Technique: Vital function

How to be a safe safety pilot

May 1, 2009

It sounds like the easiest pilot gig on the planet. Climb aboard and watch for traffic while the other pilot logs time flying under simulated instrument conditions. There could be a bit of stick time in it for you while your companion dons or removes the view-limiting device. Perhaps you’ll pitch in and do some radio work. Otherwise, you’re along for the ride, happy to accept the invitation to watch someone fly while providing him or her with the opportunity to maintain instrument proficiency, or practice for an upcoming instrument-rating checkride.

That’s a typical scenario when an appropriately rated pilot exercises the provisions of FAR 91.109(b) permitting simulated instrument flight when “the other control seat is occupied by a safety pilot who possesses at least a private pilot certificate with category and class ratings appropriate to the aircraft being flown,” and when “the safety pilot has adequate vision forward and to each side of the aircraft, or a competent observer in the aircraft adequately supplements the vision of the safety pilot.”

But there can be a lot more to acting as safety pilot than traffic spotting. That alone may be an adequate description of a safety pilot’s job if all that’s planned is for the pilot flying to log some time in straight-and-level simulated instrument flight. But if a rigorous workout of maneuvers, holding, and instrument approaches is contemplated, a safety pilot could be put to a stricter test. Both the pilot flying and the safety pilot should be up to the tasks they plan to tackle. That is to say, the flight crew should be well matched to the mission.

Almost any pilot with friends who share the aviation passion may make use of the regulatory provisions for practicing instrument flight in visual conditions. Or a visit to the airport on a day off leads to an introduction, and shortly thereafter you find yourself seated in an unfamiliar aircraft preparing to serve as safety pilot for someone you hardly know. That could be a prelude to a pleasant experience or a rude surprise.

No matter how the flight comes about, don’t just pile aboard and head out. Conduct a detailed preflight briefing covering how and when control will be transferred, division of communication responsibilities, emergencies, and a task list for the flight. If the safety pilot has no experience with instrument flight beyond the basics learned in private pilot training, the pilot flying (who also may or may not be instrument rated) should take some time to explain the fundamentals of any holding pattern entries and holds, instrument approaches, minimum descent altitudes, decision heights, and missed approaches that will be flown. Brief an inexperienced safety pilot on the use of standard-rate turns. Don’t ask for more help than the individual can give you; keep the mission suited to the personnel aboard.

The need to transfer controls could arise in one of two varieties: planned and unplanned transfers. A moment of flying by the safety pilot is in order when the pilot flying dons or takes off a view-limiting device, copies a clearance, consults a chart, or selects an approach plate. But what if there’s an emergency such as engine failure, especially at low altitude? That’s no time for the first discussion of “who’s got the airplane?” Establish a guideline, such as an altitude below which the safety pilot will take over unless the pilot flying has resumed visual contact with the ground.

This NTSB summary of a flight in a Cessna 172N that departed Cedar City, Utah, on August 17, 2005, is a good place to start thinking about how to handle emergencies on instrument training flights. “According to the private pilot, he had established a positive climb rate and transferred the flight controls to the safety pilot so he could put on his hood. Approximately 500 feet agl, the engine lost power and the safety pilot continued flying the airplane…. According to a report submitted by the safety pilot, he tried adjusting mixture and power but nothing worked to restore power. The airplane touched down to the west of Runway 2, at a 45-degree angle to the paved runway surface. According to the private pilot, the airplane touched down in the dirt short of the runway, bounced, then touched the dirt again. When the nose wheel touched down, it sank in the dirt and the airplane flipped upside down and skidded to a stop on the runway.” A truly safe safety pilot remains ready to preserve aircraft control in a pinch, and remembers to look for off-airport emergency landing sites as the flight proceeds.

Prospective safety pilots take note: There’s always the possibility of a pilot-induced emergency if the pilot flying becomes disoriented or botches a maneuver. Remember that a safety pilot who takes control of the aircraft usually must do so from the probably unfamiliar right seat. Be on guard against loss of control during low-altitude transitions from descents to climbs, such as on a missed approach. Frequently, those climbs are climbing turns.

Working to keep a flight from descending dangerously below minimums on an approach (it helps to call out altitudes on descent) should be part of the safety pilot’s duty. Work out a clear understanding of each pilot’s role when the approach is to terminate in a landing, or a missed approach during which the pilot flying does not remove the view-limiting device to fly the transition, or when the pilot flying removes the view-limiting device to fly the transition visually. Set up a protocol of callouts and responses for unplanned safety pilot intervention; don’t take off unless both pilots are confident that the safety pilot is capable of providing the required assistance without exceeding aircraft structural load limits.

OK, suppose you are a safety pilot and you suddenly find yourself with a maxed-out cockpit companion and a handful of distressed aircraft. A short review of how to recover from unusual flight attitudes is in order. Two recovery methods apply. With the aircraft in a nose-high attitude, you must avoid a stall-spin scenario while restoring the aircraft to a level, unbanked flight attitude at a safe airspeed. The recovery sequence is power (add), pitch (reduce), and bank (level the wings). The priorities are different if the aircraft is entering an unusual attitude nose down. Now you must avoid a power-on spiral. Prompt, gentle corrective action is needed to avoid inducing high load factors or exceeding critical airspeeds. The recovery sequence is power (idle), bank (level the wings), and pitch (gently increase). Only then, add power and resume normal cruise flight.

As with control transfers, you can break down communication chores into two varieties: ATC communications about the IFR procedures you are flying, and traffic-related exchanges. A good division of labor here is to let the pilot flying handle communications related to the vectors, clearances, and other instructions you receive. The safety pilot is the flight’s eyes outside, so it is efficient for the safety pilot to acknowledge traffic advisories and report traffic in sight.

When practicing approaches to a nontowered airport, your approach may place you in opposition to aircraft departing the same runway or flying the airport traffic pattern. Don’t push it too far before breaking off the simulated instrument work and joining the local flow. Do everyone a favor and make your initial call-up on the common traffic advisory frequency early in your approach. (A common complaint of pilots flying the pattern at nontowered airports is straight-in instrument flights that pop up without warning on short final.) Good traffic-spotting and communications skills, combined with situational awareness, will enhance safety for everyone involved. On that note, use your landing light, day or night.

For a safety pilot, the big payoff of riding along is the opportunity to observe and learn. It’s common for a noninstrument-rated safety pilot to reflect on the experience as a time when he or she came to a clearer understanding of air traffic control’s function of sequencing and separating aircraft operating under instrument flight rules. Avoid the temptation to become so mesmerized by the strange and wonderful procedures being rehearsed before your eyes that you neglect your duty to observe the see-and-avoid mandates of visual flight. Even if all your flights are routine, and all you ever do is spot traffic and talk on the radio, understand that you play a vital function, facilitating the training and proficiency that keeps you, your fellow pilots, and their passengers safe.

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. A pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990, he resides in Maine.