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Why Do Pilots Sit In The Left Seat?

There must be a good reason for it, right? There is, and we tracked it down.

Why do pilots sit in the left seat?
Why do pilots in command always sit on the left side of the plane? Or, in this case, on the right side of the helicopter?
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Background

It’s a beautiful day—the sky is clear, wind is calm, and you’re ready to go flying! Donning that sweet leather jacket your spouse gave you for Christmas, the one with all the aviation patches you think make you look all “Top Gun,” you complete your preflight, give a couple winks to some admiring kids nearby, and climb onboard your rocket to the sky. Even though there are two perfectly good front seats, you nestle into the one on the left. Normally, you don’t think anything of it, but for whatever reason, today it hits you—why do you always fly from the left? Why not the right? Curious, you text your buddy across the pond to see if they happen to do the reverse in England—because they’re weird like that with cars and all. But, as it turns out, they, too, are left-seat pilots. Go figure!

While you don’t want today’s perfect flying weather to slip away from you, you can’t shake the question and decide to ask the one person who always seems to know everything. 

“Alexa, why do pilots act as PIC from the left seat?” 

“My name is Siri, not Alexa. Shutting down phone now.” 

Whoops! Relieved you made the mistake with a virtual woman and not your wife, you decide to revisit the question with the real Alexa when you get home. 

As it turns out, though, she’s stumped as well (…and secretly always knew you liked her more than Siri). Surely, the answer can’t be that complex. So, you grab a coffee and head to the internet to look it up yourself. To your dismay, you discover that this—like so many things in the pilot community—is hotly debated. Some folks are even certain that it all goes back to the way soldiers held their swords in battle, while others swear on the Embry-Riddle flag that it’s all due to the design of early aircraft.

So, what is the truth?

Drive Left, Fly Left

In the United States, we sit in the left seat while driving and, since planes were first flown from American soil, it makes sense that’s why we started flying left seat. Boom! Case closed! 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As it turns out, even in the U.S., the earliest cars were designed with the steering wheels on the right, not the left. It wasn’t until the release of the Model T in 1908 that steering wheels were moved to the other side. By that point, the Wright brothers had already released the two-seater Model A (1907) with left seat-only controls. In other words, left-seat flying predates left-seat driving.

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That said, this theory can’t be completely shut down. It didn’t take long for the Wright brothers to realize the importance of redundancy in airplanes, as they released a new version of the Model A with a dual control system in late 1908. This version was equipped with a rudder control between the front seats and two elevator controls, one to the right of the right seat and one to the left of the left seat. PIC location was based on personal preference; some were more comfortable flying from the left seat, using their right hand to roll and left to pitch, while others preferred the reverse. 

 “As it turns out, even in the U.S., the earliest cars were designed with the steering wheels on the right, not the left.

Right-Hand Dominance

Since most people are right-hand dominant, it seems likely that most pilots would prefer to sit in the left seat in order to better navigate flight controls to the right. Perhaps the answer to this mystery is a simple matter of “majority rules,” and the left seat is where we settled as PIC. After all, even the Wright brothers were righties. However, early-model planes often required active, simultaneous use of both hands on the flight controls, making it unlikely that a pilot’s hand dominance would have had any real impact on their seating choice. 

More Right Rudder! 

Perhaps the real reason we fly left seat isn’t due to personal preferences but to the left-turning tendency of many airplanes. That’s right. It could all be Sir Isaac Newton’s fault! According to Newton’s Third Law, every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the right-turning direction of an airplane’s engine and propeller creates a force pulling the airplane to the left. This is known as torque, and it’s why CFIs are always hollering about “more right rudder.” Maybe we sit to the left because it makes it easier to counter the left-turning tendency. 

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Yet not all airplanes have this tendency. In fact, early Wright brothers models were actually equipped with counter-rotating propellers. If anything, they pulled more to the right than left, meaning that, for at least a small part of history, CFIs may have instead been screaming, “More left rudder!” 

The Truth…

If your head hurts now, you’re not alone! But the truth is near…

While torque may not dictate why we operate out of the left seat, it’s likely the reason most airports have left-hand traffic patterns for operations during VFR conditions. After all, if airplanes like to turn left, it makes sense to have traffic flow in that direction. So, the most likely conclusion here is that the left seat became that of the PIC simply because it offers the clearest view of the runway while navigating traffic patterns. The opposite is true for helicopter pilots—they act as PIC from the right seat because they are often directed into right-hand traffic patterns during VFR conditions. As with everything in aviation, it all comes down to safety. If you don’t believe me, just ask Siri! Oh, wait. She’s still not talking to you. PP

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