Airplane owners and pilots who fly a corporate rig where they are intimately involved in the care and feeding of the airplane they fly generally dont have too much uncertainty about the condition of the plane when they get in to fly it. If an FAA inspector meets them at the ramp, they have a pretty good idea what the inspector will or will not find. If it involves a check of the maintenance records the next week at the FSDO, there will be no scrambling to find out whats in records before the Feds see them.
And when they climb in, they know exactly how to operate all the radios, where the switches are, and even where the fuel check device is. They know their plane. They know what shape its in. They know how its been maintained and what it looks like on paper.
On the other hand, a lot of pilots only fly rental planes from the local FBO or flight school. They may not fly the same plane twice in six months – many FBOs have so many copies of the popular types that which one you fly will depend on the FBOs schedule rather than your desires.
The instruments may be laid out differently. Avionics installations may vary not only in types of radios, but how many, where theyre located, and what type of audio panel. Critical switches and circuit breakers may be in different places, with different shapes, and even different functions.
Our flight school has two C-172s, and even though theyre only one year apart off the line, they are equipped with very different radios (King vs. Cessna/ARC). One even has one more fuel drain than the other.
So when you walk up to the FBO desk and they hand you a set of keys, you may have absolutely no idea what to expect until you get out to the flight line. Yes, the FAA, the FBO and the insurance company may consider one Cessna 172 to be the same as another, but you may find that a 1972 model and a 1986 edition are totally different flying experiences.
Furthermore, you may have no idea what condition its in until you walk up to it. You may not even have any idea of whether the paperwork for the plane is in apple-pie order or better resembles a mares nest. Most renters have no idea where the maintenance records are even kept, much less whats in (or not in) them.
Pick Your Game
A pilot I know recently asked me how to make sure that he can get a very well maintained airplane that is not used for training every day. Wouldnt we all like that!
You can help yourself when you call a new FBO to reserve a plane. Ask them what they have available, and how many of each they have. Avoid the primary trainers such as the Cessna 150/152, Cessna 172 and Piper Warrior. Remember that much more primary training is done in 150/160 hp 4-seaters than there used to be.
Many renters find it worthwhile to go for those that are a step up and if used for training would only be instrument trainers – such as a Cardinal, Skylane or Archer. Others go a step further and opt for complex airplanes that commercial students use – such as a 172RG, Arrow or Mooney.
If the FBO has only one of a type, its not likely to be used as much for training. If it goes down, the students using it are out until it comes back. Some time ago, I spent a summer flying the only Tri-Pacer an FBO had – it was just about my personal airplane for three months.
It wasnt as popular as the Cherokees that constituted the bulk of the FBOs fleet, but I knew its condition, I was familiar with its cockpit, and I always got it when I wanted it.
Pilots pick a type of airplane to fly for many reasons, but your first and foremost consideration should be safety.
You want to be able to ascertain whether this airplane youve never seen before, owned and maintained by someone youve never met, is going to run without a hitch, all necessary equipment humming, while you fly it.
Remember also that the quality of the airplane and the FBO may also affect your pilot certificate. Dont forget that no matter who owns the plane, you as pilot in command are absolutely and finally responsible for its compliance with all FARs regarding airworthiness. That includes proper equipment for the type of flight, placarding/deactivation of inoperative equipment, on-board documentation and all maintenance records.
The FBO can expect to get hammered if any of this is found to be out of order, but yours will be the first head in the noose, and the Feds will not deal you a plea bargain in return for your testimony against the FBO.
The documentation isnt just a legal issue, either. There are good safety reasons to worry about the i-dotting and t-crossing. A careful record-keeper is usually a careful operator.
You can find some very good mechanics who give you a superbly maintained airplane but arent quite letter-perfect in the paperwork department, but you will rarely find a shop that produces good documentation but sloppy work.
Unless youre an A&P and have the time and tools to disassemble the plane, you will not be able to do more than a relatively superficial inspection of the airplane you are about to fly. Therefore, a first look at the log books will give you a good idea of the general attitude of the maintainers toward good, solid, professional work. While you may find a good airplane with less-than-exemplary logs, if the books look good, its unlikely the airplane wont.
Armed with those preconceptions, screening potential rentals from FBOs and flight schools is a little less mysterious.
Measuring the Odds
If youve never been there before, dont reserve a plane over the phone and then show up at the last minute. Arrive early and take a good look around the facility. If its neat, clean, and up-to-date, thats a hint (but no more) that management cares about keeping things right.
You want to see evidence that the operation is run professionally. Staff you meet should be serious, courteous, and knowledgeable. If you plan to go flying on the spot, there should be no questions about which plane you have or where it is.
If theyre not organized up front, you have to wonder how well organized their maintenance operation is. Expect to see some sort of flight planning area with a computer system. While these areas are not directly indicative of the condition of the aircraft, deficiencies here may reflect an operation that also skimps on maintenance.
Ask to see and review the maintenance records on the plane youre going to fly. They will probably be surprised, since very few folks ask about this, but thats OK. They may even be impressed by your care and safety orientation – after all, theyre getting ready to hand the keys to an expensive piece of equipment to someone theyve never met before.
If they give you any static or say the records are unavailable right now, say thanks and walk out. Remember that if something happens or you get ramp checked, your pilot certificate is on the line. The records should be readily available, and well organized in some sort of folder for each plane.
Start with the square-fillers – annual, 100-hour, 24-month checks on the encoder/transponder, ELT checks (12-month battery and 24-month operational) and pitot-static system if you expect to operate IFR. There should also be a neat listing of AD compliance. Take a look back to see if there are any unusual signs of damage or other major repairs. Youll want to note these so you can look at the work when you walk to the plane.
Many FBOs will try to insist that you dont need to see the logs. Usually its because theyre over at the maintenance hangar. Theyll have some sort of list of when the scheduled maintenance is due and when all the recurring ADs come up. Sometimes this will be on computer, sometimes on a form thats filled in by hand.
One place we checked gives a computer printout that says only, for example, Maintenance due in 17 hours. The renter has no idea whether its for an oil change or the engine is due to be overhauled. Only you can decide whether youre comfortable with that kind of ignorance about the airplane.
At some point, you should be asked to sign some sort of rental agreement. The fact that they care enough to make you do this means they are looking to protect themselves, and that generally means theyll want the planes to be in good enough shape that if something happens or you get ramp checked, they wont get hammered.
There may be some insurance coverage involved in your rental agreement. Remember that these agreements are for the FBOs protection, not yours. What you really want to know is what kind of insurance they have, and what you might get hit for if theres an accident. Its likely that you will be subrogated by the FBOs insurance company for everything they shell out in a settlement, and youd be on your own to hire a lawyer to defend yourself. Renters insurance and legal protection plans such as those available from AOPA begin to make real good sense.
And make sure you know what kind of flight restrictions (if any) there are – IFR/IMC, VFR mins, night restrictions, crosswinds, field lengths/surfaces, etc.
If the FBO and its records pass muster, take a good look at the planes before you sign up. Give them a thorough examination, including opening up the engine cowling, looking down the tail cone and into the gear wells.
Finally, if they have their own maintenance shop, take a look around the shop area. If they contract out for maintenance, ask where it is done and ask around about that shops reputation. The bottom line is that its your butt and your ticket. Look everything over carefully before you sign up for anything.
Examining Your Bet
Checking out the airplane is the most difficult part of the game. At some point youre entrusting your life to an airplane you know little about. Dont assume that because other people have rented it safely that theres nothing wrong with it.
Pretend your life depends on the proper functioning of every critical component in that airplane, because it does. Pretend that your pilots certificate depends on the legal compliance of the airplane and its supporting documentation with the FARs, because it does.
Of course, there are limits to what you can check out for yourself. You cant do an engine teardown, of course, but you ought to do more than a typical preflight until you get to know the operator and the aircraft.
Open up everything that can easily be opened and look inside. If you dont know what to look for, scratch out a day and ask a good mechanic if you can watch him do an annual inspection.
Treat the foreign airplane as if youve never seen one like it before. You may find that the C-172 youre getting into isnt that much like the C-172 you are used to.
There may be gross differences, such as a Continental O-300 versus a Lycoming O-320, or electric versus manual flaps, but youll find that even two 1981 C-172s can be very different, particularly around the avionics stack.
Among Cessnas, you may find the ARC radios or a King stack. Grummans often have the old Narco flat-pack avionics, but many were shipped with King packages. Regardless of the factory installation, older airplanes tend to pick up and exchange radios over their lifetime, and you may find mixed stacks or aftermarket packages such as Terra equipment added 10 or 15 years after the plane was built.
GPS/Loran gear is another can of worms – none of the older planes came with them and the differences in switchology and operation between Garmin, King, IIMorrow and Trimble can be astonishing. If the oil pressure is dropping and you want to know where the nearest airport is, you need to know what the unit can do and how to make it do it. Pay attention to how current the database is. The airport it steers you to may now be a shopping center.
Autopilots also raise the stakes a bit more. A GPS can only point you in the wrong direction; an autopilot can take you there – upside down.
Do You Check Out, Too?
Before you decide to give the FBO your business, consider how the FBO examines you. Expect them to take a good look at your certificates and log book. They may make photocopies of your certificates for their files so that no one (FAA or plaintiffs attorney) can say theyre not exercising due diligence.
An instructor ought to quiz you briefly to make sure the paperwork you brought doesnt belong to someone else and you should be asked to fill out a form summarizing your qualifications and experience. Then, you should be asked to take a written exam on the airplane type youre interested in, including stall speeds, approach speeds, oil capacity, range, and other operating parameters.
A flight instructor will then give you a checkout, and the checkout will tell you much about the operation. If you have experience in the plane, some instructors will ask for a quick flight around the patch to a full stop landing, and that will be it. The rationale may be to avoid wasting your money, but it says something about the attention to safety.
It takes at least 45 minutes to find out if a pilot really knows the airplane. The drill should include some cockpit quizzing on switchology and emergency procedures, takeoffs and landings, stalls and slow flight, and my own favorite – steep turns.
Ive found that steep turns are the quickest and most accurate gauge of pilot flying skill in an airplane. Give me a steep 360 each way, and Im about 85 percent sure how the rest of the flight will go. The other 15 percent, however, leads me to do it all.
Why should the FBOs concern about your knowledge and skill be important to you? Well, if they arent careful about who they let fly the planes, maybe their not careful about anything else – like maintenance.
Also, if theyre not making sure pilots know what theyre doing with the plane, theres a strong potential for the kind of abuse or misuse that creates unusual damage and wear over time. Repeated high-speed descents through turbulence can cause wing spar damage you cant spot without taking the plane apart.
Dont be surprised if this whole business surprises the FBO. They usually work from the standpoint that theyre here to check you out, not the other way around. Customers dont usually show this sort of interest – most want to minimize the amount of time from arrival at the airport to cranking up and being on their way to the runway on their own.
If the FBO is worth its salt, the people there should be pleasantly surprised at your safety-positive attitude. If their reaction is something like, What are you, an FAA inspector? it ought to tell you something about their operation – something rather negative.
Properly checking out a rental operation will certainly slow down your progress from the front door to the runway. As with all things, proper care and preparation take time. But when you do get out there, youll have much greater assurance that you know what the plane can do, and how to make it do it, and that it will do it when you tell it to do so.
-by Ron Levy
Ron Levy, an ATP and CFI, is an assistant chief flight instructor at American Eagle Flight Academy.