Can You Fly For Compensation With a Private Pilot Certificate?

A Private Pilot Certificate doesn’t necessarily preclude earning money in aviation.

Vern Weiss

No person who holds a private pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire, nor may that person, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft.

That’s what FAR §61.113 says and there’s no way to dance around it. By “compensation” we’re not just referring to money but, instead, anything of value.

This article should NOT be construed as legal advice. If you’ve got an idea to conduct operations (or validate them) as a private pilot certificate holder, the FAA and proper aviation legal counsel1 should be sought.

However the FARs do allow a certain degree of accommodation so long as a private pilot is paid by his or her business or employer and the flight is only incidental to that business or employment and the aircraft does not carry passengers or property for compensation or hire.

Doctor Franklin owns a Beech Bonanza (as required of all doctors who are pilots). Ol’ Doc Franklin wants to attend the Annual Physicians’ Conference on Obscene Medical Fees in Atlanta. His partner, Doctor Taylor wants to go along. Both men are salaried and flying on company time. Is this legal pursuant to FAR 61.113? Of course it is. But let’s say Doctor Phillips wants to ride along and offers to pay Doc Franklin for flying him to the conference. Uh-uh. No-can-do! Doc Franklin can split the cost of the aircraft expense with the other two doctors but that is as far as it can go.

The Federal Aviation Regulations are quite explicit about what can and can’t be done with a private pilot certificate. One thing that a private pilot can do is give airplane rides for a charitable event or non-profit organization. However, there are some additional restrictions found in FAR 91.146 that must be met.

A private pilot may accept reimbursement of expenses involved in search-and-rescue operations under the auspices of a governmental body. Fortunately, search-and-rescue operations are not an everyday occurrence so let’s talk about careers in which you can fly as a pilot and receive pay.

Probably the most popular means of employment permitting you to fly and accept compensation is that of an aircraft salesperson. The regs prohibit you from such gainful employment until you have accumulated 200 hours. But after you’ve got 200 hours total time you can demonstrate an aircraft in flight to a prospective buyer while making money to do it.

Do you have a glider club nearby? Once you accrue 100 hours and meet the requirements of FAR §61.69 you can tow gliders or non-powered ultra light aircraft and receive compensation for your services.

A light sport aircraft on the runway

Photo by: Michael Tefft

Want to be a test pilot? According to the FARs, under FAR Part 21 a private pilot may act as pilot in command for purposes of production flight testing light-sport aircraft to be certificated in the light-sport category.

The definition of what constitutes a violation has ricocheted back and forth between the courts and the FAA for years. Remember earlier I said compensation is considered anything of value? According to the feds, this also means that a private pilot cannot barter pilot services for goods or services. “If you’ll fly me to Oshkosh this summer I’ll paint your garage…or give you my tickets to Saturday’s Cardinals-Phillies game…or…” Sorry. It’s all verboten.

Although it is not flying per se, a private pilot can use the certificate for many aviation-related careers and some of them are quite lucrative. Visit any of the Internet job boards and type “private pilot” into the search window. You’ll find good-paying jobs looking for people with a private pilot certificate in software development, avionics engineering and development, aviation product sales, airport management, FBO management and even in the “dark side” of aviation (as far as pilots are concerned these days) “flying” UAVs. The private pilot certificate is a highly sought after commodity and can link your other professional skills with positions that are allied to flying.

Other areas in which private pilots have tried to skirt the regs is by doing aerial photography and pipeline/power line patrol flying. Well-known aviation attorney and writer John Yodice2 tells of one legal decision in which an attempt to nullify the restriction didn’t work. An employee of a power company proposed to his employer that he replace the company contractor used to fly patrols of its power lines. The rule of law is that the flying services must be incidental to the service being provided and the FAA said that since aerial power line patrol operations are a foreseeable and normal part of the power business, even if relatively infrequent, they are therefore not incidental. The power company must use commercially certificated pilots.

Careful of the “Smoking Gun”

Do private pilots fly for compensation and outside of the law? You bet. And some of them get away with it for a long time. There also have been local FBOs selling charters on their airplanes that do not hold Part 135 certificates and they merrily have got away with it; for a time. But run an airplane off a slick runway, clip a fuel truck with a wing or blow a tire on landing and the feds are going to put every aspect of your flight under their microscope. You don’t want it to surface that you received compensation for flying contrary to the FARs because it will become most unsavory for you. The FAA generally doesn’t fine pilots for violations. They go after certificate actions, which means suspensions or in extreme cases, revocation. More and more enforcement actions are blended into the Department of Justice these days so it isn’t worth making yourself vulnerable.

Keep your nose clean.

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Footnotes and References:

1 – I cannot stress strongly enough “proper aviation legal counsel.” There are attorneys running around out there who advertise in the Yellow Pages® that they are “aviation attorneys.” Was it Shakespeare that said, “A lawyer who holds a private pilot certificate does not an aviation attorney make?” Get recommendations and after talking to the attorney, if you are not dazzled by his or her aviation knowledge and expertise, run and don’t look back. I had to explain to one of those so-called “aviation attorneys” one time the difference between GMT/UTC and local time and that altitudes above 17,999 feet are called “flight levels.”

2 – Aircraft Owner’s & Pilot’s Association AOPA Pilot, “Interpreting the rules on business flying” John Yodice, October 1997

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