A Brief Chronicle of the Air Care Alliance

The Air Care Alliance was formed following a conference of volunteer based charitable flying groups held at the headquarters of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in 1990. The objectives were to continue to hold an annual conference, to develop consensus among the groups on appropriate regulations, to promote the missions of all the groups, to ensure safe operations, and to encourage the groups to work together in mutual support.

The next part of this document will provide some detailed history of the Air Care Alliance and its accomplishments.  We encourage you to read on!

Early History
Throughout the course of aviation history pilots and organizations have used general aviation aircraft to help those in need and to serve their communities. In most cases these were ad-hoc efforts, where pilots helped a neighbor in a small town get to a medical appointment, volunteered use of an airplane to search for lost persons, ferried workers to help following disasters, etc. Few of these efforts were conducted through groups formed for the purpose, with the notable exception of the Civil Air Patrol, plus a few others.  And most of the “official” work was performed by the military, commercial charter companies, and commercial or not-for-profit air ambulance and similar providers.

In the 1980’s a number of new volunteer-based nonprofit organizations formed, many with the mission of facilitating patient and medical transport flights for those who could not afford them or were not near airports served by airlines. Others supported flights serving environmental or conservation needs, or introductory flights for youth.


The birth of the Air Care Alliance
In 1990 Air Care Alliance Founder Bill Worden, a pilot and board member of Angel Flight of California (now called Angel Flight West), decided it would be a good idea to have a convocation of the leaders of volunteer pilot organizations (VPO’s). He worked with Patricia Weil, of the communications division of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), to schedule the conference and asked ACA Co-Founder Rol Murrow of the Emergency Volunteer Air Corps to help organize it and to moderate the discussions.

The event was called Air Med 90 and was held in a large conference room at AOPA headquarters. It was thought that perhaps 25 or 35 people from a half dozen or so organizations would attend. However the organizers were quite surprised when more than a hundred representatives from more than 25 groups showed up. Many of the groups were not known to the others.

Air Med 90 featured presentations on forming and operating nonprofit organizations, coordinating flights and volunteer pilots, marketing, fundraising, regulations, safety, and preparing the groups’ pilots to respond in emergencies and following disasters.

The final hours featured a brainstorming and work session on what the attendees wanted to see come out of the conference. The delegates agreed that more conferences should be held annually and that an organization should be formed to make this happen, and to work on matters of common concern for the various volunteer pilot organizations.

The delegates also made it clear they did not want the new organization to assume any kind of control over the various VPO’s, but rather to facilitate communications and cooperation among them, to act as a central clearinghouse for information supporting the work of all the groups, and to develop consensus for presentation before regulatory agencies. The activity of the many VPO’s is commonly known as Public Benefit Flying (PBF), and the flights are often called Compassion Flights.

About fifteen of the delegates volunteered to form a steering committee, which was invited by AOPA President Phil Boyer to meet the following Spring in AOPA’s board room. Murrow was asked to facilitate the meeting. The committee developed a mission statement and name for the group, drafted a set of objectives, and tasked Murrow and Worden with forming the corporation in California and working with nonprofit attorney Richard Blacker of Angel Flight of California to prepare bylaws.

Soon the Air Care Alliance was incorporated and attained federal IRS 501 c 3 tax exempt status. At the next national conference, now called Air Care, the member groups elected directors and then officers were designated.

From the very beginning and throughout its history the Air Care Alliance has enjoyed the participation and support of a number of leaders of many of the first major volunteer pilot organizations around the country, including Jim Shafer of Angel Flight of Georgia, Wanda Whitsitt of LifeLine Pilots, Worden and Blacker of Angel Flight of California, Mary Webb of Angel Flight of Florida (now called Mercy Flight Southeast), Murrow of EVAC, Larry Chome and Kevin Sell of Volunteer Pilots Association, Doug Vincent of Angel Flight of Oklahoma, Harry Morales of Angel Flight of Pennsylvania (now Angel Flight East), Ed Elder of Flights for Life, and many others. Worden served as ACA’s first and longtime President, and Murrow likewise as its first Chairman.


ACA Communications Initiatives
In addition to holding the annual conferences in various locations around the country the Air Care Alliance developed a newsletter, and later a website, to share information and promote the work of the various organizations. A phone help line for patients and others needing help was also established, although in the 90’s as the World Wide Web came into wide use the referrals increasingly were accomplished by individuals accessing groups using our web listings page. 

Policy adopted to support all known groups
Very early the founding members adopted the practice of identifying, listing, promoting, and making referrals to all known volunteer pilot organizations, rather than just those groups which chose to be dues-paying Members of ACA. Since ACA is a 501 c 3 charitable organization and not officially a membership service organization it was agreed that the first duty is to help patients and others needing charitable general aviation support, and to support the volunteers who wish to help them. It was believed and accepted that it does not do a patient any good to not inform them about a group whose members might be able to help the patient, even if the group is not a Member. That policy has continued to this day.

ACA’s Member organizations do have the distinction of being known for selflessly contributing to the work of all the public benefit flying groups, and for dedicating personnel and resources to champion this activity. ACA asks that the public and members of the aviation community provide special recognition to ACA Member organizations in recognition for their extra contributions to charitable aviation.


ACA pioneers public service booths at AOPA conferences
In 1994 AOPA invited ACA to join AOPA’s various departments in a set of special exhibits in the Membership Area of AOPA’s national conference, AOPA EXPO, held that year in Las Vegas. ACA was the first public service group to be offered such a booth by AOPA, and the idea was so well received that each year since AOPA has made a number of booths available to ACA and other charitable and aviation service organizations. The booths are usually located in the conference lobby areas adjacent to AOPA’s own booths. AOPA has also regularly hosted seminars on public benefit flying at its conferences.

FAA policy forbidding tax deductions repealed
Public Benefit Aviation has not been without its special challenges. Early in its history ACA was faced with a new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy ruling which stated that a pilot taking a tax deduction for costs incurred in flying a patient transport or other mission for a VPO would be deriving a benefit from the flight, and thus be considered flying for compensation and in violation of part 135 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR’s). Murrow was able to work with senior staff at FAA to review this policy. To its credit, FAA realized that its new policy conflicted with Congress’ intent to allow volunteers to take deductions for use of vehicles to help others, and rescinded the statement. FAA replaced it with one that states a pilot can take a deduction for IRS-approved expenses, as long as there is no compensation or reimbursement involved. This policy is still in effect today, and has been clarified in language published to the FAA’s regional staff and in rulings issued to groups.

First public benefit call sign COMPASSION created
The Air Care Alliance worked with another FAA department to develop a call sign and special procedures for use by volunteer pilots to identify non-emergency charitable flights to air traffic controllers. The ICAO-sanctioned international call sign COMPASSION was made available by FAA and ACA to all the VPO’s and their members. Since then proprietary commercial call signs have also been developed by two VPO’s, using the procedures pioneered by ACA.

The First ACA-AOPA Safety Program
ACA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation collaborated in 1998 on a project to develop a book of safety recommendations for volunteer pilots, and a companion video, called “Volunteer Pilots: Recommendations for Enhanced Safety.” The materials were furnished to all the VPO’s and the book is still available on the ACA and AOPA websites.

Differences of opinion and return to original objectives
In 1999 ACA faced a crisis when several board members, including some new officers, decided that public benefit flying would be more efficiently conducted if ACA developed common operating procedures and required its Members to conform and become parts of a national and exclusive PBF network. They proposed that noncomplying groups or those not Members would no longer be supported. In a lively discussion at that year’s conference the membership rejected this concept, and in a subsequent reorganization and with the return of its original leadership ACA returned to its core mission of supporting all PBF groups, those they help, and the volunteers who provide the flights.

Creation of the National Public Benefit Flying Awards
In late 2002 Linda Daschle, former FAA Deputy Administrator for the Airports Division, approached ACA and asked if she could help support public benefit flying using her professional relationships with leaders in Washington, DC. ACA leaders worked with her and Don Koranda, President of the National Aeronautic Association, to create a special set of National Public Benefit Flying Awards, first presented in the United States Capitol Building in 2003.

Since then each year the awards have been presented there, providing well-deserved recognition for the accomplishments and contributions of volunteer pilots, their groups, and those who support them. The ceremony also improves the understanding of the public and our elected officials in Congress of the importance of general aviation in serving the needs of our citizens and the Nation.

Awards have been presented not only to individuals and groups, but also collectively to large numbers of pilots, such as those who flew relief missions starting the very evening of the 911 attacks; and also immediately following Hurricane Katrina. From the very beginning ACA has urged the VPO’s to develop emergency preparedness programs and it is very gratifying that now almost every group has a program and has offered its pilots to help whenever and wherever needed.


Commercial sightseeing NPRM threatens volunteer pilot group operations
In 2006 following several well-publicized accidents involving sightseeing helicopters in Hawaii the FAA began a rulemaking process to add restrictions and controls on all air tour operators and on many other passenger carrying operations by small operators. In the draft language onerous provisions were included that inadvertently could have curtailed most, if not all, of the charitable flying performed by volunteer pilots.

ACA provided written comments about this problem and ACA representatives including ACA’s Legal Committee Chair Jeff Kahn and Chairman Murrow traveled to hearings in Washington, where they presented testimony about the problems with the FAA’s draft rule. They also proposed alternative language that not only preserved the ability of volunteer pilots to fly missions but also cleaned up some prior existing language that was had long been confusing regarding charity flights. Again to its credit FAA’s final rule, released in 2007, included ACA’s recommendations.


EAA celebrates public benefit flying at AirVenture
The Experimental Aviation Association recognized the work of volunteer pilots by providing a large tent and display space at EAA’s AirVenture 2009, using the theme Fly4Life. In addition special programs, such as a panel discussion the the Theatre in the Woods, illustrated the scope and range of public benefit flying.  Volunteers and staff members from a large number of VPO’s took turns staffing the booth and exhibits, once more informing the attending pilots and general public about the value of this important activity.

New leadership
In 2009 the ACA board chose a new President, Lindy Kirkland, USMC Retired, and former Commander of Marine One. As a longtime volunteer pilot and champion of public benefit flying Lindy continued well the tradition of service to the public benefit flying community that ACA has observed.  In 2014 because of work and family obligations Lindy became Executive President, and continues to represent ACA well with the associations and agencies in meetings in the Washington, DC area.

Accidents cause a threat of inappropriate regulations
Several accidents involving pilots from different groups occurred in 2007 and 2008.  The National Transportation Safety Board(NTSB) investigated and considered recommending new FAA regulations governing the operations of volunteer pilots.  ACA’s Kahn, Kirkland, and Murrow worked with the NTSB by cooperating in the investigation, providing information about the different ways the groups operate, and surveying the groups regarding appropriate recommendations.

Recognizing there was no common factor among the accidents and that sufficient existing regulations were already in place, the NTSB instead issued several recommendations and charged ACA with communicating them to the groups and gaining acceptance.  The recommendations included a greater emphasis on safety training, especially regarding factors that might affect patient transport and other volunteer pilot operations, as well as proper briefing of patients and other passengers about the nature of noncommercial general aviation flights compared to commercial for-hire operations.


ACA-AOPA Foundation online safety course created
ACA worked with the AOPA Foundation and its Air Safety Institute to create a new multimedia online course, approved by the FAA for Wings Program training credit, that instructs volunteer pilots on factors that might lead to problems in conducting public benefit flights and how to mitigate them and maximize safety.  The course was supported by the Foundation and significant donations from a number of volunteer pilot organizations and others, and has now been completed by many hundreds of pilots.  It is called “Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion,” and may be accessed at http://flash.aopa.org/asf/volunteerpilots/index.cfm.

Now and in the future
Dedicated volunteers continue to serve on ACA’s board of directors and as officers, and they work to make each year’s Air Care conference especially valuable for leaders of the many groups working throughout the country and abroad. ACA asks that you get to know them and their groups, perhaps at an Air Care conference. They and other representatives from the Member organizations help publicize public benefit flying, fight to prevent inappropriate regulations, and gladly share their expertise and knowledge to improve the safety and work of all volunteer pilots and their groups.