A safety pilot is a certified pilot who scans for other aircraft while another pilot practices instrument approaches or other maneuvers under simulated low visibility conditions while the practicing pilot wears a view limiting device that prevents the pilot from seeing outside the cockpit window. Under this arrangement both pilots might qualify for pilot-in-command (PIC) time and the practice approaches count toward IFR currency.
The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) require that a pilot who possesses an instrument rating complete six instrument approaches under simulated or actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) every six months to be instrument current. Essentially, the pilot must fly an aircraft solely by reference to the instruments for the entire maneuver. While flying in IMC the pilots must follow the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).
What constitutes IMC conditions can vary based on the interpretation of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). Typically, IMC means clouds or low visibility weather. Simulated IMC conditions are accomplished by a pilot wearing a view limiting device while operating the controls of an aircraft. The most common view limiting devices are plastic visor hoods and foggles. Both devices block seeing outside the cockpit windows while the wearer's head is in a normal forward-facing position. Plastic visors fold over the crown of the pilot's head while foggles are glasses that only allow the bottom portion of the lenses to be transparent.
When a pilot elects to train under the hood, two options are available. The first is to fly with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) who sits in the right seat and watches for aircraft, rising terrain, and other dangers. CFIs typically charge between $30 and $60 per hour. The other option is to fly with a safety pilot.
The safety pilot option is a very popular among general aviation pilots since it is the least expensive of the two options and because both pilots can log pilot-in-command (PIC) time.
It is important to note that both pilots must agree prior to flight which pilot is the pilot-in-command (PIC). The designated pilot-in-command is responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft and is liable for any mishaps. If the pilot operating the controls of the aircraft is designated the PIC, then the safety pilot cannot log PIC time.
The following excerpts from the CFR Title 14 Aeronautics and Space illustrate the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) pertaining to logging pilot-in-command and the flight experience required for maintaining IFR currency.
Logging PIC time
FAR Part 1 Defines pilot-in-command as follows: Pilot in command means the person who: (1) Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight; (2) Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and (3) Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.
FAR Part 61.51 (e) Logging pilot-in-command flight time. (1) A sport, recreational, private, or commercial pilot may log pilot-in-command time only for that flight time during which that person— (i) Is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is rated or has privileges;
FAR Part 91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command. (a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft. (b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency. (c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.
FAR Part 61.57 (c) Instrument experience. Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, no person may act as pilot in command under IFR or in weather conditions less than the minimums prescribed for VFR, unless within the preceding 6 calendar months, that person has:
(1) For the purpose of obtaining instrument experience in an aircraft (other than a glider), performed and logged under actual or simulated instrument conditions, either in flight in the appropriate category of aircraft for the instrument privileges sought or in a flight simulator or flight training device that is representative of the aircraft category for the instrument privileges sought—
(i) At least six instrument approaches; (ii) Holding procedures; and (iii) Intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems.
(d) Instrument proficiency check. Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, a person who has failed to meet the instrument experience requirements of paragraph (c) for more than six calendar months may reestablish instrument currency only by completing an instrument proficiency check. The instrument proficiency check must consist of the areas of operation and instrument tasks required in the instrument rating practical test standards.
(1) The instrument proficiency check must be—
(i) In an aircraft that is appropriate to the aircraft category;
(ii) For other than a glider, in a flight simulator or flight training device that is representative of the aircraft category; or
(iii) For a glider, in a single-engine airplane or a glider.
(2) The instrument proficiency check must be given by—
(i) An examiner;
(ii) A person authorized by the U.S. Armed Forces to conduct instrument flight tests, provided the person being tested is a member of the U.S. Armed Forces;
(iii) A company check pilot who is authorized to conduct instrument flight tests under part 121, 125, or 135 of this chapter or subpart K of part 91 of this chapter, and provided that both the check pilot and the pilot being tested are employees of that operator or fractional ownership program manager, as applicable;
(iv) An authorized instructor; or
(v) A person approved by the Administrator to conduct instrument practical tests.