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Home » John E. McLain

Who’s in charge here?

By John E. McLain (December 2002)

There seems to be ongoing confusion about who can log pilot in command time under the provisions of FAR Part 61. Unfortunately, most of this concern fails to consider the more important definition of pilot in command under FAR 91.3(a), which states very clearly that “the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”

I am not an attorney, but I have been an advisor and expert witness for attorneys in aviation litigation. When I ask their opinion, a vast majority agree this also legally infers the person responsible for the operation of an aircraft has the final authority as to its operation and therefore is the pilot in command under Part 91, regardless of whether he or she can log PIC time under Part 61.

In this country, we have a court system to resolve significant differences of opinion. Ultimately, it is a judge and/or jury who will decide who is PIC. They will pay little or no attention to who can log PIC time under Part 61. They will be interested only in the Part 91 definition. Let me give you a couple of examples.

There is some confusion as to whether a safety pilot can log PIC time. The current consensus seems to be that he or she should log it as second in command time. I am not going to get involved in this argument, other than to assume the safety pilot can only log this as SIC time. Now assume that, while the flying pilot is under the hood, the airplane overtakes a slower plane and a midair collision occurs. Is the pilot manipulating the controls responsible or the safety pilot? I can assure you that, 99% of the time, the court will look at Part 91 and hold the safety pilot responsible and, therefore, PIC even if he can’t log it as PIC.

Another example would be an instructor is giving instruction to a private pilot for a commercial flight test. In this situation, Part 61 permits both the instructor and the student to log PIC time. It is reasonable to assume that, depending on the circumstances, a court would hold one or the other to be PIC under Part 91, but not both.

My concern is the multitude of instances where the PIC either inadvertently or deliberately gives up authority or avoids responsibility, and thinks he has done the proper thing. Unfortunately, neglect of pilot responsibilities and authority starts at the very beginning of a pilot’s career. A student pilot often is led to believe the flight instructor will see to it that all regulations pertaining to student pilots will be adhered to. This attitude seems to be encouraged both by the aviation public and by flight instructors. The truth of the matter is that the student must accept the full responsibility and authority of any pilot in command, including compliance with all flight rules and the regulations covering student solo. When a student relies on the instructor to see that all appropriate training, endorsements, log book entries, etc. are complied with prior to solo, that is delegating responsibility to the flight instructor.

All too many times, I’ve encountered student pilots who were operating solo but failed to meet all the requirements for solo flight. The omissions included such things as missing endorsements on the student license, missing logbook records of required training, failure to have completed a pre-solo written exam, and lack of a 90-day solo endorsement in the logbook. The fault, in these instances, was two-fold. First of all, the instructor was negligent, in most cases, through not making it clear that the student shares responsibility for complying with the regulations. The student was also negligent in expecting someone else to assume the responsibilities of pilot in command. This failure of both student and instructor to establish the student’s obligations is the beginning of a poor attitude that could haunt the student for the rest of his flying career.

Pilots commonly relinquish their PIC responsibilities to others in obtaining and analyzing weather reports. I think most people, not just pilots, recognize that weather forecasting is not an exact science. Words such as “chance of,” “occasional” and “probability” appear regularly in forecasts. However, all too often pilots read or listen to a forecast and make a go-no-go decision based on it alone, relinquishing a part of the pre-flight planning responsibilities to the forecaster or weather briefer.

The pilot is responsible for obtaining and analyzing all available weather information for a flight. During biennial flight reviews, instrument proficiency checks and flight tests, I often ask pilots about such things as temperatures aloft, lapse rates, radar summaries and the like, where they may contribute to a more thorough analysis of weather. The answer, in many cases, is that “the briefer did not give me that information.” My response is, “Why did you not ask for it?”

It is the PIC’s responsibility to know what weather services are available. It is also his responsibility to make use of all the available information when making go-no-go weather decisions. I recently had a private pilot applicant who obtained a DUAT briefing for his flight test. The area forecast mentioned a chance of thunderstorms along our proposed route. I asked him whether the current radar summary chart showed any thunderstorms that might concern us. He did not even know his DUAT briefing contained radar summaries, much less how to read them. As it turned out, the radar summary did indicate thunderstorms along the proposed route. This was an excellent example of a pilot not meeting his responsibilities.

Some other examples of a PIC delegating his responsibility are: Trusting someone else to do the preflight inspection; trusting the line-boy to check the oil and fuel levels; depending on the mechanic to assure that maintenance records for the airplane are in order; depending on the FBO to make sure all necessary inspections are up-to-date on a rental airplane; and depending on the ATC controller for collision avoidance. All of these are the responsibility of the PIC.

From my military training, I always remembered two important points: Command is a lonely position, and you can delegate authority but not responsibility. Every pilot should keep these in mind.