Regulations Review: How to Log PIC Time

After a flight, we pilots typically engage in this ritual where we fill out a line in a logbook – thereby memorializing this event for posterity. While traversing the line, we place time into various “buckets” – such as PIC, Night, Cross Country. But when can we actually log time into these buckets? Are we even required to log the flight at all? The foundational regulation that answers these questions is 14 CFR § 61.51: Pilot Logbooks. This FAR begins by describing when a pilot must log time, describes the items that must be filled out, and finally goes through each of the “buckets” and lists the conditions that must be met to add time to that “bucket”.

To begin, a pilot must log time when it is used to meet requirements for a certificate, rating, or flight review. In addition, time must be logged to satisfy recent flight experience requirements (AKA “currency” for carrying passengers). The items that must be filled out are essentially the various columns found in a logbook: date, total time, departure/arrival locations, etc. Finally, the regulations dive into the various “buckets” of flight time. Allow me to part this ocean of legalese and walk (swim?) through logging time in perhaps the most convoluted category of them all: pilot in command.

Logging PIC Time

14 CFR § 91.3(a) explicitly states: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” This is the regulation that concerns the responsibility for being, or, “acting” as pilot in command. However, “logging” pilot in command time comes back to 14 CFR § 61.51(e). As a student pilot, time can only be placed in the PIC bucket when flying solo. An instructor can log PIC time whenever serving as an “authorized instructor” provided that the instructor is *rated* (keep reading for a dive into what this charged word actually means) for the aircraft.

Now for recreational, sport, private, commercial, and airline transport pilots, there are 3 main scenarios where PIC time can be logged (the 4th clause is not relevant to general aviation):

  1. The pilot is the sole manipulator of the flight controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is *rated* (it’s that word again, keep reading a bit more until we dissect the meaning)
  2. The pilot is the sole occupant of the aircraft
  3. The pilot “acts” as pilot in command of an aircraft where either
    1. More than one pilot is required under the type certificate for the aircraft or,
    2. More than one pilot is required under the regulations under which the flight is conducted
    3. This clause is not valid for sport or recreational pilots

Before we continue, let’s talk about what it means to be “rated” for the aircraft. The Herman 2009 letter of interpretation from the FAA references 14 CFR § 61.5(b) when defining ratings, and holds that being “rated” for an aircraft means having the appropriate category, class, and type ratings (if required) for the aircraft being flown. Under this definition, an instrument rating, complex endorsement, high performance endorsement, tailwheel endorsement, or even a current medical certificate or flight review – to name a few – do not factor into whether a pilot is rated for an aircraft.

And an aside: as per the Murphy 2015 interpretation, “the FAA considers a pilot’s use and management of the autopilot to be the equivalent of manipulating the controls, just as one manages other flight control systems, such as trim or a yaw dampener. The autopilot system’s sophistication does not affect a pilot’s responsibility to manipulate and manage all control systems, including an autopilot, appropriately. Therefore, a pilot may log PIC flight time as the sole manipulator of the controls for the time in which he or she engages an autopilot.”

The Nuances of the Law

By examining the intricacies captured in the regulations, we find that there are scenarios where one does not have to act as PIC in order to log PIC time. In fact, although exactly one person is “acting” as pilot in command at any given time (since they are the “final authority for the operation of the aircraft”), multiple people on the flight can simultaneously log PIC time. Or, there could be a situation where no person on the flight can log PIC time. The next sections describe some of these scenarios.

The Herman 2009 interpretation explores a scenario where two Private Pilots fly a complex airplane. Pilot A has a complex endorsement and Pilot B does not. Pilot B is the sole manipulator of the flight controls for the duration of the flight and Pilot A acts as the pilot in command. First of all, this is an example of a situation where the pilot in command is not the one flying the airplane – there is no stipulation that the PIC must be the one manipulating the flight controls! In fact, Pilot B cannot act as pilot in command as this pilot does not have a complex endorsement (as per 14 CFR § 61.31(e)). In this scenario, the FAA concludes that pilot B can log PIC time under provision (1) from above since a complex endorsement does not factor into whether the pilot is *rated* (there’s that word again!). Pilot A cannot log PIC time since none of the 3 conditions from above are met. To summarize, the pilot who acts as PIC cannot log PIC time, while the pilot who does not act as PIC can log PIC time!!

The Walker 2011 interpretation takes a similar view, this time for a situation where Pilot A has an instrument rating while Pilot B does not and they both embark in a flight through IMC where Pilot B manipulates the flight controls. In this situation, Pilot A must act as PIC yet cannot log PIC time. Pilot B can log both PIC time and actual instrument time, yet cannot act as PIC. The rationale is similar to the previous scenario. Yet another similar scenario is explored in the Speranza 2009 interpretation – this time where the flight is conducted under IFR (but not IMC) where, once again, Pilot B can log PIC time while Pilot A cannot. Through these interpretations, the FAA makes its position clear: the requirements for logging PIC time is quite independent of who is acting as PIC.

What about that safety pilot thing where two people can log PIC at the same time? The Gebhart 2009 interpretation explains this scenario: Pilot A is flying under simulated conditions with Pilot B as safety pilot. The flight is 2.2 hours with 2.0 of simulated instrument, and the flight is to a destination around 200 miles away. Since Pilot A is the sole manipulator of the flight controls, Pilot A can log 2.2 hours of PIC time. If Pilot B acts as PIC, then Pilot B can actually log 2.0 hours of PIC time! The rationale is clause (3) from above – when Pilot A wears a view-limiting device, suddenly the regulations under which the flight is operated requires more than one crew-member (the “safety pilot”) and thus Pilot B is allowed to log PIC time. However, there is an important stipulation here: Pilot B must act as PIC, and this means that Pilot B is now the “final authority” for the operation of that aircraft. Be sure to verify that the FAR and the insurance policy permit Pilot B to act as PIC of the airplane, and ensure that Pilot A and Pilot B agree on who will be acting as pilot in command before departing on the flight. If Pilot B does not act as PIC, they may not log PIC time. However, as corroborated in the Trussell 2012 and Creech 2013 interpretations, Pilot B could log SIC time as per 14 CFR § 61.31(f) since they are still serving as a “required crewmember”.

We have looked at scenarios where the pilot who is logging PIC is not acting as PIC, where the pilot who is acting as PIC cannot log PIC, and where two pilots can simultaneously log PIC. Here is now a scenario where neither pilot can log PIC time! Pilot A and Pilot B fly a Cessna 172. Pilot A is a sport pilot. Pilot B is a private pilot, airplane single engine land. Pilot A is the sole manipulator of the flight controls while Pilot B is the acting PIC. Pilot A is not rated for the Cessna 172, and thus cannot log PIC time under provision (1) from above despite being the sole manipulator of the flight controls. Pilot B cannot log PIC time under any of the 3 provisions.

To summarize, acting as pilot in command is a matter of who is in charge, not necessarily who is actually manipulating the controls. In contrast, logging pilot in command time is a matter of satisfying certain conditions set forth in 14 CFR § 61.51(e). Though these two activities may align, it is quite possible that they do not.