Years ago, I was reminded by my superior manage-ment “You can delegate your authority, but you can never delegate the responsibility.” That admonition applies to aviation, with great precision. In the final analysis, quoting FAR 91.3(a), “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” It has to be the pilot responsibility, because no one else is in a position to observe what’s taking place and there’s certainly no way to board the aircraft in flight to lend a hand.
Whenever I read about an incomprehensible accident, I have to temper my rush to judgment with the knowledge that I wasn’t sitting there in the weather or in the out-of-control airplane. I might have reacted similarly, although we all like to think we’d have pulled the fat out of the fire before it was burned up. Regardless, the pilot responsibility is in the command seat, and not always is the PIC up to the challenge.
Of late, we’ve seen a rash of single-pilot twins involved in fatal crashes after takeoff; Chicago, Wichita, Denver. In each case, only the deceased pilot was aboard, so we don’t have a lot of information to go on. It would seem that continued flight should have been possible if an engine was lost, but somehow the pilots couldn’t keep their brief flight from coming to a bad end. In training exercises, we know an engine cut is coming; we’re loaded, cocked and ready to spring into action with a rudder-mashing foot and a feathering drill. But, would we be up to the challenge if we lost one unexpectedly … in the dark … in the weather?
Sharing authority is normal in aviation, even when flying single-pilot. When we click on the autopilot, we’re abdicating some of our authority, unless we stay plugged in and monitoring the automation. When we program the FMS to guide us through the flight plan, we’re letting it have some authority, but we’re still responsible for watching the aircraft’s progress. And air traffic controllers have authority over the airspace we’re going to use; we have to share authority with ATC, despite our responsibility as PIC.
In a two-crew cockpit, somebody’s got to be the Captain. I may let the other fellow make the takeoff or landing, but I know I have to guard my set of controls and back up his configuration changes, particularly when we’re close to the ground. No matter how experienced he or she might be, I had best check the frequencies and crossing altitudes being input. Responsibility doesn’t transfer with the controls.
In the case of AirAsia’s A320 that took 162 people to the bottom of the Java Sea, there was a denial of a request to deviate because of weather. One can speculate that the pilots acquiesced to ATC’s refusal out of respect for the traffic situation and the controller’s authority. But the controller is never responsible for the operation of an aircraft in flight. If the situation demands immediate action to avoid loss of the airplane, the PIC should act under FAR 91.3(b), with or without ATC clearance. We’ll clean up the mess and talk about it later.
Whether it’s automation, ATC or supervisory oversight, you must stay in command. Never forget who’s responsible up there.