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A question about the "my aircraft" protocol led to several answers that explain how the pilot flying (PF) can delegate control to the pilot not flying (PNF).

It also seems that a pilot (e.g. returning from a break) can assert "I have control" without the other pilot first offering control.

From what I've read, unlike with ATC communications, the exact phrases used vary from airline to airline and are not the subject of rules or guidance by authorities such as the FAA. It also seems that in some airlines, some pilots are more casual about the use of standard phrases.

The only fixed idea seems to be that as long as both pilots have uttered some complementary phrase, both should now be aware that a transfer of control has occurred, and to whom.

This led me to wonder: under what circumstances can the PF refuse the PNF's request, how would they phrase this and does the other pilot or pilots always defer to the senior pilot?

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  • $\begingroup$ The pilot in command must always be deferred to. $\endgroup$ – user2168 May 26 '14 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Articuno: unless anoxic, drunk, suicidal ... ? $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick May 27 '14 at 8:20
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The whole idea behind the policies and procedures for transferring control of the aircraft between the pilots is so that everybody is always on the same page. Somebody always needs to be flying the aircraft.

If I want to hand control over to the other pilot, and he doesn't want it/can't take it, he would simply explain why not. I have never seen standard operating procedures (SOP's) that explain how to refuse, as simply saying no or unable should let the other pilot know that there is a problem and should be the beginning of a conversation about it. On the other hand, the SOP's do cover the scenario where the other pilot doesn't respond.

This is why there is always a challenge/response as part of handing off control. If the other pilot were incapacitated and I didn't realize it, I would say "You have the flight controls" (or whatever phrase that the SOP's require) and wait for his response. If they didn't respond, I wouldn't just blindly stop flying the airplane and assume that they are. Instead, I could say it again or look over at them to see what was going on and figure out what the problem was while continuing to fly the airplane.

Now, to request control from the other pilot (rather than requesting them to take control), I would simply skip the first part and say "I have the flight controls" and they should respond with "You have the flight controls." Again, it's a challenge/response situation so that everybody is on the same page.

In either case, the captain is the final authority and can always override a request. Airline policies are all very clear that if there is a disagreement, the captain has the "tie breaking" vote.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just curious, has there ever been an instance where a pilot has said "You have control", and then realized the other pilot was incapacitated afterwards? It seems that the close proximity of the two pilots to each other in the average cockpit would keep this from happening. $\endgroup$ – flyingfisch May 26 '14 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @flyingfisch If a pilot has a sudden massive heart attack/stroke/etc. and simply slumped over during a busy time, it might not be noticed right away because your attention is focused elsewhere. Has it happened? I'm not sure, but they train us for the worst case scenario in lots of areas, either because it has happened, or because of the possible severe consequences if it were to happen. In either case, it doesn't cause problems in the "typical" case, so why not do it all the time? $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 26 '14 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of one pilot being completely incapacitated, it would seem to be a more relevant risk that he's simply momentarily zoned out and/or focusing on something else. Without an explicit response one might easily end up in a state where both pilots are awake, responsive, and convinced that the other guy is flying the plane. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm May 26 '14 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm that is how the RNLAF lost one of their AH-64D Apache helicopters in Afghanistan. Frontseater transfered control ("you have control"), but the backseater replied "No, standby". The frontseater didn't hear the message correctly and assumed it was a confirmation. With both pilots assuming the other was in control they soon crashed. If the frontseater would have reconfirmed the transfer of control (you have control) as per SOP, the accident could probably have been prevented. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima May 27 '14 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm "Subtle Incapacitation" is another risk to bear in mind (sometimes it's not obvious the other pilot is in no condition to fly). Positive exchange of controls can help mitigate this (if the other pilot responds with "Who am I? Why am I here? I can't be a pilot - I'm afraid of heights!" you'll probably not let go of the controls. OK maybe that example is not so subtle...) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 May 31 '14 at 18:46

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