When I began learning to fly airplanes over 25 years ago, one of the first things discussed on the ground with a new instructor was positive exchange of controls. Positive exchange is simply verifying which of the two pilots is actually controlling the aircraft. Believe it or not, having two very experienced pilots in the cockpit can lead to a condition in which both thinks the other is flying and neither of the two is! Positive exchange is taught early in flight training, where the process occurs on almost every training flight with an instructor.
What is Positive Exchange of Control and How is it Accomplished?
Positive exchange is a simple method of verbally and visually transferring primary responsibility of the flight controls of an aircraft between two or more pilots. In many general aviation aircraft, the two pilots (CFI and student, for example) sit in a side-by-side arrangement, each with his own yoke (or stick) and access to the throttle, flaps, spoilers, gear, etc. In the case of a student pilot learning to fly, the flight instructor will demonstrate a maneuver then say, “Your controls.” To this, the student responds, “My controls.” The pilot relinquishing control will then look at the other pilot to verify the message was received and he is actually on the controls. This last part is necessary because task saturation and stress can cause a pilot to repeat a message almost robotically and not follow through with the required action.
In gliders and other aircraft with a tandem (front and back) seating arrangement, or even old open cockpit biplanes for that matter, the process can be modified slightly. For example, in gliders, the instructor is most often sitting in the back seat. The instructor will announce, “My controls.” The student will reply, “Your controls,” then lift one or more hands up so it is visible to the instructor the message was received. This lifting and showing one’s hands must trace its origins to the earlier days of open cockpits and radial engines. During those times, intercom radios were few and far between – or simply unreliable. The instructors would jostle the control stick to get the attention of the student and the student would raise his hands to show the controls had been transferred.
Should You Brief Positive Exchange of Control Before Every Flight?
Whether learning to fly or taking a trip with a fellow rated pilot, we recommend briefing positive exchange before every flight, then being diligent to follow through with the process. In the case of two rated pilots flying together, one of the pilots will most certainly be the “legal PIC” for the flight. That pilot most likely is legally responsible for the aircraft and/or has the highest rating or most time in type. It is especially important that when briefing any potential inflight emergency, positive exchange be included. Having two pilots trying to fly the airplane at the same time can be just as bad as having nobody do it.
Air France 447 is an unfortunate example of two pilots fighting for the controls during an emergency situation. You can read all about that mishap in Understanding Air France 447 by Palmer.
Disclaimer: This post is not legal advice, flight instruction, or ground instruction. For answers to questions specific to your situation and experience, consult a flight instructor in your area.
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