The FAA Regulation that Gives the PIC the Last Word

FAR 91.3 is the FAA's best regulation. Why is it sometimes ignored?

ATC
According to FAR 91.3, ATC is not the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft.Mark Brouwer/Creative Commons

Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but apparently that memo never made it to 800 Independence Ave. Any pilot who has spent more than a few minutes doing battle with the 3-inch-thick book of federal aviation regulations knows the FAA specializes in long, complex rules that try to cover every possible scenario. Did you know we have an FAR that covers temporary flight restrictions in national disaster areas in the state of Hawaii? You simply can’t make this stuff up.

Fortunately, there is at least one glaring exception to this rule, and it’s one all pilots should cheer. FAR 91.3, especially paragraph (a), stands out from the rest. By many accounts, it is the first commandment of aviation: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”

While it’s hard to call an FAA regulation inspiring, this is regulatory writing the way it should be: brief, direct and refreshingly free of jargon. The entirety of 91.3 totals less than 100 words, but it manages to send a powerful message. It was also written more than 50 years ago, which probably accounts for its commonsense approach. In fact, it’s hard to imagine such a regulation being produced today.

What’s so powerful about this sentence is that it doesn’t try to spell out exactly what a pilot should or should not do. Instead, it bestows a basic but important duty upon us, stating what every pilot thinks on his or her first solo: Once the wheels leave the ground, it’s up to the person in the left seat to make it back safely. There is no option to pull over to the side of the road and call for a tow. That responsibility is alternately intimidating and invigorating.

“The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”

But if most pilots acknowledge this universal truth, we often ignore it under pressure. One common example is weather flying, when we let an iPad app or a GPS screen make our decisions for us. While datalink weather from ADS-B or Sirius XM is a phenomenal resource — probably one of the greatest advances in flying safety over the last 30 years — it is merely a tool to be used by the pilot in command to make good decisions. Sure, that radar image gets a vote when it comes time to decide the next step, but it gets only a single one. Our eyes and our gut instincts both get veto power.

If we do decide to deviate around weather, some pilots get nervous, believing that air traffic control is in charge, and it’s best if we don’t rock the boat. Remember, though: ATC is not the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft. That controller, no matter how helpful he may be, is sitting in a dark room with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Only you are in the cockpit, looking at that nasty storm cloud ahead. If you need 30 degrees right to avoid it, you demand it without hesitation or regret.

What if you don’t get what you requested? In a pinch, it’s worth remembering what the second paragraph of FAR 91.3 says: “In an inflight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.” The only caveat is that a pilot using this get-out-of-jail-free card may need to submit a written report. Clearly, we shouldn’t go around threatening to declare emergencies just because we didn’t get the routes we wanted, but this is an important tool to keep in mind if we believe an ATC clearance may put us 
in jeopardy.

More than once I have heard pilots on the radio tell ATC that if they didn’t get a turn very soon to avoid weather, they were going to declare an emergency and do it anyway. Simply mentioning this cleared the way every time because ATC recognized how serious the situation was. Using the E-word may not make you the controller’s best friend, but it’s far better to deal with that on the ground than to see the inside of a thunderstorm. Even the dreaded reply to “call this number when you land” isn’t nearly as bad as most pilots fear. Talk to anyone who has made that call — it’s rarely a big deal, and the safety of your flight is more important than ATC’s efficiency goals or noise-abatement preferences.

“In an inflight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.”

We abdicate our PIC authority at other times, often without even realizing it. Passengers influence us in all kinds of subtle ways, from encouraging us to take off in marginal weather to distracting us at critical times in flight. As arrogant as it may sound, being in command of a flight means we’re in control of our passengers too.

Don’t outsource your decisions to other pilots either. Sometimes this happens when we feel unsure about making a flight, so we ask a more experienced pilot for his or her advice. There’s nothing wrong with seeking help, but make sure it’s still your decision when it’s all over. Likewise, don’t follow the crowd unless you know where it leads. Just because the last pilot took off downwind on a short runway doesn’t mean you should too. “He made it, so I can too” is a terrible approach to decision-making.

This PIC mindset does not mean we can be overconfident showoffs in the air. Likewise, it doesn’t mean we’re all brilliant pilots who get to strut around the airport like John Wayne. It does demand that we be in command of the flight at all times and that the airplane goes exactly where we want it to go. You’re not in command if you ever find yourself asking, “What’s it doing now?”

Some flight instructors sense a generational divide in the way pilots approach this issue. Older pilots, many of whom learned to fly in the military, may be more comfortable exercising “command authority.” Younger pilots more familiar with collaborative classrooms and a team-style focus sometimes seem less willing to invoke 91.3.

Whatever the reason, if you find yourself getting nervous about overruling ATC or a passenger, lean on the gospel according to the FAA and recite 91.3. I’m not a fan of memorizing FARs, but this one is worth it. You — and only you — are the final authority when you’re in the left seat. Don’t ever forget it.