A safety pilot is needed when a pilot is conducting a simulated instrument flight. That is, they are needed when a pilot is using a view limiting device such as a visor or foggles. Such devices restrict the pilot’s vision, so they must rely on their instruments to fly the aircraft.
The safety pilot’s role is to look out for other aircraft while the flying pilot is ‘under the hood.’ In other words, they keep an eye on the skies while the other pilot wears the view limiting device.
There are rules about who may act as a safety pilot set out in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).
First and foremost, you must hold at least a private pilot’s license. In essence this only prevents students, sport, and recreational pilots from becoming safety pilots.
Next, you must be rated for the category and class of the aircraft being flown. You cannot act as a safety pilot in an aircraft you are not rated for. The idea being that you won’t be able to offer support in an emergency if you’re not rated for that aircraft.
Finally, you require a current medical. This is because safety pilots are classed as required crew members and required crew members need a class III medical certificate.
You do not need to be instrument rated so long as the flight is being conducted under visual flight rules (VFR). VFR just means that you’re flying in optimal conditions where the pilot can see the aircraft’s path.
You also don’t need to have recent flight experience or a biennial flight review if you are only acting as a safety pilot. If you intend to act as a pilot in command while the flying pilot is under the hood, then you do need to satisfy these conditions.
Does a Safety Pilot Need to be Current?
Being current means that you hold current ratings, medicals, or endorsements.
To be a safety pilot you do need a current medical certificate. This should be class III or higher.
The class III certificate lasts for 60 months for under 40s and 24 months for over 40s. If you’ve not had a medical for over 5 years, you won’t be able to act as a safety pilot.
In terms of ratings, you need to be rated for the category and class of aircraft that you are flying in. That is the only current rating you need to be a safety pilot.
You do not need to have instrument currency as safety pilots are only required for simulated instrument flights.
You will be responsible for looking out for other aircraft and hazards under clear conditions you will not be using the hood, so you don’t need to rely on instruments.
Another difference between safety pilots and the pilot in command is that the safety pilot does not need a current flight review. This means that you can act as a safety pilot even if it’s been more than 2 years since your last flight review.
You also don’t need to have completed 3 flights in the last 90 days to be a safety pilot. This requirement only applies to the pilot who will be flying the aircraft.
What Does a Safety Pilot Do?
A safety pilot’s job is to keep visual separation from other aircraft, clouds, and terrain. In simpler terms, they watch out for hazards.
It is crucial to have a safety pilot on simulated instrument flights because the pilot will be wearing a view limiting device. That means that they won’t have a good visual range, so they may not be able to see other aircraft and hazards.
In essence, the safety pilot is the flying pilot’s eyes while they are under the hood.
A simulated instrument flight is a carefully engineered facsimile of a real flight conducted in bad weather. The visual conditions are good, and the safety pilot is there to act as a control and back up pilot if things get dicey.
The reason you don’t need a safety pilot for an actual instrument flight is partly because you can’t always predict the weather and visibility conditions but mostly because the safety pilot would have extraordinarily little to do.
In actual instrument flights, the safety pilot wouldn’t be able to see other aircraft anyway. They would be ‘flying blind’ just like the flying pilot, so it’s a bit pointless really.
The great thing about safety pilots is that they don’t charge for their services. Or they don’t have to charge for the service. They can be a friend, colleague, or acquaintance.
If you don’t know someone willing to act as a safety pilot, you can hire a certified flight instructor for the flight. This will set you back up to about $200 an hour!