The system said it considers many factors when deciding whether to use its planes for business trips: "short time frames to coordinate and book travel, inadequate commercial service at destinations, long drive times, time that would be spent waiting for departures and connections of commercial aircraft, and an ability to work more efficiently."
A frequent flier, co-pilot
Tarwater has frequently co-piloted several Carolinas HealthCare planes, including a twin-engine business jet called a Cessna Citation. According to the FAA, he has a "type rating" that authorizes him to serve as the pilot-in-command in a Citation.
But he has done much of his recent flying on the system's six-seat Beechcraft Baron, a twin-engine piston plane that Carolinas HealthCare acquired in 2011 for $700,000.
Typically, the plane is used about six days each month, data obtained by the Observer shows. The other planes in the CHS fleet are used far more frequently. Unlike the other CHS aircraft, the Baron generates no revenue because it's not chartered and not used to transport patients.
Of the 93 trips that CHS reported for the Baron through the end of 2012, Tarwater served as a co-pilot on 29 of them -- or about 31 percent. Nineteen of those flights were personal trips, according to Carolinas HealthCare data.
One former airplane mechanic said he saw golf clubs being loaded on the plane about a half-dozen times. Pilots, he recalled, sometimes said, "I'm ferrying the golfers today."
Murphy, the CHS spokeswoman, noted that the Baron is smaller than the system's other four planes, and less expensive to operate. She said the system bought the plane as an economical way to take executives on shorter business trips -- and to areas served by small airports that aren't designed for larger planes.
When the system bought the Baron, it did not have to add hangar space or hire more pilots or mechanics, Murphy said.
Fueling and insuring it costs more than $50,000 a year, the system said.
'All taxpayers are paying'
To be sure, personal trips on company planes are much more common in parts of the for-profit world.
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan received $477,000 worth of personal use of corporate aircraft in 2012, for example. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. chief executive Frank Harrison III received more than $133,000 of personal aircraft use last year.
But nonprofit experts say it's extremely rare for nonprofit leaders to take personal flights on planes owned by their organizations. Taxpayers are essentially subsidizing such flights, experts say, because they must pay higher taxes to make up for what nonprofits don't pay.
"I think it's a travesty, and it's a waste of their tax-exempt status," said Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that studies nonprofits. "All taxpayers are paying for this."
Pablo Eisenberg, another nonprofit expert, called it an "outrage."
"That is not a common practice (in the nonprofit world), and it shouldn't be allowed. Period," he said.
Novant Health, which runs the three Presbyterian hospitals in Mecklenburg County, owns a twin-engine turboprop that senior leaders use for business trips around the system's four-state coverage area. But "personal use for recreational or entertainment purposes is not allowed," Novant said in a written response to questions.
One exception, the system said, was a 2012 case in which a senior leader used the plane to attend a family funeral while also meeting a work obligation. The system didn't disclose the executive's identity or the flight's destination.
UNC Hospitals leases two helicopters for patient transports and also buys access to planes owned by another organization. But the system does not allow its officials to use the aircraft for personal flights, spokeswoman Karen McCall said.
Duke Medicine owns two helicopters but no planes. That system uses the helicopters for medical purposes but prohibits personal flights.
An ethical question
Tarwater obtained his Airline Transport Pilot certificate in 2005, according to the FAA. By then, he had already logged nearly 1,600 hours of flight time. Among his accomplishments: piloting a trans-Atlantic crossing from Nottingham, England, to North Carolina.
Piloting the system's planes helps Tarwater fulfill requirements aimed at keeping flight skills sharp. Pilots who want to carry passengers or navigate using electronic instruments, for instance, have to show recent flight experience.
"Business" flying - defined as trips where operators are piloting themselves - accounted for about 14 percent of general aviation activity in 2005, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
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