With reference to this article on aviation herald at Accident: Shanghai B738 at Shanghai on Jan 3rd 2020, tail strike on landing, captain and first officer swapped seats in flight where the report discusses swapping seats between captain and first officer. I'm trying to figure out why so much weight was given to swapping the seats - except may be bad timing.

As a person who is not affiliated with aviation, I am curious to know apart from responsibilities and prestige that goes with the position, are there any differences between flying from right hand side vs left hand side. Does captain side has more controls available?

If someone gets incapacitated for whatever reasons, how is it managed?

Additional question - as pilots move up the career, do they have to learn few skills again like controls they used to perform with left hand vs right hand as they swap the seat.

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    $\begingroup$ We have two closely related questions already: here, here. Do either of them help? $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Apr 6, 2020 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, first one helps a little, but did not show up in my searches. Second one does not at all as it does not discuss the importance of swapping the seats $\endgroup$
    – user871199
    Apr 6, 2020 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ For swapping we have this question that might be relevant. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Apr 6, 2020 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ One difference comes to mind: I think recently there was an answer which stated that the backup batteries of some aircraft only power instruments on one side. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Apr 7, 2020 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe it is about the (un)safety of switching seats while in flight: without a relief pilot, that leaves no-one at the controls for a while. $\endgroup$
    – jpa
    Apr 8, 2020 at 4:48

3 Answers 3


There should not be any great differentiator between left and right seats. The American Airlines Training Center FFS (simulator) for the B737 has the nose wheel tiller only on the left side. The actual aircraft should be set up identically to the simulator. Other than that, most pilots at the ATP and airline levels should be comfortable in either seat.

In larger and/or turbine powered aircraft (as well as the majority of glass cockpit aircraft), the instrumentation is duplicated on both sides of the aircraft. You both have the same information. But, there is only one set of controls for some things like the throttle quadrant, autopilot, and radios located in the center of the panel, overhead, or on the central pedestal between the pilots. It’s like an American (me) driving a fifteen passenger, stick-shift van around London for the first time. Driving and even shifting are simple procedures. It is even simple to remember in which lane to stay when turning corners. But, your entire ingrained site picture is off. And which hand does what is reversed. Simple to overcome with experience and practice.

With low time pilots, on the other hand, there is quite a difference. Most pilots get most of their first 200-500 hours flying left seat only. Most six-pack steam gauge training aircraft have their instruments oriented toward the left-seat pilot. Making the transition to right seat can be a challenge at first. But, this challenge can be easily overcome with practice. Think of it this way, try playing a musical instrument or a sport with opposite hand orientation from the way you first learned it. Try even to tie a tie or your shoe laces opposite your normal routine. It is not impossible. It becomes a non-issue with some practice. I still find it daunting to land from the right seat even though I can perform most other maneuvers somewhat fine although with more thought.

By the time a pilot reaches the CFI level, they should be more than comfortable in the right seat. Most of their flying from the start of their CFI training on will be from the right seat including the checkride. Some CFIs will even fly solo from the right seat out of habit. Especially in aircraft that only have a right door.

As far as pilot incapacitation, with only limited experience in the B737 sim, I can’t think of much you can do from one seat that you can not do from the other. Operation of the nose wheel tiller and certain circuit breakers come to mind. I think the cabin pressure controls would be a stretch from the captain’s left seat position depending on their reach. It would still be a good idea to remove the incapacitated pilot from their seat if able. Just to make sure that they do not accidentally get in the way of the controls. It would also be of great aid to have someone coherent in the vacated seat to help with the radios. Even if they are not a pilot.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer is contradictory, first you say pilots should be comfortable in either seat, but then your last paragraph says the opposite. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Apr 6, 2020 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @GdD - If I changed the order of the paragraphs, would that make it more understandable? As a right-hander, sparring south-paw was no big deal. Playing golf with my father’s (also a rightie) left-handed clubs is still darn near impossible. Yet I still catch and throw with proficiency only with one hand. Not an issue for football. Not great for baseball. While natural ability counts for a lot. Experience and practice counts for more. Like playing piano chords on one hand and a complex melody with the other. Then, reverse hands. Simple with practice , experience, and a little extra thought. $\endgroup$
    – Dean F.
    Apr 6, 2020 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ I think getting rid of the first paragraph would fix it @DeanF. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Apr 6, 2020 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard of cases where some component on the captain's side malfunctions - a screen burns out or a gauge stops working. And rather than rely on constantly looking over at the first officer's instruments or asking them for readings, or asking the first officer to take over the remainder of the flight, it might make sense for them to switch seats. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2020 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman - I get what you are trying to say. Since the FO makes half of the takeoffs, cruise flight, and landings anyway, what besides ego would keep the captain from giving the FO control of the aircraft? Aside from an incapacitated pilot, there is no reason for both pilots to be out of their seats at the same time in flight. Besides, pilots train for partial panel flight. Both pilots should be able to easily see their backup instruments. $\endgroup$
    – Dean F.
    Apr 7, 2020 at 15:49

Most airplanes have a side by side pilot configuration, with throttles, flaps, gear, autopilot and other very important controls located in a central console. A pilot who flies in the left hand seat gets used to having the stick in the left hand and manipulating the throttle and other controls with their right, the right hand pilot vice-versa. Pilots are trained for one position or the other, and become familiar with the controls in their particular positions, and learn to work as a team in that position. The goal is to have reactions become automatic and smooth.

When pilots switch seats everything is reversed, actions are no longer automatic. Controls are no longer where they are supposed to be, using them feels unfamiliar. This damages efficiency and can reduce safety, which is why it was an issue in that case.

If a pilot becomes incapacitated the remaining pilot is supposed to remain in the seat they are accustomed to rather than changing positions.

When a pilot moves from first officer to captain they have to be retrained to use the correct hand for everything.


The specific issue in that event, where the FO landed hard, is related to the sight picture outside from the seat. If you are used to the sight picture from the right side (mostly the general orientation and angles of the windshield frame to the outside view, and the lateral location of the runway relative to your sight line) and switch to the other side, where interior edges in your view slopes the opposite way and your sight line is now on the opposite side of the runway centerline, it can throw your visual judgement off and you end up flaring high, or late. Some pilots are more affected by this than others.

New flight instructors in light aircraft go through this phenomenon when they start their initial training, which starts off with a checkout flying the trainer from the right seat. Watch a new instructor on training at the airport doing his first circuits/patterns from the right side, and, with some new instructors, it looks like a brand new student trying to learn to land from scratch.

The reversed controls may be a factor, but only insofar as the wheel is in your left and instead of the right and I don't think most pilots have much problem swapping hands to land the airplane. Other parts of the cockpit being reversed aren't really a big deal here because we are really only concerned with the flare to land, not working switches.

When you are with an airline and you do recurrent sim, even if you are a right seat only FO, you often fly both sides during recurrent training. On a 4 hour sim session, if it's two FOs training together, they will swap sides half way through so each does half the session in the left seat. So most FOs have some experience working from the left side in the sim. But when you are confronted with the real deal in a 3-dimensional world, some pilots can still be thrown off and misjudge the flare the first couple of times.

  • $\begingroup$ The pressure of doing something "for real" the first time instead of "for practice" will throw many people off, even if they're not doing anything different than what they've practiced, no matter the thing they're doing. The first time I drove down country roads to my girlfriend's house was terrifying! It felt like I was driving a 30 foot wide car down a 3 foot wide road, even though I'd been driving for a couple of years by then, and had ridden with her in the very same car down the very same roads. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Apr 7, 2020 at 17:59

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