IFR Fix: 'Awfully close to the houses'

September 23, 2013

Two retired airline pilots were shooting instrument approaches and taking turns acting as safety pilot. On the day’s last approach, something didn’t look right.

"I noticed that we looked a bit low for our distance to the airport and looked at the chart, and saw that he had misread the altitude for that segment," the safety pilot recounted in an Aviation Safety Reporting System narrative. "So we were 900 feet low, and neither of us caught it until it was too late."

Two pilots, both  instrument trainees, were flying along an airway when air traffic control pointed out that the flight had drifted off course. The pilot flying appeared confused, and the safety pilot’s inoperative push-to-talk switch made communicating with ATC difficult.

“I believe this deviation was a minor issue that could have been quickly sorted out with ATC if I could have spoken directly with them instead of having to explain to the other pilot what I needed him to convey to ATC," the safety pilot told ASRS.

Whether two instrument trainees are practicing together or two ATPs are flying jointly to meet recency-of-experience requirements, safety pilots keep many instrument pilots current. Sometimes they also keep them safe.

Not just by "looking for traffic." A safety pilot is safest when armed with IFR situational awareness—a notion that can be obscured by the fact that a safety pilot needs a private pilot certificate, appropriate category and class ratings, and a medical—but no instrument rating.

And what if a verbal assist isn’t enough? Is your safety pilot capable of some quick evasive maneuvering, or a recovery, performed from that unfamiliar seat? Spending a few minutes on right-seat familiarization might quicken response time if your safety pilot candidates lack experience there.

The retired high-timer who missed the other pilot’s 900-foot altitude error gained insights into the safety pilot’s assignment, and even pondered the utility limits of simulated instrument flight.

"Awfully close to the houses, and we were sure glad there were no towers out there!" the safety pilot wrote. "Lessons learned include how easy it is to misread a chart and go down to minimums one intersection early; how even the safety pilot has duties beyond looking for traffic; and how rusty you get just staying current when you don't fly real IFR a lot."