One of the hardest thing for most pilots with an instrument rating is staying current and even more importantly proficient. Pilots very quickly lose their IFR skills when they fly VFR or don’t fly often enough practicing instrument procedures. All of these can be helped by using a safety pilot who can look outside for traffic, terrain, and obstacles while you practice instrument approaches in VMC. There are a couple caveats. When practicing approaches at non-towered airports there are three critical things you must do. See our chapter on Practicing IFR Approaches for the three things to keep you safe at non-towered airports. The other thing is knowing what a safety pilot is for and more importantly what they should never do.
Let’s look at the job qualifications and job description of a safety pilot. Qualifications needed are the defined in 91.109 and 61.3 That means they must have a current medical and the necessary certificates and ratings for that category and class of aircraft. If Dave is looking for a safety pilot in his Cessna 421 which is high performance twin airplane he has two choices. Bill who is a 100hr private pilot aircraft single and multi-engine land ratings has never had an instrument rating with a current medical is qualified to be a safety pilot. Paul a 17,000 hour ATP with ASEL and AMEL and a CFI/CFII is not qualified to be safety pilot since his last medical certificate was denied. Remember it’s not about experience, it’s about the ability meet the requirements of 91.109 and 61.3. The only responsibility of a safety pilot is to look outside and maintain the safety of the flight. They are not supposed to teach. That’s right, a safety pilot is not supposed to teach you what they learned, work the GPS or radio, or even show you cool new tricks on ForeFlight. A pilot who focuses their entire attention is a better safety pilot.
This is where things go wrong and people with really good intentions can do more harm than good. One of the most common “asks” I see on Facebook is someone who is taking instruction towards getting their instrument rating and wants to know if any local pilot would like to be their safety pilot so they can meet the minimum hours required for the practical test without paying for an instructor and the safety pilot can build hours for free! This is a really bad idea for four reasons Primacy, reinforcing bad habits, the leaky bucket theory of learning and most importantly safety.
Primacy is a big problem in all of general aviation. See our chapter on Primacy=Old bad ideas for more information. The short version is that you will teach and preach what you learned even if it’s wrong. A classic example is that a safety pilot would “teach” an IFR student that you need to comply with all ATC instructions and check in to new frequencies as fast as you can. Check out the Telling ATC No? chapter in our upcoming book to see why both can cause problems. Why would the safety pilot “teach” that you have to check in as fast as you can? Because they were taught that early in their training.
As long as we’re discussing primacy let’s go on to bust a big and dangerous myth in GA. Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect. By using a safety pilot a student who makes errors while flying instrument maneuvers or approaches is allowed to reinforce and build on those bad habits while using a safety pilot. A qualified CFII would correct or more importantly prevent those actions before they become ingrained and much harder to fix later.
The third reason a safety pilot shouldn’t teach is because they aren’t trained and have never had their knowledge and expertise of the IFR tested. Do a google search for or click on the link, Dr Ivan Misner, The Leaky Bucket Syndrome of Learning. If a really great master instrument instructor trains a private pilot for their instrument rating, that student may absorb 70-80% of the knowledge. When in turn they try to pass it on to others as a safety pilot, maybe only 50% gets passed on along with a mixture of mistakes and misunderstandings.
The most important reason a safety pilot should not provide “tips and tricks” is simple. It’s a direct conflict of their responsibilities to have a clear and unobstructed view of outside the aircraft. The whole reason we have safety pilots is so that instrument rated and proficient pilots can keep their legal currency during simulated IMC while wearing foggles or a hood. This is only possible if the safety pilot is doing their only job and looking outside for traffic, terrain and obstacles. If they are heads-down in the cockpit, they are failing their primary duty. It takes a lot of training and experience to be a great instrument instructor and divide their attention as needed.
There are just as many social media posts from people that offer to be safety pilots. Let’s look at the following Facebook post and decide together if it’s really in the best interests of other pilots who are working on their instrument rating to take advantage of this offer.
If you’ve read the article above, you already know this is a bad idea and will not help the students that agree to fly with him. What I want to point out is that this pilot offering his free “services” is not trying to hurt anyone. I’m sure it comes from the best intentions and that he really is trying to help. Of course he’s also trying to build experience for his goals, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
So the good thing is what’s left has been unsaid to this point. Safety pilots are a great idea and should be used much more often! The commercial pilot above would be great for someone that already has their rating. They are absolutely one of the best ways to keep instrument rated and proficient pilots current and maintain those skills which deteriorate so fast when unused. The fastest way to lose your IFR skills is to not use them. The best safety pilots are two friends that help keep each other proficient and their skills sharp by flying at least once per week.
Remember safety pilots are great at looking outside and keeping the other pilots safe while they maintain the skills they already have. They should never be used as a substitute for qualified instruction.
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Gary “GPS” (Guy in the Pink Shirt) Reeves
8,000 hr+ ATP. Master CFI/CFII/ MEI
2019 FAA National CFI of the Year
Lead Rep FAAST