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For almost every airline, the captain sits in the left seat, and the first officer on the right.

  1. We know that in most countries right-side traffic and some have left-side.
  2. During training, the student sits in the left seat, and the trainer on the right.

Keeping these two points in mind, why does the captain always sits on left? It is not based on culture (see #1 above), and not on who has more experience1 to fly an airplane from both seats.


1: I know that there can be a situation when the first officer is more experienced than the captain, but most of the time, it is not the case.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how you could deduce "not based on culture" from #1. Are you aware that cars produced for right-side traffic traditionally do have the driver sitting on the left side (for better line of sight)? $\endgroup$ – DevSolar May 28 '15 at 9:04
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There are several reasons, mostly historical, or theories behind this:

  • After World War I, most airplanes had rotary engines with left turning tendencies because it followed the torque of the engine. Therefore, turning left was easier than turning right. Because of this, pilots considered left turns as more convenient maneuver, and thus more experienced pilot started sitting on the left.
  • Since the early days of aviation, the fact that pilot was sitting on the left, they keep the airplane on the right side along the airway. At that time, pilots often navigate visually following roads and railways. Opposite traffic following the same path then pass each other on the left.
  • Because captain sits on the left, left-hand traffic patterns are more common.
  • In order to avoid a head-on collision, each airplane must turn right. Since the captain sits on the left, they will have an unrestricted view of the other airplane, and therefore can assess the situation easily.

In modern times, almost all airplanes (other than single-pilot airplanes or where one pilot sits behind the other), both seats have full controls to fly the airplane.

Regulations do not specify which seat should be occupied by the pilot-in-command (PIC) or the Pilot Flying (PF).

Please note that on many helicopters, captains sit on the right side.


Bibliography:

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  • $\begingroup$ Also the tiller is on the left side, and only captains may taxi $\endgroup$ – rbp May 28 '15 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ Not to be a bother, but the 2nd, 3rd and 4th points are all, quite likely, results of the PIC being on the left, not the original reason that the PIC ended up on the left. The first reason, though, sounds interesting. Though I can't help but wonder if perhaps being on the left has something to do with aviation starting in France and the US, both of which employ(ed) left hand drive in cars and carriages... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 28 '15 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ Steve Richie (USAF fighter ace in Vietnam) in an episode of Dogfights, said (paraphrasing) "I was surprised he turned right because pilots like to turn left. It's easier to do this [push stick left] than this [pull stick right]." That makes total sense to me because I'm right handed. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Nov 4 '16 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ "altering course to Starboard" to avoid a head on collision pre-dates aircraft altogether - perhaps early commercial flight adopted it from existing best practice - SOLAS regulations governing shipping - along with existing standards for navigation lights. Thus point 4 might drive the PIC's seating location rather than the other way around. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Sep 5 '17 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ I recall reading that since left turns are easier (due to point one above) most approaches were done along the runway with a left turn for final approach. Sitting on the left then gave the optimum view of the airfield before landing. $\endgroup$ – Transistor Nov 1 '17 at 21:30
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In a lot of airplanes (especially the older ones) the pilot sat in the middle.

When airframes got bigger, they also got bigger (or more) engines. In the propeller era this also produced a tendency to turn to one side easier than the other, so the drivers found turning that way to be easier (or no choice if you had a problem). If you are sitting in the middle it doesn't matter, if you have to choose a side you want the turn-toward side so you can see the ground.

A big design factor is most of us are right-hand dominant. If you have a 2-seat flight deck in side-by-side arrangement you probably want one set of common controls ( power, prop, mixture, radios etc. ) and the pilot would want to operate them with their dominant hand. You don't need precision control of the stick at the same time you are adjusting the engine or tuning the radio.

Also consider that the USA was a major player in aircraft design, and they drive on the right side of the road (same reason, going back to wagons in the frontier days). Back then the pilot was king, the copilot was a trainee, management buys what the pilot tells them to buy, and the pilot will sit on the left because that's the same place he sits in his car.

Once that pattern started we end up being stuck with it. If the pilot sits on the left, they will park with the airport gate on the left and thus the doors are on the left. The next plane on the design board better follow the same conventions, because planes don't have reverse and airports didn't have tugs back then. Next we build jetways to hook up to the left side door, and now passenger cabin design expects the front left door to be the primary entrance - the front right door might not get opened for months.

Helicopters seat the pilot on the right for exactly the same reason - the pilot is probably right-handed. In a helicopter, the cyclic needs constant, precise input. You typically can't let go of it, ever1. But the collective doesn't require constant attention, and in a 2-seater can be a shared control (mechanically simpler and lighter). The pilot accepts more difficult use of the radios etc. so he can keep it flying right side up.


1: In Terminator 2, the T-1000 grows an extra hand in order to fly a helicopter while reloading his weapons. Someone on the effects team did their homework.

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  • $\begingroup$ A couple of things things: a) controllable-pitch props were certainly around by the days of the DC-3 (which meant you could taxi backwards if you needed to if you had such a gadget on your plane) and b) my understanding is that the front right door is opened routinely for service trucks, etal to access the aircraft. $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject May 28 '15 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ One more thing; chopper control layouts with the collective (aka the throttle) on the left were borrowed from fighter designs which are throttle-left to allow the same precision control of the aircraft with the dominant hand. So, if an ex-fighter jock turned civvie pilot wanted to sit on the right hand side to put the throttle on his left, there's quite a bit of logic behind that decision, too, provided he still had access to his instruments (on larger airliners, controls are fully duplicated; stock setup of most small craft is all about the left-hand seat). $\endgroup$ – KeithS May 28 '15 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ @UnrecognizedFallingObject you want to try a powerback in a DC-3? With another one in front of you? Zero rear visibility, a tailwheel in wheelbarrow configuration and steering designed for the other direction? I want to watch. $\endgroup$ – paul May 28 '15 at 5:36
  • $\begingroup$ @UnrecognizedFallingObject controllable pitch propellers are not the same thing as a propeller which allows reverse thrust. I have never seen anything suggesting that a DC-3 has the capability you suggest. Some radial-engines seaplanes of the time did have reverse thrust. $\endgroup$ – egid Jun 4 '15 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Should be noted that A) Not all airplanes are commercial airliners that require airport gates and the like; and B) There's at least one popular line of airplanes (Piper Cherokees &c) in which the only door is on the right side, which I've always assumed is so that you can let a passenger out without getting out yourself. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 5 '16 at 6:33
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In WWI the first European air forces were recruited from cavalry regiments. Largely because flying had been a rich man's hobby and cavalry regiments were mostly recruited by the rich (because they had previously supplied their own horses).

Horse mounted right handed soldiers wear their sword on their left side. To mount a horse with a sword hanging down your left leg you need to mount from the left (to swing your right leg over) so they naturally mounted their aircraft from the same side.

The Royal Air Force also does't have the rank of sergeant for the same reason. Sergeant originally meant servant (so much has changed...) and a cavalry soldier was a gentleman who would object to such a low title so cavalry regiments don't have the rank of sergeant. When the cavalry became fliers they took the same tradition with them.

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AIUI ... the first international air service was from London to Paris in 1919. The pilots used to navigate by following the railway line (the invention of IFR ). But one day, in poor weather, the outbound flight met the inbound flight in a mid-air collision, because both were flying over the railway line. So an agreement was reached that they would fly to one side of the railway line (and any other line feature being used for tracking). But which side - well the maritime rule for avoiding head-on collisions is to go right (starboard) and so they decided to go with this rule. This then led to the Captain being on the left, to be able to see the line while following it.

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