Post-Hurricane Helper? Beware the Hidden Risks

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When disaster strikes, volunteer pilots can be a significant part of the relief effort; but they need to know the legal and physical risks before setting out on the specialized flying involved.

Did someone weigh all that stuff?

Following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the general aviation community distinguished itself by mobilizing to fly disaster-relief supplies and personnel into the affected areas and people and pets out. Being one of the fraction of one percent of our nation’s population that is a pilot, I watched news coverage of my sister and brother aviators who were donating their time and aircraft to help those in need with pride. I’ve always felt that something in the DNA that causes people to become pilots also causes those same people to step up and help others when the crunch comes.

At the risk of being a killjoy in the midst of all of the feel-good coverage, I think that we should take a few minutes to examine, and frankly discuss, the dark side of disaster relief flown by volunteer—and use a word not well liked—amateur—pilots. Of concern to me is that unless the pilot has been trained for dealing with the potential hazards of disaster relief flying—physical and legal—rushing off to the airport to untie the family airplane and fly to the rescue can potentially result in the pilot going from hero to goat. Not fully understanding what is involved in volunteering your pilot skills and airplane for disaster relief can lead to unpleasantness that runs the gamut from a violation action by the FAA; being in the crosshairs of an IRS action for tax evasion; getting stuck at a remote airport with your airplane but no possibility of fuel for weeks all the way up through tearing up your airplane due to hazards you hadn’t run into before and then finding out that your insurance won’t cover the loss because you violated a condition of the policy.

The FAA and NTSB have been watching volunteer/public benefit flying carefully for some years. Both have expressed concerns about its safety—and neither backs off just because there has been a natural disaster. 

As background, for over 70 years general aviation pilots have been volunteering their time, skills and airplanes to help others by providing free flights. It’s referred to as public benefit flying (PBF) and it has saved lives and delivered a lot of urgently needed supplies following disasters. Most pilots make their volunteer disaster relief flights in conjunction with a volunteer pilot organization (VPO) that functions as a clearinghouse to match the flights with the need. The VPO also provides guidance and training for the volunteer pilot for the specialized nature of the flying expected. For over 20 years, the Air Care Alliance (ACA) has operated as an umbrella organization that supports the activities of all VPOs, not just those involved in disaster relief. It is the go-to organization for pilots who wish to volunteer their time and airplanes and are looking for a suitable VPO to coordinate with for volunteer flights.

The specialized VPO for disaster relief is EVAC: The Emergency Volunteer Air Corps. Its guidance for emergency response is here.

Full disclosure, I have been a volunteer pilot with various VPOs for nearly 30 years and a member of the board of directors of the ACA for over 10.

There’s a memorable line in the book M*A*S*H where Dr. Hawkeye Pierce comes unglued over the problems caused by well-meaning people trying to help wounded soldiers but because of their lack of knowledge cause even more problems—he refers to them as amateurs in the do-gooder business—something general aviation pilots never want to be. After a disaster, the pros come in and do what they’re trained to do—help the victims. Because there aren’t enough pros to do all that’s needed to be done, volunteers who know what they are doing are badly needed to help. That’s where general aviation comes in. Airports are the lifelines of communities when things go down the toilet and roads are closed because of damage or debris. A mile of runway or taxiway can be made useable much faster than a collapsed bridge can be cleared from atop a road or rebuilt.

General aviation airplanes, flown by pilots who know what they are about, can takeoff and land from a narrow strip of grass or taxiway, bringing in badly needed supplies and evacuating those who need to get out.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

Most general aviation pilots can probably safely use a runway that’s 40 feet wide and 2500 feet long. But can they do so when they’ve never seen the runway before, there’s debris piled along the edges, there’s a strong crosswind and the airplane is loaded to gross weight?

Oh, yeah, and plan on there being a bazillion (conservative estimate) disaster relief TFRs that you’ll have to get authorization to fly through while working with controllers who may or may not have radar and are trying to separate a jillion (even more conservative estimate) aircraft using the position reporting procedure called out in the FARs that pilots haven’t even thought about since the ink was drying on their instrument rating. As an aside, the times that I’ve had to deal with TFR clearances and penetration of disaster areas, I was fervently glad that I was flying for a recognized public benefit flying organization that had a team at its home base who was keeping track of TFRs as they popped up, getting me the necessary approvals and clearances to fly through them and keeping me briefed on the details. The workload was higher than comfortable much of the time. One portion included dealing with three different controllers within a 15-mile stretch.

This disaster season brought a new hazard: Drones. Despite the FAA’s best efforts, the knucklehead population is out in full force. They're ignoring the 400-foot max altitude and line-of-site restrictions as they position their camera-bearing mosquitoes where they will present maximum interference to legitimate flight ops. After all, that’s where one captures the social media video that gets the most likes and status for the operator. And, hey, he took a great deal of risk exposing himself to daylight outside of his folks’ basement to get that video, he's entitled, right?

The drones are out there—are a mid-air hazard and can shut down operations without warning—one of the reasons to make sure you’ve got fuel aboard for times when weirdness hits.

Legal Matters

A big gotcha for pilots who want to help out by volunteering to fly for disaster relieve is that while they are doing something to help others, they still must comply with the Federal Aviation Regulations. The FARs were written to protect innocent passengers, the property of innocent people and innocent people and property on the ground—not to protect pilots or make them happy. That has to be the starting point for any pilot checking to see whether he or she can make volunteer flights to support disaster relieve.

A volunteer pilot must pay for all of the costs of his or her flight, including fuel.

The Biggest Gotcha: A pilot flying under Part 91 for disaster relief must pay for the FULL cost of the flight out of his or her own pocket (if there are two pilots, they can split the cost). Unless there is an express exception via a waiver to the FARs held by the VPO from the FAA and including the pilot, the volunteer pilot absolutely cannot accept any form or reimbursement or payment for the cost that flight. The law is absolutely clear—the FAA didn’t come to the world of volunteer flying and disaster relief yesterday.

This discussion of reimbursement for flights is abbreviated—for a detailed examination, please see the ACA’s Information Letter of March 2017 on the subject.

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, I’ve seen a number of pop-up public benefit flying organizations seeking to help with disaster relief advertising for pilots and airplanes as well as for donations to pay for the cost of the flights. I’ve also seen well-meaning partners of pilots set up GoFundMe accounts to raise money to reimburse the pilot for the cost of the flights. If you are a pilot making volunteer flights for disaster relief under Part 91, you cannot accept any offered reimbursement. The moment you accept reimbursement or compensation for a flight, you cross the line from Part 91 into Part 135 for hire operations. Unless you are a pilot who has gone through the training and checkrides to be on a Part 135 operator’s certificate and your airplane has also gone through the required maintenance inspections to be put on that Part 135 certificate, the moment you accept any money for a flight—even reimbursement for some portion of the cost of the flight—you are making an illegal Part 135 flight.

Part 135 operators are hired to make disaster relief flights—lots of them. Disaster relief takes all the airlift available. The ones I know recognize and admire volunteer flight operations for disaster relief (and some of the operators and pilots donate their time for disaster relief). What they do not appreciate are “volunteers” who are getting compensated for their flights and who haven’t gone through the hoops to qualify as Part 135 operators—that’s taking food out of the mouth of the Part 135 operator. Angering a legitimate air taxi operator by competing unfairly with him is a good way to motivate that operator to go to the FAA with a formal complaint that will result in a violation action against the volunteer pilot who was getting reimbursed. While we really are in a kinder-gentler FAA world with regard to pursuing violations against pilots who make innocent mistakes—pilots are expected to know the regs and taking money to make a flight is not an innocent mistake. Plan on the FAA taking action.

Insurance

Worse still is that a "volunteer" who accepts money may well have voided his insurance coverage. When the pilot bought insurance for her or his airplane, the pilot entered into a contract with the insurance company telling the company what use would be made of the airplane—and the insurance company priced the policy accordingly. Every owner that I know who flies under Part 91 signs an insurance contract agreeing not to use the airplane in “for hire” or “charter” or “air taxi” or “Part 135” operations (take your pick). If the pilot then accepts reimbursement for volunteer disaster relief flights, hits a damaged bit of runway on landing and groundloops into the airport fence, there’s a good chance that the insurance company will legitimately refuse to pay the claim because the pilot was flying for hire.

There are circumstances in which a volunteer pilot can receive fuel reimbursement, and only fuel reimbursement, from a public benefit flying organization—however, it takes work and time to set up. The organization has to obtain a waiver from the FAA and the pilot has to go through the training prescribed by the waiver and both the pilot and organization have to comply with record-keeping requirements. It’s a good, although unwieldy system—but it also means that a pilot who wants to get fuel reimbursement when flying disaster relief has to get together with a public benefit flying organization well before the disaster happens to get the needed training and comply with paperwork requirements.

You were supposed to be a "volunteer" pilot but you accepted reimbursement for the costs of the flight, will your insurance pay for these repairs?

Bottom line, if you see a volunteer group seeking pilots and airplanes and raising money for cost of the flight reimbursement, be very careful. The group is advertising that it’s a clueless newbie to the world of disaster relief and may have other bad habits that can get you into serious trouble—especially with regard to dispatching you into restricted airspace you don’t know about, insisting you fly over gross or not getting and giving you vital information about the conditions at your destination. Above all, if you make a volunteer flight and someone offers to reimburse you for some or all of the costs, politely decline. You can’t accept the money and you never know when you’re being set up. Video cameras are everywhere.

The FAA has not ruled on the question of whether a volunteer pilot can take advantage of a fuel discount offered by an FBO to volunteer operations. A discount is not a kickback, so it’s not illegal in that form. By comparison, federal employees may not accept bribes or payments, however, they are not prevented from buying groceries or clothing that is on sale—discounted—or negotiating the purchase price of an automobile. I don’t have enough information on the subject of FBO fuel discounts to volunteer pilots to have an opinion, but I’ve also searched such enforcement material as is available, and I cannot find an indication that the FAA has proceeded against a volunteer pilot who purchased fuel at a discount. The FAA has violated volunteer pilots who were reimbursed for fuel, so that might be where the FAA draws the line on the subject.

Again, for a detailed discussion of what constitutes volunteer flight versus illegal Part 135 operations, see the ACA Information Letter.

Also, if you want to fly for a disaster relief organization that will training you and not only reimburse fuel, but provide the airplane, one of the best VPOs is the Civil Air Patrol.

Finally, on the fuel reimbursement issue, The Air Care Alliance, AOPA and others have been working with the FAA and Congress to try and change the rules because it would serve to allow many more volunteer flights that are badly needed—we're not sitting on our hands.

Safety and Operational Issues

Before leaping into the family airplane, find out what VPOs are involved in disaster relief in the area you’re interested and contact them to see which best fits what you want to do and can do. Make your search through the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella organization that supports all public benefit flying organizations and EVAC, the specialized disaster relief VPO

and read up what it has to say about the status of disaster relief as it usually has the most up to date information for volunteer pilots. Take the very well done AOPA interactive course “Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion.” As an aside, completing that course is required to fly for most reputable public benefit flying organizations.

Once you’ve done your homework and are getting ready to go, go into the process with a certain humility—a responsible PBF organization is going to require that you get some degree of training before you launch on your first flight. You are not Sky King there to rescue the world from fools and incompetents—most of the folks you’ll be meeting have done this before and you’ll want to learn from their mistakes and follow their guidance.

Disaster Relief Flights: Best Practices.

Take a look at the guidelines set out recently by Patient Airlift Services, I think they are some of the best I’ve run across—I've added some comments:

  1. Coordinate all flights with a disaster relief charity—ideally one that is or is working closely with a PBF organization.
  2. Operate with two pilots—who have briefed how to work together and understand CRM.
  3. Stay on top of NOTAMS and TFRs—they can change astonishingly fast. It’s one of the reasons that having a home base with people qualified to stay up to date on such changes is important to a volunteer pilot. I’ve had debris close the runway after I departed toward that single-runway airport. I had the NOTAM relayed to me in the air so I didn’t waste fuel flying all the way there and then spend time wondering whether I should hold until the runway was cleared.
  4. Experience is key—when things go downhill, pilots who have seen a similar situation before do far better than those who are experiencing it for the first time. Join a disaster relief organization and get training so you’ll be ready and able to help effectively rather than thrashing around when the next one hits—it will.
  5. Operate aircraft with traffic avoidance systems. There is going to be a LOT of traffic.
  6. Be prepared for mechanical problems—have parts and tools for the most likely breakdowns. You are supposed to be helping—you don’t want to wind up as someone who needs help.
  7. Avoid unnecessary flights. This is not the time for sightseers.
  8. Prepare for uncertain ground conditions. Where are you going to sleep? You may arrive at an airport under military control. You may have to deal with security issues on the ground. There may be evacuees at the airport asking for transportation. Be prepared.
  9. Recognize the end of mission. One of the most important things a community can do after a disaster is to resume normal economic operations. An abundance of donated supplies or donated flights can cause disruptions to normal local commerce.

In my opinion, the best way for a general aviation pilot who wants to help people affected by the current disasters is to immediately join one of the disaster relief VPOs and get trained for the next one. It will be coming to a location near you when you least expect it. If you’re trained, you’ll be taking action while others are still wondering how they can help.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney who has been a volunteer pilot for PBF organizations for nearly 30 years. He holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation 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.