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A safety pilot is a rated pilot who helps maintain visual separation from other aircraft, clouds, and terrain while another pilot is wearing view limiting devices for the purposes of simulating instrument conditions.
The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) require that a pilot who possesses an instrument rating complete at least six instrument approaches, practice holding procedures, and practice intercepting and tracking courses with the use of navigation systems under simulated or actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) every six months to be instrument current. While flying in actual IMC the pilots must be properly rated and follow instrument flight rules.
IMC exists when weather conditions are below those prescribed for Visual Flight Rules (VFR). VFR minimums are covered under FAR Part 91.155. Typically, IMC means you can not maintain adequate separation from clouds or low in-flight visibility exists. 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 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 Certificated Flight Instructor - Instrument (CFII) who sits in the right seat and watches for aircraft, rising terrain, and other dangers. CFIIs 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 lesser expensive of the two options. Either pilot can potentially log the time as Pilot In Command (PIC) and an agreement of who is acting as Pilot In Command should be discussed before the flight occurs. The pilot wearing the foggles may log the time on the basis that he is rated in the airplane, and is the sole manipulator of the controls. The safety pilot can log PIC time only if he is the agreed upon acting Pilot In Command for the flight.
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. If the safety pilot is not the acting Pilot In Command, he can, however, log the time as Second-In-Command.
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, commercial, or airline transport pilot may log pilot in command flight time for flights- (i) When the pilot is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is rated, or has sport pilot privileges for that category and class of aircraft, if the aircraft class rating is appropriate; (ii) When the pilot is the sole occupant in the aircraft; (iii) When the pilot, except for a holder of a sport or recreational pilot certificate, acts as pilot in command of an aircraft for which more than one pilot is required under the type certification of the aircraft or the regulations under which the flight is conducted; or
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.