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The Right Seat – When Is It Time to Fly With a Copilot?
For pilots who fly their own airplanes, "going solo" has been the Holy Grail throughout their training experience. That momentous first trip around the pattern, the solo cross-country, the first flights as a licensed pilot-in-command – are all the right stuff that constitutes the dreams of student pilots. The same is true for advanced instrument training or transitioning to faster, larger, more complex airplanes. The purpose of every checkout is to, well, "check out" from under the wing of your instructor and go it alone.
So the idea of asking another pilot to back up your flying might rub against the grain. You know you're a competent, safe and prudent aviator. But adding a second set of eyes in the cockpit is not so much a statement about your skill, but about expanding the utility of your airplane. Having a second pilot onboard is about completing missions you would otherwise have safely deferred for another day.
As pilots expand their proficiency, there might be flights where the workload becomes taxing for a single pilot. Unexpectedly challenging weather, diversion to an unfamiliar airport or having to accept a complex amended clearance at an inopportune time can all be stressful scenarios.
Sometimes you know in advance that elements of a flight will be pushing your skill envelope. Yes, you have a few "outs" in reserve that will keep you safe. But reverting to Plan B, C, or D if the going gets rough could mean you'll be sleeping somewhere other than at your planned destination.
That's when you might consider enlisting the resources of a second pilot – not necessarily an instructor, or even a more experienced aviator, but someone to share the workload and keep the cockpit housekeeping chores in order. And sometimes talking things over with a second pilot can make all the difference in critical decision-making.
When Is the Right Time?
Citation CJ2+ owner-pilot Ronnie Morgan has a single-pilot type rating and often flies his jet solo. Having moved up through high-performance pistons, a single-engine turboprop and a CJ1+, Morgan maintains a healthy respect for the risks he faces when flying alone. Based in San Diego, his usual missions include trips to his family business headquarters in Houston. He said, "I read that you should always make sure your competence outweighs your confidence."
Morgan is the epitome of single-pilot safety. When his family's business expanded to Southern California several years ago, Morgan moved to San Diego where he took up flying and got his private license in 1997. He leased a Bonanza in 2000, flying it for about 400 hours before joining the Jet- A set with a TBM 700, which he flew for five years and 900 hours. To better fulfill his expanding missions, Morgan then leased a Cessna Citation CJ1+ and flew with a well-qualified mentor-instructor pilot for about 150 hours – well beyond what was required for the single-pilot rating. "I wanted to make sure that I was 'wearing' the aircraft," he said.
Including the initial mentoring time leading to his single-pilot rating, about half of the hours Morgan has in the CJ2+ have been flown with another pilot in the right seat. He cited some of the situations where he will now enlist the aid of a second pilot: "Challenging weather, of course. Or a business trip where I'll be flying after a long workday. Flying to an unfamiliar field at night – that's a big one. And on passenger request: Some folks are just more comfortable with two pilots up front."
Morgan has several experienced career pilots that he calls upon when he needs a second-in-command, and their qualifications for making the list include not just piloting expertise, but also familiarity with the aircraft, its avionics and systems. And naturally, Morgan conducts a detailed preflight briefing to make crystal clear who will be performing what duties in flight.
Roles for Your Second-in-Command
There are two logical roles for a second pilot, depending on whether that pilot is more or less experienced than the owner-pilot in command (PIC). The second crewmember can handle the ancillary piloting tasks that normally come as second nature to a single pilot, but take his or her time and attention. They may include switching frequencies, making or answering radio calls, locating charts and approach plates (paper or electronic), keeping up a flight log, jotting down revised clearances and reprogramming the flight management system or GPS navigator, or checking airways to ensure the new routing is safe and logical. Sometimes the second pilot simply monitors heading and altitude and watches for traffic as you, the PIC, perform any or all of these tasks.
Another more vital role for the second pilot is that of backstop for critical flight items. A second pilot can back you up if you hear a frequency incorrectly or misunderstand an altitude clearance and the controller doesn't catch the incorrect readback. Sometimes these simple interventions – which occur more frequently than you might think in a crew environment – avoid embarrassment or even prevent an official violation.
"It's not enough to fly along in the right seat making sure nothing goes wrong."
J. Robert Moss
At other times, the second set of eyes and ears could be more critical, correcting an unsafe descent on approach, noticing deteriorating airspeed, flagging an unextended landing gear or an improper flap position. To be sure, all pilots have been trained to perform each of these tasks solo and use their checklists. But National Transportation Safety Board records are full of examples of solo pilots being distracted or otherwise having their attention compromised during critical phases of flight.
Ensure that the second pilot is up to each task and fully understands how to perform it in your airplane. The copilot also should be comfortable questioning something he or she might observe in your procedures. "When in doubt, sing out!" Also, reiterate the backup you're expecting from a second pilot: "Watch for traffic, make sure I remember to put the wheels down, crosscheck airspeed, ILS needles," etc. And on an approach in instrument conditions, the second pilot should clearly understand the responsibilities of watching for and calling out the runway environment in sight. As with a 20,000-hour veteran in the right seat, be sure your preflight briefing includes a detailed division of who's doing what, and when.
Who Is the Right Pilot?
Mentor pilots – experienced professionals hired to fly along with new owners to help them gain practical experience and prepare for single-pilot type ratings – represent a great opportunity and a great challenge for owners of light business aircraft. The idea has undeniable merit – a steady guiding hand to usher the new pilot into operating a more complex aircraft. The challenge is in defining what instructional background the mentor pilot ought to have and how the syllabus should best play out for those hours spent flying together. Familiarity with the aircraft type is also an important factor.
J. Robert "Mossy" Moss, a sought-after professional mentor pilot and 2010 National Flight Instructor of the Year, holds type ratings in most of the light jets available (Eclipse, Citation Mustang and CJ series, Embraer Phenom 100 and 300, Hawker Beechcraft Premier 1 – and will be one of the first to teach in the HondaJet).
He said one scenario he sees too often is that of a new jet owner-pilot with an "airline-pilot friend" who flies a Bonanza on his days off. With thousands of hours experience, the pro pilot seems like the ideal mentor – and insurance companies will often agree. But, Moss said, what are his real qualifications? What is his background as a general aviation instructor, if any? And how much does he know about the aircraft type involved? "A VLJ is not a 757," said Moss, "and many of the procedures [for an airliner] don't translate to light jets."
Moss cites the example of one of his light-jet-owner customers who was consistently 20 to 30 knots above Vref at 1,000 feet above minimums on night approaches. "I told him that at 1,000 feet to 500 feet in daytime – the airplane must be stable on the approach. It turns out his friend was an airline instructor pilot, and the company's procedure was to never go to flight idle lower than 2,000 feet above the ground. That sort of procedure does not translate to a light jet."
Moss said that there are a lot of new jet pilots spending tens of thousands of dollars on mentor copilots, but they aren't getting their money's worth. "It's not enough to fly along in the right seat making sure nothing goes wrong," Moss said. "They should be teaching, and teaching to the practical test standards for that pilot's single-pilot rating in the airplane."
Moss said that no matter how experienced the pilot, the best mentor pilots have two qualifications: They should be good instructor pilots – good general aviation instructor pilots, he insisted – and they should be intimately familiar with the aircraft type, preferably with a type rating.