Who’s the boss?: When it comes to operating your aircraft, it better be you

Southerners have a long-standing reputation for being friendly.

My first real encounter with Southern charm came when I was relocating from New Jersey to Georgia in 1978. I chose Gainesville due to its proximity to Atlanta — and it had a good GA airport.

When I climbed out of my airplane at the appointed time at the Gainesville Airport, the real estate agent was there waiting, all set to show me some houses. After the initial meet and greet, she said, “come on, I’ll carry you to the first house on the list.” To which I replied, “That’s nice of you, but I’m quite healthy and I can walk on my own.” Thus was completed my first of many lessons in Southern terminology.

Southern aviators are quite friendly too. Friends always seem to be flying other friend’s airplanes, or doing favors for folks with their airplanes. I, too, am in that mix. After all, this is part of who we are as general aviation pilots and aircraft owners.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that “no good deed goes unpunished.” If you own an aircraft and loan it out, rent it or carry people for reimbursement – even if just for operating expenses — you could unknowingly be setting yourself up for a serious fall. The same goes if you happen to be the one doing the borrowing.

Two highly publicized business jet crashes, one in Teterboro, N.J., and the other in Montrose, Colo., stimulated the FAA to significantly ramp up its enforcement of “Operational Control.” The big rub was that companies like charter brokers, seat sellers, trip organizers, etc., who weren’t actually the operator of the aircraft, were assuming control over the activity — or representing themselves as the charter company when all they did was broker seats. Although not a direct cause in these high-profile crashes, they still revealed a serious problem.

A new FAA division, AFS-250, was formed to address general aviation issues through a direct branch concentrating on GA and Part 135 (charter), instead of by people who are of the Part 121 (scheduled air carrier) mindset.

Why is this important to the friendly Southerners flying and loaning out their Cessnas or Pipers? Simple – it’s a renewed warning that what may be the nice thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do. If you are caught, the FAA and/or your insurance company could come down hard.

The sky is not falling on those who operate their aircraft in their businesses, flight departments, and for personal flying, so long as they do it per the FARs. For example, I operate my R22 helicopter in my company as a for-hire aerial photography platform, aerial survey and sightseeing. I do it under Part 91. I’m insured, current and the aircraft meets all the Part 91 maintenance requirements for this operation. What I don’t do is offer the R22 for a charter type operation (taking someone from point A to point B for hire). This would require me to obtain a Part 135 certificate. Nor do I let anybody else offer my services for their customers. I keep operational control.

Let’s say you offer to take a friend in your plane to the beach on a weekend to meet up with his family. You only charge him what you say is your basic cost of operation, with no intent for profit. It doesn’t matter. You charged him for carriage from point A to point B. You just conducted an illegal Part 135 operation. No big deal, right? Only you and your good friend know. That may be true, until you slide off the runway, wreck the plane and seriously injure your friend. Will that friend stay your friend? Or will he or his family sue your socks off and, in the course of that action, reveal that you were in fact charging for that flight? Guess what your insurance company will say then. Read your policy.

The same goes for that “arrangement” where you “loan” your plane to someone. Do you receive any compensation for that “loan”? Is that someone really qualified and current — not only per the regulations, but your insurance company? If your friend is flying your plane and reimbursing you “off the books,” will that friendship change if he wrecks your plane or, even worse, he’s flying when your plane has a mechanical problem causing a wreck and injury?

Understand, too, that although your friend is at the controls of the plane, you are still in control – you are the boss. If something happens, don’t think the sharks won’t come hunting you. If you run afoul of the FAA and/or your insurance company, that simple “arrangement” just became very complicated.

Am I trying to be the transplanted damned Yankee throwing cold water on years of the friendly Southern ways of aircraft use? No. It would be hypocritical of me because I have the keys to two different airplanes owned by two very close friends — and a very good friend of mine has the keys to my R22. In all cases, there is a clear understanding between all parties involved about insurance requirements, regulations, maintenance, and how the aircraft will be operated.

So don’t drop your Southern ways. Just start out the New Year taking a fresh look at your operations. You may have the best intentions and it’s easy to inject your own logic into the regulations or insurance wording to justify your actions. But the acid test is for you to ask yourself: If something happens, how would the insurance company try to deny coverage? How would the feds try to charge me? Then ask, how can I modify what I’m doing to mitigate those risks?

Let your good friend fly your plane. Continue to do those Angel Flights. The scenarios are endless. Just remember that we owners should be in full control, or have given a proper and trusted entity control of what our plane is doing on any given flight – leasebacks included. Conversely, if you are the one doing the borrowing, make sure you really are operating within the requirements of your friend’s insurance and the FARs — because even Southern hospitality can only go so far.

Guy R. Maher has been involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in GA airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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