July 2006Features

The golden rule

Treat your rental airplane as if it were yours. One day, it could be

If you've ever flown an aircraft with its owner sitting next to you, you'll know it soon enough. Terse commands ranging from "Get off the brakes" during taxi to "Turn off the landing lights" when in cruise flight are intended to help you understand things from the owner's point of view. Whatever you're doing, it's costing him money that he would rather not spend.

With all of the wear and tear that pilots inflict on airplanes, it stands to reason that we should treat them with care and respect during every phase of operation. At the very least, we should make sure the airplane is properly secured when we finish flying it. Quite often, however, that doesn't happen.

Imagine renting a $150,000 luxury limousine from Avis or Hertz for the weekend. Would you turn it in loaded with trash, its paint surfaces scratched, gasoline spilled in the back seat? That's just a sampling of what flight schools and FBOs discover. Here are some frequent offenses:

  • Trash left in the airplane (bottles, cans, notes from the flight, candy wrappers, disposable coffee cups--up to and including soiled diapers).
  • Switches left on.
  • Kneeboards and headsets placed on the glareshield, scratching the windshield.
  • Keys broken off in door locks.
  • Airplane left "unbuttoned" (not tied down properly--or at all; doors and/or baggage door unlocked; window left open; gust lock not installed; seat belts left dangling; cowl plugs and pitot tube cover not replaced).

The offenses are not merely cosmetic in nature. Consider these day-to-day occurrences and ask yourself if you've ever been a culprit:

Taxi mismanagement. Pilots who aren't taught proper power management can be death on brake pads. The perpetrator sets power at 1,000 rpm and taxis with feet on the brakes to keep from going too fast. It's bad for the brakes at the very least; at the worst you could set up the next renter to experience brake failure at a crucial moment (as when trying to get stopped on a short field, for example).

Ignoring the mixture. Many pilots understand why you lean the mixture in flight, but don't always follow through on the ground. Taxiing for long stretches with the mixture set at full rich can foul the spark plugs. While the pilot's operating handbooks of airplanes with older carbureted engines may not specify leaning during taxi, it's a good practice for both carbureted and fuel-injected engines.

Hard on the brakes. Have you ever seen an airplane tire with a flat spot? These are generally the visible evidence of a landing in which the pilot tried to brake too soon after touchdown, or inadvertently depressed the brake instead of the rudder during the rollout.

Power left on. A master switch left on will drain the airplane's battery, which is why this is an important item on the shutdown checklist. If you shut down the engine without consulting a checklist, you may leave a dead battery in your wake.

Manhandling the prop. Maybe you've seen somebody push or pull an airplane by its prop. This is a safety hazard; you could cause the engine to start, particularly if an ignition switch is left on. And it's bad for the airplane. Tugging or pushing the prop could change the face alignment of the blades and cause the track to come out of tolerance, according to Dan Cork, owner of Custom Prop in Owasso, Oklahoma. An out-of-track propeller can cause minor to severe vibration, just as an out-of-balance propeller will, he says.

Owner gripes

As a student or renter pilot, you don't pay directly for aircraft maintenance. You may think your flight school or FBO owns its own airplanes, and perhaps it does. More likely, however, it leases airplanes from private owners--pilots just like you. These are the folks who pay for the 100-hour inspections that every aircraft for hire must undergo (as well as the annual inspections, and everything else).

Malinda Caywood of Frederick, Maryland, is one of these owners. She bought a Piper PA-28-181 Archer III in 2003 and put it on leaseback while she completed her instrument training in it. Renters often compliment Caywood on the meticulous condition of her airplane, which has air conditioning (a highly coveted feature during Maryland's humid summer days) and a Garmin GNS 430 GPS moving map that is soon to get a WAAS upgrade. And Caywood, who only half-jokingly calls the Archer her baby, appreciates the feedback. "Renters want a nice, clean airplane, and it's really nice when someone tells me 'You've got the best plane'" on the rental line, she says. She just wishes that renters would adopt a Golden Rule of sorts: Do unto the airplane as if it belonged to you.

In addition to the laundry list of transgressions previously noted, Caywood mentions renters who scratch the Archer's paint by placing luggage on the wings. She's had to purchase so many pairs of replacement cowl plugs that she no longer provides them. She's come to the airport on more than one occasion to discover that a renter left the Piper's single window open, and rain got inside.

Then there are those who refuel airplanes at self-service pumps, hoping to save money on fuel. If they're careless, avgas can spill onto the wing and corrode the paint. Renters have been known to sump the tanks and then toss the fuel-tester cup containing traces of 100LL onto the back seat, where the fuel spills onto the upholstery. Caywood is also exasperated by people who clean off the acrylic windshield with sweatshirts, towels, and the like. Plexiglass scratches easily; it should be cleaned only with a chamois or similar soft cloth--and never with a dry paper towel.

If some of this is news to you, you're not alone. Many people commit these transgressions innocently, not realizing that a switch left on or a smear of frost wiped from a windshield with a paper towel can be detrimental. Why don't we know these things? Should they be a part and parcel of the ground instruction and pre- and postflight briefings we receive during flight instruction? Or should renters and student pilots be expected to learn them on their own, through study and observation of good practices?

Robert J. Miller, a flight instructor and airline transport pilot in Buffalo, New York, who publishes the online biweekly aviation safety newsletter Over the Airwaves, had no problems pointing the proverbial finger at his colleagues. Discussing poor taxiing techniques in the January 15, 2006, newsletter, he said, "Like most every other bad habit, the problem typically begins with poor flight instruction." But Miller added, "It is compounded by the fact that most of us learn to fly rented airplanes where the cost of brake pad replacement is borne by someone else." If students were charged for each time they applied the brakes, he contended, "this problem could be eliminated."

A scary thought? Some FBOs have taken steps in this direction. An East Coast flight school has instituted a policy in which renter pilots were required to undergo an hour of ground and an hour of flight instruction before they could continue to rent its aircraft. The policy was instituted after a rash of incidents in airplanes flown by certificated pilots who did not have a flight instructor on board (read: renter pilots).

This same flight school had taken extreme measures to show its students and renter pilots visual evidence of poor practices. On display at various times at the front desk: a tire with a flat spot inflicted the same week it was installed on the airplane; a set of cowl plugs ruined by someone who started the engine without removing said cowl plugs; and a Polaroid of a low-wing airplane tied down by its pitot tube. Enough was enough. A flight school employee observed at the time that it was obvious certain renters weren't following after-landing checklists, because they could be seen taxiing the airplanes to their parking spots with landing lights still on and flaps deployed.

For other flight schools, prevention begins with brand-new flight instructors. Arlynn McMahon, chief flight instructor for Lexington, Kentucky-based Aero Tech, says a "CFI Boot Camp" program aims to catch teaching problems when they're small. A component of the program is the "CFI Master Switch," a not-so-proud badge of honor worn by a flight instructor who has let a student leave an airplane with the master switch on.

"A worn-out switch tied at the bottom of a string is a gentle peer-group reminder that the instructor didn't properly supervise the student in the cockpit. Nearly every instructor at Aero-Tech has worn it once--but seldom twice," McMahon said (see "CFI Boot Camp," January 2006 AOPA Flight Training).

Flight instructor Cathy Mitchell of Phoenix, Arizona, has a different take on the problem. She believes that the aircraft environment--the noisy cockpit, a classroom that moves in three dimensions, a learning experience in which the senses are bombarded--can overwhelm the student.

"Safety is always at the forefront of the brain before, during, and after a flight, therefore missing the opportunity to remember that we shouldn't ride the brakes back to the tiedowns," she says. "When we get into a rental car we are entering extremely familiar and comfortable territory where our mind can relax and focus--the very opposite environment that we engage during our 'plane time.'"

A pilot who rides the brakes while taxiing back to the airport has good intentions--to be slow and safe, she says. "As flight instructors and flight school owners it is our responsibility to understand that safety has to be enforced at all costs, even if it means extra wear and tear on our planes; fixing brakes is much cheaper than fixing a wing and the side of a hangar."

Mitchell sees the situation as an opportunity in which flight schools could educate renters and students while having a little fun in the process--via a "Wear and Tear BBQ." "Every couple of months the flight school can host a BBQ or equivalent which would be organized by the instructors and funded by the renters," she suggests. Renters would pay "contributions" to a communal fund: $2 for every switch left on; $3 for leaving trash in the airplane; $2 if warned once about riding brakes. (Mitchell, who says everybody has bad days from time to time, would cap the day's contributions at $5 per person.)

The cookout "would be a great way to meet fellow aviation enthusiasts while shining some light on keeping our planes in great condition," she says. Free flights or gift certificates could be awarded to the student at the cookout with the fewest contributions, she suggests.

It's important to keep the environment positive, says Mitchell, "because it is a passion, a dream, a goal, and an undertaking for our students and renters to fly." A flight school shouldn't look the other way, but neither should it resort to fines or ridiculing customers. Instead, look for ways to help students understand, OK, I left the battery on; I am responsible, Mitchell says.

Whether prevention starts with instruction or is learned as you gain familiarity with an airplane, treating your trainer as if it were yours benefits your pocketbook as well as the owner's. Ingraining good habits now means you won't have to unlearn bad habits when you purchase your own airplane. Until that happy day, pretend your rental aircraft really is yours. You'll earn the good will of your flight school or FBO, as well as the aircraft's owner, and you'll develop good habits that will serve you well for years to come.

Jill W. Tallman is assistant editor of AOPA Flight Training magazine. A private pilot since 2001, she has approximately 350 hours.