That was the question recently posed to, and answered by, the FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel in a April 13, 2012 Memorandum. The short answer is yes, “a pilot may apply for an ATP with fewer than 250 hours of flight time as pilot in command.”
The Memorandum initially observed that under FAR 61.159(a)(4) “an applicant for an ATP certificate must have ‘250 hours of flight time in an airplane as a pilot in command, or as second in command performing the duties of pilot in command while under the supervision of a pilot in command, or any combination thereof[.]'” However, the Memorandum goes on to explain the FAA’s previous clarification that “a copilot employed by a certificated air carrier may credit … that time during which he performs all the functions of the pilot-in-command including landings and takeoffs, en route flying, low approaches, and ground functions.” In order to obtain that type of credit, the flight time would need to be recorded and certified by the PIC under whose supervision the airman was performing the PIC functions.
This is similar to a situation governed by FAR 61.51(e)(l)(iv) which allows an airman with a commercial pilot or ATP certificate that is appropriate to the category and class of aircraft to log PIC time while the airman is performing “the duties of pilot in command while under the supervision of a qualified pilot in command” as long as the pilot performs the duties as part of an approved PIC training program. But the Memorandum cautions not to confuse or misapply these two regulations.
The Memorandum concludes by stating “if an SIC is not participating in an approved PIC training program in accordance with the terms of § 61.51(e)(l)(iv), the time performing the duties of PIC under the supervision of a PIC must be logged as SIC time that may be relied upon for meeting the requirement in § 61.159(a)(4).” Of course, if the SIC holds category, class, and type ratings appropriate to the aircraft that he or she is flying, and not just an SIC limited type rating, then this isnt’ an issue because the airman may still log PIC time under FAR 61.51(e)(l)(i) provided that the airman is the sole manipulator of the controls the aircraft.
This Memorandum highlights the fact that two regulations may characterize a pilot’s actions and flight time differently, depending upon the regulations and the circumstances to which they are applied. In this situation, using time to qualify for a certificate may be different than actually being able to log the time as PIC flight time. You need to review the regulations carefully to determine how, or whether, they apply to your particular situation.