Along For The Ride

Simulating instrument flight puts more responsibility on a safety pilot than he or she may be prepared.


Keeping current is one of the downsides of earning the Instrument rating. Even if our flying activity is above-average, logging all of the required maneuvers in actual IMC during six-months of normal operations is next to impossible for many pilots. Thankfully, the FAAs recent-experience rules allow us to simulate instrument conditions even in good VFR as long as we have a safety pilot along.

The safety-pilot concept isnt new: Pilots have been doubling up to gain experience and practice procedures since the first two-seat airplanes. The FAAs minimum requirements for safety pilots basically say he or she must be qualified to serve as pilot in command of the aircraft under the conditions in which it is flown. In other words, for the instrument practice to be legal, the safety pilot must have ratings, endorsements and recent experience qualifying him or her to serve as the flights pilot in command. The idea, of course, is for the safety pilot to be fully qualified to manipulate the controls if the need arises. As a result, not just anyone qualifies as a safety pilot.

The safety pilots responsibilities, then, go beyond merely being an extra set of eyes watching for traffic. Ideally, the safety pilot also is monitoring the flying pilots performance, ensuring he or she doesnt forget to put down the landing gear, doesnt descend too early or violate special use airspace, among other considerations. In a sense, the safety pilot becomes an instructor-without-portfolio.

Having served both as a safety pilot and the flying pilot for simulated instrument work, I know how easy it is for the right-seater to fall into a “along-for-the-ride” mentality, placing more faith in the left-seaters training and abilities than is warranted. We dont know if thats what happened in the skies over New Jersey one dark night two years ago.


On April 5, 2005, at 2203 Eastern time, a Piper PA-28R-201 Arrow III was destroyed when it collided with trees and terrain during an approach to the Cape May County Airport (WWD) in Wildwood, N.J. The two Private pilots aboard were fatally injured. Night visual conditions prevailed. The two pilots, both members of the same flying club, were practicing instrument approach procedures. An earlier hop had been flown on an IFR flight plan and clearance. After a dinner break, the airplane departed VFR; there was no record of contact with ATC.

In the left front seat was an Instrument-rated Private pilot with 334 hours total time. She had 100 hours of simulated instrument time, plus nine hours of actual instrument flying. She had logged 1.7 hours of night flying in the 90 days prior to the accident.

Another Private pilot was in the right seat, although he did not have an Instrument rating. He had 195 hours total time; there was no record of his recent flight experience at night.

Radar data reveals the airplane was attempting the Localizer Runway 19 approach procedure. The airplane flew to an intersection forming an initial approach fix, then continued past it for 30 seconds before turning to join the localizer. It then flew back and forth across the localizer centerline and descended to 1200 feet msl before passing abeam the final approach fix (FAF) to its east side.

After crossing abeam the FAF, the airplane entered a continuous descent averaging about 850 fpm and turned southwesterly toward the localizer centerline. At 22:03:51, the airplane crossed the localizer course centerline on that southwesterly heading at only 100 feet msl. Its position was about two miles north of the airport. At this point, radar contact was lost.

Weather reported at WWD less than 10 minutes before the accident included clear skies, 10 miles visibility, and wind from 190 degrees at 4 knots. The temperature was 48 degrees, and the dewpoint was 37 degrees. At the time of the accident, the moon was below the horizon.


All major airplane components were accounted for at the accident scene. The course from the wreckage to the airport was 187 degrees; the wreckage path was oriented about 259 degrees and was about 520 feet long. Adequate fuel was observed in both wing tanks; some 20 gallons were recovered from the accident site.

Investigators subsequently applied power to the airplanes avionics and the selected frequencies on the communication and navigation radios were read from their associated digital displays. The #1 navigation radio was tuned to the appropriate localizer frequency and the #2 nav was tuned to the VOR providing the holding fix for the missed approach procedure.

A handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver was discovered in the wreckage and was forwarded to the manufacturer for data retrieval. Data extracted from the GPS included a ground track coinciding with ATC radar records.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined the accidents probable cause to include the “flight crews failure to maintain terrain clearance while executing a practice published instrument approach in night visual meteorological conditions. A factor in the accident was the dark night.” In other words, two qualified pilots flew their airplane into the ground while fixating on an attempt to rejoin the localizer.

Given the dark, clear night, the safety pilot likely monitored the flights progress along the approach by keeping one eye on the airport and another on the left-seaters attempt to rejoin the localizer. What neither of them did was monitor the airplanes altitude, both having become engaged in trying to get back to the approachs centerline.

Since the left-seater was Instrument-rated and had almost twice as much experience, its easy to presume the right-seater deferred to her on judging the flights progress. Its also easy to presume both pilots had their heads down, monitoring the nav needle, and that the safety pilot was rooting for her to get back to the localizer. Essentially, the task of rejoining the localizer had become all-consuming at that point in the flight, involving both pilots.

The basic elements of this type of accident-descending below the minimum descent altitude on an instrument approach-are not that uncommon. Thats why we practice these and other procedures.

But the safety pilots role is to ensure the flights safe outcome. This means monitoring all aspects of the flight, especially those the pilot simulating IFR fails at, including its altitude. In this instance, the safety pilot should have had enough experience to recognize the lighted airports position put their airplane too low, too far out from the runway.


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