Are there rules that require one of the pilots in a large commercial aircraft to have positive physical control of the yoke/joystick at all times?

And the same question for the rudder actuators, if any (pedals)?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ None that I know of. There is someone responsible for flying the aircraft at all times, but nothing specifically requiring them to have them in their physical possession. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    Jul 21, 2015 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ You may fly the plane for a long period without touching the yoke and pedals. Airliners are equipped with autopilot and the pilot flying the aircraft set up and monitor the autopilot. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Jul 22, 2015 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ Now that time has gone by, this is where this question came from. In another question, someone commented about since how the side-stick airbus' have no column in front of the pilots, there is a tray-table. When I read that, I pictured mid-atlantic/pacific, both pilot's hunched over doing crossword puzzles, shoes off and feet curled up under them. :) $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 22, 2015 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ Doing my PPL, one thing that always struck me is how much of the time I spent with my hands/feet off the controls compared to driving a car. I basically never touched the thing between fiddling with maps/mics/sunglasses/knee boards/writing clearences/recalculating routes. Learning to fly is basically an exercise in multitasking $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jul 22, 2015 at 14:06

3 Answers 3


There is nothing I can find in the FARs requiring that a pilot keep their hands and feet on the controls at all times.
Such a requirement would be impractical and dangerous in many situations (such as when writing down a clearance in the air: For most people if you keep your hands on the controls while writing you will have a tendency to push, pull, or twist them, resulting in unintended attitude changes).

The most relevant sections of Part 91 would be 91.3 and 91.13:

14 CFR 91.3 (FAR 91.3) says:

§91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.
(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
. . . .

and 14 CFR 91.13 (FAR 91.13) says:

§91.13 Careless or reckless operation.
(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation.
No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

(b) Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation.
No person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

So basically it's perfectly legal for a pilot to fly with their arms crossed and their feet flat on the floor, even without an autopilot, as long as the pilot in command remains able to exercise operational control of the aircraft as required to ensure the flight remains safe and legal, and as long as they are not acting in a "careless or reckless manner" (like letting their altitude wander all over the place while sitting with their arms crossed).


No. What is required by FAA is that one of the two pilots (the captain or first officer) must be the "pilot flying", and this pilot has primary responsibility for maintaining control of the aircraft at the time. The other pilot, the "pilot not flying", may assist the pilot flying by performing secondary tasks such as communication or navigation, or he/she may use the lav, have a snack/drink, read (the FAA does not prohibit reading materials not directly related to the job, but some companies do), do puzzles (ditto), etc.

Neither of these pilots are required to have hands on stick/yoke/throttle and feet on rudder pedals at all times. First off, it's redundant for most of the flight; when cruising, the plane is on autopilot, which will keep the wings level and the plane on a designated course. Second, airliners (in fact, most civilian fixed-wing aircraft) are much more stable in flight than helicopters, which do require someone to have their hands on the cyclic stick at all times to keep the helicopter "on top of" the lift vector of its rotors. So, even if the autopilot is disengaged, in normal, calm conditions the plane will almost fly itself, requiring only small corrections for turbulence. In any case, a "ham-fist" or "lead foot" on the controls is a common student mistake, much like in driving; pilots usually try to heed Han Solo's advice: "fly casual".

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Helicopters are unstable, period. Without a stability augmentation system, a heli will be in an unusual attitude in half a second if you take your hands off the cyclic. That being said, many helis do have SAS, and it is required for IFR, so those helis don't always need a hand in the cyclic. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the PIC always had primary responsibility for the aircraft, even if they were the PNF? $\endgroup$
    – cpast
    Jul 22, 2015 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @cpast - Parallel, slightly different. The captain, as PIC, is the ultimate authority on board and ultimately responsible for the safety of the plane and its passengers. He does not always have or need direct control over the aircraft's flight systems and thus responsibility for its flight path and operation, which is the idea I was trying to convey. He may also delegate or defer any of his powers as captain aboard the aircraft to his First Officer or any other crewmember. $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 22, 2015 at 21:57

Nope. Sometimes they just let go and yell, "Look Ma! No hands!" into the local traffic channel. Just kidding.

There may be a slight disconnect here in how you think about pilots and the law. The average (non-pilot) person imagines that pilots are robotic servants that must obey all kinds of laws and regulations designed to "protect" passengers and slavishly follow orders from (non-pilot) FAA controllers. That is not how it works.

In the sky, the pilots are the bosses. ATC and the laws are there to help the pilots do their job better, not boss them around and force them to them to do things they don't want to do.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I don't think he imagines that pilots are robotic servants. It was a genuine question that deserves better than a flip answer. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Jul 21, 2015 at 19:32
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You play it off as a joke, but on calm days I frequently cross my arms and put my feet on the floor to demonstrate to passengers that yes, the aircraft will continue to fly perfectly fine for quite a while without my help. (This demonstration is somewhat less effective in turbulence or when there are gusty winds though.) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Jul 21, 2015 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 Let me know which plane you fly and I will take next one :) $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Jul 22, 2015 at 13:59

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