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Flying to help others

Legal matters for volunteer pilots

The videos of the devastation wrought by the March 2019 flooding in Nebraska and Iowa are stunning. The images of selfless general aviation pilots flying supplies into the stranded and evacuating the newly homeless are heartening—and reflect two secrets of GA that deserve massive publicity: Pilots are always among the first to volunteer to help in the aftermath of a disaster, and a community’s airport is often its only lifeline to the outside world following a cataclysmic event.

AOPA file photo by David Tulis.

Ever since the end of World War I disgorged scores of surplus airplanes into the civilian market, pilots have been volunteering their time, skills, and aircraft to help others. The floods of 1936 that wiped out much of the surface transportation infrastructure of New England highlighted the value of airplanes, volunteer pilots, and local airports for humanitarian aid. World War II saw the birth of Civil Air Patrol, with general aviation pilots assisting with the war effort. After the war, Charles Lindbergh made high-profile flights to draw attention to environmental and conservation issues. By the 1970s, nonprofit public benefit flying organizations were forming to connect volunteer pilots with those who needed their help for missions including medical transport through disaster relief, protection of natural resources, and moving at-risk animals.

How do I get involved?

When something triggers your desire to use your capabilities as an aviator—be it a natural disaster or a conversation with an active volunteer pilot—the first thing to do is your homework. You don’t want to become a part of the problem by showing up on a crowded ramp with an airplane full of water bottles and an “I want to help” look on your face. You will interfere with folks who are already too busy and probably block ramp space needed for aircraft carrying critical supplies. Plus, you may get busted for violating a temporary flight restriction.

Your first stop should be the Air Care Alliance website. For over 20 years the Air Care Alliance has been the umbrella group to support all forms of public benefit flying and volunteer pilot organizations. On the site you can find information about getting in touch with a volunteer pilot organization that is coordinating pilots flying for your area of concern.

There is always more demand than supply for volunteer pilots. If you want to volunteer, you’ll probably be welcomed with open arms. Call the organizations working the issue and find out how you can help.

Then, go to the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s excellent training course Volunteer Pilots: Balancing Safety and Compassion. It provides specialized information for volunteer pilot operations. The organization with which you will be working is probably going to require that you pass the AOPA course before you’re approved as a volunteer pilot—you’ll be ahead of the game.


As with any sector of aviation, it’s imperative that you know the rules regarding volunteer flying before you jump in. Ignorance could buy you an FAA violation action and a denial of insurance coverage should you have an accident. The good news is that the federal aviation regulations for volunteer flight operations are clear: There are no gray areas. That’s also the bad news: There’s no wiggle room.

The most important thing to know going into the world of volunteer flying is that unless you are flying for the Civil Air Patrol or are on a specific FAA-approved exemption, you must pay for all of the costs of your flights. Every penny—you cannot accept a donation, you cannot accept free fuel, you cannot start a GoFundMe account to help you pay for the compassion flights you are making. If someone else helps out with the costs of the flight, it’s free flying time for the pilot. The FAA has issued several official interpretation letters on the matter of pilot compensation; one of those directly applicable to volunteer pilots is what is known as the Kirwan letter of May 27, 2005. Since you will be flying under 14 CFR Part 91, any compensation for the pilot turns the flight into an illegal charter flight no matter what ratings or experience the pilot has. (While Part 91 allows a pilot to share expenses of a flight with passengers, the provision doesn’t come into play because, by definition, passengers don’t pay anything for a volunteer flight.)

That’s tough to hear—we volunteer pilots are doing good works by making flights, but we are still obligated to comply with the federal aviation regulations. That means most pilots can’t afford to make as many volunteer flights as they’d like. That’s a hard—no exceptions—truth.

The Air Care Alliance has worked with the FAA to come up with a few, limited ways to allow volunteer pilots to make their flight dollars go further. The Kirwan letter says that pilots can take a tax deduction for the direct cost of volunteer flights. An aircraft owner can deduct the cost of fuel and oil; a renter can deduct the full rental cost.

In addition, the FAA allows volunteer pilot organizations who complete the requirements for a specific written exemption to provide fuel reimbursement to their volunteer pilots who individually qualify under the terms of the exemption. Historically, the requirements of the exemptions have been very difficult to meet. The good news is that through the work of the Air Care Alliance, the terms of fuel reimbursement exemptions are becoming less onerous. 

I’ll repeat the bottom line because it’s important: No matter how much the pilot believes she or he is doing good works by making a flight, the he or she has to pay for all of the costs of the flight. The pilot cannot seek, or accept, donations to defray the cost of flights—that’s compensation.

A volunteer pilot organization cannot pay for part or all of the cost of flights by their volunteer pilots. The FAA made that clear in the Kirwan letter and its Nov. 19, 2008, “Bunce” letter. It’s compensation, and unless the volunteer pilot organization and pilot have a written exemption from the FAA for fuel reimbursement, the operation is illegal.

An aircraft owned by a volunteer pilot organization cannot be flown by volunteer pilots under Part 91 per the Bunce letter. The pilot is getting compensated with free flying time, so it’s an illegal charter flight. The only exception is if the volunteer pilot organization holds a Part 135 air taxi certificate and the pilot is on the volunteer pilot organization’s Part 135 certificate.

The rules mean volunteer pilots can’t afford to make all the flights they may want to, so there is a huge temptation to cheat. Getting caught means a potential violation action. Having an accident means potentially having an insurance claim denied because the flight was an illegal charter.

Worse, an accident by a regulation-breaker means adverse publicity for public benefit flying, attendant scrutiny by the FAA and NTSB, and, potentially, even tougher regulations for volunteer flying. That happened some 10 years ago and the public benefit flying community in the United States narrowly avoided regulations that would be similar to those for Part 135 air taxi operators. That is what is currently happening in Australia and is threatening to end public benefit flying in that country.

Please don’t be the well-meaning pilot who destroys public benefit flying in the United States following a crash on a flight where you had rationalized busting the rules because the flight was for a greater good.

The compassion of volunteer pilots has benefited millions of people. Volunteer pilots are always needed and their efforts cheered. However, before volunteering, make sure you know what is involved.

Rick Durden

Mr. Durden has been practicing aviation law for 37 years and, is a panel attorney for AOPA’s Legal Services Plan (LSP). He holds an ATP with type ratings in the DC-3 and Cessna Citation.

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