The Safety Pilot Controversy

The regulation that requires recent experience in order to exercise the privileges of an instrument rating mentions the possibility of using a ‘Safety Pilot‘… what exactly is a Safety Pilot? Who can be a Safety Pilot? Why would a Safety Pilot be necessary, and how can using the Safety Pilot rule get you into trouble?

Last week we looked at what it takes to maintain or regain IFR currency involving simulated IFR and a safety pilot. The instrument pilot will customarily use a view-limiting device (hood, foggles, etc.) to simulate instrument conditions while making these flights so that simulated instrument time can be logged. Clearly, there is a safety problem with that — if the instrument pilot is under the hood, he or she is not looking out the window for traffic. So the regulation allows for a second pilot — a Safety Pilot — to ride along and look out the window while the instrument pilot flies under the hood.

A Safety Pilot can be any pilot (but not a student pilot) who are themselves current to fly that airplane VFR. The Safety Pilot must be rated in the airplane being flown, had a Flight Review within 24 months, and made three takeoffs and landings within the past 90 days.

How it works: The Safety Pilot is another pilot who really is a friend that rides along looking for other airplanes. In this way the instrument-rated, but non-current pilot can get back their IFR currency and therefore their ability to fly in the clouds. When the flight has concluded, the regulations allow the non-current IFR pilot to log ‘pilot in command‘ time and use the flight and experiences on the flight toward maintaining IFR currency. No problem.

Can the Safety Pilot also log any flight time? The answer will start an argument in just about every hangar in the United States. The answer is also elusive if you ask an FAA inspector — because the intent of this regulation and the letter of this regulation are miles apart. The law’s intent is to allow the non-current, IFR pilot a safe way to regain currency. The benefit here is all to the IFR pilot. I believe the regulation writer did not intend to also give a benefit to the ride-along Safety Pilot, but depending on the way you interpret some other regulations, you can argue that it does.

Regulation 61.51(f)(2) says that a pilot can log ‘second in command‘ flight time whenever more than one pilot is required by ‘the regulations under which the flight is being conducted.’ If you link this regulation with 61.51(g)(3)(ii) — which says that when one pilot is flying VFR under the hood a second pilot (Safety Pilot) is required — you could claim that even a Cessna 152 requires two pilots when a Safety Pilot is required. Does that mean that even though everyone knows that a Cessna 152 really does not require two pilots, that in fact it does in this situation and therefore the Safety Pilot may also gain a benefit by logging second-in-command flight time?

This is an even greater stretch, but Regulation 61.51(e)(iii) does say that a person may log pilot-in-command flight time when they act as PIC in a situation where more than one pilot is required to meet the regulations that the flight is conducted under. But in order to do this, the pilot logging PIC time must also be the ‘sole manipulator‘ of the aircraft controls. I always thought that the sole manipulator would be the same person from start to finish of the flight — after all you really can’t have ‘dual manipulation‘ of the controls — that sounds like two pilots fighting over the aircraft controls. But can two pilots trade-off control during flight? Can two pilots switch back and forth during the flight each spending time as the ‘sole‘ manipulator and therefore sharing the PIC time? The regulations are just are not clear on this point and so the argument rages on.

Of course the implication of being able to log either PIC or SIC flight time as a Safety Pilot is clear. If you could do it, then one hour of flight time could be logged twice — once in each pilot’s logbook. The two pilots could each get an hour of flight time credit, but they could split the cost of renting or operating the airplane and effectively cut in half the cost of building flight time.

There are three things to consider here.
1. Regulation 61.51(g)(3) is the rule that mentions the Safety Pilot and in its opening statement it narrows down when a Safety Pilot can be used. The regulation says that: ‘for the purpose of logging instrument time to meet recent instrument experience requirements‘ a Safety Pilot is necessary. That seems to say that the only time a Safety Pilot can be used is when an instrument rated pilot is working to maintain or regain currency. I think this regulation prohibits the use of a Safety Pilot to build time and therefore the issue of the Safety Pilot logging PIC or SIC time is moot.

2. How might the FAA view two pilots who used Safety Pilot time to increase their total flight time. The regulations very often do not address the entire issue and leave questions dangling. The FAA inspectors seem to also be on notice not to give ‘field judgements.’ The old saying used to be: ‘If you don’t like the interpretation of a regulation that one FAA inspector gives you, just keep asking different inspectors until you get the answer you like.’ Apparently that happened enough to where now they are gun shy to give any ruling. Now they say that they must check with their ‘general counsel’ and get back to you. Of course, they never get back to you and the issue remains unsolved.

Personal Recommendation: I have stopped looking to the FAA inspectors for guidance and started looking at the enforcement actions that the FAA will take. In regard to the Safety Pilot issue, the FAA’s up front guidance is silent, but their enforcement record is loud and clear.

Excerpts From Reality — Law And Punishment: Take for instance a case from 1993 where two pilots lost their pilot certificates. The pilots were co-owners of an Apache and for 200 flights, using the Safety Pilot loophole; they each logged pilot in command time. Their logbooks were virtually identical for those 200 flights. One hour of actual flight time was recorded as two hours – one hour in each pilot’s logbook. The pilots sought a reduction in penalty from revocation to a 90 day suspension by appealed the loss of their certificates to the NTSB. Before the judge, the pilots submitted a ‘corrected‘ version of the logbooks. One of the pilots was a Flight Instructor and, in the corrected version, the double logging was listed as ‘dual given‘ and claimed that the 200 flights had actually been flight instruction. The judge didn’t buy it. Both pilots lost their pilot certificates (Administrator v. Crow NTSB order number EA-4008, November 10, 1993).

3. If you ever wanted to pursue a professional flying career… The Safety Pilot loophole has been used in an attempt to meet minimum flight hours to qualify for certain entry level pilot positions — but the interviewers for these positions are pretty smart and can see Safety Pilot time for what it is worth. Interviewers are looking for pilots who have pilot in command experience and savvy. They know the difference between acting as PIC and simply being able to log PIC. If the interviewer suspects that you have qualified for the interview by using ‘second pilot in a Cessna 152‘ flight time, you will not get that job, and they will be fairly upset that you wasted their time.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you need to maintain or regain your IFR currency, use a Safety Pilot when necessary to meet the recent experience regulations, but that should be as far as it goes. If you are a safety pilot, go along to look out for other aircraft and enjoy the ride, but that should be as far as it goes.