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Pilot In Command: The Duties And Responsibilities Of Taking Control

By Gregory J. Reigel

© December, 2007 All rights reserved.

A recent NTSB decision, Administrator v. Corredor, re-affirms the duties and responsibilities to which an airman is subject when he or she assumes the status of pilot in command ("PIC"). The case arose out of an incident involving the aircraft in which the airman was flying; specifically, an airspace incursion. Unfortunately for the airman, the case resulted in a 90 day suspension of the airman's airline transport pilot certificate.

The Facts

The airman accepted an invitation to fly with another pilot ("Pilot A") in a Cessna 172 aircraft rented by Pilot A. Pilot A planned to fly to Homestead General Airport (an uncontrolled civil airport) but mistakenly entered into the Class D airspace of Homestead Air Reserve Base. Pilot A did not contact ATC prior to entering the Class D airspace and proceeded to perform a touch-and-go landing. Prior to performing a second touch-and-go landing, and still without having contacted ATC, a U.S. Custom's Blackhawk helicopter intercepted the aircraft and instructed Pilot A to land. At some point after the aircraft was intercepted, the airman took the controls from Pilot A and then landed the aircraft in accordance with U.S. Custom's direction.

Subsequently, the FAA issued an order alleging that the airman had operated the Cessna 172 aircraft in the Class D airspace without establishing two-way radio communication with the control tower, and that he landed and took off without a clearance. Additionally, the FAA claimed that the airman failed to familiarize himself with all available information concerning the flight prior to the initial departure. The FAA sought to impose a 180 day suspension of the airman's ATP certificate for violations of FARs 91.13(a) (careless and reckless), 91.103(a) (requirement of PIC to be familiar with "all available information" regarding flight), 91.129(c)(1) and (2) (two-way radio communication required for Class D airspace), and 91.129(i) (clearance required for operation of aircraft on airport with control tower). The airman appealed the FAA's order to the NTSB and a hearing was held.

The Administrative Law Judge's Decision

At the hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") determined that the airman accepted responsibility and control of the flight and became the PIC when he took over the controls of the aircraft from Pilot A. The ALJ then concluded that, at the point the airman assumed the status of PIC, “it was his duty to know where the aircraft was and to comply with all requirements applicable under the FARs to the conduct of the flight." As a result, the ALJ affirmed the FAA's order. However, he reduced the suspension from 180 days down to 90 days because he determined that it was excessive under the circumstances since the airman was not directly responsible for the navigation error of Pilot A. The airman then appealed the ALJ's decision to the full NTSB.

The Board Affirms The ALJ's Decision

On appeal, the Board initially noted that the airman appeared to have conceded at the hearing that he became the PIC of the flight at some point in time during the flight when he exercised decisional authority over the aircraft. However, the airman argued that he did not know the aircraft was in Class D airspace when he assumed control, and he therefore was not responsible for the failure to comply with the radio communication and other requirements applicable to Class D airspace.

The Board rejected the airman's argument and agreed with the ALJ's finding that the airman was the PIC after he accepted responsibility and control of the flight and, at that point, had the overall responsibility for, and control of, the flight. Although the Board observed that the airman's PIC status was a question of timing, it went on to conclude that the airman had a duty to know where the aircraft was located and to comply with all requirements applicable to the conduct of the flight when he assumed PIC status, regardless of when that actually occurred.

Interestingly, the airman's and Pilot A's versions of when the airman took control of the aircraft, and under what circumstances, were significantly different. According to Pilot A, the airman took control of the aircraft after the first touch-and-go with the intention of executing another touch-and-go to demonstrate to Pilot A how to execute a proper landing. The airman, on the other hand, stated that Pilot A panicked and became non-responsive after the interception by the Customs' Blackhawk and basically let go of the controls, at which point the airman then assumed control of the aircraft by necessity.

Although the Board determined that the resolution of this factual dispute one way or the other wouldn't change the outcome in this case, the airman's version of the facts presents a scenario worthy of consideration. If the airman's story was true, he was in a "lose-lose" situation: He either took control of the aircraft at the risk of a possible enforcement action or he just sat in the right seat and waited for the likely fatal consequences of inaction. Given the two, the first alternative seems to be the obvious, although no less unpalatable, choice. Ideally, however, you wouldn't want to be in the position to have to make such a choice. How do you avoid such a situation? By maintaining the necessary situational awareness you can hopefully avoid this type of situation.

Suggestions For Maintaining Situational Awareness

To maintain situational awareness, I have a few suggestions. These suggestions may not be necessary, appropriate or practical in all situations, but to the extent practical you may want to do the following each time you will be riding in the right seat: Treat the flight as if you will be flying the aircraft as PIC; Check the weather before you depart; Pre-flight or participate in the pre-flight of the aircraft; Pay attention during the flight - know where you are at all times, know where you are going and know how you are going to get there.

Most of these suggestions are simply common sense. You may be taking some of these steps now, in addition to others. The key is doing what is necessary to ensure that you have the necessary situational awareness for each flight. The suggestions will not immunize you from an enforcement action if you find yourself in trouble. However, they could help you avoid being in a situation where you have to make the choice between defending yourself against the FAA in an enforcement action or suffering a likely more permanent fate.

The information contained in this web-site is intended for the education and benefit of those visiting the Aero Legal Services site. The information should not be relied upon as advice to help you with your specific issue. Each case is unique and must be analyzed by an attorney licensed to practice in your area with respect to the particular facts and applicable current law before any advice can be given. Sending an e-mail to Aero Legal Services or Gregory J. Reigel does not create an attorney-client relationship. Advice will not be given by e-mail until an attorney-client relationship has been established.

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