Michael, a commercial pilot from New Jersey, writes: “In fixed-wing airplanes that require two pilots, the captain sits on the left. Why is that?”
Because it’s easier for left-handed pilots, like me, to fly from the left seat, and we all know that lefties make the best pilots. Next question…
What..? What’s that? You say 90% of the pilot population disagrees with me?
Oh. Well, I guess there must be some other explanation, then. So let’s dig into it.
Going back to the beginning, the world’s first ever two-seat airplane was the Wright Model A from 1906. It featured side-by-side seating and the pilot sat on the left. He had to. There was only one set of flight controls on the Model A, and they were on the left.
Of course, what side the lead pilot sits on matters more when we get to airplanes with dual controls. When did that happen?
Actually, a single Wright A, the one used in Europe for training, was set up with dual controls. The next dual-controlled plane was probably the 1911 Thomas, followed by an assortment of tandem military trainers.
But appropriately enough, the flight deck as we think of it — with two side-by-side pilots with identical controls — first makes its appearance at the birth of the airliner in 1913: In the Sikorsky Russky Vityaz, even though it wasn’t always flown by a two-man crew.
Which seat did the pilot use? Historic photos show a painfully young Igor Sikorsky himself sitting left seat.
So why did the Wrights choose to put their controls on the left? Why did Sikorsky choose the left seat when either would do?
Many fogged-in hangar pilots say it started with the Wrights, and that everyone else copied them and that they in turn did it simply because in the United States a car driver sits on the left, and the Wrights were used to the idea of left-side control.
Well, that’s putting the cart before the horse, or at least the modern car before the cart.
Sure, since colonial times, we’ve driven on the right side of the road, but this actually led to most wagons and buggies being driven from the right side to avoid falling into the barrow pit — a bigger risk than hitting the on-coming traffic.
Mirroring this, most early cars had the steering wheel on the right-hand side until the Ford Model-T — with its odd-ball arrangement of the steering wheel on the left — grew to dominate the market. But that started in 1908, two years after the Wright Model A took to the skies with the pilot on the left. So there must be some other reason…
Other folks say that the command pilot sits on the left because the left turning tendency of airplanes makes left turns easier, and are therefore preferred, and you have a better view from the left seat in left-hand turns. While that might be true much farther down the evolutionary line of airplanes, it’s not true of Wright planes, which had counter-rotating props. So there must be some other reason…
A third school of thought is that most pilots are right handed, and that the dominate hand should be free for the prop, mix, throttle, radio, as the yoke, some say, requires less finesse. But early planes “handled” differently than today’s: Some required one hand each on a pair of control sticks, others required a two-handed grip on a large car-like control wheel. So there must be some other reason…
Could it be that Orville, Wilbur, and Igor were lefties? It’s easier for us lefties to fly from the left seat. Nope. History tells us that all three were right handed. So there must be some other reason…
And I don’t know what it is. But I do know, logically, that the common “theories” don’t hold water. Sorry about that.
Meanwhile, speaking of right and left, next time on Questions from the Cockpit, we look at an enlightened question that helps you tell your left from your right.
William E. Dubois is a commercial pilot, ground instructor, and prefers to sit on the left side of the cockpit.