Flying with a Mentor

Why would you want to fly with a mentor pilot? Maybe you’re new to an airplane; newly rated as an instrument pilot; or going someplace challenging that you haven’t been before and you would like to have the assurance of someone who has been there and done that. Mentor pilots come in several flavors and don’t necessarily have to be a rated flight instructor, depending on the situation. Some will fly with you just for fun, and at other times you really need to pay for the expertise you want.

One kind of mentor that most instrument pilots are familiar with is a safety pilot so the instrument pilot can wear a vision restriction device and fly instrument approaches to maintain currency. The safety pilot must be qualified in the type of aircraft being flown and have a current medical certificate. It’s not difficult to get friends to be safety pilots, particularly if you fly to a nearby field and stop for the ubiquitous $100 hamburger or breakfast burrito.

You might also want a mentor if you’re going somewhere new and challenging like Catalina, Big Bear, anywhere in the L.A. basin, or a to a new destination near a large metropolitan area. If you haven’t flown through the Las Vegas, L.A. or Phoenix Class B airspace, you will be amazed at the difference in service general aviation VFR aircraft get compared to the very accommodating folks in SoCal that run the San Diego Class B.

Finally, just because you passed your instrument check ride and have your IFR rating doesn’t mean you are instantly comfortable flying IFR, let alone flying in real clouds. It’s a lot different when you can’t take the hood off and peek. Having another qualified and experienced instrument pilot sitting next to you can feel pretty good the first time you take a real IMC cross-country.

I went to Air Force pilot training in Arizona, so you can imagine how much actual instrument time I had when I showed up for my training in the F-4 as a fully qualified instrument rated jet pilot.

On the day I was scheduled for my crew solo instrument round robin, the weather was 1,000 feet overcast. I was flying with a navigator—not a pilot—in the back seat who was also getting his initial check out in the F-4,  and I assumed the flight would be cancelled since we didn’t fly the ice-sensitive T-38  in that kind of weather in pilot training.

Both the navigator and I were second lieutenants fresh out of navigator and pilot training, and we quickly found out that we really were in an all-weather Air Force. Off we went from George AFB near Victorville to NAS Lemoore near Fresno, which also had a current ceiling of 1,000 and was forecast to stay that way all day.

We entered the clouds just after takeoff, and the clouds were solid all the way to our cruising altitude of FL 320. I never saw blue sky, and the only time I saw the ground was when we broke out on final at Lemoore. Then we were right back in the soup for the missed approach and return to George for an instrument approach there. I got the leans more than once and made extensive use of the flight control system’s attitude/altitude hold capability. It was very reassuring having the backseater confirm our attitude and run the INS and TACAN navigation systems.

There are some things to consider when you want to find a mentor pilot, and the most important is that they have the qualifications and experience that match what you want to do. Just as important, you don’t want an irresponsible pilot that allows or encourages bad habits. Finally, you want someone you are comfortable with, because at the end of each flight you want a constructive critique of your flying, if there hasn’t already been some discussion during the flight.

Before you fly, make sure you let the mentor know what you seek to gain or learn by having them with you. This is particularly true if you are paying them to be there and share their experience. Make clear what you want them to do: from sit there and offer advice; to keep you safe and ahead of the airplane; to serve as the pilot-not-flying co-pilot taking care of the radios and navigation equipment as you direct during the flight. Be very clear that you are the pilot in command and express under what conditions, if any, you would expect the mentor to take control of the airplane.

The big reason you have asked someone to be a mentor pilot is to help you expand your comfort zone, but don’t let the mentor pilot push you too far as you get the experience you want.  You want a mentor who will support your aeronautical decisions and risk management even if your choices are more conservative than what the mentor would do if he or she were flying. You also want them to speak up if you are pushing too hard.

I have friends I fly with taking turns as each other’s safety pilot for instrument currency, and I have also provided mentoring instruction as a CFII for people seeking advanced instruction on the G1000 and operating in the IFR system. They were all enjoyable flights because we made sure we understood what we expected of each other and what we were trying to accomplish on each flight, and we finished each flight with a debriefing of what went well and where we could improve.

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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