There is no question that public benefit flying is a rewarding endeavor, but (why is there always a “but” in aviation?) with any reward comes a degree of risk. As member run social organizations, flying clubs are in a great position to engage in public benefit flying. Protecting your club and the members who perform these flights starts with a strong safety culture and good organization. Let’s dive in and explore some ways you and your fellow club members can stay safe and out of the courtroom when volunteering your time and aircraft for a good cause.
Public benefit flights are typically coordinated with the help of a volunteer pilot organization (VPO) which serves as a matchmaker between pilots and those in need of assistance from pilots. A VPO should never provide an aircraft for the flight, nor should the VPO provide any compensation to the pilot or aircraft owner. Similarly, a flying club should never be in a position to direct its members to perform a volunteer flight. Clubs can certainly encourage its members to volunteer, but any public benefit flying must be of the member’s own volition and funded entirely by the individual member. In fact, fuel reimbursements, tax write offs, and even flight time are viewed as a form of compensation by the FAA. To keep things simple and legal, make it clear that any member of your club who does these public benefit flights is expected to do so out of their own generosity with no expectation of financial reimbursement. All of these precautions are important to avoid the possibility of serving the public as an illegal charter, which can bring a whole slew of legal problems for your club and its members. For more information on avoiding illegal charter operations, please give this article by Rick Durden a read.
When done correctly as per the article mentioned above, public benefit flights fall under FAR Part 91 which means the rules are the same as if you were flying with friends or family for personal transportation. Because it is a Part 91 flight, your club insurance will cover you and your passengers for the trip. The volunteer pilot organization (VPO) you are working with may have minimum insurance coverage and policy requirements. Check with your club’s insurance officer or broker for more details about your club policy. It may be a good idea to carry your own non-owned “renters” insurance as well for added liability protection. Some organizations may provide insurance coverage for approved public benefit flights as well. A good example of this is the EAA Young Eagles Program which provides an additional $1M in passenger liability coverage…Nice!
Additionally, a pilot’s liability when performing volunteer flights is limited to their insurance coverage according to the Volunteer Protection Act. Of course, your flight must be operated in compliance with regulations and your insurance policy, which should be no problem at all! To learn more about liability concerns for volunteer pilots, click here. Liability waivers are another way to… well, waive liability! The VPO you are working with will most likely have a general waiver for your passengers to sign, but make sure you understand the fine print. The “strength” of liability waivers can vary from state to state, it may be worth consulting with an aviation attorney licensed in your home state and any states you plan on operating in to be sure the waiver is effective in protecting your club and members.
To learn more about legal matters surrounding public benefit flying, please visit the Air Care Alliance Legal Matters page.
Now that we have a better understanding of how we can limit our liability when doing public benefit flights, let’s look the number one way to avoid worrying about it, by being safe! As we mentioned in the last section, a public benefit flight is very similar to a flight with friends or family in the eyes of the FAA. The reality is, however, that these flights can often carry an added layer of pressure to get the flight done. This added pressure can sometimes cloud decision making and pressure us to take off in conditions that are less than ideal. Due to these pressures, extra training and precaution is advisable.
The main point that just about any public benefit flying safety course is that a proficient pilot is a safer pilot. As a flying club, it is never a good idea to have currency requirements that are stricter than those imposed by the FAA with the goal of forcing your members to be proficient. This rarely works and can have serious consequences if a member willingly or unknowingly violates club rules and has an accident. A better way to encourage your club members to be proficient is by engaging with the FAASTeam Wings Program. To learn more about how your club can use the Wings program to be safer, check out this month’s safety section.
If club members plan on engaging in public benefit flying, it is a good idea to loop in your club’s safety officer. He or she should keep track of the VPOs club members are working with and track the training requirements for each program. If there is enough engagement with members doing public benefit flying, you may wish to create a new officer position to help take the stress off your safety officer. This person should be an experienced volunteer pilot who can serve as a mentor to pilots who are new to the venture. Your club’s public benefit officer can coordinate training events, give specific safety recommendations, and even serve as a monitor pilot for benefit flights.
Many VPOs have minimum hour and qualification requirements for pilots who fly their missions. Additionally, recurrent safety training is required—usually completion of AOPA’s Public Benefit Flying Online Course is a required activity every year. If you are looking for other safety resources for public benefit flying, the Air Care Alliance has compiled a great list on their website. Additionally, check out this Safety Spotlight from AOPA for some helpful information on the risks and rewards of public benefit flying. Encourage your club’s safety officer to review these resources and create a required reading list for any member planning to do public benefit flying.
If your club has a safety program for public benefit flying, we would love to hear about it! Please send us an email telling us what your program is. Of course, if you have any questions about safety or liability when serving the public, feel free to reach out as well!
To borrow Steve’s line… Fly lots and fly safely!