It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere!

September 26, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

Proving once again that all the world is a stage, and that you can become an unwitting player at any time, a pilot and “former” friend, also a pilot, were flying back from a short, day, VFR cross-country. The Cessna 150 they were flying inconveniently ran out of fuel a few hundred yards short of the destination.

According to the NTSB report:

“During the recovery of the airplane a total of 1.75 gallons of fuel was recovered from both wing fuel tanks. The fuel tanks had not been compromised and had an unusable fuel total of 3 gallons. The commercial pilot reported to law enforcement personnel that they had not refueled prior to the return flight.

According to the commercial pilot, he was not acting in the capacity of a flight instructor, nor was he acting as pilot in command. He was occupying the right seat. According to an affidavit submitted by the private pilot, he was not acting as pilot in command. The commercial pilot reported the private pilot was occupying the left seat and was flying at the time of the accident.

Local law enforcement reported that the commercial pilot had consumed several beers prior to the flight and smelled of alcohol.”

Hmmm—somebody had to be PIC. The commercial pilot sued the private pilot, but the suit was thrown out on a technicality proving that perhaps there is still some restraint left in the legal system. It’s an interesting conundrum. Often, the senior pilot with access to the controls is tagged unless prior arrangement is made—that is, of course, discounting “selective memory.” Another way to look at it is that the commercial pilot had presumably disqualified himself from any PIC role with the alcohol consumption. The private pilot was then de-facto PIC since he was presumably qualified in the aircraft (we don’t know his currency status).

The crash occurred just about 1700 local time, so Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett apparently are on to something about time zones being irrelevant when it comes to happy hour. In aviation though, fuel consumption is an absolute, as is the eight hour rule. It also wouldn’t hurt to identify, in advance, who is PIC and to figure how much fuel is needed plus a bit extra. It can get really messy after the fact.

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jeff Banks

    Follow the money. Did the private pilot rent or own the aircraft. Did the commercial pilot receive any compensation?
    If the private pilot bought the commercial pilot his beer, is that compensation in kind?

    When I’m a passenger, I usually leave my pilots certificate in the glovebox of my car as I cannot exercise my privileges without them in the aircraft. (Not tested in court, however it shows my intent.)

  • W. Gochnauer

    Short of knowing whose aircraft it was, or who was responsible for accessing the aircraft (Jeff’s “follow the money” concept, I’d say it was the person occupying the left seat. But the judge may need to decide by some means.
    If a person flying solo is intoxicated or does not have his certificate along, does that indicate that there is no pilot in command?

  • John

    The determination of PIC by the FAA can be very tricky. A college friend of mine was riding in the back seat of a Piper Seminole which ended up bumping wingtips with a parked aircraft while taxiing. In the investigation that followed, he was determined by the FAA to be the PIC because as a CFII he held the highest certificate in the airplane.

    The above is not hearsay, I knew this individual and the certificate action that followed. He was nowhere near the controls, and was not giving instruction, but he was found to be responsible for the incident all the same.

    In the case of the two individuals in this story, I would think that having a few beers before boarding the aircraft would make it clear that he did not intend to act as PIC, but from the perspective of the FAA, neither his intent, nor his location in the aircraft may matter. In fact, given the precident I’ve seen, he could be in line for certificate action both for the crash, and for acting as PIC while intoxicated whether he ever intended to be PIC or not.

  • Alan Fredregill

    I understand this article was written with a lot of somebody’s tongue stuck in your cheek, but it was a cheap shot to say that “perhaps there is still some restraint left in the legal system.”