When you’re traveling and want to rent a car, so long as you’re 25 or older, have a drivers license and a credit card, it’s a piece of cake.
But for airplanes, almost without exception, the reality has been that if you want to do some flying while away from home base, you have to go through the local FBO or flight school’s checkout to rent one of its aircraft. That means at least two or three hours and $300 before you can take the family for a ride—a pretty daunting obstacle.
A Creative Approach
In 2011, a businessman and pilot reared in the Internet age, Rod Rakic, wondered what he could do help get and keep more people flying. Teaming with software development wiz, Adam Fast, they brainstormed developing an Internet-based service that would allow pilots to rent more airplanes in more places while protecting the companies providing the airplanes.
The result was OpenAirplane, which went live in 2012. It allowed pilots to rent airplanes all over the country based on one checkout (renewed annually). From six participating flight schools and FBOs (operators) initially, there are now 79, offering 260 airplanes for rent through the program. Some 9000 pilots have signed up.
Rakic told me that to set up a network of operators that would make their airplanes available for rent to pilots who hadn’t gone through an in-house checkout, he had to come do three things: First, satisfy the operator that the checkout each potential renter had undergone was adequate; second, show the operator’s insurer that the risk was acceptable and third, find a way of providing the “local knowledge” briefing a pilot gets when coming in to rent an operator’s airplanes.
Step one was solved using Rakic’s experience as a Civil Air Patrol pilot. The CAP has had a standard, nationwide pilot checkout for decades—it’s recorded on what’s called a Form 5. The doctrine of standardization has worked for the military, airlines and CAP to assure that all pilots show an acceptable level of proficiency and safety. Rakic borrowed CAP’s Form 5 and turned it into OpenAirplane’s Universal Pilot Checkout (UPC) form. In fact, any CAP pilot with a Form 5 is automatically approved for OpenAirplane, no further checkout is necessary.
Rakic presented insurers with data that the accident rate for pilots current on a Form 5 checkout is 60 percent lower than for other general aviation pilots. Rakic also pointed out that pilots who have recurrent training annually rather than only biennially as required by the FARs, have a lower accident rate. The insurers were receptive to the idea of a higher level of safety among new customers for their insureds and got on board.
Finally, OpenAirplane’s website includes a local knowledge briefing for each participating operator. It is created from the operator’s answers to a 40-item questionnaire that is part of the process of an operator signing up for OpenAirplane. There is no charge for an operator to become a participant in the program.
How it Works
The premise is simple—a pilot signs up with OpenAirplane through its website, provides information on his or her experience and sends an electronic copy of the first page of his or her renters insurance policy (a basic level of renters insurance is required) and a credit card number—all flights, including checkouts, are billed through OpenAirplane’s website.
Next, using the website, the pilot schedules a Universal Pilot Checkout at a participating operator. It’s a thorough flight review (and results in a flight review logbook endorsement). Plan on about a 1.5-hour flight.
The UPC is good for one year with OpenAirplane. A UPC is valid for a particular type of airplane such as a Diamond Star, and it is limited to either the glass or round-dial cockpit version of the type. It can be for VFR day operations only or expanded to include night and IFR.
While the checkout must be renewed annually, once a pilot is approved for a type of airplane, he or she does not have to do subsequent annual checks in that type. For example, if the pilot is first approved for a round-dial DA-40 and takes the next annual checkride in a glass cockpit version, that pilot is approved for both cockpit versions of the DA-40. By taking subsequent UPCs in other types, a pilot can expand the spectrum of airplanes he or she can rent through OpenAirplane.
A UPC is good for all operators throughout the U.S., so long as they are on airports with a field elevation of under 5500 feet MSL. Above that, a mountain checkout is required (there is a mountain flying section on the UPC).
Because of the standardization of the training and checkout procedures within the Cirrus factory training program, OpenAirplane partnered with Cirrus last spring. A pilot current in the Cirrus program is automatically approved for that type in the OpenAirplane program just as are current Form 5 CAP pilots.
Pay Only for Flights
Signing up for OpenAirplane is free for a pilot or an operator. The only time a pilot pays anything is when she or he flies. Rakic told me that he thinks there are too many ways to spend money in aviation without flying.
According to Rakic, the majority of the 9000 pilots who have signed up for OpenAirplane are using it to rent when they are on vacation. The procedure is designed to be simple. The website shows all of the participating operators nationwide, including Alaska and Hawaii. The pilot clicks on one in the desired areas and looks to see if it has an airplane he or she is approved to rent. The hourly rate for the airplane, wet, is shown (the hourly rate is set by the aircraft owner, OpenAirplane keeps 10 percent and pays the credit card transaction fee).
The pilot uses the site to put in a request to rent the airplane at a specific date and time for a designated period of time. The pilot gets an email either confirming the reservation or saying the airplane is not available and establishing contact with the operator to find a time that works.
Then, it’s a matter of reviewing the website’s local knowledge material as part of normal preflight planning and going for the flight.
Afterwards, the pilot records the tach and Hobbs times on the Open Airplane website. OpenAirplane communicates electronically with the operator to confirm the times and to see if there are any other charges such as headset rental or a chart purchase. OpenAirplane bills the pilot’s credit card and pays the operator.
After the flight, the pilot is asked to evaluate the operator—and cannot do so until actually flying, unlike Internet user-feedback sites such as Yelp. The star ratings generated by OpenAirplane pilots for each operator are available to all other Open Airplane pilots (not the public).
The operator is also asked to rate the pilot after a flight. That rating is only available to the pilot and other OpenAirplane operators—not the public or other OpenAirplane pilots. It’s a good motivator for the pilot to be a good renter.
Giving It a Try
The program sounded straightforward to me, so I gave it a try.
My conclusion? It works well. It took me a while to figure the website, www.openairplane.com. There is a tremendous amount of information, but every once in a while I’d hit a dead end and have trouble figuring out how to get out of it. A search function on the site would help.
When I first signed up, there were no participating operators in my area (Colorado—there are now). With a business trip coming up, the OpenAirplane website pointed me at an operator about 30 minutes from where I’d be, Crosswinds Aviation in Howell, Michigan. Based on a review of what sort of airplanes were available through OpenAirplane nationwide, I decided on a G1000-equipped Cessna 172 checkout.
Once at Crosswinds, I was introduced to instructor Scott McDonald who told me that I was the first checkout for the operator. Nevertheless, it went smoothly. We went through the UPC, spending a bit over an hour in discussion before going out to preflight the airplane. The airplane itself was in nice shape in a large, immaculate hangar.
The flight was what I would expect on a flight review, start out on a cross country, then a diversion, air work, emergencies, and takeoffs and landings. It was thorough and flying with McDonald was pleasant.
In the ensuing year, I was unable to find time to schedule an OpenAirplane rental, so my checkout elapsed. By then, Alliance Flight Training on Front Range Airport, east of Denver, was participating operator. I used the website to schedule another UPC, this time in a round-dial Cessna 172. Instructor Tim Sale was professional and thorough. His mountain flying experience added value to our session.
I then tried to schedule two Open Airplane rentals in Michigan. The website wouldn’t do it—the system won’t let you schedule unless everything in your profile is up to date. An email to OpenAirplane resulted in an immediate response that my profile showed my medical had expired. Rakic later told me that the website is being changed so that a pilot can more easily see what on his or her profile has expired and fix it. Once I provided the current data, I was able to schedule a flight in a Cessna 172 at Orchard Beach Aviation in Manistee, Michigan, and Troy Air Experience in Troy, Michigan.
After the flight in Manistee (see “A Mid-Winter Scenic Rental” above), I spoke with Orchard Beach Aviation’s Rob Ericson about the OpenAirplane process. He said that the standardized nature of the checkout made it comfortable and that OpenAirplane was a way for them to potentially attract more customers in a popular vacation area.
Flight school Troy Air Experience doesn’t have a lobby where one picks up the clipboard—the renter pilot gets a gate and hangar access key code and goes directly to the hangar. He or she never meets anyone from the operator. It’s a little different, but the OpenAirplane local knowledge briefing and a phone call to Troy Air Experience had me ready to go even though the weather tanked.
In speaking to a number of participating operators, the comments of Matt Binner of Airwork Las Vegas echoed a common thread among them—he had an initial concern over allowing a pilot his operation hadn’t checked out to fly their airplanes, but said the standardization in the checkout process helped solve that issue. The experience has been positive overall.
I think OpenAirplane is on the right track. Rakic and Fast have come up with an effective program for pilots who want to rent while on the road. Some may chafe at what amounts to an annual flight review requirement but, from a realistic safety and risk standpoint, it’s about the minimum that insurers are going to accept.
If a pilot rents away from home plate twice a year, keeping an OpenAirplane checkout current is probably cheaper than taking dual at numerous locations. The rapid growth in participating flight schools and FBOs indicates some optimism about potential demand for the service and its long-term success. It certainly addresses a long-perceived need. On top of everything, I like using an aviation service that doesn’t charge me for anything unless I actually fly. I’m planning to use the program again.