Part 1 – Air Rides
by Jim Hanson
How do most people first experience General Aviation? Usually with a ride from a friend, which often leads to an interest in learning to fly.
We’ve covered the subject of exposing more people to the learn-to-fly experience. How about those who just want to RIDE in a general aviation airplane? That usually happens in one of two scenarios, either an airplane ride at an aviation event, or a charter flight.
In both of these cases, well-meaning “regulators” have helped kill off the industry they are charged with “regulating.” When using the term “regulator,” I can’t help but think not of the dictionary definition of “a person or thing that keeps things constant,” but rather the deputized posse’s (really, private armies) often hired by western cattlemen to impose their own idea of justice — the most famous of which was Billy (“The Kid”) Bonney. Far from “Keeping things regular” (NOT changing), like the regulators of the old west, the “regulators” of today are the instruments of change by enacting new laws, and not always for the better!
Government regulation has an “unintended consequence,” often hurting the very people that regulation purports to help. In their zeal for zero accidents, the “regulators” (let’s call them the Federal Aviation Administration) have helped destroy the aviation industry. Consider the following examples:
Remember “penny a pound” air rides? (Okay, inflation has taken its toll; it’s now closer to a dime a pound cost). They were usually done as a fund-raiser for a charitable event. Private pilots would donate their time and airplanes to give the general public a chance to view their community from the air. Air ride events were a great way for the airport to become “visible” in the community — pilots donating their time for a charitable cause — a great way to promote the airport and general aviation to non-pilots in the community — improving the image of general aviation — and sparking the interest in flight training. What better way to get people interested in aviation?
Despite the fact that air rides rarely end up in disaster (after all, they are usually conducted within sight of the airport!), the FAA saw a possibility of danger, and predictably, over-reacted.
Essentially, pilots would have to meet the same standards as charter flights or commercial air tour companies, like those that fly over the Grand Canyon. That meant listed and vetted pilots, charter-like rules on aircraft, and drug testing for pilots, just to donate their aircraft and time to fly around the airport on a nice day. Predictably, air rides — the very way most people were introduced to aviation — became virtually extinct.
There is a happy ending to the story, though. After several years, the FAA finally recognized the damage done, and actually changed the law. Here is FAR 91.146:
§ 91.146 Passenger-carrying flights for the benefit of a charitable, nonprofit, or community event.
(a) Definitions. For purposes of this section, the following definitions apply:
Charitable event means an event that raises funds for the benefit of a charitable organization recognized by the Department of the Treasury whose donors may deduct contributions under section 170 of the Internal Revenue Code (26 U.S.C. Section 170).
Community event means an event that raises funds for the benefit of any local or community cause that is not a charitable event or non-profit event.
Non-profit event means an event that raises funds for the benefit of a non-profit organization recognized under State or Federal law, as long as one of the organization’s purposes is the promotion of aviation safety.
(b) Passenger carrying flights for the benefit of a charitable, nonprofit, or community event identified in paragraph (c) of this section are not subject to the certification requirements of part 119 or the drug and alcohol testing requirements in part 121, appendices I and J, of this chapter, provided the following conditions are satisfied and the limitations in paragraphs (c) and (d) are not exceeded:
(1) The flight is nonstop and begins and ends at the same airport and is conducted within a 25-statute mile radius of that airport;
(2) The flight is conducted from a public airport that is adequate for the airplane or helicopter used, or from another location the FAA approves for the operation;
(3) The airplane or helicopter has a maximum of 30 seats, excluding each crewmember seat, and a maximum payload capacity of 7,500 pounds;
(4) The flight is not an aerobatic or a formation flight;
(5) Each airplane or helicopter holds a standard airworthiness certificate, is airworthy, and is operated in compliance with the applicable requirements of subpart E of this part;
(6) Each flight is made during day VFR conditions;
(7) Reimbursement of the operator of the airplane or helicopter is limited to that portion of the passenger payment for the flight that does 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;
(8) The beneficiary of the funds raised is not in the business of transportation by air;
(9) A private pilot acting as pilot in command has at least 500 hours of flight time;
(10) Each flight is conducted in accordance with the safety provisions of part 136, subpart A of this chapter; and has secured a letter of agreement from the FAA, as specified under subpart B of part 136 of this chapter, and is operating in accordance with that agreement during the flights.
(c) (1) Passenger-carrying flights or series of flights are limited to a total of four charitable events or non-profit events per year, with no event lasting more than three consecutive days.
(2) Passenger-carrying flights or series of flights are limited to one community event per year, with no event lasting more than three consecutive days.
(d) Pilots and sponsors of events described in this section are limited to no more than 4 events per calendar year.
(e) At least seven days before the event, each sponsor of an event described in this section must furnish to the FAA Flight Standards District Office with jurisdiction over the geographical area where the event is scheduled:
(1) A signed letter detailing the name of the sponsor, the purpose of the event, the date and time of the event, the location of the event, all prior events under this section participated in by the sponsor in the current calendar year;
(2) A photocopy of each pilot in command’s pilot certificate, medical certificate, and logbook entries that show the pilot is current in accordance with §§61.56 and 61.57 of this chapter and that any private pilot has at least 500 hours of flight time; and
(3) A signed statement from each pilot that lists all prior events under this section in which the pilot has participated during the current calendar year.
That’s “do-able.” Make sure you have a non-profit, charitable, or “community event” as the basis for your air rides. Private pilots can use their certificated aircraft (no experimental or LSA aircraft) for rides (and no airliners, either). No aerobatics, formation flights, or off-airport operations. No rookies — each pilot must have 500 hours. Each pilot must meet recent flight requirements, have a flight review, and a medical certificate. Note the notification requirements for the FAA listed in the FARs above (also note that it is notification, not permission). Here’s a big one: Drug testing is no longer required!
Now that “the regulators” have removed the most onerous parts of the law, we should get back to using this proven method of raising community awareness for the airport. This is really easy to do—and you can do it up to four (4) times each year.
I suggest you choose your fund-raising “partners” carefully. Pick a partner that has a good reputation within the community — one that will help turn out a crowd for the event (and remember, the event can last as long as 3 days).
Have the fund-raising partner pre-sell rides. People may not buy a ticket at the airport, but it is pretty hard for them to turn down a Shriner doing a benefit for crippled children. Consider making the pre-sold tickets a different color, enabling them to “jump the line” and “take the first available aircraft.”
Don’t forget to involve the news media (after all, you ARE doing a good deed for a local charity!). We even invite the media for a demo ride several days BEFORE the event. It’s free publicity for your operation, and if the piece comes out the day before the event, it helps the charitable or community operation to turn out crowds.
Though the donor of the aircraft can receive reimbursement for fuel for the event, consider doing something special for them. I suggest a post-event get-together to thank them. The pilots will feel that they have been a part of something good.
Be sure to have “learn to fly” promotional material (AND someone that can sell flight training) ready to answer questions about learning to fly. Remember, the people taking the rides have already expressed a desire to fly, so they are potential flight students.
Consider offering an “upgrade.” We can tell them, “Yes, you can take the airplane ride, but for not a lot more money, you can fly the airplane yourself! Would you like to book an introductory flight lesson?”
Consider using one of your four allocated events during an EAA Young Eagles promotion, if you have the aircraft and pilots available to do so. Adults often live vicariously through their kids. Parents will bring them out to a Young Eagles event, but would like to go up, themselves. The kids go for free during the Young Eagles event, but the adults can be accommodated on a separate flight. (Don’t forget that EAA and the local EAA chapters are also non-profit organizations, and are therefore eligible and this can help EAA.) Note that EAA is now considering doing a “Grey Eagles” program for adults, which can be part of it. Kids get the free program (and the recognition that comes with it), and adults get to participate as well by buying a ride — a shared experience for kids and adults — making it even MORE memorable.
Though the FAA doesn’t require it, check insurance liability coverage on donated aircraft.
Consider carefully which pilots you want flying, and which you do not. ‘Nuff said.
Appoint a specific person or committee to evaluate weather conditions and to make the call whether you will conduct the rides or not. Make the call as soon as you can. Err on the side of safety and convenience. An accident, or having people get ill on a bad day, can wipe out goodwill.
Do I really have to remind you to have a supply of sick-sacks in each aircraft?
Have a designated and visible place for people to buy tickets. The person selling tickets can put groups together in specific aircraft — telling a four-person group that they should wait until a six-place aircraft comes back so they can all go together, for example, or suggesting that a disabled person utilize a specific aircraft for ease of loading, or suggesting that three burly Minnesota farmers might not want to go together in a Piper Warrior.
If you have some unique aircraft (seaplanes, gliders, helicopter, antiques), you may or may not want to put a “premium price” on those aircraft. We’ve even done air rides in a King Air!
Always invite riders to bring their camera. In today’s “social media” age, those pictures will be widely distributed, adding to the impact of the ride. For those still using film, try “partnering” with a local photo processor to offer a discount.
Make provisions for the handicapped; many people find it easier to get into a high-wing airplane, for example. Cherokee 6s, with their big cargo doors, are also easy for the handicapped to board the back seats. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated.
Make sure it is a fun experience! Do whatever you can to make it a carnival atmosphere — food, trinkets — we’ve even had a “carnival barker” dressed up in a striped coat, skimmer hat, and cane extolling the virtues of “taking to the air” just like the barnstormers, and wonder of wonders, it works!
Be sure to have airplane loaders and unloaders assisting…helping people in and out, pointing out where passengers may or may not step, helping with seat belts, and most important, clearing the area around the aircraft of spectators. You’ll have a lot of excited but unaware people around the airplanes, many of them children, who are hard for pilots to see.
Hold a pilot and handlers briefing. Make sure your pilots do a preflight briefing, and that pilots always come across as safe, deliberate, and smooth. Explain to all involved the altitudes, routes, speeds (try to have all at the same speed, as this is not a race), time enroute, radio calls, passing procedures (try not to have to do this), pattern entry, taxi procedures, and loading/unloading procedures for each possible runway. Usually, 12 minutes aloft and 3 minutes taxi time is enough for most riders. Plan your route to go along the periphery of your community so that riders can identify local landmarks. The steady parade of planes will also remind people that there is something going on at the airport, adding to your passenger count.
There you have it…a fun way for you to garner community support for your airport, a way to improve the image of general aviation in your community, a way to “partner” with deserving charities or community events, a way to help promote flight training, and a way to involve current pilots — and all at very little cost.
The FAA has backed off on an overzealous policy (who says that government can’t be changed?). Let’s use this restored freedom to maximum advantage. Start planning air rides NOW!
In the next issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, I will tackle the subject of “charter flights,” and what revisions of the Federal Aviation Regulations are needed to restore this once effective air transportation service.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. He has been in aviation long enough that he remembers when airplane rides were “a penny a pound.” Jim has shared suggestions on how to improve student starts and to retain current pilots. If you would like to bend his ear, contact him at his airport office at 507-373-0608, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org