First, Do No Harm

October 25, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

It’s something that all pilots should embrace, but especially those who fly for charity.  Offering your aircraft to transport people in need of medical attention, moving animals to new homes, carrying wounded and aging veterans, or conducting environmental assessment flights is a higher calling and one that we heartily endorse.

It happens all over the country with little fanfare. The vast majority of the time everything works as it should, but occasionally there will be a mishap or worse, a fatal accident. In the summer of 2008, there were three bad accidents involving charity transports (Boston, Iowa City, and Tampa) which led the NTSB and FAA to look more closely at the activity. The Air Safety Institute moved quickly to assist the groups, working in conjunction with an umbrella organization known as the Air Care Alliance. It represents many different charitable flight activities, and a joint effort in funding allowed the creation of a special online course for volunteer pilots.

The Institute designed some safety management guidelines for pilots, weather conditions, and currency. It would be a bit of an overstatement to say that there was unanimous agreement on what those guidelines should be, or that one set would be appropriate for all flight operations or circumstances.

For example, the Air Safety Institute recommends fuel reserves of at least one hour. VFR flight minimums should be no less than 2,000’ ceiling and five miles visibility—higher in mountainous terrain. How about crosswinds? The arbitrary call was 75% of the demonstrated component. However, that might be tempered by pilot experience and currency. An active ATP, familiar with the aircraft, might be quite capable of handling crosswinds up to the demonstrated maximum. A relatively new private pilot should be more conservative.

An annual flight review was recommended with more stringent IFR currency. Part 91 served as the starting point, but we felt that since the charitable clients would not be knowledgeable about the nature of their pilot or the trip, a somewhat higher standard of care might be applied. These recommendations serve as guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The safety officers of each organization should apply appropriate wisdom. Charitable good works by GA are held in the highest regard, and we pilots have an obligation to take commensurate care. As with doctors, humanitarian pilots should also take the Hippocratic Oath.

Charitable good works for GA can also be as simple as donating to a good cause. The AOPA Foundation is dedicated to promoting GA and its varied uses, but we need your help. Consider a donation today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Ben

    Careful review of accidents is a good way to learn, so long as we don’t assume too much from the evidence available (which is usually not really much in he end). It would be great if you gave us links to the accident reports for each of the 3 accidents that aroused so much interest. Then we could see for ourselves how these recommendatsion align with the accident scenarios.

    Demonstrated Crosswind Component (DCC) is not a limitation, and using it as a recommendation has pitfalls, Under the rules as they existed when the majority of GA piston airplanes were certified, there is no requirement to deomstrate what the airplane is capability of achieving. You don’t know if the test pilot ran out of rudder and nearly scraped a wing tip, or if they just didn’t have very much wind during flight test. In some airplanes attempting to match the DCC might soil your shorts, while in others you may have done it a hundred times and didn’t much notice.

    What does certificate level have to do with it? An ATP and 20000 hours in Boeings does not make one imune to the weather, and in fact many of the airline guys I know struggle when the come back to piston flying (because, for example, many routine decisoins are made for them).

    This concept of adding “margin” is often discussed rather incompletely, so it sound quite arbitrary. It is all fine and good to say I will never land with less than 1 hour of fuel, fly an approach to published minimums, or exceed 75% of the DCC. Such “personal minimums” are valid during flight planning, sometimes helpful in decision making after departure but only so much as the information we have allows. Ultimately you have to deal with the conditions that prevail, not what was in the forecast or on your plan. I’d suggest more emphasis on learning to recognize when the plan has ceased to be useful and you need a new plan. Certainly we can do things before flight to prepare better for needing to change the plan, but only if we understand what *might* be needed and recognize when it’s time to use it.

    A lot of our discussion of areonauthical decision making is, to be frank, arogant. We assume that the pilot who made the bad decision was an idiot. Maybe, maybe not. The myth is that if we have the right attitude and habbits, we’ll never be as stupid as that guy. Dangerous. Smart pilots get fooled. When you read an accident report or a harrowing account of near disaster, instead of thinking how superior we are to that guy, imagine what would sucker you into making the same mistakes, and how to recognize the clues that were missed (if any).

  • Bob Turner

    Click on the cities above to go to the NTSB reports.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks for your thoughts. The DCC ( I Like the acronym! ) is the best guess that we have. All minimums short of those derived by hard numbers are admittedly arbitrary, as are the supposed skills levels conferred by certificate. You are absolutely correct that “your mileage may vary.” My disclaimers above apply.

    We did attempt to factor in recent experience by make and model . There is no question that accident investigation and findings are Monday morning quarterbacking.

    But as you’ll see in two of he three accidents above, Boston and Iowa, the errors and judgment failure were significant. In Florida, while the NTSB cited a 6 knot tailwind that should not have made a difference on a 5,000′ runway. The pilot may have suffered incapacitation – cause undetermined in my view.

    I agree partially with your statement that we shouldn’t be too arrogant as there are many cases where it comes down to timing and a quick judgment call. However, there are hundreds of accidents annually where the danger is clear and present. In this small, statistically insignificant sample, 66% were clearly beyond what a prudent and competent pilot should have done.

    Again – thanks for some good thoughts – keeps us honest!

  • Javier

    Charity flight is a great action and any pilot doing it should be thanked for his/her great effort. In any case, they have to think about the safety of their flight and aircraft. They should think to prepare properly by making some flights with someone else who already did something similar to learn something or to read books made by people who made this kind of operation. Watch also some successful forum like or to get advices.