Being a “Safety Pilot”

**The following was an email I sent to some friends in the pilot community last week after a fun weekend flying three days in a row – once left seat and twice as a “safety pilot.” A safety pilot is one who scans for traffic and such while another pilot flies under a hood device such as this:

hood

The pilot flying “under the hood” is doing so in order to train for their Instrument Rating, so they can do things like fly in the clouds. The hood blinds them from views outside the plane and keeps their focus on the instrument panel.

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My dearest pilot gang,

What a great few days! I got to spend the weekend logging time as a safety pilot in an SR20. I called it the DeLorean because the doors reminded me of the car from Back to the Future –

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The pilot, one of my CFII’s students, was exceptional. He debriefed the flights and his plans thoroughly. We went in with clear expectations on what to expect from each other. He made the job very, very easy. All I had to do was look for traffic and respond to radio calls regarding traffic. I also made sure to keep us away from any actual IMC (clouds, fog, etc), of which there ended up being plenty.

Not only did the pilot, Steven (name changed), let me fly the plane for a while, but he even let me assist in some takeoffs. Super great guy. His father is also a pilot, as are others in the family tree.

The plane was beautiful. Both days of the weekend were very gusty, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the SR20 handled it. So much smoother than the Cessnas and Pipers I’m used to. I also found the controls to be very easy to manage. I didn’t think I’d like the stick, but I found it to be comfortable and natural to use. And, to my surprise, I didn’t have any trouble flying from the right seat.

Saturday we flew Bedford-Keene-Laconia-Bedford (BED-EEN-LCI-BED). We definitely had some challenges around Keene, but we were on flight following and I was keeping us away from the real stuff and the terrain. First time I’ve been in snow while flying.

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It was cold, so we stopped in for hot coffee and breakfast muffins, then headed northeast to Laconia. Such a beautiful place! Wow.

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Here’s a little video of the touch and go –

Can see some guys/gals running a motorcycle track on the icy pond at the end of the runway!

While we knew going into Saturday that it was going to be cloudy and gusty, we thought that on Sunday we were going to be blessed with clear skies. And at first we were –

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As you can see, there was a little layer off in the distance to the east ~5,000 ft. There was a similar layer off to our west and some widely scattered stuff around us. We flew to Bangor , ME (our destination) at 7,500 ft, so we had no trouble breezing past it all and dipping down for our approach.

Here’s a video of our approach and Steven under the hood –

It was about an 180 nm flight to BGR and we both had Dunkin Donuts coffee on the way up (…the DeLorean has cup holders!), so needless to say we made a full stop in Bangor for a potty break.

Steven let me on the controls during the takeoff and it was soooo easy. The plane just wants to lift the second it has its speed. So smooth.

On our return, I started noticing clouds similar to the ones we encountered on the way up. They were still widely scattered and we checked weather before departing. Supposedly, there were clear skies back at Bedford. Our planned altitude was 6,500 ft. We weren’t concerned.

We flew over the scattered stuff, but after a while it started to get less scattered and more broken. Still not a big deal, as there were plenty of holes around us to go back under.

Let me stop here and say that I have NEVER been over clouds before in a small aircraft! I’ve dreamed for years to have the view I was about to have and I was in absolute awe as we approached the broken layer. It was incredible.

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We were at 8,500 ft, which we had to climb to because the layer was thicker than we initially thought. I was in heaven. Possibly literally. I had tears in my eyes. I think Steven thought (or finally realized…) I was nuts, because I was just really excited.

As pretty as it all was, though, I started to become concerned that our clear skied destination might not be so clear after all. I’ve heard enough “stuck on top” horror stories to know I didn’t want to be a part of one. So, reminding myself that I was the “safety” pilot, I advised we duck back under into the next hole we saw.

The hole we went under is the one at the start of this video-

How’s your stomach?” Steven asked.

Fine, I guess. Why?”

Because we’re going to be doing some maneuvering.”

The hole wasn’t as big as it looked from far away. I assured him I don’t get motion sickness. So, he pushed up the hood and down the Sucker Hole we went!

We descended from 8,500 ft to 4,500 ft. We had hoped to maintain that altitude, but unfortunately the clouds had different ideas for us.

“We need to drop another 500 ft,” I had to tell him twice.

As we neared 3,500 ft, ATC chimed in and said that we would need to stay at or above that altitude through Portland airspace. Unfortunately, I could easily see that wasn’t going to work. Clouds ahead were solid at 3,000 ft. We were still flying over water and I didn’t see any nearby traffic, so I told Steven to request permission to descent to 2,500 ft so that we could stay VFR. Thankfully they said OK and let us move about as needed.

At this point, we were under a solid overcast layer. No holes, no clear skies in sight. We crawled back to Bedford at 2,500 ft. Not ideal, but it was our only option and I was careful to keep us away from towers and such using both my eyes and the obstructions feature on Foreflight.

So much for a beautiful sunny day!

The clouds did start to lift to about 4,500 ft, but at that point we were too close to home to climb.

While there were some unnerving moments, overall, it was a fantastic experience. Steven was an exceptional pilot. The plane was an exceptional plane. And New England is an exceptional place to fly. I learned a lot about instrument flying and it was great to see the stuff I’ve been studying in books and online applied in the real world.

I’m happy to also report I was able to go up today and fly left seat for the first time in more than 8 weeks. I flew with my CFII (flight instructor) up to Nashua for lunch… always nice to fly with him and catch up. Oh, and I finally made the 100 hour mark in my logbook!

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Unfortunately, I still am not in a position to start flying again regularly, so hopefully this fix was enough to get me by for a couple more months. I still anticipate starting on my own instrument rating sometime in the spring.

Cheers,
“Dizzy”

About skyalive

mom, pilot, writer
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