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Bob is a certificated ASEL private pilot. He steals Jane's Cessna 172 and flies it. He buys the fuel for the flight at his own expense, and after the flight, he pays Jane a reasonable rental rate. (In other words, he is not getting flight hours for any less money than he could by legal means, so there's no possible compensation issue.) The flight would have been completely legal if he had had Jane's permission. Is he considered the pilot in command while flying the stolen plane for the purpose of logging flight time?

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    $\begingroup$ He certainly is the pirate in command! (scnr) $\endgroup$
    – Ulli T
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ If you steal a car are you the driver of that car? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall yes, and the plane thief is definitely the "pilot flying," but since "pilot in command" is a title given by law, it wouldn't be surprising if someone flying illegally is not considered PIC. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Local prosecutor: "Yes, please do fully log that time. Also, I'll be taking that logbook when you're finished..." $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab, would logging time be protected against self incrimination?! ;) (felons are specifically exempted from being required to register firearms...) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 18:54

3 Answers 3

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The information below represents my opinion:

NOTE: This question has been edited since my (original) answer was posted. The OP added the following words to the end of his last sentence: "...for the purpose of logging flight time?" I have modified my answer to more clearly respond to his edit/qualifier regarding the "logging" of flight time.


If he is the sole occupant he would be "operating" the airplane and the definition of "Operate" according to 14 CFR Part 1.1 is:

with respect to aircraft, means use, cause to use or authorize to use aircraft, for the purpose (except as provided in § 91.13 of this chapter) of air navigation including the piloting of aircraft, with or without the right of legal control (as owner, lessee, or otherwise).


Also, according to 14 CFR 61.51(e)(1)(i) and (ii) he can, but is not required to, log the time as "Pilot in Command."

. . . (pertinent sections)

(e) Logging pilot-in-command flight time.

(1) A sport, recreational, private, commercial, or airline transport pilot may log pilot in command flight time for flights-

(i) Except when logging flight time under § 61.159(c), when the pilot is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is rated, or has sport pilot privileges for that category and class of aircraft, if the aircraft class rating is appropriate;

(ii) When the pilot is the sole occupant in the aircraft;

The logging of pilot-in-command time, as written in 14 CFR Part 61.51, does not have a qualifier with respect to whether or not the time was acquired in an aircraft that was stolen. And, to be more precise, the FAA only mandates, with respect to FAR Part 61, the logging/documenting of the flight/ground time to demonstrate that the necessary training, aeronautical experience and recent experience requirements of FAR Part 61 have been met. (see 14 CFR Part 61.51(a)(1)and (2))

Your logbook or other document/record where your flight/ground time is recorded belongs to you. A person may enter anything they want in their own records. However, when you present time from your logbook or other document for the purpose of demonstrating you meet any FAR Part 61 experience/training requirement that specific time must have been recorded as prescribed in FAR Part 61.51.


Finally, according to 14 CFR Part 1.1 (linked above) -

Pilot in command means the person who:

(1) Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;

(2) Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and

(3) Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

So, since he "has the final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight" as the "sole occupant" of the aircraft, in my opinion he would be considered "pilot in command."

Also, item number 2 above requires that he be "designated" as the pilot in command. It does not specify how this "designation" is made or who has the authority to make this "designation." Remember that a person is considered to "operate" an aircraft with or without the right of legal control (see the definition of "operate" noted above).

(all emphasized items are mine)


A few thoughts:

  1. I think this question ("Is he considered the pilot in command while flying the stolen plane?) would be contingent upon who, or what agency/organization, would be doing the "considering" and for what purpose would the "considering" be at issue.

  2. In view of the circumstances specified in your question, who else could possibly be considered, under a casual or strict interpretation, the "pilot in command," other than the person flying the airplane as the sole occupant?

  3. This question may be better suited for the S.E. - Legal.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer! "(But, who else could possibly be considered under a casual or strict interpretation of "pilot in command" other than the person flying the airplane as the sole occupant?)" I'm not a pilot, but I have some idea of how to fly a plane; I could probably get one off the ground. If I tried to fly a plane as the sole occupant, there would be no PIC, because I fail (3). Thus, it is possible, although not legal, to have a flight with no PIC. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ "who else ..." I may be wrong, but it sounds like the point of the question is whether the pilot/thief can use the flying time to his advantage by logging it - ie he's going for a job interview tomorrow, and needs 100 hours under his belt, but only has 99 - can he 'legally' claim this? $\endgroup$
    – MikeB
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeB certainly a question for SE-Legal. Commonly you can not 'legally' claim advantage from a criminal act, but can 'legally' be penalized: he should take the required rest hours before flying again. $\endgroup$
    – david
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ I know this is an FAA question, but it's worth considering if theft is even legally possible: In the UK, a person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it, and thus the pilot couldn't steal the aircraft if he it flew back. The relevant UK law is the Aviation Security Act 1982: unless he uses force or threats he does not hijack it; and may only be liable for being an "Unauthorised presence on aircraft" (as defined without permission of the operator) -- a summary offence (payable fine only). $\endgroup$
    – Landak
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 16:23
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The FAA doesn't have the authority to decide if you had stolen the aircraft you've been flying. Only a criminal court can determine that. The FAA may then act on the court's decision.

The FAA may issue licenses to convicted felons, unless the conviction was for addiction-related offenses. However, the FAA does require that ATP applicants be of good moral character. There's been a relevant question - What does the FAA consider to be "good moral character"? - and felonies trigger an inquiry.

There is no separate FAA-imposed penalty such as not logging the time spent committing a crime - the regulations do not address that. Generally FAA rules suggest logging the time, even if some regulations were violated. The one requirement that matters is that the pilot is in control, including having the required skills.

Realistically, since pilots fill their logbooks themselves, it would be up to the pilot's conscience to log or not log the time. It would usually not be obvious to anyone reading the logbook whether the aircraft was operated with the owner's permission. For FAA purposes, that is not important per se.

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14 CFR §61.51(e) covers logging PIC time.

It does not include legal ownership of the aircraft or a valid rental contract as one of the prerequisite conditions, therefore a thief may log PIC time provided they meet all other provisions of this section.

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