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If there is such a thing as a 'normal' flight (in a commercial airliner), who flies the plane? Is it usually the Captain, the First Officer, or whomever needs the hours?

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up vote 19 down vote accepted

At the commercial airline level, there is very little difference between a captain and a first officer, other than the amount of time that they have been at the company (seniority).

Typically, each of the two pilots takes turns flying the airplane. For instance, if today's trip is from Miami to Charlotte to Chicago to Atlanta to Miami, the captain may fly from Miami to Charlotte, the first officer from Charlotte to Chicago, the captain from Chicago to Atlanta, and the first officer from Atlanta back to Miami.

The duties in the cockpit are divided between the Pilot Flying (PF) and the Pilot Not Flying (PNF)/Pilot Monitoring (PM). These duty positions are independent of the captain/first officer designation. The PF is responsible for physically flying the airplane (usually only during takeoff and landing) and for controlling the autopilot. If the autopilot acts up, the PF immediately takes over.

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can one pilot sleep while the other is flying? – user13107 May 26 '14 at 3:16
@user13107 Not typically, although I believe that some airlines now allow one pilot to take a 15 minute nap at certain times, but these policies are airline specific and I'm not too familiar with them. – Lnafziger May 26 '14 at 3:57
@user13107: Long flights have third pilot on board, so they can take turns sleeping while there are always two flying. – Jan Hudec May 26 '14 at 4:56
@JanHudec True, and some even have four pilots. However, he asked about "one pilot while the other..." so I assume that he is asking about 2 pilot crews. :-) – Lnafziger May 26 '14 at 4:57
@HenningMakholm: Most controls are not duplicated at all. You operate them with the other hand, but you operate the same controls (on the centre or overhead panel). And flight controls are not mirrored; left is still left and right is still right. Besides, flying aircraft is about being careful, not fast, so muscle memory is generally not what you need or want. – Jan Hudec May 26 '14 at 17:34

As has been said in previous answers, the duties are divided between the PF and PNF, and the Captain and First Officer typically change which they will do each leg. However, company policy may specify changes to this procedure.

For example, the first 747 carrier I worked for specified that approaches and landings to runway 13 at Kai Tek, the old Hong Kong airport, with it's supposed difficulties, were to be conducted by the Captain. They also had a rule that first officers were not allowed to fly instrument approaches below certain minimums until they had accumulated a certain number of hours in the airplane.

The second 747 carrier I worked for had a rule against first officers taxing the airplane, this a result of some taxi problems they had had with first officers at the tiller.

In all instances, after I transitioned to the left seat at both of those carriers, I ignored those rules as I felt they were not only unnecessary but counter-productive. In a few instances I had first officers decline to do these things when offered, but the vast majority were happy to take advantage of the opportunity.

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How dangerous to your career would it have been if there were to occur an incident and it was discovered that you overrode the rules? Is it common for the captain to override airliner rules? I'm just curious, not reprimanding! – dotancohen May 26 '14 at 15:08
@dotancohen We're talking about the 1990s (I hit 60 and had to retire in 1999), and both carriers had a strong it's-the-captain's-airplane culture. It was common for captains to do what they wanted, so I doubt that itself would have been a significant problem. These were small, third level carriers (both now out of business) where everyone knew everyone else, and knew what everybody was doing. That said, as I neared retirement I became more and more independent, including refusing to wear a tie my last 3 months. I was really pissed at being forced to retire at 60. Still am actually. – Terry May 27 '14 at 4:09
I see Terry, thanks for the elucidation. At least now, 15 years later, you are still helping others to learn and to love to fly. – dotancohen May 27 '14 at 14:48
You're still bitter? Why, you don't sound it at all! – corsiKa May 28 '14 at 19:13

Both pilots will log time for the flight, although their log entries will be slightly different. The captain will log hours as Pilot-in-Command (PIC).

In practice, "George" (the autopilot) will probably actually fly the plane.

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But the pilots both still log the time, even though it's actually auto-pilot? – CGCampbell May 25 '14 at 21:53
Yes, definitely. – Greg Hewgill May 25 '14 at 21:54
George still has to be directed by someone, and that is who we normally say is "flying" the airplane. – Lnafziger May 28 '14 at 3:21

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