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Here's What Every Pilot Should Know About 'Defensive Positioning'

During critical phases of flight, the last thing you should be doing in the cockpit is sitting with arms crossed, looking out the side window. Even if you're not the PIC, here's what you should know about "defensive positioning"...

It Doesn't Matter Who You're Flying With

When you're flying in the cockpit as a pilot, you should always consider yourself a crewmember.

Generally speaking, we're all reluctant to take the controls from other experienced pilots. However, abnormal and emergency situations might require your flight skills, so 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.

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 have some form of defensive positioning established should you need to take the controls in an emergency.

This doesn't mean hovering over the controls either, which is what we'll cover below.

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Defensive Positioning Helped This CFI Recover From A Dangerous Initial Climb

We found this NASA ASRS report from late 2015. A CFI practicing approaches with an experienced student was forced to suddenly grab 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.

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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.

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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.

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If you have to take the controls away from another pilot, always follow the positive exchange of control procedures. Avoid "helping" another pilot fly the airplane; it will only create confusion about who's actually flying. Do your best to verbalize your concerns first, and then take the controls if truly necessary.

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

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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