“Safety Pilot” – a Dangerous Position

Today I’m going to talk about the legality of the concept of a “safety pilot”; specifically, the assignment of a second pilot in a multi-engine turbine aircraft certificated for single pilot operations. The short version of this story is, unless you fully understand the regulatory requirements and limitations: DON’T DO IT.

Let’s consider a charter operator that conducts Part 135 flights in a King Air 200, which is certificated for single pilot operations and is not typically equipped with a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). The charter operator’s customer requests or requires two pilots in the cockpit, so the operator puts a second pilot on board and calls him/her a “safety pilot”.

Is this legal? Let’s look at relevant regulations.

§135.101 says no person may operate an aircraft carrying passengers under Part 135 under IFR without a second-in-command (SIC). It provides an exception through §135.105 if the aircraft has an operating autopilot and the operator obtains authorization (typically through Operations Specification A015) to use an autopilot in lieu of a second-in-command with a properly trained pilot-in-command (PIC).

The next relevant regulation is §135.151, which prohibits a person from “operating a multiengine, turbine-powered airplane or rotorcraft having a passenger seating configuration of six or more and for which two pilots are required by certification or operating rules unless it is equipped with an approved cockpit voice recorder”. “By certification or operating rules” is a critical phrase because it means if the aircraft is not equipped with a CVR, the operator is limited by §135.151 to single pilot operations.

Crew Shortage

For our example in which the customer requests a two pilot crew, the legality of a second pilot depends on some technicalities. The most precarious scenario is one in which the operator is short on pilots qualified for the aircraft type and the second pilot is not even current or qualified in that aircraft. The customer often believes they are flying with two current and qualified pilots who are authorized to fly the aircraft. In reality, the second pilot is just a passenger. If the customer is not advised of this little detail, the operator could be accused of misleading the customer in an unfair and deceptive business practice. From the customer’s standpoint, they see a pilot in company uniform who sits in the cockpit. They often pay for two pilots. It’s not unreasonable for the customer to believe both individuals are assigned to the flight, not that one is simply a passenger going along for the ride and is prohibited from touching the controls or assisting in the flight (except, of course, in the case of an emergency where the PIC can request assistance from any passenger). It’s not all that unusual for an FAA inspector to approach customers on the ramp and make inquiries. If the FAA suspects an operator of illegally assigning a “safety pilot”, a simple, “How many pilots did you have?” could lead to some drama for the operator. Even if the operator has told the customers the second pilot is a passenger or safety pilot or whatever term, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts any passenger who sees two guys/gals in uniform sitting in the cockpit and regularly gets an invoice for two pilots will reply, “Two.” Even if the operator doesn’t violate Federal Aviation Regulations, it’s possible the Department of Transportation would want a bite at the apple for deceptive business practices.

(Note: If you are a pilot and are asked to perform this “safety pilot” function, be sure your name shows as a passenger on the manifest, do NOT log the flight time, and sit on your hands. Don’t talk on the radio, change a frequency, or touch the controls. You might even want to keep a separate log of “safety pilot” assignments – these flights count as duty time for you, after all – to refresh your memory in case an inspector ever asks about your responsibilities on these trips. Make sure your truthful answer includes nothing flight-related. Just sit there and look good.)

Autopilot Inop

If the autopilot is inoperable, an operator could be tempted to assign an SIC – qualified or otherwise – in order to avoid violating the OpSpec for autopilot in lieu of SIC. But if the aircraft is not equipped with a CVR, this ends up violating the CVR requirement in 135.151. As soon as the autopilot is inoperable, 135.101 kicks in again (two pilots for Part 135 flight under IFR) so two pilots are “required by operating rules” and a CVR is required.

Flying Time Limitations

Remember §135.267 limits the commercial flight time within a 24 hour period to 8 hours for single pilot crews. It’s possible an operator could come up with a couple of cute but illegal ways to get around this requirement. I won’t even get into some (hypothetical) scenarios I’ve been presented or speculate on other methods of working around this regulation so as to avoid more “creative thinking” from some of our colleagues. Just stick to 8 hours of commercial flight time within a 24 hour period for single pilot crews and you’ll be fine. Don’t “think outside the box” on this one.

Eligible On-Demand Operators

Eligible on-demand operators have even more limitations to consider. I won’t get into them here but if you’re an eligible on-demand operator, do your homework before messing with “safety pilots”.

Your best bet, if you operate under Part 135 in a single pilot multi-engine turbine aircraft that is not equipped with a CVR, is to avoid the “safety pilot” scenario. The bottom line is you are limited to flights with a functional autopilot and 8 hours of flight time, unless the aircraft is equipped with a CVR. Attempting to circumvent these requirements by adding a second pilot is a dangerous prospect for both the operator and the pilot. If you choose to use “safety pilots” or second pilots by any other name, be sure you completely understand the regulatory requirements and limitations. Contact me at Lindsey@mcfarrenaviation.com or by phone at 703-445-2450 if you have questions about specific “safety pilot” scenarios not addressed in this post.

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3 thoughts on ““Safety Pilot” – a Dangerous Position

  1. Frank

    Lindsey,
    Great article, I would bet it opened a lot of eyes, and made a few people pretty nervous.
    Regards,
    Frank

    Reply
    1. lmcfarren Post author

      Thanks Frank! The “safety pilot” is a really easy trap to fall into. My hope is that any operator made nervous by this post takes an opportunity to tidy up their policies and avoid real trouble in the future!

      Reply
  2. Pingback: Single Pilot Operations: Sometimes the FAA Screws Up (and Then Fixes It) | McFarren Aviation Safety News

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