2013 March 25
I have received some questions recently about legal aspects of pilots receiving donations, reimbursements, or other financial benefit such as tax deductions for providing flights to nonprofit organizations in the Gulf of Mexico. I have been a gold-seal certified flight instructor and an airline transport pilot for over 15 years. It is important that we all understand FAA, IRS, and other regulations so that we will be able to continue to fly safely and legally and serve our good missions. The legal consequences for pilots and aircraft owners can be quite serious if these regulations are not followed, including hefty fines and certificate suspension or revocation. So I’d like to take a few minutes here to clarify what these regulations are and how On Wings Of Care (OWOC) works within them.
The FAA regulations that govern non-commercial aviation are in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title14 Parts 61 (pilots) and 91 (operations). Flying “for hire” -- i.e., pilots receiving financial benefit in return for flying passengers -- is legal only in a few very limited ways under Part 91. In general, flying for hire can only be carried out under the much more stringent regulations laid out in CFR Parts 135 (charter flying) or 121 (scheduled transport flying). All but one of the ways to fly for hire under Part 91 require a Letter of Authorization (LOA) from the FAA, which is granted to a particular pilot and a particular airplane after thorough reviews by the FAA of the aircraft, the pilot, and their records. All such operations must comply with the rigorous safety provisions of Part 136, Section A. The aircraft must receive 100-hour inspections (comparable to annual inspections in their comprehensiveness and expense), and pilots and crew must be on an approved drug testing program. (See CFR14 Part 91.147.)
The only legal way to fly for hire under Part 91 without a LOA is to fly daytime VFR within a 25-mile radius of a single public airport expressly for the purpose of raising funds for the benefit of a registered charitable organization or community event. These flights cannot occur more than four times per year, and each such flight requires seven days’ advance notice to the local FAA office. The pilot must have at least 500 hours of experience as a licensed pilot, and the beneficiary of the funds raised must not be in the aviation business. Further, the reimbursement must not exceed “the pro rata cost of owning, operating, and maintaining the aircraft for that flight, which may include fuel, oil, airport expenditures, and rental fees.” (See CFR 14 Part 91.146.)
There is one case for general aviation that is not considered “flying for hire” and which permits a pilot to share certain direct* costs of a flight with his (or her) passengers. These regulations reside in CFR14 Part 61.118(b). According to the regulations and to judgments made by FAA Boards in previous adjudications, three conditions must be met for a flight to qualify under this regulation:
- There must be a bona fide sharing of expenses among all occupants of the aircraft, i.e., the pilot must pay his pro rata share of the direct* expenses of the flight.
- Only direct* costs of the flight may be shared. These include aircraft rental, fuel, oil, parking or landing fees away from the aircraft’s home base, and so on. Expenses that do not qualify for sharing are indirect costs such as insurance, maintenance, reserves for engine overhaul, and so on. I have not found any adjudicated case that permits the sharing of costs for a pilot to commute to pick up passengers for a flight.
- The pilot and passengers must be making the flight for a common purpose. I.e., the pilot’s purpose may not be simply to provide transportation for the passengers, regardless of whether he approves of their purpose.
I have personally met and continue to meet all of the above conditions for flights that I’ve piloted for OWOC in the Gulf of Mexico or elsewhere. I receive no personal financial gain from these flights or even from OWOC. Since May of 2010, I have personally flown more than 600 hours for the Gulf of Mexico, and all of those flights and their findings have been documented at the website OnWingsOfCare.org or in other public media. OWOC is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to promoting the welfare of domestic animals and wildlife and their habitats and to providing humanitarian aid, by helping with searches, rescues, transports, rehabilitation, research, and public education. As part of fulfilling OWOC’s mission, we work extensively to document, share, and publish the findings, photos, and videos from our flights for public benefit.
On Wings Of Care operates with an all-volunteer staff and covers all of its expenses through donations. Many of our volunteers, Advisors, and Board members have taken on extra revenue-producing employment or projects specifically in order to support the OWOC mission. In addition, they donate their equipment and expertise in photography, videography, aviation, aircraft maintenance, animal rescue work, veterinary work, information technology, and more to support the OWOC mission. OWOC relies on donations to help with expenses that can only be paid with cash, such as aircraft operation, veterinary services, and so on. Donations received by OWOC to help with our missions' aircraft operations are fully tax-deductible and fall well within the legal requirements of the FAA, the IRS, and local and state regulations.
For your information and assurance regarding safety and regulations, it might also be of interest to you that On Wings Of Care’s primary pilot (me) and Gulf of Mexico-based aircraft (a single-engine Cessna named “Bessie”) have both been granted a Letter of Authorization and certified to fly for hire under the Louisiana-based company A Look From Above LLC. We are also in the process of obtaining a Part 135 certificate to fly for hire under Stratus Air LLC. The aircraft safety standards for our Part 135 certificate are quite rigorous; for example, they require fulfillment of all recommended service bulletins for the airplane, engine, and propeller since their original release from the factory. In contrast, general aviation (Part 91) flying requires only fulfillment of new mandatory airworthiness directives. We undertook the laborious completion of all service bulletins for Bessie as well as a thorough replacement or overhaul of all mechanical components of Bessie after Hurricane Isaac last summer. She’ll also be getting her well-deserved new paint this spring! We don’t know of another single-engine airplane that we feel is safer than Bessie for the kinds of flights we make to benefit the Gulf of Mexico. Just like accomplishing OWOC’s and others’ nonprofit missions, flying safely and legally takes teamwork, dedication, and attention to detail. I hope this letter and its information are helpful.
Cheers and Blue Skies!
Bonny L. Schumaker, Ph.D.
Founder and President, On Wings Of Care, Inc.