Public Benefit Flying: Get Involved

Every day volunteer pilots are using general aviation airplanes to help others-and improving the perception of little airplanes and those who fly them.


If there is anything that motivates pilots, it’s passion. Their fire to fly imbues every fiber of their beings. You hear it in their speech and see it in their body language anytime the prospect of flight is about. They have looked down upon the hidden waterfall in the wilderness and the circular rainbow around an airplane shadow on a cloud and, almost universally, they constantly seek times and places to fly and want to share the wonders of the world aloft with others.

Pilots look for opportunities to fly—it’s going to be a lovely sunset, there’s an airport restaurant that serves a great breakfast burrito, an old friend is in town who has never been up in a little airplane . . .

For more than 70 years, public benefit flying (PBF) has harnessed the passion of pilots to help others. What began out of abject frustration evolved into what is now thousands of volunteer pilots donating their time, skills and airplanes (owned or rented) to serve others and, incidentally, improve the perception of general aviation, one flight at a time.


Public benefit flying started in earnest after civilian pilots had pushed for an organization that would let them use general aviation airplanes to serve their country—resulting in the formation of Civil Air Patrol at the beginning of December, 1941. A week later, when World War II came to the U.S., thousands of pilots were suddenly prohibited from flying. Within hours of the raid on Pearl Harbor all general aviation aircraft were grounded—in much of the country the order was enforced through the expedient of law enforcement officials going to airports and removing the prop from every airplane they could find. Civil Air Patrol was exempted from the general grounding order. It suddenly found itself not only called upon to take a significant role in the national defense; it was swamped with pilots volunteering to do any flying needed.

Over the course of the three-and-a-half year war, CAP pilots flew some 500,000 hours doing everything from search and rescue, through gunnery target towing to reconnaissance along the borders and coasts, including submarine spotting—and were confirmed to have sunk two submarines with depth charges dropped from general aviation airplanes. Some 60 volunteer pilots died on Civil Air Patrol missions during World War II.

Following the war, CAP was incorporated as a non-profit corporation involved with benevolent activities and never again to be directly involved in combat operations. Today, CAP volunteer pilots fly missions in support of emergency services, primarily search and rescue, and assists the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies as well as such private agencies as the American Red Cross for disaster relief.

By the 1970s other public benefit flying organizations were forming for specific tasks and the organizations rapidly discovered what is true today—there is far more demand for the services provided by PBF organizations than their volunteer pilots can meet. Volunteer pilots are needed—if you love to fly, there is a public benefit flying organization that does the type of flying that interests you for the type of people you would like to help, and it needs you.

Medical Transport

The largest slice of the public benefit flying pie is that of non-emergency medical transport. The many organizations involved provide free flights for patients who need to get somewhere for specialized medical treatment and cannot get there due to financial, medical or geographical limitations. You may be able to help a patient get treatment for cancer that isn’t available where he or she lives, or a child to get to a specialized facility for treatment for a rare genetic disorder. Often a patient who can tolerate a two-hour flight can’t handle six or eight hours in a car, so a general aviation airplane is the best—or only—way to be transported for treatment.

The medical transport PBF organizations differ in whether a patient must be ambulatory or have someone along to assist. As a volunteer, you chose what circumstances are right for you and the types of flights you want to make and can afford to donate.

I particularly liked a comment I read that was made by Rayvon Williams, a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight West, one of the oldest and largest of the medical transport PBF organizations, “I’ve found that flying for training, the occasional pleasure trip or the proverbial $100 hamburger just doesn’t provide the satisfaction they once did. Angel Flight affords an opportunity to upgrade my passion for flying to compassion for others. The sense of accomplishment after each mission is what keeps me coming back.


Every pilot learns early on about the stunning vistas available from an aircraft. That lead directly to the formation of PBF organizations that provide free flights in support of conservation efforts. If you want to make flights that potentially help thousands of people by exposing health risks through poor stewardship of our land and waters and to help preserve the good stewardship as well as support scientific research into the condition of our world, volunteering for one of the conservation PBS organizations may fit you perfectly. It can involve back-country flying and more challenging operations than flying level from one place to another, and has sometimes been described as the “Indiana Jones” world of volunteer flying. The two main conservation PBF organizations are LightHawk, which covers most of the U.S., southwestern Canada and Latin America and SouthWings, which flies primarily in the southeastern U.S.

Young Eagles

Organized by the EAA in 1992, the Young Eagles program provides free introductory flights to kids from age 18 through 17. It’s the perfect way to share your love of flight and aviation with someone who is interested and is likely to share your passion. Remember some of the folks who took an interest in you and helped when you were learning to fly? Young Eagles is a way for you to repay them for their generosity, patience and kindness.

Pet Transport

There are areas of this country where spaying and neutering dogs is not widely practiced. As a result, scores of unwanted animals are euthanized every day. Yet, in other areas of the country there are humans that would love to be adopted by a dog, but can’t find one. Enter PBF organizations such as Pilots N Paws that helps find free flights to move dogs from where they would otherwise be killed to good homes. In addition, as the organization has become more well known, it is also becoming a clearing house to help find flights for dogs who have been injured due to cruelty to where they can receive treatment and a safe home.


Each PBF organization has its own requirements for volunteer pilots. For most, you’ll need to have at least a private certificate and a couple of hundred hours of PIC time. Some require an instrument rating. Some of the medical transport organizations require two pilots, and pilots with lesser experience gain experience flying as a copilot.

Finding the Right PBF Organization

There are dozens of PBF Organizations—many are members of the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella organization that supports all public benefit flying and supports PBF organizations with information, best practices and a website that guides people needed a flight to the organizations that can provide a flight. It also helps pilots find the PBF organizations in their areas.

The Air Care Alliance is holding its annual conference for PBF organizations and volunteer pilots in San Antonio, Texas this week—April 24 and 25. (Spoiler Alert—It looks to be a good one.)

I know a number of pilots who volunteer for more than one PBF organization (I do as well). Some fly for more than one medical transport group or for both conservation and medical transport. Selecting the right PBF organization involves spending a little time getting to know those that operate in your area—look over the website and the requirements for volunteering to see if it feels right. Then talk with some of the people who are involved as well as some of the volunteer pilots (they’ll usually find a way for you to do so—if they don’t, think of it as a caution flag). As with any volunteer organization, some will be a good fit with your personality and outlook, some won’t. Take your time—each PBF organization with which I’m familiar needs all the volunteers it can get, so you should be made to feel welcome, although there will be things you have to do and stuff to learn to get up and running.

Donating a Flight

Being a volunteer pilot is just that—you do not get paid and you pick up the entire tab for each flight you make in support of the PBF organization. That can be expensive. The FAA has ruled that you can take a tax deduction for the “direct operating expenses” of a volunteer flight without it being considered “compensation”—that ruling was a big deal for PBF. Direct operating expenses are fuel, oil, landing and ramp fees if you own the airplane—not any sort of pro rata of your annual hangar, maintenance and insurance costs. If you rent an airplane for the flight, the direct operating expenses are the rental fee, fuel (if the airplane is rented dry), landing and ramp fees.

Congress passed and President Obama signed a law allowing for fuel reimbursement for pilots making flights for PBF organizations. However, the law allowed the FAA to set requirements that the organizations and individual pilots must comply with in order for the organizations to reimburse pilot for the fuel costs of a volunteer flight. Unfortunately, those requirements involve training, recurrent training and maintenance and are so onerous (for example, your engine can’t be beyond TBO) that only a tiny number of organizations and pilots have been able to comply. I’ve been working with the Air Care Alliance on this issue and its efforts to get the FAA to issue more reasonable and realistic fuel reimbursement requirements. What I’ve observed is that it’s probably more expensive to comply with the FAA requirements to get fuel reimbursement than to pay for the fuel on the flights you make. I suggest that it’s probably not realistic to plan on getting reimbursed for your fuel if you are going to be a volunteer pilot.

Civil Air Patrol has its own set of rules; in general, when you are flying a Civil Air Patrol airplane, CAP picks up the tab for the operating costs, including fuel.


Sadly, there have been a few—not many—PBF accidents. They got a lot of press and there was concern that the FAA might step in and regulate PBF. This lead the Air Care Alliance to work with AOPA to put together a superb online training course: “Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion.” Most PBF organizations require their volunteer pilots to complete the course upon joining.

One of the safety concerns is that a volunteer pilot about to make a medical transport flight knows at least some of the nature of the patient he or she is going to transport, which can put pressure on the pilot to go in questionable weather. The world of aviation emergency medical transport long ago stopped telling pilots about the patient to be transported (no more, “it’s a tiny baby who will die otherwise”) because fatal accidents resulted when that played into the pilots go/no go decision.

As a volunteer, you should never feel any pressure to make a particular flight—and the PBF organization should make it clear that you can cancel for any reason. If you do feel any pressure, conscious or unconscious, from the organization to make a flight, it’s a good reason to take your volunteer time and skills elsewhere. After all, there’s no such thing as an emergency takeoff.

I’ll stick in my two cents here—I think flights for PBF organizations should always be called flights, never missions. Mission is a military term and it strongly implies a need to accomplish it—and pilots tend to be very mission-oriented. I think we need to keep in mind that this is volunteer flying, not life and death.


Every day volunteer pilots are using general aviation airplanes to help others—and improving the perception of little airplanes and those who fly them. You love to fly. Why not use your passion and skill to do something with a little airplane that will help someone else and make you feel very good in the process?

Rick Durden has been a volunteer pilot for 25 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.