As a flight instructor once told me, your private pilot certificate isn't just your license to fly. It is your license to learn. One way you can continue your education as a private pilot, and log some extra flight time while you're at it, is by flying as a safety pilot for an instrument rated pilot.
A safety pilot must be onboard an aircraft whenever the flying pilot is wearing one of the many devices that obstructs the flying pilot's outside view to simulate instrument meteorological conditions, referred to as being "under the hood."
What constitutes a safety pilot? For that, we turn to the regulations. 14 CFR 91.109(c) states: "No person may operate a civil aircraft in simulated instrument flight unless: (1) 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. (2) 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..."
The FAA considers the safety pilot a required flight crewmember in this scenario (he or she is performing see-and-avoid duties necessary to the safety of the simulated instrument flight), so the safety pilot must also have a current medical certificate, as defined in 14 CFR 61.3(c).
In addition to the regulations, from a safety standpoint the safety pilot should ideally be familiar with the flight's surroundings. A VFR-only pilot acting as safety pilot on a dark night with little or no visibility, or who is unfamiliar with the local area, is not an ideal candidate.
Think of acting as safety pilot as being relative to your own flying skills. As a VFR-only pilot, while serving as a safety pilot on a completely dark night with no visual references, would you be able to notice if your flying pilot in the left seat descended below the minimum altitude or steered the aircraft into higher terrain? Remember, the safety pilot is ultimately responsible to see and avoid all traffic and obstructions. This is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
If a situation should arise where other air traffic becomes a concern or your flight may not adhere to FAA regulations (for example, maintaining VFR rules for cloud clearances), you must either give instructions to your flying pilot or assume control of the aircraft, depending on the severity of the incident.
Before you both strap into your aircraft, you should also pre-flight yourselves. Make sure you and your flying pilot are on the same page before taking to the air. Discuss your route, weather conditions, who will handle radio communications, and make sure you both agree on a clear procedure for positive transfer of aircraft controls.
Years ago after I received my private pilot certificate, I had my first opportunity to be a safety pilot for an instrument rated friend who needed to shoot some instrument approaches. When my friend Greg asked if I was interested, I jumped at the chance. I'd be able to explore an exciting part of aviation that, as a VFR-only pilot, I had not yet experienced, and log some extra flight time as a bonus.
Greg had installed a new panel GPS unit approved for instrument approaches. Our flight on this clear Saturday afternoon took us north from the warm desert floor of Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona to the cool pines of the Mogollon Rim and Payson, Arizona (KPAN). We practiced a holding pattern and shot our first GPS approach.
From there, we headed northwest toward the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona (KSEZ) for our second GPS approach of the day. Two helicopters were practicing their own approaches into the field, making it a challenge to keep an eye trained on them while looking for other aircraft in the more familiar traffic pattern for fixed-wing aircraft.
We returned to the busy Phoenix airspace for another instrument approach at Deer Valley Airport (KDVT) in Arizona, one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. A third GPS approach back at our home base was followed by two VOR approaches at Williams Gateway Airport (KIWA) east of Phoenix. We then returned to our home field in the late afternoon, nearly three hours after beginning our flight.
An often-asked question for safety pilots is how to log your flight time while acting as a safety pilot for another pilot flying "under the hood". The answer is not straight-forward, and it will depend on the circumstances of your flight. To point you in the right direction for the answers, please visit the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) - Logbooks and Logging Time page, which reviews a number of related areas of the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs.
Another source to review is the Kevin Morisette, CFII: How to Log Safety Pilot Time page at www.kevincfi.com.
My first mission as safety pilot taught me some valuable aviation lessons. The primary job of safety pilot, as stated earlier, cannot be emphasized enough. Keep your head on a swivel and watch for traffic. As we made our approach into the busy Phoenix airspace, the landing traffic at Deer Valley and Sky Harbor International Airport (KPHX) made for some exciting yet busy moments.
Always be vigilant in your traffic scan, especially in congested airspace. I learned I should be just as vigilant in scanning for traffic on my own flights far from such busy airspace. If something is obstructing your view, don't hesitate to move around in your seat to create a better view for yourself.
As I became more familiar with the various instrument approach patterns Greg was flying, it dawned on me that knowing the general layout of these approaches would help make me more cognizant of where I may expect to see potential traffic when flying into these airports in the future.
Some instrument approaches may even extend into a busy practice area, as was the case with a VOR approach into Williams Gateway Airport and the nearby practice area I would transit on occasion. As a result, I became more aware of where else I should look for potential traffic conflicts whenever I transitioned through that practice area.
Flying as safety pilot is an excellent way to expand your aviation horizons, and it's a great introduction to instrument flying. Best of all, it's fun.
An easier way to read NTSB aviation accident reports.