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Who or What is Pilot in Command?

Who or What is Pilot in Command?

Despite the slightly ungrammatical heading, this article is about the function of pilot in command. In some ways it is a mentally directed function; in some ways a legal function; in some ways a consensus function. There are possible other ways of seeing pilot in command.

To start with a definition would help. A perusal of the Civil Aviation Act discloses nothing of help. Civil Aviation Regulations 1988 does have a heading at CAR224 Pilot in Command (PIC). This CAR is contained in Division 4 –  conduct of operations. There are four sub regulations. The first requires that the operator “shall designate one pilot to act as pilot in command”. There is a criminal penalty associated with this provision. The second states he is responsible for the start, continuation, diversion and end of a flight by the aircraft, the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight, the safety of persons and cargo carried on the flight, and the conduct and safety of members of the crew on the aircraft. The third sub regulation asserts the pilot in command must discharge his responsibilities in accordance with any information, instructions or directions relating to the flight issued under the Civil Aviation Act or Regulations and an operations manual. The fourth sub regulation states the pilot in command shall have final authority as to the “disposition” of the aircraft and the discipline of all persons on board.

A close reading of the above will lead to the conclusion that the pilot in command has a lot of responsibility arising from his status but nothing to say about what he actually does or how he does it. Apparently, the flying of the aircraft is something that can be decided as and when it is convenient. But there is no express law relating to what he does and how he does it. CAR 225 decrees that the PIC must ensure that one pilot is at the controls of an aircraft from engine start to engine shutdown and when two pilots are in the crew that both remain at the controls when the aircraft is taking off, landing or in turbulence. As an F27 captain going into Sydney, I had the experience of being the only pilot in the cockpit for approach and landing there because the F/O had locked himself in the toilet and could not get out until we had engineers release him after landing.

There are regulations in place to determine the qualifications of a pilot in command. Part 5 Division 4 is replete with rhetorical regulations as to what a student pilot may do when pilot in command but nothing specific as to what he must do as pilot in command. When one moves from being a student to a private, commercial or airline pilot, the function of pilot in command disappears and one’s qualifications are determined as a pilot rather than a pilot in command.

Readers of this august organ may have some practical experience of flying aircraft and realize that the above recitations of the law do not specify what are the limits of a pilot in command. Lest  readers think this discussion is quite sterile and of no account, I should mention that I am currently involved in personal injury litigation where the function of pilot in command has been canvassed in the NSW Supreme Court and found adversely for my client. The finding is based on evidence of a retired RAAF Air Commodore.

It may be useful to turn to the more practical side of flying for an insight into the functions of pilot in command. There are two predominant systems of aviation industry in Australia. There are civil aviation and military aviation industries. Firstly, the military aviation industry. This industry does not have an affinity for pilot in command. When a pilot enters the military system, he has to undertake a course of instruction in two parts basic and advanced. He then receives his wings. He does not get a license. As I recall, he is then deemed to be a qualified general duties pilot. During his training he is trained by a flying instructor who is effectively the pilot in command. The student does as he is told by the instructor and develops sufficient skill to fly both the simple and the slightly more advanced military aircraft. Whilst under direct instruction the student logs “dual” time in his log book. After qualification and “wings” the RAAF military pilot streams into four types of flying i.e. fighters, bombers, transport and maritime. If the aircraft he is endorsed on is a single pilot aircraft he logs “1st pilot” time. The present equipment for fighters is the FA18, a single pilot/seat aircraft and the bomber is the Super Hornet which has a single pilot. The other two streams are crewed aircraft similar to the civil charter and airline operations. However, the command structure in crewed aircraft in the RAAF is quite different to civil. The fully qualified pilot flies and logs as “1st pilot”, the pleb flies and logs as 2nd pilot. The pleb gets a few hours as co-pilot and then is checked out as 1st pilot by a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). In a war zone this rather time consuming procedure is foreshortened somewhat. The following illustrates pilot in command in an earlier era.

I have spoken about this matter with an old WW2 Beaufort pilot. His introduction to Beauforts was via a fighter, the Beaufighter, a similarly structured aircraft. He flew a tour of fighters in 1943 in New Guinea. In 1944, the RAAF needed Beaufort pilots and he was sent to Tadgi airfield to 32 Squadron as a Beaufort pilot having never flown one. On arrival the CO said “How many hours have you got on Beauforts?” and was answered by “none”. He was instructed to read the pilots notes on Beauforts that morning and the CO flew his morning bombing sortie and come back and did some taxiing time and a couple of circuits with my friend. If all was well he could pick himself a crew of a navigator, WOP and gunner from the blokes in the crew room and he would be loaded up with bombs and would be bombing the next morning in a Beaufort.  This happened and he survived the war. Notice how the concept of Pilot in Command seemed to be swallowed up in the heat of the moment.

Whilst the pilot of a fighter is the only pilot in the plane, it follows by default that he is the pilot in command. Surprisingly, he does not have control over the fuel load, the ordnance load or any concept of diversion as a civil pilot has. He simply flies from a forward strip with his loaded fighter to engage the enemy and comes back to the same strip, hopefully in one piece.

When we come to the multi-crewed military and civil side of the equation, we notice that Hercules and Orions and airliners are flown by in some cases by three and four man crews.  Obviously someone must be in charge. Hence the need for pilot in command. The civil side engages in quality control. CAR 5.40 envisages a pilot in command under supervison concept. Clearly the person exercising pilot in command is being guided and controlled by a supervisor who must also be a pilot in command by definition. CAR 217 stipulates that there must be a training and checking organization. These check and training pilots are senior captains of the line who instruct and critique line pilots who ostensibly are pilots in command. Clearly their function is to ensure that pilots in command adhere to the instructions contained in both the regulations and the operations manuals as required by CAR 224. What are these checkies if not pilots in command? It is my experience that these pilots log their flying time whilst checking as pilot in command. That they do exercise command has been abundantly clear in my experience when I was flying as an airline pilot for TAA. I recall flying a line flight with a captain who was being checked by a check captain sitting in the middle jump seat. We were leaving Rockhampton on r/way 04; our clearance was that we were cleared for take off “maintain runway heading maintain1500 feet.” I queried this clearance as holding runway heading and 1500 feet for about three to five minutes would mean we would impact on the Berserker mountain range. The captain seemed oblivious to the risk entailed and accepted the clearance. We took off and the captain asked me to look right to see if an Ansett F27 was well clear of us. I warned the approaching height limits, i.e.500 feet, 1000 feet, and was then instructed to look for the Ansett F27. The check captain said nothing. The captain could see the Berserkers closing in and maintained his climb and exceeded his cleared altitude. The Check captain then said in a loud voice “captain you have exceeded your altitude limit” I asked for a turn and was given it and we were cleared to our transit altitude. At the debrief, the checkie commented on command responsibilities adversely to the captain concerned. Clearly there had been a breach of altitude and clearance and the pilot in command was responsible. The point to make about this exchange is that the check captain is also a pilot in command and exercises that function.

The two industries, military and civil, on occasion intersect and sometimes with disastrous results. The loss of a RAAF Boeing 707 VIP flight off RAAF East Sale comes to mind. From the coroner’s report and findings, the pilot in command or 1st pilot was Sqdn Ldr Lewin a QFI flying in the left seat. The pilot flying in the right seat was Flight Lieutenant Ellis, who was a right seat captain being endorsed as a QFI on B707s. Clearly this was a mishmash of both the civil pilot in command/check captain and the military 1st pilot/QFI structure on a decidedly civil airliner. To complicate the situation there was a third pilot who was endorsed as a captain right hand seat pilot, Flight Lieutenant Duncan. The three pilots had between 5,300 hours and 2,862 hours experience. They went out over Bass Strait and undertook a sequence of flying including a two engine out Vmc demonstration with the Yaw Dampers switched off.

Unfortunately they did the exercise at 5000 feet. The aircraft gradually slowed and became difficult to keep straight with a boot full of rudder and dutch roll prevailed, the aircraft spun and went in vertically from 1500 feet. All on board were killed. Flt Lt Ellis was flying the aircraft and exercising pilot in command function. Sqdn Ldr Lewin was also a pilot in command exercising a supervisory role over the pilot in command Ellis. Flt Lt Duncan was also observing as a pilot in command. When the exercise was being briefed apparently not one of the commanders actually took command and said the whole exercise reeked of danger.

It is often said that there can only be one pilot in command in the civil structure. However, the A380 incident out of Singapore QF32 seems to fly in the face of that rule. There were in fact three captains on board the flight prior to the departure from Singapore. Richard De Crispigny sat in the left hand seat and was nominally in charge. David Walsh was a senior check captain, checking out a junior check captain who was checking out De Crespigny. When the fit hit the shan and the turbine wheel broke into three parts, one bit into the wing, one into the fuselage and one onto a village in Indonesia, the aircraft was somewhat crippled and all three captains together with the first officer started working on the stabilization of the situation or in the parlance of pilots, they flew the plane, directed it away from obvious risk and then told air traffic control of the problem i.e. aviate, navigate, communicate. There have been various media talks about the incident and a television broadcast of the matter. In each of these media presentations it is obvious that there were three pilots in command exercising control and seeking to bring the aircraft flight to a safe ending. So much for there being only one pilot in command on that flight. Each of the captains concerned would have logged the flight as a command flight in their log books.

Another couple of anecdotes may help explain the mental functions associated with pilot in command responsibilities. It was my experience that flying as an F/O in TAA on a check flight when the captain was being checked was a highly dangerous experience. Rarely did the flight go to plan. Yet when I flew with the same captains on a normal line flight they were more than capable as pilot in command. In fact, when I became a captain, I modeled my behavior on what I had observed of these line captains. A check flight was vastly different. One fastidious captain completely forgot his landing gear when landing and forget to call for the landing check list prior to landing. His comment that, “the plane is not descending normally” was greeted by both the flight engineer and myself saying, “it would help if you put the gear down”.

A more dangerous situation arose on a flight from RK to MK in an L188 Electra. The captain was being checked. He was an excellent captain not given to indecision or fault that I had observed over about six years. The check captain was interested in keeping bees for honey and he told us so at length during the flight. That was the first mistake. But it wasn’t for a lowly F/O to tell him to shut up on the irrelevancies. We were cleared from our cruising height to descend to F/L 120 by RK and to call MK control. We were plumb on the VOR from MK and we were told to hold F/L 120 due to opposite direction traffic, an Ansett F27. We were descending at about 3000 feet a minute from cruise and the captain acknowledged the clearance height limit to me. Meanwhile the check captain was babbling on about honey to the F/E. We were in solid cloud and I warned the captain 2000 feet to go, 1000 feet to go and 500 feet to go appropriately. The captain did not alter the descent rate and proceeded through the clearance limit. I called MK and requested a lower limit. MK replied asking the F27 his DME from MK and flight level. It was 52 DME and 11,000. I looked at our DME and it was 52 and we were now through 11,000 toward 10,500. The captain suddenly woke up to the breach and proceeded to pull the aircraft back up to F/L 120 again going through the critical 11,000. The subscale setting was irrelevant between 1013 and QNH.

I fully expected to have the F27 come through the cockpit window at any time, as we both, that is the F27 and our L188, seemed to be at the same point in space at the same time. The sudden change of g force caused the check captain to stop talking about honey and take an interest in the progress of the flight. Clearly what had happened was a serious breach of procedure giving rise to a potential catastrophic mid air collision risk. I felt that situation did not need the input of a check captain to exacerbate the thinking of the captain at this critical time. So I turned to the check captain and engaged him in his pet subject – honey – for the next 20 or so seconds to divert the check captain’s concentration from the extremely dangerous situation that was unfolding. Suffice to say that we passed the F27 without collision and were given a normal descent to land at MK. When I spoke to the captain on the ground at MK about his shortcomings, the check captain not being present, he said he had been distracted by the sound of the check captain rattling on about honey and did not hear my calls or realize he was approaching a clearance height.

The debriefing after the flight was quite interesting. The check captain was scathing of my performance, in that at a critical time of the flight I had taken my mind off the operation and discussed an irrelevancy of honey production. I had in his words “not given sufficient support to the captain at a critical time”. The check captain intended to bring this state of my performance to the notice of the check and training system. The F/E was stunned. The captain was sheepish and I said, “Captain will you speak to the check captain on my behalf or will I have to explain my behavior?” The check captain had missed the serious breach of altitude completely and more importantly caused the snafu by his incessant chatter. When I became a B727 captain, the same check captain was still checking pilots in command and I explained the MK situation to him over a couple of beers. He was horrified that he had caused the breach and had also missed it. In the meantime the earlier captain had retired.

I had a dread of being rostered to fly with captains under check. It seemed to me that pilot in command went mentally out the window when a more superior captain was present on the flight deck. I know that I had a special briefing that I gave to the crew when I was being checked for pilot in command competence on the B727 to ensure that if I went into dopey mode in flight that both the F/O and the F/E should say out loud just what is wrong lest we cause an accident due to my dopiness and subservience to the check captain’s influence.

In summary, it seems that the law is vague as to what and who is pilot in command, but very specific on that personage’s responsibilities. The practice is different as between the military and the civil side of Australian aviation.  There seems to be a mental intrusion when two captains fly together especially in a training and checking situation, such that pilot in command functions move about the cockpit irrespective of what the law may seek to impose. The overseas experience is different again from the Australian experience.

Watch this space…

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