The runway lights were just coming on when I met Kary and Karver in the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. Kary is a longtime CFI and volunteer pilot with the Civil Air Patrol and I admire her judgment on safety matters. Karver is a young man who recently completed his instrument and commercial ratings and wants to start doing some volunteer flying. I’d asked them to join me because I wanted to run something by them.
I’m on the safety committee of the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella group that supports all public benefit flying (PBF) organizations. In the last year I’d spent a lot of time working with pilots involved with “safety best practices” for their various PBF organizations. Recognizing that the type of flying involved in the PBF world varies all over the map from backcountry, short airstrip operations through surveilling the landscape looking for missing airplanes or environmental depredation, to serious IFR in crummy weather, I worked to come up with a set of volunteer flying safety guidelines that could be applied to a volunteer pilot flying for any of the PBF groups.
I’d talked over my ideas with a lot of people I respect in the aviation safety community. This evening, I wanted to put the result in front of a couple of pilots from each end of the PBF spectrum—Kary, with her thousands of hours and experience as a CAP check pilot, and Karver, who is about to get started as a volunteer pilot and has just over 250 hours as PIC, the bare minimum to volunteer for most PBF groups. The three of us talked for a couple of hours as I fine-tuned my notes. The following is what emerged.
While public benefit flying involves providing free airlift for just about anything imaginable—special needs passengers for medical treatment, dogs to sophisticated training facilities to learn to assist humans, wounded veterans to get home to their families, supplies for disaster relief, grief support—to only give a few examples—the pilots involved share a set of common bonds: First, and what is wonderful about PBF flying, pilots want to donate their skills and aircraft to help others. Second, those pilots are Type A individuals powerfully driven to accomplish things.
It’s that second common bond that has made PBF flying successful while providing its greatest risk factor. Pilots are the poster children for what the shrinks call “mission-continuation bias.” They are single-mindedly focused on getting an airplane to a destination at a level that is awe-inspiring to a layperson. That’s wonderful for those served by PBF. The downside is, as professional aviation learned a long time ago, that can mean that those laser-focused pilots may not always make the rational and sensible decision to postpone, cancel or divert when weather or another variable raises significant doubts about successful completion of the intended flight.
That’s serious. It’s caused many aircraft crashes and was the subject of an excellent book by Key Dismukes, The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents. There’s more about the book, mission-continuation bias and how it adversely affects the quality of a pilot’s decision-making in an AVweb article from a few years ago. Dismukes spent much of his career as NASA’s chief scientist for aerospace human factors and he’s a longtime volunteer pilot. I’ve spent some quality time with him talking about PBF safety and attended a presentation on volunteer pilot safety at LightHawk’s most recent annual fly-in and conference. LightHawk is a conservation PBF organization.
Recognizing the pressure volunteer pilots put on themselves to complete a flight brings up the first, and perhaps, key recommendation for pilots and people who run PBF groups: Don’t do anything to inadvertently put more pressure on pilots to complete a flight—they’re already applying plenty of pressure on themselves—they don’t need outside help.
Don’t Call it a Mission: It’s a Flight
Most PBF organizations refer to the flights their volunteers make as “missions.” The dictionary I looked at defines mission as “an important assignment carried out for military, political, religious or commercial purposes, typically involving travel.” In aviation, the word brings to mind the dawn patrols of World War I and heroic rescues of mariners in peril in fearsome weather by Coast Guard helicopter pilots. Volunteer pilots all want to be one of those heroes. Most won’t admit it out loud, but it’s true, and accidents involving mission-continuation bias show that it’s true. Pilots second-guess themselves when they cancel a trip or divert rather than continue to the destination. It’s the way we’re wired.
In my opinion, PBF organizations should do their best to eliminate subconscious pressure on pilots to carry out a flight. It seems to me that calling a flight a mission and running “Missions Completed” headlines in fundraising materials can erase all of the pious “we never push pilots to go” statements uttered by PBF personnel.
The good thing is that in 30 years of flying as a volunteer pilot, I’ve been in scores of PBF safety committee and board of director meetings and have heard board members and volunteer pilots state forcefully that the top priority of the group was safety and that they would never give any negative feedback to a volunteer pilot who canceled a flight. I think they all have meant it, so why not call a flight a flight? Pilots are cool, flights are way cool—there’s no need to overly aggrandize them by calling them missions when doing so creates a risk. Besides, volunteer pilots are already heroes for the flights they’ve made to help others.
There Are No Emergency Takeoffs
There are no emergency PBF flights. We’re not delivering life-saving serum to Nome (how the Iditarod dog sled race got started) nor are we rushing severely injured people from an accident scene to the emergency room. No one is going to die if a PBF flight gets postponed or canceled. They may be inconvenienced, but that’s it.
The Civil Air Patrol understands this and the constant challenge of the desire of humans to help others—even at the risk of their own lives. CAP members can recite dozens of search and rescue efforts in which searchers pushed weather and died trying to find a missing aircraft. That organization moves heaven and earth to train their pilots to say no when conditions aren’t right. Yes, they still call their flights “missions,” but they’re a quasi-military organization, formed during World War II, so I don’t think that they can’t help it, it’s tradition. Probably not a good one, but one that is firmly entrenched.
The best PBF organizations recognize that every PBF flight is optional. They fervently appreciate the pilots who look at the weather, passenger weights, runway conditions, airplane condition and their own condition and have the guts to say, “No, I’m not doing this one today.”
Those who have been around the block in the PBF world know that there have been serious injuries and deaths because volunteer pilots who were too determined to complete a flight tried to do so when the weather was too bad, the airplane not up to snuff or the pilot not in good shape—and people died.
Accordingly, my first recommendation is that PBF organizations should call their flights what they are—flights, not missions—and take away the very real pressure the M word puts on pilots to go when their good judgment is telling them to leave the airplane in the hangar.
Spring-Loaded to “No”
When I teach new volunteer pilots about planning for the type of flying they’ll be doing with a PBF group, I recommend approaching the flight in the fashion a former NASA employee taught me: The default answer to every question during preflight, takeoff, continuing while en route and approach is “No.” As the pilot, I have to find evidence that is strong enough to convert that “No” to a “Yes” if I am going to take the next step. It may be simple—can I complete the flight without getting into a thunderstorm? I start with a “No,” and then look at all the forecasts. If I see that the radar picture is clear and the forecast information puts the risk of thunderstorms along my route to the destination and alternates at a satisfactorily low level, I’ll put a “Yes” in that box. In the same fashion, on takeoff, for example, if the airspeed indicator doesn’t come off the peg within about five seconds, the answer to the continue takeoff question remains “No” and cannot be changed to “Yes.” The throttle comes back, the brakes are applied and the flight is postponed.
More and more data are showing that the biggest variable in general aviation safety is the period of time since a pilot took recurrent training. Most PBF organizations that I’ve observed require a pilot to have had a flight review within the last 12 months to be qualified to be an active volunteer. If IFR ops are involved, they require the pilot not to just be legally IFR current, but also to have completed an IPC in the last 12 months. I think every 12 months for a FR and IPC to volunteer is a minimum requirement. The pros get recurrent training every six months—one of the reasons corporate, Part 135 and Part 121 flying enjoy such low accident rates. I’d like to see volunteer pilots who are carrying innocent people who don’t know much about little airplanes also get recurrent training every six months.
By the time a pilot has the experience required to get involved with public benefit flying, she or he has been making go/no go weather decisions with some success for some time. For PBF operations, I suggest turning the personal rheostat to an even more conservative setting. If nothing else, it will help offset the subtle pressures on you to go. This is not the place for a charter pilot wannabe who will go so long as the weather is above published approach minimums. Besides, the last thing a PBF organization wants is an accident of any sort—the organization exists to help people, not hurt them.
On the VFR end of things, flights where you are carrying observers and/or photographers, such as environmental support and search and rescue, require really good VFR. Carrying out one of those flights in three-mile visibility means you may get the “mission accomplished” feel, but it was probably of no value to your passengers. In addition, turbulence should be respected—a passenger on the verge of the technicolor yawn is not a good observer.
A good PBF will provide you with information about your passengers prior to flight and may put you in touch with them. You need to know weights and what they are going to be bringing. You may not have had experience dealing with pet crates, folding wheelchairs or portable oxygen, so any knowledge you can obtain prior to the flight helps a great deal. Having your passengers show up with something that won’t fit in your airplane is not pleasant. I know.
Recognize that people lie. Passengers benefiting from a PBF flight really, really want to make the flight, so they may understate their weight or the size of stuff they want to bring. Give yourself a fudge factor on weight. Be prepared to say “No” when passengers want to change something at the last minute or someone does or says something prior to boarding that sets off your internal alarm system. Your aeronautical gut is pretty smart—it’s a good idea to listen to it when it gets queasy.
Go the extra mile to communicate with your passengers. They are going to be nervous. The more they understand about what is going on, the better—and safer—everything will be. Something as commonplace to you as how to unfasten an airplane seatbelt can mystify a passenger. Brief everything slowly and carefully—exits, seatbelts, sterile cockpit, noises they are going to hear and what they’re going to feel. Discuss motion sickness and sick sacks openly—it’s reassuring and reduces the risks of unpleasantness in flight.
Talk with your passengers during flight. Ask them how they’re doing. They’ll always say “Fine.” Pay attention to how they say it.
Flight Operations—Call Sign Compassion
Back in 1998 the Air Care Alliance worked with the FAA to create the call sign COMPASSION, with the three-letter identifier “CMF,” in order to identify PBF flights to ATC and enhance safety. When properly assigned, using the call sign can provide benefits such as more expeditious handling, the ability to fly in certain TFRs and changes in routing and altitudes to accommodate passengers with medical issues or animals being transported, among other things. To use the callsign both the volunteer pilot and the PBF organization must be authorized by the FAA. Details are at the Air Care Alliance’s website. I’ve heard some pretty wonderful stories about controllers going the extra mile to help out an airplane using the callsign.
Things do go wrong during flights. If you have an emergency—medical or otherwise—don’t mess around—declare it. You’re the PIC. Marshal the resources available to you with an emergency declaration. A controller can’t give you priority handling just because you ask for it—declaring an emergency takes you to the front of the line. This is exactly the wrong time to be the strong, silent type.
If it’s a medical emergency, ATC is your ally in having an ambulance waiting when you land.
An unpleasant reality of volunteer flying is that it is expensive for the volunteer pilot. The FARs are clear on the subject—when you make a volunteer flight you have to pay 100% of the cost. Here’s an AVweb article on the legalities.
That means that by the time a person has the financial resources to donate flying time, she or he may have left age 50 well astern. The harsh reality is that the executive functions of our brains slow down as we age. We don’t learn as fast and we do not handle new situations—and emergencies—as well as we did when we were 19 (the peak year for that sort of thing).
I’ve noticed that a number of the PBF accidents involved pilots who were over 50. That may be because they also make up the majority of volunteer pilots, but it also means that as volunteer pilots age, it’s necessary to become more conservative in deciding which flights to make and which to cancel.
AOPA has an excellent course on the subject, entitled Aging Gracefully. I’ve noticed that some PBF organizations require that their pilots take the course. I think that’s a good idea.
I also strongly recommend the interactive course on PBF flying safety developed jointly by the Air Care Alliance and AOPA, Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion.
To me, being a volunteer pilots helps us make the world a little better, one flight at a time. It enhances the image of general aviation and provides more reasons to go flying—and the more we fly, the safer we are. It can push your personal comfort zone and absolutely demands that you bring your A game for skills and decision-making. It will also probably be some of the most personally rewarding flying you ever do because you are flying for people who truly need what you provide. They will be putting their faith in you to get them to their destination safely. Don’t let them down.
Rick Durden has been a volunteer pilot for LightHawk for 30 years and was one of three recipients of the 2015 Endeavor Award for Public Benefit Flying. He is a CFI-I, holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 3 will be out soon.