Almost all incident investigation reports include the flight experience of the both pilots with hour accuracy. For instance, for MH370 just a few small fragments of the plane have ever been found, yet the investigators know the captain had 18,365 hours of flying experience. How do they know?

From that I have seen on a web, a pilot logbook looks like an unprotected paper document, often unlikely to survive. Do pilots actually keep the book at home or in the office, or maybe someone else apart the pilots logs the flight hours?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi h22, I recommend you deselect my answer and give the question a few hours. You may garner some better answers from more experienced folk that way $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Oct 15, 2016 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ Statement reworded. $\endgroup$
    – h22
    Oct 15, 2016 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ Accuracy vs Precision: the flying times are reported with precision to the hour or possibly tenth of an hour. That doesn't mean that the reported time is accurate to that same level. Might be, might not. The NTSB reports the best info they have, and if it's off by an hour or 5 or 10, well, that probably won't change the conclusions in the report anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Oct 15, 2016 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Dan the accepted answers should be the first one that satisfy the op. The most upvoted one should be the best. You deserve it (unes factually wrong) $\endgroup$
    – Antzi
    Oct 15, 2016 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, the last commuter airline I flew for and the two 747 carriers I flew for furnished their pilots at the conclusion of a month with a detailed record of their flying. The only thing missing was how much of that time was IFR, which wasn't relevant because simulator check currency took care of that requirement. I stopped my personal logging and simply kept the company supplied logs. Obviously, in case of an accident, that company information would have been available to the FAA. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Oct 15, 2016 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


The methods that Dan referred to in his answer are valid, and might be used by investigators—the NTSB for example.

However, generally speaking the NTSB will not spend a great deal of effort researching pilot time. Instead they will resort to one of two methods of determining pilot experience.

Firstly, if a logbook is readily available—either found at the scene or made available through the investigation—it will be used to determine pilot experience.

Secondly, if a logbook is not readily available, the NTSB can determine pilot experience based on the pilot's reported flight time on his or her last application for a medical certificate. Since an application for a current FAA third class medical can be several years old, private pilot experience determined by this means may not accurately reflect an accident pilot's actual level of experience. However, a professional pilot's application for an FAA first or second class medical will only be six to twelve months old, and will much more accurately reflect that pilot's actual level of experience.

Similarly, FAA certificated pilots report their flight time on some IACRA applications for pilot certificates. This reported time will have been independently verified as accurate (unlike times reported on medical certificates). However, in most cases, a pilot will have applied for a medical more recently than for a certificate.

For actual examples of these two scenarios, see NTSB report CEN16FA333, in which both are detailed.

For the first pilot involved:

The [first] pilot's flight history was reconstructed using logbook documentation. His most recent pilot logbook entry was dated July 31, 2016, at which time he had accumulated 135.5 hours total flight time, of which 48.6 hours were listed as pilot-in-command. All of his flight time had been completed in a Cessna model 172N single-engine airplane. He had accumulated 5.0 hours in actual instrument meteorological conditions, 12.9 hours in simulated instrument meteorological conditions, and 3.4 hours at night. He had flown 24.7 hours during the prior 12 months, 4.4 hours in the previous 6 months, 2.4 hours during prior 90 days, and 1 hour in the 30 day period before the accident flight. The pilot's logbook did not contain any recorded flight time for the 24 hour period before the accident flight.

For the second pilot involved:

According to FAA records, the [second pilot], age 60, held a private pilot certificate with a single engine land airplane rating. His last aviation medical examination was completed on November 6, 2014, when he was issued a third-class medical certificate with a limitation for corrective lenses. A search of FAA records showed no previous accidents, incidents, or enforcement proceedings. A pilot logbook was not recovered during the on-scene investigation; however, on the application for his current medical certificate, he reported having accumulated 120 hours of flight experience.

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    $\begingroup$ You might also want to mention that pilots have to submit their hours in any IACRA application, so if the pilot did a recent checkride of any kind, that would be another fairly reliable source $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Oct 15, 2016 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @cat Certified is also accurate, but certificated is better since it covers all pilots who were at any time certified, whether they are currently or not. This includes those deceased, something very relevant to this discussion. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Oct 15, 2016 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Ye link breaketh. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jun 8, 2021 at 18:27

Pilots don't generally fly with their logbooks - partially for this exact reason, but also because they don't have to and it's additional clutter. So, in my case (and many Private Pilots), if I'm unlucky enough to fatally bend a plane then the investigators can simply grab my logbook from the flying club lounge.

In the case of airlines, I'm positive that they'll track hours in other ways - I doubt many airline pilots are going to fill in a small paper flying book after every leg of a journey (But I may be wrong!) nowadays. In terms of investigation, because of how important your flying experience is - many pilots also keep duplicate records - either by holding two books, photocopying or by electronic means. Even many casual General Aviation pilots will hold a physical copy and an online record.

Finally, record keeping in aviation is very important and it's normally possible for investigators to piece together information from incomplete sources. For example, a commercial company may know that Captain Jones had 3050 hours when he started, because they took copies for HR. Then, they could go through their aircraft records and add up the hours based on that.

It's also worth noting that just because the number sounds precise, it doesn't mean that the Captain of MH370 had literally 18,365 and no more. That's just the number that they can prove - he might not have logged all private flying, and maybe even some records have been lost but it's a number that's indicative of his experience.


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