the ramp. If a flight includes two (or more) pilots appropriately qualified to act as pilot in command, the FARs state that the PIC may be designated on the ground before the flight, by the consent of the pilots. But once in the air, the final authority can rest only with one pilot.

Can you switch pilots in command in flight? It’s rare, but legal. Remember the definition of the PIC in the FARs? It states that the PIC “has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight.” This would require the current pilot in command to relinquish that position to another pilot, and that other pilot to accept it. There’s only one captain on a ship, and there’s only one pilot in command of an airplane, even if it’s a Boeing 747 with a certificated pilot sitting in every seat in the airplane. On paper, there are times when more than one pilot can log the same flight as pilot in command time, but in the air, the final total authority and responsibility ride on a single set of shoulders.



ATC: Bossy, but not the boss

As the pilot in command of an airplane, do you have to follow instructions from air traffic control at all times? No! Not if, in your judgment, those instructions put you or your flight at risk. The sweeping authority granted to pilots in command by the federal aviation regulations are very clear that you do not have to “take orders” from ATC in an emergency, or if those instructions could place you into circumstances that could result in an emergency.

As pilot in command, you—and only you—have “final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight.” Of course, even though you don’t have to follow their instructions, you are required to tell ATC you are refusing, and why. But when?

FAR 91.123 (c) only says to notify ATC “as soon as possible” if you cannot comply with their instructions. The regulation is intentionally vague as no two circumstances are alike, but in the real world an “Unable to comply” message only takes about three seconds. So even while there is no requirement to notify ATC of an emergency in real time, it’s still considered good form to do so.

But remember your priorities: aviate, navigate, communicate. “Unable to comply” comes third. —WED

FAR 91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the administrator.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. A rare “double” Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP, he currently serves as the senior CFI Academy ground instructor for ATP Flight School. Dubois has been an AOPA member since 1983, and he was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.

Related Articles