Right Seat Tips

A right-seater can be a help or a hindrance. Talk about mutual expectations and stick with them.


General aviation is just as prone to pithy sayings as any other worthwhile endeavor. When it comes to managing risk and defining the top three riskiest things weve seen, they include taking off with air in the fuel tanks, a private pilot with a #2 Phillips screwdriver and two pilots trying to fly the same airplane at the same time.

While statistics and common sense bear out the fact two pilots up front enhances safety, there remain numerous instances when this has not proven true. Not


surprisingly, after accidents with two pilots onboard, the actions of the PIC get the most scrutiny when fault is being assigned. Yet several accident scenarios reveal the non-flying pilot more likely than not had an opportunity to intervene and prevent the mishap. With that in mind, lets look at ways to stay in the game from the right seat.

A Likely Scenario

To see where the weak points may lie, lets review a scenario of a generally competent pilot hopping into the right seat of a complex airplane flown by a pilot friend. Since they have flown together before, not a lot is said before the flight about division of responsibility or the right-seat pilots duties. The flight proceeds uneventfully until a balked landing results in a quick runway change due to a strong crosswind. Added to the mix at this busy GA field is a traffic call-out by the tower.

Because of the strong tailwind on downwind, the base to final results in a lower-than-normal altitude. Power is added. Over the runway, both pilots are focused on the gusty wind. The beeping in the flare is dismissed by the right-seat pilot as the stall warning since hes unfamiliar with the gear horns sound. Touchdown is unusually abrupt-because its on the prop rather than the rubber. Rollout without the gear down is shorter than normal.

In the professional ranks, crew resource management (CRM) is employed to instill checklist discipline and ensure cross-checks are made to prevent gear-up landings. The right seater is not just along for the ride. Not so with the typical $100-hamburger run. There, the dynamics between the pilots, who may rarely fly together, or where its the first flight in this particular airplane for the co-pilot, are potentially more challenging than a crewed jet charter flight into Aspen at night. Does the second pilot even have a role? To what extent can the PIC rely upon his newly assigned first officer? Add to this the distraction of questions from the right seat or a quick let-me-show-you-this from the left seat, and the opportunity for a dropped ball increases dramatically.

Communication is Key…

If youre the one strapping on the right seat, what should you do? Even before adjusting the harness, discuss the flight with the PIC, whether its just around the pattern or an IFR cross-country. Fundamentally, one question must be answered: What, if anything, will be your role? If the PIC wants help, define specifically what it will be. It could range from handling the radios and navigation to just being an extra set of eyes. Without this basic understanding, confusion can creep in. You want to make sure the PIC knows what exactly you will be doing and what you wont be doing (i.e., raising or dropping the gear).

For example, if the PIC wants assistance reading the checklist, is that for the entire flight or just the start-up? If checklist duties are assigned to the co-pilot, however, it may be worth keeping the duty to call for the checklist on the PIC (as is done in commercial ops). The PIC may not remember the checklist if its not on his lap as usual. Know where the baton is so theres no confusion about passing it along or getting a specific task done.

Communication must also continue throughout the flight. When considering a more-experienced right-seat pilot, theres a delicate balance between running the show and asking only pertinent questions to avoid being a distraction. As for distractions, find out what may be helpful to your PIC. Would he or she find it helpful to have the airspeeds called out on the takeoff roll or final approach to flare? When asking questions, be mindful of the PICs workload at the time-can the questions wait? Maintaining a sterile cockpit until cruise is also good practice in the Part 91 world, just as it is in commercial ops.

…So is Discipline

A second general area is developing discipline to stay plugged into the game and not just be a right-seat spectator. If youre going to participate in the flight, that means doing the prep as if you were going to be PIC, not just showing up and climbing in. For instance, do your own weather brief and know the pertinent Notams and latest Pireps. Review the planned route and become familiar with key fixes and airspace. How many Class B incursions could have been avoided if the right-seat pilot was watching airspace boundaries and not just the scenery?

Next, familiarize yourself with the aircrafts key operating speeds. It takes just a few minutes to peruse the POH for that key info. This avoids the bad practice of asking the PIC at what speed he likes to rotate while halfway down the runway on takeoff. Learn the profile to be flown, i.e., power settings, rotation and climb-out speeds, as well as gear- and flaps-up points, among others. Similarly, know the aircrafts killer items, such as fuel pump on or off for takeoff, flaps up or down, mixture rich or leaned. Id also want to know the best-glide speed in case of an engine failure on takeoff and whats a safe turn-back altitude. Not only do these questions plug you in, but they serve as a good reminder to the PIC, who may not have processed them for a while.

During the flight, stay plugged in. It can be tempting to fiddle with the cutting-edge avionics or surf the XM stations, but dont allow that to distract from the basics. As a corollary, dont move or touch anything without asking the PIC first. The first time that rule was imposed on me by my partner in the airplane we owned, my reaction was, “Hey, thats a little harsh; Ive flown this thing before.” But it can save some annoyances later on like keying the mic on the wrong frequency because it got switched prematurely.

Lastly, double check the PICs math. Keep an eye on the airspeed indicator at critical times like the climb-out and base-to-final. Double check that the right fixes were loaded into the flight plan as well as the right altitude bugged and MDA or DH identified. In the same way, keep an eye on first base if the PICs preoccupied. If his head is in the cockpit going through a checklist or entering a waypoint, keep your focus outside for traffic or, if IMC, on the glass or gauges. You may also be able to slow the game down if the PIC is getting rushed or stressed. Thats the time to offer to take the plane while he focuses on the next task, or suggest a time out such as a delaying vector or a few orbits.

False Sense of Security

Be mindful as well that your presence as a more experienced pilot riding shotgun does not lull the low-time or non-proficient PIC to get in over his or her head. Its worth reminding the PIC that he needs to be comfortable with the mission and weather as if he were flying by it by himself. Ive noticed there can be a tendency for a left-seat pilot to defer to higher-time right-seat pilots judgment.

I recall flying approaches a few winters ago with a well-qualified CFI-I in the right seat. Having been on top most of the flight, we started picking up ice on our second to last approach to an airport less than 10 miles from our final destination at which we would shoot an ILS to about 400 feet. After a low-approach and vector to home base, the ice was accumulating at noticeable clip. On final, full power was needed just to drive down the glideslope. The landing was made, but I would not have wanted to attempt a missed.

Looking back on the experience, I realized that had I been flying alone, I probably would have requested a higher altitude that would have put me on the tops of the icing layer until on final. Instead of thinking of a slam-dunk, I found myself unconsciously deferring to the higher-time CFI-I, who did not seemed phased by the ice build-up. Lesson learned: First make your own judgment calls, and then, if unsure, consult the pilot next to you. Dont get lulled into getting in too deep.

Finally, although rare, a number of accidents have occurred because the pilot flying recklessly pushed the safety envelope one too many times. In one tragic accident, a charter pilot with a reputation for busting speed limits flew up the wake of a Boeing 757 while cleared for a visual approach. Unfortunately, the failure to maintain a safe five-mile visual separation resulted in an insidious wake vortex encounter that rolled the Citation jet inverted before it plummeted into a warehouse. In that regrettable case, the first officer had little experience with either the captain or the aircraft, and was probably not in a position to alter the outcome.


What are your options when the PIC is off his game? First, dont be afraid to step up to the plate. Be assertive. Start with a question. Did you want to maintain 100 knots on final (rather than 69)? Another approach is to respectfully say, for example, “Check your airspeed, sir.” But, if pointing out to the PIC that hes a few knots from red line doesnt elicit an immediate response, the next step may be to say, “Im pulling the power back.” While this may breach protocol, doing so carries less of a consequence than a catastrophic upset. Not getting invited back for another ride is a small price to pay. Query how many stall-spin accidents could have been avoided if the pilot in the right seat had lowered the nose a few degrees or added some power on base to final?

In my years of flying, Ive only found it necessary to intervene on a few occasions. One occurred during climb-out in a Cessna 172 after a hot-day balked landing to a short strip at the bottom of rising, tree-lined terrain. With flaps still deployed on the go-around, little progress was being made getting up the proverbial hill, and the PICs slowing the airplane below VX was not helping matters. After saying, “we need to get the flaps up,” to get rid of the drag with no discernible reaction, my next move was to declare I was bringing up the flaps and ensuring the nose was pitched no higher. As we gained speed and jettisoned the drag, climb performance returned. Had I not intervened, I fully expected to have flown up the street of the new subdivision plopped down off the departure end of the runway.


Riding right seat can be very rewarding for most of us, especially when the mission is training and we have an active role. But even when were sitting on our hands, watching a skilled pilot ply his craft, we need to be mindful of the proper etiquette our seat imposes, And we need to make sure the communication lines are open-there can be a huge gulf between the two chairs.

While its ultimately the PIC who gets tagged with an error in the final incident or accident report, as in baseball many errors are due to a bad throw or other lead-up event. Thats why keeping plugged in while flying the right seat is critical. Like other team sports, ensuring that the key player in the cockpit avoids an error can mean more than just losing a game.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here