The Pilot’s Lounge #88: The Air Care Alliance — Helping Those Who Fly to Help Others

Whether they go on flights for documenting environmental degradation or for transporting kids for medical treatment, hundreds of pilots in dozens of organizations work tirelessly to provide special aviation duties. AVweb's Rick Durden tells about the central source of information on all public-benefit flying in this month's The Pilot's Lounge column.


One thing that continues to amaze me about General Aviation, not just here in the Pilot’s Lounge at the virtual airport, but everywhere I fly and visit, is the number of pilots who selflessly expend considerable sums of their own money and time to help others. I once tried to analyze why so many pilots spend so much to help so many for so little recognition but have long since given up. It just seems to be a part of the psyche of many of those who have regularly viewed the world from aloft.Here, among regulars in the Pilot’s Lounge, Bud flies patients on medical mercy flights for Angel Flight at least once a month in his Cessna 310R. From what I can tell, his flights average, round trip, about five hours. If you figure his airplane costs about $300 per hour to operate, it’s costing him something on the order of $1,500 each time he flies a patient and his or her family to somewhere such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.. He doesn’t get a nickel from the passengers or from the medical airlift organization to which he belongs and which coordinates the patient and the pilot. As an attorney, I know that Bud might be able to take a tax deduction for a small portion of what it costs him to make those flights, but it doesn’t come close to recouping what he’s spent to help out people he’s never met before in his life.Kary is in Civil Air Patrol (CAP). She regularly donates her time, and on occasion, her Bonanza, to fly search-and-rescue missions and training. She gets telephone calls in the middle of the night, during the week, when there is a missing aircraft; and she gets up and heads for the airport, ready to do what is needed because her skills as a search-and-rescue pilot and flight instructor are in demand. Pay? Nada.

Chuck flies his Maule as a volunteer pilot for LightHawk, often referred to as the Environmental Air Force. He donates his time to support research and documentation efforts by those who are determined to keep our countryside, rivers and sky clean enough so that our grandchildren will hopefully have the luxury of breathing clean air and drinking potable water. He happens to be a doctor who has seen some of the effects of our poor stewardship of our natural resources on our children in everything from lead poisoning due to the effluent from the lead mines in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri to the various ills suffered by those living downwind of smelters and refineries or who have regularly eaten fish from some of the chemical dumps we optimistically call lakes and rivers. He takes time off each year and spends a big chunk of his income to make the flights to help activists and researchers photodocument the things we do to our landscape in the hope of saving some child’s life.Dick has taken a substantial portion of his time and a not-inconsiderable sum of money to form Kid’s Wings, which is dedicated to transporting ill children and their families for treatment that cannot be obtained locally.We pilots have an interesting little secret: Despite our often vocally parsimonious nature, we are an incredibly soft touch for those who are truly in need of assistance that can be supplied with an aircraft. We will show up for a day of giving Young Eagles’ rides for the EAA and accept as a reward the light in the eyes of just one of the many kids we so carefully carry. We will put up with one of the most incredibly hidebound and paperwork-intensive bureaucracies this side of India in order to volunteer our efforts to do search and rescue for the CAP. A surprising number of us will, and have, jumped through the necessary hoops to form non-profit organizations to support medical transport for those who cannot afford to travel for the care they so desperately need.

A Little History

Public-benefit flying is a relatively new phenomenon. While pilots have always been willing to help others, non-governmentally organized groups of pilots haven’t been around all that long. The Civil Air Patrol, the grandpappy of public benefit flying, was formed as an auxiliary to the Army Air Force in World War II, so it’s sort-of a special organization. From the perspective of grassroots efforts, one of the very oldest is LightHawk, which is now 26 years old, and was formed by a professional pilot who was appalled at the noxious side effects of clear cutting our public lands in the Pacific Northwest. Since LightHawk came about the yeast has truly been put in the batter; in the last 15 years or so both environmental and medical public-benefit groups have sprung up all over the country. The upside was that they provided much needed services. The downsides were that they sometimes worked at cross-purposes; or, sadly, outright sniped at each other. One of the distressing problems was that there were always a certain number of folks who seemed to be into public-benefit flying as an ego boost and they perceived any other organization that provided the same service as a rival rather than another resource that was working toward a common goal. On top of that, the FAA and IRS weren’t sure what to make of public benefit flying and both agencies were initially less than supportive. Something was clearly needed to help those involved in good works with airplanes stay focused on their goals and missions.

ACA to the Rescue

In the early 1990s, the Air Care Alliance (ACA) was formed to act as a clearinghouse, support organization and general advocate for public benefit flying organizations and to provide information and guidance for pilots who wished to become volunteers as well as members of the general public who needed assistance. ACA has quietly become the place to go for support, information and discussion on all sorts of issues faced by those dedicated to using aircraft to help others and those who needed help that could be provided with aircraft.I get a call every other month or so from a friend or friend-of-a-friend who knows someone who needs medical transport but isn’t able to pay for it. As have so many others, I simply go to the ACA Web site and click my way into the vast listings page where I can usually come up with four or five groups in the appropriate geographical area that will fly patients or medical materials for no cost. ACA itself does not provide flights; it serves a much-needed function to allow those who need help to find someone who can provide that help. The same is true for persons and organizations working in the environment and conservation area and realize that an aircraft is an ideal platform for surveying and documenting areas of concern on our land and water rapidly and efficiently. Therefore, the ACA Web site has directions to the various environmental aviation organizations.I also get calls and emails from pilots who want to use their skills with airplanes to help others in some fashion. Even though local volunteer medical transport groups do their best to get the word out to the community about their work and their need for pilots, it’s tough to become well-known. Because of ACA’s efforts at creating a clearinghouse, the pilot who wants to volunteer can go to the ACA Web site and find out what sorts of groups are in her or his area. The pilot can then meet with the groups and join the one that fits best.

What Are the Regs that Affect Public Benefit Flying?

As volunteer pilots, we are naturally interested in how such governmental agencies as the FAA and IRS view our activities. The FAA has long made it painfully clear that when operating under Part 91, pilots cannot receive any compensation for flying. (In fact, free flying time has long been ruled to be compensation. If you want the cases, go to the NTSB Web site.) The FAA has applied U.S. common law, which long ago reached the conclusion that once a person pays to fly in an airplane, the person is entitled to “the highest duty of care” on the part of the pilot. In real life, that has meant that anyone who pays to fly in a general aviation airplane is entitled to a pilot who has been trained and tested in accordance with Part 135 and an airplane that is maintained at that level. The converse is that a person who rides in a general aviation airplane and does not pay for the ride is “only” entitled to a “duty of reasonable care” on the part of the pilot. That has been taken to mean that the flight can be conducted under Part 91 by amateur pilots in airplanes that have annual inspections and are preflighted by the pilot in command. Therefore, virtually all public-benefit flying operates under Part 91; which means the pilots are not compensated for the flight, out of a desire to be squeaky clean with the FAA. The passengers are never, ever asked for money for the flight. They can make a donation to a public-benefit flight organization if they so chose, but it absolutely cannot be tied to the flight in any way, shape or form. The pilot may not take any compensation for the flight, although he or she may be able to take a tax deduction for some portion of the costs of making the charitable flight. How much? Where does the FAA draw its lines?Ta Da. The ACA has the most recent interpretations from the IRS and FAA on those issues on its Web site. It was also active in convincing the FAA to recognize charitable flying and to not be spring-loaded to treat it as some form of illegal charter activity.

Callsign “Compassion”

Another major effort that came to fruition through the good offices of the ACA and its chairperson, the tireless Rol Morrow, is the creation of the callsign “Compassion” for certain public-benefit flights. For years the callsign “Lifeguard” has been used by aircraft carrying patients or organs in critical circumstances when time is of the essence. The “Lifeguard” callsign means that controllers will give the flight priority handling and often let it go first because the understanding is that there is serious medical condition aboard, albeit at some level below an emergency. For medical transport and environmental flying, “Lifeguard” was simply not appropriate; therefore, there was a desire to find a callsign that conveyed to controllers that the aircraft is engaged in an activity that may require some special handling. That handling usually consists of starting down from altitude early so as to allow a gentle descent for persons who may have some breathing or ear problems, or an airplane that is going to be circling over a specific area for photography.The ACA succeeded in obtaining the “Compassion” callsign on an international basis. ACA is actually the official administrator of the callsign and its use for non-profit flying operations serving the public interest. The Web site gives more background and explains how it is used. In general, a flight plan is filed with the identifier “CMF” to designate “Compassion” and then the last four digits of the aircraft registration number. For example, Cherokee 1234B is entered in the flight plan as CMF234B (max 7 digits) and makes its radio calls as “Compassion 1234B.” Controllers then know that this is not a critical medical flight, but it is an aircraft on a legitimate public-benefit flying mission of a medical or environmental nature, and it may have some special requests; thus there might be a need for “helpful” handling (not priority) by ATC.

Liability Risks and Issues

For those who organize and run public benefit flying organizations there is a cost involved in coordinating flights, of finding pilots who can help out those in need and to then make sure the flights take place. Most of the organizations are formed as non-profits and some have gotten big enough that they have a half a dozen or so full-time employees to mesh the needy with the suppliers and to keep working to get the word out about the service as well as find more pilots who are willing to help.Because the organizations are legal entities and have some assets, and because they are in some way connected with general aviation airplanes, there is always the risk that if a pilot making a public benefit flight crashes and hurts or kills a passenger, there will be lawsuits filed against the public-benefit flying organization post-crash. Most public benefit flying organizations require that their volunteer pilots carry insurance. However, the organization itself may not be able to get insurance that covers itself should one of its volunteer pilots crash. What’s more frustrating is that many of the public-benefit flying organizations desire that their volunteer pilots name the organization as an “additional insured” on the pilot’s insurance; there are those in the insurance industry that refuse such requests for reasons that have never been explained. That nasty little uninsurable risk-factor has put a certain chilling effect on public-benefit flying. One result is that there are pilots who wish to do public benefit flying but refuse due to personal liability risks.Fortunately, the ACA is working with other groups to get legislation passed that will provide some measure of protection for public benefit flight organizations. It didn’t get through Congress last year, but it’s been introduced again this year. The ACA is providing information on the status and a lot of volunteer pilots are working hard to get this Good Samaritan law passed. If you’ve got the ear of a Senator or Representative in D.C. (Disneyland Central), take a moment to tell him or her about the need to pass the bill in order to protect public benefit flying (without hurting accident victims; the law would only apply if the pilot had insurance in place).

Everybody Get In Here

The Air Care Alliance also does one other thing that is an immeasurable benefit to those of us involved in public benefit flying: It puts on an annual conference where individuals and organizations get together to learn what problems each has faced and how they have been solved (if they have), get updates on proposed legislation, get questions answered on FARs and tax issues and generally find out that there are other folks out there doing the same sort of thing. The ACA wisely sets aside plenty of time for participants to just talk, because the people running public benefit flying organizations have found that having contacts throughout the country means that they may be able to solve a crisis with one phone call because they know that “So-and-so over in Georgia had the same problem six months ago.”I went to the ACA conference outside of Ashville, N.C., this year and enjoyed myself hugely. It was superbly organized by the host organization, Southwings, an environmental aviation group based nearby. On one level it was classes and education on a mix of subjects; on another, it was meeting and learning from dedicated, determined people with the same interests who are on the forefront of public interest flying.So, if you have any interest in, or need for, public benefit flying, quit procrastinating. Visit the ACA Web site and find a way to get involved.See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.