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Pilot FAQs

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What are the requirements to become a volunteer pilot?
  • Have an interest in conservation issues.
  • Have logged at least 1,000 hours as Pilot in Command (PIC) with an excellent safety record.
  • Provide a copy of your Private, Commercial or ATP certificate.
  • Provide a copy of your Third Class or higher Medical Certificate. If operating under BasicMed, provide a copy of your Comprehensive Medical Exam Checklist and Medical Education Course Completion Certificate.
  • Own or have access to a suitable aircraft.
  • Maintain at least $1 million / $100K liability coverage and provide a Certificate of Insurance with a 10-day notice of cancellation clause to LightHawk. Additionally, LightHawk must be named as an additional insured on this policy. (See more about insurance below.)
  • Provide a copy of your private, commercial or ATP certificate, and a copy of your current third class (or higher) medical certificate, a requirement when conducting LightHawk flights.
  • Provide us with the names of two or more references that we may contact, at least one of which is a pilot who has flown with you recently. 
  • Complete an orientation call with LightHawk staff.
  • Provide photographs of the inside and outside of your aircraft and a photograph of yourself.
  • Agree to complete and keep current all necessary paperwork associated with being a LightHawk pilot. This includes updating your pilot file annually and completing trip reports promptly after all flights.
  • Agree to maintain all FAA currency, flight, and medical standards required under FAR’s and any additional currency standards as required by LightHawk, including but not limited to Annual recurrent ground and flight training as described in the most current revision of LightHawk Pilot Standards.  LightHawk volunteer pilots will attest to their compliance with all required standards by signing the most current revision of the LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Agreement, which additionally states that the pilot is not an employee or agent of LightHawk and is acting on his/her own behalf.   
Why does LightHawk require 1,000 hours when other volunteer pilot organizations require less?

Most charitable volunteer pilot organizations are transportation oriented, designed to move people or cargo between airports in flight profiles common from your first day of flying. In contrast, LightHawk flights are generally scenic in nature and may require the pilot to fly at lower altitudes (still around 1,000’ AGL minimum), maneuver for views of specific points on the ground, and in other ways fly flight profiles that are more challenging and less common than straight-line transport. After a significant amount of time flying, pilots have had exposure to a much wider variety of situations and have gained the expertise and confidence to say “no”, as well as to appropriately divide attention between flying and other demands. While any time requirement can be labeled “arbitrary”, LightHawk’s requirement is based on a number of respected statistical analyses of General Aviation safety, and has been upheld consistently by our board as the membership requirement for volunteer pilots. A majority of our volunteers substantially exceed this minimum requirement. 

What happens during an orientation call?

LightHawk staff members will meet with you by phone to talk about the organization, our flight planning process, expectations, paperwork, and reporting needs. We’ll discuss what you can expect as a LightHawk volunteer and emphasize your role as the PIC and sole operating authority on these flights. You also will learn about the more common flight profiles and we will discuss working with photographers and reporters. Generally, LightHawk wants to determine that you are passenger-oriented in your flying, that you have a good understanding of how LightHawk works and what to expect on a flight, and that you and your plane can represent LightHawk in a safe and professional manner. We strive to have an experienced LightHawk volunteer pilot on these calls.

Can I become a LightHawk pilot if I don't own a plane?

Yes, a suitable rented or flying club owned aircraft is an option, provided you have documented permission of the listed owner of the aircraft.

What are the insurance requirements for using a rented or flying club owned aircraft to fly LightHawk missions?

There are important steps that must be taken before you can fly a rented or flying club owned aircraft for LightHawk, and these steps can be challenging to complete without adequate lead-time.

In advance of flying a rented or flying club owned aircraft, you will need to provide LightHawk with proof of insurance that demonstrates that you, as the user, and any passengers aboard are covered to the same liability limits required to be carried on aircraft owned by LightHawk volunteer pilots (USD 1 million per incident, $100,000 minimum per person). In addition, LightHawk must be named as an "additional insured," just as is required for pilots who fly their own aircraft.

Pilots who rent usually handle this by acquiring a renter's or non-owned aircraft liability policy. LightHawk must be added to their renter’s/non-owned policy as an additional insured. 

Does LightHawk have its own aircraft?

LightHawk does not currently own or operate any aircraft for LightHawk missions.

What insurance is required to fly my aircraft for LightHawk?

(1)     You must have USD 1 million in liability coverage per occurrence, with a minimum of USD 100,000 per person.

(2)     LightHawk must be listed as an “additional insured” on your policy.

(3)     We request a 10-day notice of cancellation clause on the policy that requires your insurance underwriter to notify LightHawk if the policy lapses for any reason.

LightHawk represents to its partners and passengers that a LightHawk volunteer pilot has at least 1,000 hours of PIC flight experience and has insurance to cover passengers in the event of an accident. 

How does the "additional insured" requirement work? Will it cost more?

LightHawk requires that you add us to your policy as an "additional insured" primarily so that our legal defense costs are covered if we are sued because you had an accident. Part 135 operators who do any government flying will be familiar with this and may already have multiple additional insured’s on their policy. It is increasingly becoming a standard for all pilots to have to add additional insured’s such as airports and hangar owners.

All legal expenses (your own and those of any additional insured parties) for litigation related to an accident are covered in addition to the liability limits in your policy. There is generally no limit on the amount the insurance company can spend defending itself against the claim, and this expense doesn't reduce your liability coverage. The insurance company decides whether to defend or settle based on these costs. The cost of the claim settlement itself is what is charged against your liability limits.

The only time adding an additional insured to your policy might affect your financial exposure is if the additional insured were deemed to be negligent in an accident. As the PIC, however, you are 100% responsible for the flight, and the circumstances under which LightHawk could be assigned any portion of the negligence associated with an accident in your aircraft are difficult to imagine. This is one of the reasons LightHawk rigorously avoids placing itself in any position where it could be seen as the "controller" or "operator" of the flights -- instead, LightHawk constantly reinforces your role as the PIC and your responsibility for all aspects of flights, preserving the integrity of your insurance.

There is usually no increase in premiums associated with adding LightHawk as an additional insured, but it varies by broker and underwriter and can also depend on what you think LightHawk flights are all about and how you communicate about LightHawk with your insurance broker. Most LightHawk flights should correspond to what is commonly called a "scenic flight," a fair-weather daytime flight, usually at or above 1,000’ AGL. Terminology such as "air survey" or "resource recon" can have connotations or commercial definitions that imply a much more aggressive type of low-level flying than would be characteristic of LightHawk flights and can influence what your insurance company understands LightHawk's flight profiles to be.

Can I fly a jet aircraft for LightHawk?

Pilots with a minimum of 1,000 hours PIC time in airplanes, 500 of which are PIC time in jets, can fly specific LightHawk flights in a jet aircraft.  Additionally, a VP must have 200 hours of PIC time in the make and model jet to be used for the LightHawk flight, and must have logged 25 hours PIC time in the make and model during the previous 90 days.  An instrument rating and currency are required, and additional insurance requirements may be necessary.  It is the volunteer pilot's responsibility to ensure that they are in compliance with these recency requirements prior to each LightHawk flight.

Can I fly my certificated seaplane or ski-equipped aircraft for LightHawk?

Pilots with a minimum of 1,000 hours PIC time, a seaplane rating, and at least 100 water landings may fly LightHawk flights involving a water takeoff or landing. Similarly, pilots with a minimum of 1,000 hours PIC time and at least 100 ski landings may fly LightHawk flights involving a takeoff or landing with a ski-equipped aircraft. Naturally, the aircraft will have to have FAA-approved float or ski installations, and it will still be up to the pilot in command whether to land on water, snow or ice based upon the current conditions. It is the volunteer pilot's responsibility to ensure that they are in compliance with these recency requirements prior to each LightHawk flight.

Can I fly my certificated helicopter for LightHawk?

Pilots with a minimum of 1,000 hours total PIC time, which may be in a mix of fixed wing or rotorcraft may fly LightHawk flights with a few additional requirements. The pilot must have at least 500 hours PIC time in rotorcraft. They must have at least 100 hours total time in the helicopter make and model proposed for the flight, with at least 10 of those hours obtained within the past 90 days. Finally, they may fly certificated helicopter models only, complying with all legally required inspections and Airworthiness Directives. It is the volunteer pilot's responsibility to ensure that they are in compliance with these recency requirements prior to each LightHawk flight.

Can I fly my light sport aircraft (LSA) for LightHawk?

Pilots with a minimum of 1000 hours PIC time, private or higher pilot certification and a current third class or higher medical certificate may fly LightHawk flights in light sport aircraft that were factory-built to ASTM standards and bear the airworthiness classification “Light Sport” (S-LSA).

Can I fly my amateur built aircraft, balloon, or glider for LightHawk?

LightHawk currently excludes balloons and gliders from our operations due to the liability concerns they raise in the volunteer environment. In addition, aircraft such as gliders and balloons are, by their flight characteristics, usually not suitable for most flight requests we receive.

Amateur built aircraft are currently prohibited from being used for LightHawk missions.  This decision is periodically reviewed by our board, but at the current time, continues to be an organizational decision.

Does LightHawk require passengers to sign a liability release?

Yes, LightHawk requires that all passengers on flights flown by LightHawk VPs sign a liability release before taking a flight. The LightHawk program manager or flight coordinator will usually handle this in advance of the flight. If there are last-minute passenger changes or additions, pilots will be informed if they need to take additional action to obtain signed forms.

Can a volunteer pilot be reimbursed for fuel or other expenses incurred while conducting a LightHawk flight?

Usually all expenses associated with a LightHawk flight in the volunteer pilot’s own aircraft are borne by the pilot as part of the volunteer donation. There are some exceptions, as indicated below for various classes of expenses.

Direct flight expenses include fuel and oil costs, landing fees, tie-down fees, aircraft rental fees, and similar expenses. Unless specifically authorized by the FAR’s and your insurance policy, as well as pre-authorized in coordination with your program manager, volunteer pilots are not legally or organizationally eligible for direct expense reimbursement.

Indirect flight expenses include ground transportation, food, lodging, and similar expenses that may be associated with completing a LightHawk flight, but are not directly connected with operating an aircraft. All volunteer pilots are legally and organizationally eligible to receive reimbursement of such indirect flight expenses and LightHawk sometimes provides reimbursement for such expenses (usually in the case of multi-day tours outside your home area). Any such reimbursements must be pre-authorized by the LightHawk program manager coordinating the mission.

Excluded expenses include depreciation, depletion of maintenance reserves, insurance costs, hangar costs, or other costs of ownership pro-rated over the life of the aircraft or a year. These expenses cannot be reimbursed.

To receive reimbursement for pre-authorized expenses, your original expense receipts must be attached to and itemized on a Pilot Expense Report Form, which is turned in to your program manager after your flight. After receiving these, LightHawk will issue you a check for those approved expenses. Please ask the program manager coordinating your flight for more detailed information and appropriate forms.

Can a volunteer pilot get a tax deduction for expenses incurred while conducting a LightHawk flight?

All direct flight expenses such as fuel and landing fees can often be deducted unless you are receiving reimbursement for them. Indirect flight expenses and excluded flight expenses usually cannot be deducted (see previous question for definitions of direct, indirect, and excluded flight expenses). Be sure to check with your accountant or tax advisor for the most current information on tax deductions for your specific situation, as LightHawk cannot offer definitive tax advice.

To receive documentation of your in-kind donation of direct expenses for tax purposes, please note the following:

* Each pilot automatically receives, in February, a letter from LightHawk documenting total hours flown on LightHawk missions in the preceding year. These letters are based on the Pilot Trip Reports filed at the completion of each LightHawk flight.

Where does LightHawk fly?

LightHawk’s administrative headquarters are in Fort Collins, Colorado. The organization’s regions of operation are:

Southern US & Mexico: Near border with Mexico, Baja California, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona.

Rocky Mountain Region:  Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming; limited operations in Alberta, Canada and Midwestern/Great Plains states west of the Mississippi River.

Pacific Region: California, Washington, Oregon and limited operations in Alaska and British Columbia, Canada

Atlantic Region: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas; limited operations in North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ontario and Quebec

Can I fly for LightHawk in regions other than my home region?

LightHawk occasionally seeks volunteer pilots who are willing to fly outside their home region and have sufficient experience and appropriate equipment for conditions that may involve mountain, remote area or over-water flying. Some considerations associated with flying in different regions are outlined below. If you are interested in flying in another region and feel you have the appropriate experience and skills, please contact the program manager for that region to begin a discussion.

Mountain flying conditions

Pilots flying missions in mountainous areas of the Rockies and Pacific regions should have substantial experience with these and other related topics:

  • Weather considerations unique to mountainous areas
  • Density altitude and its effects on allowable takeoff weight and rate of climb
  • Mountain wave activity and turbulence
  • Higher performance aircraft (235 horsepower or higher or turbocharged.

Other special flying conditions

Pilots may encounter less familiar flying conditions and may need to cope with new distractions in geographies or flight profiles that are new to them. Examples include large congested urban areas under constant ATC control, remote areas, or during lower altitude flying and positioning the aircraft for photo documentation. Desirable assets might include:

  • Excellent radio skills and ability to navigate by dead-reckoning and pilotage
  • Experience at short/soft field techniques and slower than cruise flight
  • Survival equipment and supplies
  • Ability to fly with an open a window or door off
  • Experience with flying passengers that are not friends or family and require a bit more communications effort to collaborate with.
Can I fly for LightHawk in Mexico?

LightHawk seeks volunteer pilots to fly their own aircraft in border regions of Mexico and/or Baja California who have a minimum of two and usually three or more of the following characteristics:

  • Have substantial experience flying in Mexico and ADIZ/border regions
  • Speak Spanish
  • Have substantial experience in the aircraft to be used (well above the 25 hour insurance minimum) and are based with your aircraft in Mexico or able to fly own aircraft down.
  • Have a flexible schedule and are able to go on tours for several days at a time with the ability to handle unexpected schedule changes while on the project.
  • Possess adequate insurance coverage for the countries of Mexico.

If you feel you meet the requirements, please begin a discussion with the Southern US and Mexico Program Manager or Pilot Outreach Manager well in advance of when you might be interested in going.

What services do LightHawk program managers provide?

Within regions, our program managers establish conservation issue and area priorities for LightHawk, screen projects, mission requests and partners, and initiate multi-partner collaborations and events.  Program managers also help plan major flight programs for extended campaigns as well as serve as the volunteer pilots’ main point of contact with LightHawk. Program managers are supported by flight coordinators who manage the logistical details for specific LightHawk missions in some regions.

Does LightHawk do transportation flights?

No, LightHawk does not usually conduct transportation flights, meaning a flight whose purpose is to move people from point A to point B. There are some rare exceptions to this, which can be discussed with the program manager coordinating the flight.

Can LightHawk install camera mounts for aerial photography?

In some cases our volunteer pilots can install camera or tracking equipment on their aircraft, but an FAA approval is often required as well as insurance policy acceptance.   As each request is different, as a simple consumer video products evolve, it is ultimately the volunteer pilot's responsibility to determine whether the requested mount complies with FAR and insurance requirements. While LightHawk staff can provide anecdotal experiences, the organization is not positioned to provide legal guidance on FAA compliance.

Does LightHawk fly minors?

LightHawk flights do not usually carry individuals under the age of 18.  Exceptions to this are possible if the minor is accompanied by at least one parent on the flight. The volunteer pilot will be a part of any decision to fly minors prior to the flight, and has the final decision of whether or not they wish to fly minor passengers.

Does LightHawk donate flights for charity events such as silent auctions?

Rarely, if ever. Flights for charity events require special compliance with Part 91.146 of the FAA rules. LightHawk is not currently resourced to comply with these requirements.