Who flies when it gets dangerous ?

In other words: Which pilot takes control of a passenger aircraft as Pilot Flying (PF) in an emergency (aircraft upset, loss of control, mechanical failure, etc.) and why ?

  • the highest-ranking pilot present in the cockpit given his experience
  • the SIC (second in command), for the reasons quoted below
  • whoever was PF when the incident began continues flying
  • or no specific rules, the pilots must make a joint decision

Just beware that either pilot may be at the controls during a particular incident. In fact, while protocols are different [from] carrier to carrier, it's not unusual during emergencies or other abnormal situations, for the captain to delegate hands-on flying duties to the copilot, so that the captain can concentrate on communications, troubleshooting, coordinating the checklists, etc. (source)

Case in point:
In the AF447 crash, the captain was not in the cockpit when the incident began. When returning to the cockpit, he did not take over control but sat down behind the 2 First Officers.

Please mention in your answer
- which person (if any) is designated by the regulations, airline rules and best practices
- for what reason
- and whether these rules/recommendations have often been not followed in crashes

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Who has the authority between captain and first officer in emergencies? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Dec 11, 2018 at 18:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @fooot: No. These are 2 entirely separate questions. The other question asks who is in charge. My question asks who flies. (The pilot in command is not necessarily the one flying, as can be seen in my quote). Please remove the dupe-tag. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Dec 11, 2018 at 18:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ By way of example, the BA Flight 38 crash saw the co-pilot maintain control all the way to impact while the Captain took the decision to change the flaps, attempt an APU start and get a Mayday out $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Dec 11, 2018 at 18:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @fooot: The Captain doesn't have to be PF. He can choose to be PM and still have authority. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Dec 11, 2018 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ And it's up to the crew to coordinate who is PF just as with who is PIC. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Dec 11, 2018 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


In the end it's all up to the Captain. If the FO is PF, which with most airlines alternates with each leg of a block, and something exciting happens, the capt may let the FO continue flying if the capt feels the FO has things under control. Or the capt may say "I have control" and take over. Depends.

The Pilot In Command is pilot in command. He/she commands, but with modern CRM rules, there is expected to be some mutual consultation and decision making, so the command authority has to take all that into account.

AF447 was an unusual situation where the capt didn't realize early enough what a clusterfark the two FOs sitting in the front seats had gotten themselves into, who were both mentally overloaded into a tunnel vision state, and especially the right seater, who appeared to lack basic fully internalized flying skills, sitting in panic mode with the stick full aft for almost the entire ride down.


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