What is my responsibility as a safety pilot?

A lot of folks seems to think that a safety pilot has very little responsibility unless she also chooses to take on responsibility for the flight by acting as PIC. I’ve seen this issue discussed a number of times (which is, of course, why I have a FAQ on it).

There are two versions of this view of safety pilot responsibility.One is that the only job a safety pilot has is looking for traffic. The related one is that by choosing to also act as PIC, the safety pilot picks up a whole bunch of extra liability. Both views are apparently based on two concepts:

  • A safety pilot picks up no responsibility for a flight unless he’s also PIC.

and it’s evil twin

  • § 91.3(a) means that no one except the PIC has any responsibility for the safety of a flight

I don’t think either is true.

Of course being the hooded pilot’s “eyes” is the safety pilot’s primary role. But I’ve never been able to find the part of 91.109(b) that says that the safety pilot’s role is limited to seeing and avoiding other aircraft. On the other hand, I notice that a recreational (or sport) pilot cannot act as a safety pilot. That despite being able to carry passengers, being rated in category and class, and having a current medical. Wonder how come? Could it possibly be because the FAA wanted someone who was also trained more heavily in navigation and communication, the only two skill sets that separate the recreational from the private certificate?

I also notice that the airplane must have dual controls, and that if a throw-over is in the airplane, the safety pilot (whether or not the PIC!) is given the specific responsibility of determining whether the flight can be made safely. Sounds just a little more serious than “hey stupid, turn left!” So I really doubt that a safety pilot’s responsibility ends with empty skies.

And, although no doubt a safety pilot does pick up some additional responsibility when she chooses to act as PIC, I’m not really sure that, practically, it’s really that much. I ran a brief challenge in one or two groups: tell us about a case in which a safety pilot who was acting as PIC was held responsible for something solely on the basis that the pilot had assumed PIC responsibilities. I haven’t seen any. The closest is this an NTSB case that found as probable cause, “the pilot’s failure to maintain proper glide path during a practice instrument approach, which resulted in an in-flight collision with terrain. Contributory factors to the accident were the dark night light condition and the safety pilot’s inadequate monitoring of the practice approach.” The report is here.

Notice that there was no mention in the report of whether or not the safety pilot was acting as PIC. If anything, the reference to the safety pilot as “passenger” suggests that he was not. So, at least in that case, it seems the safety pilot is being held responsible for being a bad safety pilot. The lesson I get is, “If you are going to act as a safety pilot, don’t take it as a joke. It is an important job, so do it correctly.”

Here’s an example of something we’re all concerned with these days: Let’s say you are acting as safety pilot and the flying pilot busts, say a stadium TFR. I would expect the safety pilot to be looking at the possibility of a violation. But, again, that would be for not performing safety pilot duties properly and would have nothing to do with their status as PIC or not PIC or logging something or not logging something.

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