There’s more to flying than learning a few things about aerodynamics, though that’s an excellent place to start. Also, to be a pilot, you must be more than an expert on the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). For example, if you lose an engine right after take-off on a soupy day, being able to quote chapter and verse from the FARs won’t save you. You’ll need something else: a clear understanding of what the “C” in PIC means.
The official definition of Pilot in Command
For the reg-lovers, here it is straight from FAR 1.1. “Pilot in command means the person who: (1) Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight; (2) Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and (3) Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.”
Let’s give the government some credit. They listed the most important one first. But this is where some pilots like to crow. They love having the “final authority and responsibility” for a flight (see FAR 91.3 also). You can always spot those guys. They have a certain strut and often wear their sunglasses indoors.
Please note that the official definition of pilot in command says nothing about controlling the aircraft or yourself. It merely states where the hammer of justice can fall if the National Transportation Safety Board decides the primary cause of an accident is pilot error—which is often the case.
If you read many NTSB reports, you’ll discover that accidents are rarely caused by a catastrophic failure of one thing. It’s usually a chain of events. The accident may have been avoided if one link in the sad chain had been broken. If only there had been a pilot in command.
What does it really mean to be the Pilot in Command?
The true understanding goes beyond the FARs. The heart of the matter lies not in who the person is, but what.
So, what does it mean to be in command? Here’s a couple of definitions from one dictionary: (1) To direct with authority; give orders to; (2) To control or have authority over; rule.
The strength of those definitions lies in the action verbs. Direct. Control. Rule.
To be the PIC, you must make that aircraft do what it’s supposed to do. Even more importantly, you must be in command of yourself (see The One Thing You Should Never Do in the Cockpit).
In one study that looked at general aviation accidents over a ten-year period, 80% were pilot-related. Of that, 87% were due to “basic inability to fly the airplane” or to “act as Pilot-in-Command.” The study’s emphasis of PIC failure had to do with weather, fuel management, and approaches. I’ll discuss those in other articles. For now, let’s concentrate on the “basic inability to fly the airplane.”
How do you become a true Pilot in Command?
The short answer: a good instructor.
I was blessed. Most of mine were ex-military, but there’s plenty of good instructors who aren’t. Mine understood a disciplined approach to acquiring PIC skill. They were concise in their explanation, precise in their demonstration. And they were nice. None of them brought the drill-sergeant mentality into the cockpit.
Your instructor is critical to becoming a true pilot in command. If he/she is the kind that’s always late, cancels, has no real plan for a lesson, or is constantly yelling at you in the cockpit, then find another one.
You won’t learn what a good PIC is if you’re flying with bozos whose primary goal is time-building or stroking their own egos. Just because they have an instructor’s certificate doesn’t mean they know how to teach.
Some basic skills for every Pilot in Command
There’s a lot that goes into becoming a true PIC. Here’s a couple of things you can practice to overcome that “basic inability to fly the airplane.”
Takeoff and land on the centerline.
That sounds simplistic, but you’d be amazed at how many pilots don’t, won’t, or can’t do this. Of course, in the beginning, you’ll be elated—and so will your instructor—if you just keep it on the runway.
But after a few lessons, you should know what to do. Practice doing it. A lot of tax-payer dollars went into painting that big, dotted line down the center. Give those folks their money’s worth. Make it happen. This is part of commanding yourself as well as the airplane.
Here’s a second area that separates would-be pilots from PICs:
Ability to control airspeed, altitude, and maintain a heading.
(Okay, that’s three, but they’re related.)
A pilot in command is able to maintain an assigned heading and altitude, and can roll out on both correctly at the end of a maneuver. In the approach phase especially, a good pilot in command understands—and is able to execute—the relationship between airspeed and pitch, altitude and power.
Hopefully, your instructor can demonstrate this and explain it in a way that you understand. Being in command of these elements will boost your self-confidence and go a long way toward making you a true PIC.
You can be a PIC–if you work on it.
Most of what I’ve said has been aimed at up-and-coming pilots. But maybe you’re reading this–after several hundred hours in your logbook–as a pilot who is not in command of himself or the aircraft. That’s entirely possible.
Well, here’s my question to you: what are you going to do about it? Part of being in command is realizing you have a problem and taking measures to fix it.
The next time you’re out flying, maintain your heading and altitude. When it comes time to land, pick a spot on the runway (right on that big, dotted line!) and put your wheels on it without compressing your spine. If you need help, then get with a good instructor and work on it. You can be in command.
There’s lots more to being a true PIC, and we’ll explore some of those things in future articles. For now, I’ll close with an old saying you may have heard already:
Fly the airplane; don’t let it fly you!