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Defensive Positioning: What To Do When You Fly With Another Pilot

If you're in a seat that has flight controls, you should consider yourself a crewmember. Here's how you should prepare yourself with defensive positioning, and how you should pre-brief the flight with other pilots...


Defensive Positioning Helpes CFI Recover From Dangerous Initial Climb

We found this NASA ASRS report from late 2015. A CFI practicing approaches with an experienced student was forced to take the controls during an unexpected, high pitch attitude on initial climb. This report demonstrates why defensive positioning is so important, even with experienced pilots...

While practicing soft field takeoffs in a Cessna 172, my primary student with close to 150 hours of flight training for unknown reasons pitched the nose of the airplane up harshly and banked to the left as he increased the pitch while not having enough rudder in. My hands were ready in a defensive, relaxed position, as they are before every takeoff. I, being the CFI at the time of this event, grabbed the controls of the aircraft and immediately pitched the nose down. By that time, we were to the left of the centerline and close to the edge of the 40-foot wide runway. After I recovered we proceeded with a normal climb and pattern.


It Doesn't Matter Who You're Flying With

Generally speaking, we're all reluctant to take the controls from other pilots. However, abnormal and emergency situations might require your flight skills, and you should always be ready for the unexpected.

Let's say you're flying with a pilot who has thousands of hours in-type, and you're relatively inexperienced in the aircraft. You should still keep your situational awareness up, especially during critical phases of flight like takeoff and landing.

So what should you do? In short, don't sit with your arms crossed, looking out the side window. Whether you're a private pilot, CFI, or airline pilot, you should establish a form of defensive positioning you're comfortable with, in the event you need to take the controls in an emergency.


Find A Natural Place For Your Hands

Defensive positioning doesn't mean hovering your hands over the throttle and control yoke. Instead, during critical phases of flight, you should have one hand positioned to quickly reach the throttle. Try relaxing your inside hand on the top of your leg, near the throttle.


Your other hand should be placed beside or below the control yoke. Depending on where the controls are located in your airplane, you might also have this hand on your leg.


Keep Your Feet Off The Pedals

Students often notice a difference in rudder pressure when flying solo for the first few times. This is usually caused by CFIs adding inadvertent rudder pressure in-flight if they rest their feet on the pedals.

If you decide not to keep your feet flat on the floor, have your heels on the floor and feet off the pedals. This will allow the pilot-flying full yaw control, instead of having to fight the weight of your feet, or the inadvertent pressure you might be adding subconsciously. Plus, if you're teaching a student, they'll get a much better feel for the airplane.


The Key Is To Look Relaxed

Hovering over the controls takes confidence away from the pilot-flying. Plus, it may not be clear who's actually flying the airplane. If you feel the need to hover over the controls, or physically assist another pilot on the controls, brief them and explain what you're doing. It will clear confusion between the two of you.

If you look tense, your student or co-pilot will be tense too. That's not a safe way to fly. If you suddenly begin hovering over the controls during approach, the other pilot will be left thinking "what's going wrong here?" When able, try to verbalize your concerns before coming anywhere close to grabbing the controls.


If you have to take the controls away from another pilot, always follow the positive exchange of control procedures. Verbalize the exchange of controls by saying "I have the controls", and follow up with your reasoning as soon as practical.

Avoid "helping" another pilot fly the airplane; it will only create confusion about who's actually flying.

What's your strategy for defensive positioning when flying with other pilots? Tell us in the comments below.

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