Can pilots let passengers fly the airplane?

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Reading Time: 11 minutes

Original publication date: May 9, 2023
Last Updated: February 9, 2024
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: General Aviation
Number of Comments: 0

Let’s say you’ve got your private pilot license, or even your commercial pilot license, and you are bringing a passenger, who is sitting in the front seat alongside you. Let’s say, just for the fun of it, you would like to give your passenger a taste of what it is like to fly an airplane. Or let’s say you want to delegate some aspects of management of the flight to your passenger, to make them feel “involved” in piloting the aircraft. Are you, as the pilot-in-command, allowed to let your passengers take control of the aircraft and fly it?

As a general rule, the pilot-in-command cannot allow passengers to take control of the aircraft. As the final authority, bearing the responsibility for the safe operation of the aircraft, the pilot-in-command must ensure that passengers do not perform any actions that risk the safety of the flight.

Having said that, it is not unheard of for pilots to want to be able to share the excitement and thrill of aviation with their passengers, and in some cases, let them take the controls. Let’s take a closer look at what the FAA has to say about this subject, what this entails, and what are the restrictions and limitations with this regard.

Can pilots let passengers fly the airplane?

The only time that pilots can legally allow their non-pilot passengers to fly the airplane is if the pilot-in-command is a certified flight instructor and is providing instruction to a student pilot. In fact, it is the only time that pilots are legally expected to allow their non-pilot passenger to fly the airplane.

Obviously, if the passenger is a licensed pilot themselves, there is no question about the legality of this issue.

This rule is in place to maintain the highest possible level of safety for all passengers on board. It goes without saying that allowing an untrained individual to operate an aircraft would put the lives of passengers as well as people and property on the ground, at risk.

Can passengers pilot a commercial aircraft in an emergency?

We have all heard tales, both fact and fiction, of passengers coming to the rescue, taking control of a commercial aircraft due to the incapacitation of one or more of the pilots. In rare extreme emergency cases like these, you have to do what you have to do, in order to save lives. 

For example, in the extremely rare circumstances when the pilot (and copilot, if there is one) of a commercial aircraft were to become incapacitated, a passenger with some flying experience may be asked to assist with operating the aircraft.

This would only occur as a last resort, with the goal of ensuring the survival of everyone on board.

In these situations, the passenger would receive guidance and instruction from ATC, as well as other pilots or experts on the ground, to help them land the aircraft safely.

Can pilots let passengers fly during a commercial flight?

But what about during a routine flight? Can a commercial pilot allow a visitor into the cockpit and allow them to control the aircraft?

The FAA strictly forbids it. It goes without saying that pilots must undergo the extensive rigors of in-flight training, ground-based training, pass a medical exam, a written exam, and an oral exam, in order to obtain a license to be able to operate an aircraft. That too, these are just the minimum requirements to be able to fly non-commercially for a small, single-engine aircraft. Being able to fly a massive commercial jetliner, when you have the lives of hundreds of passengers at stake, is an altogether completely different matter.

There is no provision for a commercial pilot to “let” a passenger “touch” the controls, even for just a few minutes. Licensing ensures that pilots are armed with the necessary skills and knowledge to safely and effectively manage all aspects of flight, from takeoff to landing. Allowing an unlicensed passenger to fly an aircraft is not only illegal, but is also inherently dangerous. The average person would lack the necessary skills, situational awareness, and would not be able to grasp the complexities of aircraft control, let alone be able to handle an emergency situation.

Can a passenger with limited flight experience fly airplanes?

Even if a passenger has some flying experience or has some knowledge, it is likely to be woefully inadequate to be able to proficiently manage all aspects of a commercial flight. Commercial aircraft are significantly more complex than smaller, private aircraft. As such they would require specialized training to operate safely. Allowing a passenger to fly puts the safety of everyone on board at risk, as they would not have the required skills to handle emergency situations, nor would they be able to communicate effectively with air traffic control and carry out their directives.

Can pilots let passengers fly on a non-instructional flight?

When it comes to commercial aviation, there is a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance policy against allowing passengers to touch the controls.

When it comes to general aviation, however, particularly with respect to smaller, single-engine aircraft, the rules may be a bit more lax.

In some cases, a pilot may allow a passenger with prior flying experience to take control of the aircraft under close supervision. This would typically only occur in a private or general aviation setting, and the pilot would remain closely involved to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft.

The pilot-in-command is ultimately responsible and accountable for the safe operation of the flight. At no point may the pilot-in-command abdicate or delegate responsibility for any aspect of the operation of the flight to the passenger.

It doesn’t matter if the passenger agrees or the passenger has some flight experience. If the passenger is not a licensed pilot, then the outcome of the flight is solely the responsibility of the pilot-in-command.

In other words, if an accident were to occur as the direct result of the pilot delegating a task to a passenger, such as keeping an eye out for other aircraft, the blame for the accident will lay squarely on the shoulders of the pilot-in-command. 

Letting the passenger touch the controls would therefore have to be done on an extremely limited basis, and you, as the pilot-in-command, would have to be fully cognizant of what the passenger is doing at all times. You would need to be ready to take back control of the airplane at a moment’s notice.

Furthermore, it is imperative that you and your passenger have a mutual understanding that they must comply with you, if you ask them to let go of the controls and relinquish control back to you.

You may wish to share your love of aviation with your passengers. But it’s all fun and games, until the situation gets out of control. 

Can a private pilot provide instruction to a passenger?

Legally speaking, only a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) can provide training and instruction to a student pilot on how to fly an airplane.

Having said that, there is technically nothing to stop a private pilot from teaching, showing, or demonstrating to a passenger how to fly an airplane, and to allow the passenger to “try it out”, under the carefully guarded and closely monitored supervision of the pilot.

The main difference between a private pilot teaching a passenger how to fly, and a CFI teaching a student pilot how to fly, is that the instruction does not count toward the minimum 40 hours of instruction that are required in order to obtain your pilot’s license. Neither the private pilot nor the student may legally log these hours as instruction. Nor can the pilot endorse the student. The hours may only be logged as instruction if the pilot-in-command is a CFI, and the flight is being conducted formally as a flying lesson in accordance with FAA mandated instructional guidelines.

So any such “teaching” and “instruction” would be purely informal and unofficial, and cannot be used to satisfy actual flight training requirements.

In what situations can pilots let passengers fly the plane?

While none of these are in any way legally endorsed by the FAA, private pilots might be inclined to let their passengers touch the controls of the airplane under various circumstances. Please note that the following are merely my suggestions and opinions, and do not constitute legal advice, nor do I necessarily endorse these activities:

1. Discovery flight:

A pilot might allow a passenger to touch the controls, to give them a taste and an exposure to flying. This affords the passenger the opportunity to get hands-on exposure to the basic control movements, and to be able to experience the sensations of flying. If the passenger is an aviation enthusiast or is considering pursuing a pilot license someday, the pilot might allow them to touch the controls for educational purposes, or to satisfy a curiosity.

2. Safety demonstration:

A pilot could allow a passenger to touch the controls in order to demonstrate how to recover from certain situations, such as a stall. 

3. Co-pilot familiarization:

If a passenger has a basic understanding of flying and the pilot wants to introduce them to the co-pilot’s role, they might be allowed to touch the controls.

4. Calm and stable conditions:

In ideal weather and flying conditions, the pilot might let a passenger touch the controls to demonstrate the effects of various control inputs.

5. Emergencies:

In the extremely rare and unlikely circumstances in which the pilot were to become incapacitated, a passenger might inevitably need to touch the controls under guidance from air traffic control or another pilot via radio.

6. Confidence building:

Nervous passengers could have their nerves calmed if the pilot were to allow them to touch the controls in order to build their confidence and trust in flying. When they get a taste for how the aircraft operates, under their direct control, then this may allay their trepidations. 

7. Assisting with basic tasks:

In certain situations, a pilot could ask the passenger to hold the controls steady while they attend to other tasks, such as adjusting the navigation frequencies, looking up information on a chart, or communicating with air traffic control. Of course, this does not absolve the pilot-in-command of the responsibility of fulfilling those same tasks that they just delegated, because the passenger is not legally authorized, nor skilled how to, nor duty-bound to do so.

8. Being a spotter:

A pilot could ask the passenger to be their spotter, keeping an eye out for other traffic. This scenario does not involve the passenger touching the controls, but it does keep them engaged as an active participant in the flight experience.

9. Entertainment purposes:

For some passengers, flying in a single-engine, general aviation aircraft could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reserved for a special occasion, such as a birthday, or as a gift. In this case, the pilot may want to “treat” the passenger by letting them experience the thrill of operating an aircraft on a limited basis, obviously under the vigilance of the pilot-in-command.

10. Pilot training:

If a passenger is also a student pilot under the guidance of a certified flight instructor, they would obviously be allowed to touch the controls during their training. This one is obvious and self-evident.

Should you let your passenger fly the plane?

Pilots have to juggle a multitude of intensive responsibilities during a flight:

  • monitoring and interpreting the instruments
  • communicating with ATC & complying with their directives
  • navigating
  • maintaining situational awareness
  • ensuring the airplane remains within safe margins of airspeed and engine performance
  • consulting charts (be they paper or electronic)
  • managing any emergencies that may arise

Pilots have enough to worry about. Having a passenger operate the aircraft could potentially be a further distraction for the pilot from their already-heavy workload. This could potentially be a precursor to lapses in safety, which in-turn increases the risk of accidents.

It is essential for pilots to prioritize their responsibilities and maintain focus on the safe operation of the aircraft, and resist the pressure and temptation to allow untrained individuals to take control.

Private pilots may want to carefully assess their own competence and proficiency as a pilot before letting an unlicensed passenger touch the controls.

When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution.

Having said that, it is not unheard of that private pilots may allow their passengers to touch the controls from time to time.

How should you prepare for letting a passenger fly a plane?

1. Briefing the passenger on basic operation and safety procedures.

Before allowing a passenger to manipulate the controls of the aircraft, the private pilot must provide a thorough briefing on the basic operation of the aircraft controls and any relevant safety procedures. This should include an overview of the flight instruments, primary flight controls (ailerons, elevator, and rudder), throttle, and trim controls. The pilot should also explain how these controls affect the aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and airspeed.

Additionally, the briefing should cover essential safety procedures, such as communication protocols, emergency procedures, and the use of seat belts and other safety equipment. The pilot should ensure the passenger understands the importance of following their instructions and is aware of any potential hazards or limitations. This briefing helps to establish a clear understanding of the passenger’s role and responsibilities during the flight and promotes overall flight safety.

2. Considering the passenger’s level of experience and comfort.

Before allowing a passenger to manipulate the controls, the private pilot should assess the passenger’s level of experience and comfort with flying. This may include evaluating the passenger’s familiarity with the aircraft and its controls, their previous flight experience, and any relevant training they have received. In some cases, a passenger with little or no flight experience might feel overwhelmed or anxious, which could impact their ability to safely control the aircraft.

The pilot should also gauge the passenger’s emotional state and ensure they are calm, focused, and prepared for the responsibility of flying the aircraft. If the pilot has any concerns about the passenger’s ability to safely operate the controls, they should prioritize the overall safety of the flight and reconsider allowing the passenger to fly.

3. Remaining vigilant and prepared to take control.

The private pilot should always remain vigilant and be prepared to take control of the aircraft at any time when allowing a passenger to manipulate the controls. This includes closely monitoring the aircraft’s performance, altitude, airspeed, and attitude, as well as staying alert for any potential hazards or issues that may arise during the flight.

The pilot should also maintain clear communication with the passenger to provide guidance and ensure they understand any instructions or feedback. By staying engaged and focused on the flight, the pilot can quickly intervene and regain control of the aircraft if necessary to ensure the safety of all passengers and the aircraft.

4. Adhering to jurisdictional restrictions and regulations.

It is essential for the private pilot to be familiar with FAA regulations before allowing a passenger to fly, the private pilot should consult local aviation regulations, their insurance policy, and any relevant restrictions imposed by the aircraft owner or operator. By adhering to these guidelines, the private pilot can ensure they are acting in compliance with the law and maintaining the highest level of safety for their passengers and the aircraft.

Can a pilot be penalized for letting passengers fly the plane?

It should come as no surprise that pilots may face penalties for non-compliance with or for violating FAA regulations.

Pilots who allow passengers to operate an aircraft could potentially face significant legal consequences. These consequences could include fines, suspension or revocation of their pilot’s license, and even criminal charges in extreme cases. 

Allowing a passenger to fly not only has the potential to jeopardize the safety of those on board, but also of those on the ground. 

An airplane is a complex machine with intricate systems and controls that require specialized knowledge in order to operate correctly, competently, and safely. A passenger without the proper training could easily make a mistake or fail to manage a critical situation, leading to an accident or to an emergency situation. And guess what? At the end of the day, the onus will be on the pilot-in-command to be held accountable for the consequences of the passenger’s actions.

Revocation of Commercial Pilot Privileges

If you are a commercial pilot, the consequences for allowing unauthorized individuals to fly are even more severe, as it also has the potential to jeopardize and put your career and livelihood at risk. Pilots have a duty to uphold the highest standards of safety and professionalism, which includes adhering to all relevant regulations and guidelines.

Non-compliance with aviation regulations, such as permitting an untrained individual to fly, can lead to severe consequences for the pilot, including fines, license suspension or revocation, and even termination from their job, not to mention tarnishing the reputation of the commercial airline. A pilot’s responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of their passengers and crew, and allowing unauthorized individuals to operate the aircraft is a clear breach of that responsibility.

Do insurance companies allow pilots to let passengers fly?

Allowing passengers to fly could constitute a clear violation of your aircraft owner’s or aircraft renter’s insurance policy.

Allowing a passenger to fly could violate the terms of these insurance policies, as it introduces unnecessary risk and goes against established safety protocols. In the event of an accident or incident, an insurance company may deny coverage if it is found that a passenger was allowed to operate the aircraft, leaving the pilot financially responsible for any damages or liability claims.

Can passengers communicate with ATC?

Being that communication with ATC is required, when flying under certain types of airspace, under no circumstances must the passenger communicate with ATC.

Pilots may choose to, at their discretion, coach their passengers on how to make basic radio calls. In this case, any communication between passengers and ATC must be under their direct supervision and instruction of the pilot-in-command.

Being that it is ultimately the responsibility of the pilot-in-command to communicate with ATC, the pilot-in-command generally speaking should never allow the passenger to freely communicate with ATC.

Being that a passenger is not licensed, and hence not trained on how ATC communications works, they may misunderstand or misinterpret their directives, or they may provide misleading or false information to ATC when prompted to. Passengers have no business communicating with ATC, except in the case of an emergency or at the behest of the pilot-in-command, under limited circumstances.

In fact, if ATC suspects that an untrained passenger is communicating with them, this could raise a red flag and land the pilot in trouble.

Ultimately, the decision to let a non-pilot fly is at the discretion of the pilot, and they should use their judgment to determine if and when it is appropriate to allow a non-pilot to control the aircraft while considering the safety of all passengers and the aircraft.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt. He is a freelance writer for Flying is not his day job. (He's into computers.) But flying is among his passions and hobbies. He just passed his instrument ground school course, and is getting ready to take the IFR written exam as we speak, in early January 2024! He hopes to earn his instrument writing within a year. We've brought him onto our team to share his insights on all-things general aviation, with our community of readers. Let's wish him good luck on his instrument written exam!

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