Pilot in Command

Pilots · 5 min read · May 03, 2022
pilot in command

If you are a frequent flyer with any airline you have probably noticed that there is always more than one pilot in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft. While they both have similar category and class ratings, they wear the same uniform, and probably have a similar hours of actual of simulated instrument time, one of the pilots has the ultimate authority over the decisions and actions made in the cockpit. This person is someone people often call a “pilot in command.”

When hearing the words pilot in command, many believe they simply refer to one of the two people controlling an airplane on a given flight. However, there is more than just being in charge of the instruments when it comes to being the pilot in command.

Let’s get into the details of what a pilot in command (PIC) involves to better understand this sometimes confusing position.

What is a pilot in command (PIC)?

The first step is having a clear definition of a pilot in command (PIC). You may find other definitions, but here we will focus on the definitions provided by the most prominent institutions such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Here are the FAA and ICAO pilot in command definitions.

A pilot in command and first officer sitting in an aircraft cockpit.

International Civil Aviation Organization PIC definition

According to ICAO, a pilot in command is “the pilot responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft throughout flight time”, with the flight time usually including some ground operations like taxiing.

Federal Aviation Administration PIC definition

The FAA defines the pilot in command as the person aboard or the member of the crew in a multi-crew flight 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;
  • Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

This definition is based on the duties of the certified and qualified pilot who can actually be considered the final authority according to the U.S. CFR Title 14, Part 1, Section 1.1.

Now, what are the certifications and qualifications required to become a pilot in command?

Who can be the final authority in a flight?

The strict legal definition may vary slightly from one region to another. However, the FAA provides a very standard set of requirements to follow.

According to the FAA, all licensed Part 91 pilots are qualified to act as the PIC. Yet, more strict requirements apply for pilots flying under Parts 121 and 135, including additional training, logged PIC time, and extra check rides.

A pilot in command adjusting flight controls.

Logging flight time and PIC time

Any student pilot is required to log flight time when training. This includes specific flight training time, and solo flying time to get the first certification, the private pilot certificate. Now, when the students start escalating their training, they will be required to log PIC time so they can become legally certified as airline captains.

However, logging PIC time has sometimes generated confusion.

Obviously, a student pilot has not yet achieved the required qualifications to act as a PIC, so a distinction is made by the authorities between logging PIC time and acting like one.

According to the FAA FARs, a pilot is allowed to log PIC time as long as the logging pilot is the sole manipulator of the flight controls while referring to a two-person crew. Yet, this does not make the pilot the primary person liable for the safety of the flight since it is not acting as the PIC legally speaking.

On the other hand, as explained in FAR 61.51, when a certified flight instructor is providing flight instruction, they may log PIC time regardless whether they are acting as a pilot in command or not.

Therefore, if you are looking forward to logging PIC time, it is essential that you verify whether the corresponding authority allows you to do so in your current flight conditions.

A cockpit of an aircraft: pilot seats, control column and the instrument panel.

What are the responsibilities of the pilot in command?

Based on the definition above, the pilot in command is ultimately responsible for the flight safety while in operation. However, there are more specific responsibilities beyond the operation and safety of the flight that is provided by both the FAA and ICAO.

In the U.S. FAA FAR 91.3, “Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command”, the FAA states:

  • The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly accountable for and is the final authority for, the operation of that aircraft.
  • In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command might deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to solve that emergency.
  • Each PIC who deviates from a rule below paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

In Annex 2, “Rules of the Air”, under part. “2.3.1 Responsibility of pilot-in-command”, ICAO states:

  • The PIC of an aircraft whether manipulating the controls or not.
  • Shall be responsible for the operation of the aircraft in accordance with the rules of the air, except that the pilot in command might depart from these rules in circumstances that render such departure fully necessary within the interests of safety.

In Annex 2, part. “2.4 Authority of pilot-in-command of an aircraft”, the United Nations agency adds:

  • The pilot-in-command of an aircraft shall have final authority for the disposition of the aircraft while in command.

It is interesting to see how both FAR 91.3 (b) and ICAO Annex 2, par. 2.3.1, authorize the PIC to override any flight rule to find a safe solution to an emergency by taking the safest course of action at the pilot’s will. This is how they make clear the PIC has the final authority and responsibility to ensure the safety of a flight over other crew members.

With all these clear, it is a good time we answer some commonly asked questions about PIC.

A pilot in command and a first officer sitting in an airplane cockpit.


What is a pilot in command training?

Pilot in command flight experiences can be obtained by being the sole controller or operator in a plane rated for flying performance. Airline careers usually require minimum flight hours to qualify for a pilot position. So, PIC training refers to the pilot time required to achieve this type of rating.

What does it take to become a pilot in command?

In most cases, you will require to hold an airline transport pilot license and pass a series of simulator checks and other exams with regulator-designated examiners. As it varies from airline to airline, how long it takes to become a PIC will largely depend on your specific training and skills to meet the minimum requirements.

Who is the pilot in command during the check ride?

This is a very peculiar situation since the pilot who is completing the training is the one considered the PIC. They have a responsibility to operate the aircraft safely, not the FAA check-pilot.

How to recognize a pilot in command?

A pilot in command does not look any different or wear a different uniform. However, you can spot one if you catch a glance of the aircraft’s cockpit. A pilot in command usually sits in the left seat. There is actually nothing special about the seat itself and such seating choice is purely historical.

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Jet pilot @NASA

1 comment

  1. Harjinder Singh says:

    I want to apply for commercial polit license

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