Reminder: PIC Authority Is Absolute


In 2015, I flew the Fisk arrival into AirVenture with a friend. It was typically busy but, as often happens, turned manic when we neared the runway. We had been instructed to land on the orange dot, then in mid-flare, the controller changed the plan and said extend to the next dot. His elevated tone implied a tinge of urgency and I guessed either he turned someone in behind us too soon or that same someone turned on his own or didn’t slow down.

Either way, it created a tense situation. We weren’t exactly in extremis, but merely to satisfy the controller’s plan, we were getting a little wobbly. Sure, any pilot should be able to execute a go around from the flare, but this is not a routine go around where you apply full power and transition to a normal climb. It’s apply a touch of power and float along in ground effect and touch down later, probably too fast and maybe in a flat attitude. It’s something we don’t normally practice and is thus a novel situation that’s a potential accident scenario.

I know this because for another project I’m working on, I reviewed 20 years’ worth accidents at Oshkosh during AirVenture. To be fair, the show has a remarkably good safety record for pilots flying into and out of Wittman, but there are still a few dozen mishaps. And some of these occur because pilots attempt things beyond their skill level simply because they’re performing in the big league and want to show they can do anything the controller asks. One such example killed an acquaintance who was asked to slow down on final, stalled and spun in. The more mundane example is a Flight Design CTSW pilot who got the same instruction we did, ballooned and stalled in. No injuries, but it damaged the airplane.

In our case, the controller, in the AirVenture style of camping on the frequency, kept at it with what I thought was unnecessary urgency: “Don’t touch down! Power, power, power!” My friend was getting a little frazzled (and I wasn’t helping) and when we got to the tiedown, I reminded him that you don’t have to comply with an instruction you feel is unsafe. This is a good place to reiterate 91.3: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and as is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft.”

I’m bringing this up now because with Sun ‘n Fun opening in a couple of days, we are about to raise the flock from the dead. And we’ll do it again at AirVenture in July. After a year of not doing this, we’re about to pick up where we left off as though nothing has changed. Maybe it hasn’t, but I’m offering a reminder about pilot-in-command authority. It is absolute. Period.

Being creatures of large egos, we can fall into the don’t-fly-in-Mig-alley trap, that being you shouldn’t fly into such a place as Lakeland or Oshkosh unless you can walk the walk. And if you do fly in, that must mean you can or that you’re willing to die trying to prove it.

Don’t do that. I’m reminding that as pilots, we stand at the top of the heap as unambiguously specified in 91.3. ATC’s job is to enhance safety by providing sequencing and separation, but as pilots our job is not to make sure their plans come to fruition, but to operate the airplane safely within its and our own limitations. Those limitations might vary from day to day.  

While it’s laudable to cooperate with controllers at these busy shows and to help them make complex and challenging plans work, let’s all remember we haven’t done this in a while. And that the most important word in a pilot’s vocabulary isn’t wilco, it’s unable.  

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  1. A very good point, Paul. It is always nice to do as controllers may ask (emphasis on ask), but if things go south and metal gets bent, we are the ones that will face the proverbial music. Unfortunately, the FAA would surely remind us that, as 91.3 says, we are ultimately responsible for conducting a safe flight to its conclusion. ATC is not responsible even if they make life difficult for the pilot. Speaking as one who will definitely need some refresher time with an instructor, it is good to be reminded of our responsibility to be the one in charge.

  2. > And that the most important word in a pilot’s vocabulary isn’t wilco, it’s unable.

    Don’t forget the timing; often this word is best used prior to departure.

  3. Regarding the specific situation under comment, there is a good exercise (promoted including video by Jason at MzeroA) consisting of flying along the runway trying to maintain a few inches above it without touching. This exercise develops good coordination between power, stall angle, and level flight path. Someone proficient with that exercise should be at least fairly relaxed in the above situation, it being familiar.

  4. “Unable” is a fine word and should be used whenever you, as PIC, think it needs to be. That said, it also wouldn’t hurt to resurrect the old taildragger instructor’s trick of flying down the runway a few feet off the tarmac while maintaining precise centerline control with feet, hands, power and eyes.
    It’s a good exercise and comes in handy at places like OSH and Sun and Fun.
    It’s also not just ATC that gets us into trouble, either. We do a pretty good job of that ourselves. As #3 in a section of Bonanzas-to-Oshkosh bound pilots in Rockford, Illinois, I watched lead (in a light V-tail) rotate early and saw #2 (in a heavy, packed A36) try his damndest to do the same. He stalled and ruined his day when he caught a tip tank on the runway. No injuries except to his ego, which, truth be told, had been at the controls for that departure anyway.

  5. As a controller for many years, I heard and saw some crazy stuff. One comes to mind about PIC. At ORD one day, controller sitting next to me said, “American 283, decent to three, slow to 170 and do it now, use your speed brakes if you got ’em.” (Actually, the controller was just being his zany self saying that). The Captain came back and said, “Son, the speed brakes are for our mistakes, not yours!” I liked that.

  6. Especially relatively inexperienced pilots seem to take ATC’s instructions as demands. It would be better if all pilots were to take ATC’s instructions as if they’re preceded by “if able”. Of course, once accepted, the pilot is saying “I’m able”.

    In the years I’ve attended OSH, I’ve seen a plethora of inadequate piloting events, mostly approaches and landings but also go-arounds. I think it would be a good idea if every pilot who chooses to fly into any fly-in does some home-court practicing before hand, preferably with an instructor. Slow flight, right hand patterns, last minute go-arounds, and tight patterns should be on the list of items to practice.

    Of course, I agree with the American pilot that Roger mentioned, that the pilots aren’t there to correct ATC’s mistakes—and ATC isn’t flying the airplane. Sometimes controllers need to be reminded of that.

    • As a pilot and five-year OSH controller, I would also suggest downwind operations and crosswind practice. Some configurations at OSH work better than others and the ATC team is reticent to change directions in the middle of a big push. It’s pretty involved getting the planes going in opposite directions on the ground and then moving the MOOCOW and the departure team to the other end. Optimally, it’s best done at the beginning of the day or as the airshow is over for the evening departure rush. When in doubt, go around and be cognizant of where each runway’s flow is going so you know which downwind to reenter. Tower should tell you, but not always as quickly as one might desire.

  7. Years ago I recall on my second student cross country into a controlled airport with parallel runways. I was on final in a Cherokee about a mile from touchdown. Suddenly the controller instructed me to do a left dog leg to land on #L runway. I was extremely uncomfortable doing so and refused. I was not certain about a dog leg at that stage of my flying experience. Also I was nearing touchdown. He was agitated. After I had my logbook signed and requested clearance to taxi etc I took off. As I did the controller told me to get out of his airspace, not in a friendly manner. When I returned home airport I had a briefing with my instructor. I thought I would be in trouble. My instructor agreed with my actions. I learned three things: know your limits and do not exceed them, as PIC I am in charge with best knowledge of plane/my limits, and controllers can be cranky given their job pressures.

    • I have not flown in years in my golden age. However I always thought if the controller knew I was a student, he would have been patient and less demanding. In hindsight it seems to me now if there was a reg requiring my call as “student” Cherokee ####, it would be helpful and safer.

  8. Thanks Paul. A few times recently I’ve read reports or listened to recordings in which people have waited for ATC for approval to change levels/plans etc due to engine and other performance issues. Each time it’s been great to hear the unvarnished and unfolding details – we’re living in a golden era of that stuff. But I haven’t understood why people haven’t flown the best option first and then told ATC second. Is a culture developing in which we’re overly focused on being competent and responsive participants in The System?

    Joe Rogan hosted a podcast last year in which Jocko Willink talked about what makes people suitable for Navy Seal training and then possibly world-wide combat. He described people who are essentially criminally-minded: capable of instantly switching from rules-based behavior to doing-what-the-situation-demands. Paul your article reminded me of this concept. We need people to play nice in typical situations so that every gets where we’re going expeditiously. The dangerous cowboys have been weeded out of the peace-time air transport system as a result. And an OEI situation isn’t a snap-decision situation. But the communications in some of these more recent recorded situations seems to e consistent with a way of thinking that is too focused on the rules and insufficiently focused on doing what is required in the situation… and communicating some time later.

    • I think what you’re saying is that the mantra, aviate, navigate, communicate, is being mistakenly revised so that communicate comes first. It’s not just inexperienced pilots that do that, either. Do first, talk about it later, after everything is under control—that’s still the rule.