Flying for Charity: You Provide the Airplane

Public benefit flying is tremendously rewarding, emotionally, for a volunteer pilot. It just can't be fiscally rewarding-with very few exceptions, the pilot has to pay for the full cost of the flight. Under the FARs the charity to which the pilot is donating the flight can't pay for the flight or supply the airplane.


Donating your time to fly for a charitable organization (more commonly known as public benefit flying) is, in my opinion, the most personally rewarding flying a pilot can do. It offers a chance for a pilot to combine a passion for flight with helping others. Public benefit flying is most commonly known for medical transport—flying people, without charge, for medical care they may not otherwise be able to afford because of transportation costs—but it includes a myriad of other endeavors such as search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection and animal transport.

There’s no free lunch, however. A pilot engaged in public benefit flying, in virtually all cases, provides the airplane—either as an owner or renter—and pays all of the costs of the flight, including donating her or his flying time. There are very few exceptions—so few that they’re beyond the scope of this article. The bottom line is that if a public benefit flight involves flying an aircraft from one airport to another, the Federal Aviation Regulations require that the pilot pay for all of the costs of the flight.

Associated with that bottom line is a hard, cold fact of aviation, doing public benefit flying is expensive. All of the pilots I know that are involved do it as often as they can afford to do so. Every one of the public benefit flying organizations of which I am aware has far more demand for flights than it can possibly fill through the efforts of its volunteer pilots.

Not surprisingly, he cost of making public benefit flights and the high demand for them has long lead public benefit flying organizations and volunteer pilots to look for ways to make more flights at less cost to the pilots. From time to time an organization will be the happy recipient of a donated airplane that is suitable for its transport mission and is able to find donors who will pay for the cost of its operation. The organization then figures that all it has to do is have volunteer pilots fly the airplane for free. After all, businesses own airplanes and use them for transportation, they just pay the pilots; we can do sort of the same thing, other than pay the pilots, right?

Unfortunately, no. It’s prohibited by the Compensation or Hire rules in the FARs. I’ll go into the details and explain how and why it’s prohibited in a moment. Meanwhile, I’m aware that some public benefit flying organizations are engaged in such operations and haven’t been caught. I get “Hey, they’re doing it!” comments and questions about setting up such operations from well-meaning people at least once a year. I point out that there’s a risk of an ugly downside should there be an incident or accident—potentially a violation for the pilot, civil penalty for the organization, unwillingness of the insurer to pay the loss because the flight was an illegal Part 135 operation and a lawsuit against the pilot that puts the pilot’s assets at risk.

The Regulations

To understand why a public benefit flying organization cannot own an airplane and have volunteer pilots fly it (whether paid or not) for its transportation missions requires a set-by-step trip through the FARs and the concept of “compensation” and “for hire.” Bear with me as we take the walk.

FAR 61.113 says that a private pilot may not operate an aircraft for compensation or hire. It provides certain exceptions to the prohibition that we’ll look at. The first is for a charitable airlift—which is defined in Part 91.146. Briefly, that’s giving rides to raise money for a charity under specific circumstances that include that the flights are nonstop, take off and land at the same airport and don’t go more than 25 miles away—they are not transportation flights. The plain language of the regulations and a number of FAA interpretation letters regarding the rule make it clear that the charitable airlift exception does not apply to public benefit transportation flights. The second exception to the Part 61.113 compensation or hire rule is that a private pilot may get compensated for flying an airplane if that flight is incidental to the pilot’s business or employment. That exception is used legitimately by business people who use their or their company’s airplanes for such things making sales calls, attending meetings and examining real estate. The important thing to note is that the airplane use is “incidental” to the business—it is not the primary purpose of the business. The FAA has looked at this exception to the compensation or hire rule repeatedly—if the purpose of the company is to own an airplane, flying it is not “incidental” to the company’s business. A dentist who has a practice in multiple locations is in the business of making tooth dust. Her use of an airplane to go between her practice locations is incidental to her business. A charity that owns an airplane to further its mission of transporting sick children for medical treatment isn’t using that airplane in a way that’s incidental to its business—it’s the core reason for the organizations existence. The pilot flying the airplane can’t take advantage of the compensation or hire exception.


The FAA does not define compensation in Part 1 of the regs, it has historically used a dictionary definition—if a pilot receives something of value for flying an airplane, he or she is getting compensation. The FAA considers flying time to be valuable—so any free flying time a pilot gets is compensation. Any process of making and enforcing regulations involves drawing lines to define what behavior is in compliance with the regulations and what behavior isn’t. For the compensation question, the FAA has drawn a clear line—any time a pilot pays less than his or her pro-rata share of the cost of a flight, the pilot is receiving compensation—it’s in Part 61.113(c). A pilot can split the cost of a flight, pro rata, with the passengers, but can’t pay less than his share.

Let’s review the cards now on the table: a private pilot has to pay his pro rata share of any flight he makes, otherwise he’s getting compensated. A public benefit/charitable transportation flight involves flying passengers who are not paying anything for that flight. Because the passengers are not paying anything for the flight, the pilot’s share is 100 percent of the cost. And no, the public benefit flying organization cannot offer to pay the pro rata share of the passengers, it cannot become the passengers and pick up their share. The FAA has said that the language of the regulation is clear—passengers are the people on the airplane, not the organization that facilitated their flight.

Once we accept that private pilots have to pay for the total cost of public benefit flights they make in airplanes they own or rent and they cannot fly airplanes owned by public benefit flying organizations because the flights are compensation, the logical next step is note that because pilots with commercial or ATP ratings are allowed to be compensated for flying, and ask why can’t they legally volunteer to fly an airplane owned by a public benefit flying organization? It’s a great question—and the answer is that they can if the public benefit organization holds a Part 135 Air Taxi Certificate, the airplane is on the certificate and the pilot has the flight experience required and has completed the training and checkride(s) required to be a pilot for the certificate holder.

The analysis of a pilot with a commercial or ATP rating flying an airplane owned by a charity that exists for the purpose of using the airplane for transport requires looking at the FARs that refer to “Common Carriage,” which is holding out to the public of transportation for hire. Once compensation for flying is involved the FAA draws another line—this time it is level of safety. When innocent passengers are being carried on a flight where compensation of the pilot is involved—whether the passengers paid for the flight or not—those passengers are entitled to a higher level of safety than if they are passengers where they are splitting the cost with an uncompensated pilot. The FAA is adamant in this area—its mandate is to protect innocent passengers and it steps up the safety requirements greatly once the passengers are paying for a flight (or someone is paying for it for them) and/or the pilot is being compensated.

FAR Part 119 defines common carriage and holding out to the public for hire. It requires a company that owns an aircraft primarily for the purposes of operating it and carries passengers to hold an air carrier operating certificate—for the types of airplanes we’re discussing, that certificate would be an Air Taxi Certificate under Part 135. There is the “incidental” exception that businesses can use, as I talked about above, but it doesn’t apply to a company that owns airplane to carry out its mission of transporting people, pets or things in that airplane.


While many public benefit flying organizations feel that they are small potatoes in the aviation world and fly under the FAA’s radar, it’s not the case. The FAA has violated pilots making charitable flights and receiving compensation. The guidelines the FAA follows for sanctions against pilots calls for at least a 180-day suspension of pilot’s certificate for violation of flying for hire regulations.

In addition, about six years ago the NTSB took a hard look at the safety record of public benefit flying and expressed concern—raising the visibility of all public benefit flying organizations. The NTSB went to the Air Care Alliance (ACA), the umbrella group for all public benefit flying organizations and volunteer pilots and demanded that it take action to improve the safety level of public benefit flying operations. (Full disclosure, I’ve been a member of the board of directors of the ACA for over 10 years.) The ACA reached out to all public benefit flying organizations of which it was aware with suggestions for safety improvements and teamed with the AOPA to create an interactive training program for volunteer pilots. Once the ACA had completed its actions, the NTSB expressed its satisfaction with the steps taken. However, the lasting impact is that not only do the FAA and NTSB appreciate the service of public benefit flying organizations and volunteer pilots, both agencies are paying attention to what is going on in the public benefit flying community. It behooves volunteer pilots and public benefit flying organizations to make sure they don’t cross the lines on legal operations.

But We’ve Just Gotten a Plane!

What can a public benefit flying organization do if it gets an airplane donated to it? How can it use that airplane legally to best carry out its transportation mission if it can’t have its volunteer pilots fly it? I’ve observed a number of creative, effective and completely legal practices. Most commonly, the organization sells the airplane and uses the money to support its operations—outreach to recruit more volunteer pilots who will use their airplanes (or airplanes they rent) for flights, hire staff to take over for volunteers to coordinate flights and get the word out about their organization, pay for ground transport for patients from airport to hospital and pay for charter flights for the patients who need medical airlift (often they’ll work with a local Part 135 operator to get reduced rates on charters). Organizations have teamed with a local charter operator, entered into an agreement to put the donated airplane on the operator’s Part 135 certificate and arranged for a reduced fee for charters when using that airplane. I’m told some volunteer pilots have gone through the necessary procedures to become approved pilots on the operator’s certificate and are assigned as pilots for the public benefit flying charters and don’t charge for those flights.

As for the volunteer pilot who is approached to make transportation flights in an airplane owned by a public benefit flying organization—you might wish to politely decline. The free flying time may be the most expensive flying time you ever get. You don’t need a violation on your record or the discovery that if you prang the airplane that the flight was an illegal 135 operation, there’s no insurance and someone is coming after your hard-earned assets.

Rick Durden is a CFII and 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. He has been a volunteer pilot for over 25 years, is an aviation attorney and notes that this article does not constitute legal advice. My goal is to alert readers to common issues in the public benefit flying world so that pilots and organizations can avoid legal trouble. I strongly recommend that anyone with an aviation law issue contact a lawyer who works in the field and heed his or her advice after you provide the lawyer with a full disclosure of the facts.