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Is it legal for the pilot in command to not have access to flight controls?

I can think of a few cases in which this might not be considered reckless. For example, if Alice and Bob are both pilots who are rated in the plane they are flying and have valid medical certificates, they are flying with Eve, who is not a pilot, and the plane is certified for single-pilot operation, but Bob has misplaced his pilot certificate and has not received a replacement, he cannot be PIC, but it may not be reckless for him to sit in the front left seat as pilot flying, Eve to sit in the front right seat, and Alice to sit in the back as pilot in command. Perhaps this is the only safe seating arrangement for weight and balance. Admittedly, this is a contrived scenario, but I don't see any reason why it would be unsafe. Would it be legal?

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Your headline question "Does the pilot in command need physical access to the flight controls?" has an answer posted here: Can the acting PIC sit in the back?, but the underlying circumstances in your question are different.



Answer - based on the underlying circumstances detailed in your question:

Bob (left front seat) cannot act as a required pilot crewmember because he does not have his pilot certificate in his possession or readily accessible (see 14 CFR 61.3(a), Requirement for certificates, ratings, and authorizations).

Eve (right front seat) is not a pilot so she cannot be a required pilot crewmember.

That leaves only Alice (backseat) who can't act as pilot-in-command (or as a required pilot crewmember) because the backseat is not a "crewmember station" and she does not have physical access to the flight controls (ailerons, elevator, rudder pedals). Additionally, her absence from a "crewmember station" is not "...necessary to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft or in connection with physiological needs;" according to your question.

14 CFR 91.105 Flight crewmembers at stations

(a) During takeoff and landing, and while en route, each required flight crewmember shall—

(1) Be at the crewmember station unless the absence is necessary to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft or in connection with physiological needs; and

(2) Keep the safety belt fastened while at the crewmember station.

So, based on the specific details as outlined in your question, no one (Bob, Eve, or Alice) could act as a required pilot crewmember (or pilot-in-command), which of course would be required in order to operate the airplane.

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    $\begingroup$ This is more about semantics, but I think technically they could operate as pilot as command but they would be violating regulations. That's a nuance which I think is worth considering. Imagine a scenario where the pilot in command, who is the only person onboard qualified for that role, heads off to the lavatory. Prior to returning to the cockpit they are informed that an old friend is sitting in the last row of the plane, so they go back and have an extended conversation with them. During that time did the plane not have a PIC, or was it just that the acting PIC was violating regulations? $\endgroup$ Aug 29, 2023 at 13:18

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