Staying current for IFR—with six approaches, some holding and course interceptions within the preceding six months—isn’t that hard for the active instrument pilot. When you enter engine replacements in your logbook instead of hours, you probably don’t need much in the way of practice. But the guy or gal who’s lucky to get their wings wet in some actual once or twice a year has a different challenge. Somewhere in the middle between the two extremes is where most instrument-rated pilots find themselves, of course. Regardless, even the ace of the base needs to go out occasionally and practice a few things, if for no other reason than to get through the next check ride.
We’ve long maintained that putting two pilots in charge of a single-pilot aircraft is one of aviation’s most dangerous activities. Unless there’s a clear division of authority and responsibilities before leaving the ground, there’s a strong chance someone’s going to do something on the flight to surprise the other. And airborne surprises usually are unpleasant. How to brief the two-pilot instrument training hop? Who should be in charge of what? Let’s explore.
Choosing your Safety Pilot
There are as many schools of thought regarding who is the ideal safety pilot as there are pilots needing one. Of course, to be legal for instrument currency, the safety pilot should be rated and current in the aircraft’s class and category. Ideally, he or she also should be familiar with the aircraft, plus know the local area well enough to understand the airspace, the approaches and anticipate the inevitable gotchas. Finally, he or she also should be someone familiar to you, either a CFI who worked with you through your training or a pilot friend.
Why not grab the first available CFI at the local FBO? It could work, especially if you’re up for the challenge of not knowing how he or she flies. But other issues can rear up, including who’s serving as pilot-in-command and whether the FAA will agree with you at an enforcement hearing. Too, a CFI may have liability concerns, especially if you’re not known to them, which can raise all kinds of issues over who’s in charge. (Hint: We think you should be in charge at all times. After all, it’s your airplane and your proficiency we’re talking about.)
Finally, of course, the safety pilot you choose should be comfortable with the planned operation. If you’re going out on a severe-clear day, that’s usually not an issue. But if you’re launching in 200/1 to go shoot approaches, he or she might not like your choice of weather. In such conditions, you don’t legally need a safety pilot, but it’s rarely a bad idea. Regardless, one should be able to take over as PIC at any time during the flight.
The questions of who will be PIC need to be resolved before the prop turns. But that’s not the biggest challenge here. Instead, we’re probably talking about two pilots who have spent the vast majority of their time aloft in single-pilot operations. Deciding who’s in charge is one part of the battle; deciding what to do and when to do it is another.
Yes, by all means, I’m talking about the flight’s plan—where you’re going, what you’re going to do, how long you plan the flight to last—but you also need to explore what each pilot’s role will be, especially in the event the safety pilot needs to take over for some reason.
First and foremost, you should agree on what conditions constitute sufficient reason for the safety pilot to take the controls, and how. Agree on the phraseology, for one, then agree on how the aircraft controls will be exchanged. You also will want to discuss how to return control to the left-seater when the situation giving rise to the exchange is resolved.
Secondly, you also need to agree on terminology regarding traffic conflicts. Some safety pilots might take their role a bit too seriously, calling out traffic that’s really not a concern. That can be distracting to the left-seater and doesn’t help him or her focus on the training you’re there to obtain. Yes, there’s an argument that ATC will be giving you similar traffic alerts when in the clag, but there will be much less traffic to deal with on an IMC day than a sunny Saturday afternoon. Who will handle communications is always another issue when two experienced instrument pilots get together for training. As long as you agree on what’s communicated, it doesn’t really matter.
A final preflight briefing item might include the trainee discussing with the safety pilot those items on which he or she needs to focus during the flight. For example, if I’ve been having an issue managing the autopilot or ignoring engine gauges while focusing on the flight instruments, the safety pilot should know that and be encouraged to keep one eye out the window and the other on what I’m doing.
Ultimately, how the two pilots work out their individual responsibilities will depend on the aircraft, the airspace and what the trainee is trying to achieve on the flight. Regardless, both pilots need to agree on the overall plan but cheerfully admit there will be things they forgot to discuss and resolve to work out any problems or disagreements on the ground after the flight.
Flying The Plan
It’s said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. After that, improvisation and luck come into play. The same can be said for flying with a safety pilot who has his or her ideas of how the flight should be conducted. Ideally, these issues are resolved on the ground before takeoff, but they still can rear their ugly heads once airborne. Even so, traffic, weather, ATC and other considerations can conspire against even the most-prepared trainee and safety pilot to shred their well-designed plan. What to do?
Ideally, you’d have at least one back-up plan, and can move smoothly into it. If you’re planning multiple ILSes at Big City Regional, but the opposite runway is in use and ATC isn’t about to let you in against the flow, you need a back-up. Again, this is something that should have been discussed with the right-seater on the ground.
Once back on the ground with the airplane secured, it’s time for a debriefing session. Both pilots should be contributing, with the right-seater offering a critique of the pilot’s skills and making suggestions on what he or she might want to concentrate next time. You both should pick a spot where charts and tablet computers can be spread out, or even a portable GPS track can be replayed. In our experience, the bar closest to the airport usually is an ideal venue for this necessary after-action discussion.
Per the checklist at right, the safety pilot should keep some sort of records as to what you did, what went well and what didn’t. But that record isn’t for tacking up on the FBO’s bulletin board. Instead, it’s to ensure you both remember what happened, when it happened and what the outcome was. You both need to listen to each other’s critique and learn from it.
Both pilots have responsibilities during the debrief: The left-seater needs to listen to what the safety pilot saw and heard, and take any criticism in a constructive manner. Meanwhile, the right-seater needs to hear the thought process and decision-making from the left seat, both of which can be educational and instructive. And there’s always a next time you might fly with this left-seater, so you’ll be even better prepared if you pay attention.
Instrument practice with a safety pilot isn’t dangerous, but it can be more challenging than simply boring solo holes. A little planning goes a long way toward improving the experience for both pilots.