Taking the OpenAirplane Universal Pilot Checkout

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There has never really been a good system for renting airplanes in the United States. In theory your pilot’s certificate, valid medical, and a recent flight review is all the proof you need that you are competent behind the controls of an airplane, but rental companies want a little more proof that you aren’t an idiot before you get the keys to their planes. This used to mean that you needed to prove proficiency at every FBO from which you wanted to rent, which isn’t really practical if you travel a lot and want to rent locally — it wastes time, money, and patience. OpenAirplane promises a better solution: get a checkout every year at one location, and you’re good to go everywhere else in the system no questions asked. The catch? It’s a heck of a checkout . . .

The very first thing I wanted to do as soon as I had my certificate was go get an OpenAirplane checkout. I live in San Antonio, but I regularly visit family in the new York City and Cape Cod, MA areas. Being able to rent planes and fly around while I was visiting them would be ideal, and as luck would have it OpenAirplane boasts a very convenient location in each area. All I needed to do was pass the checkout, and I was good to go.

Keep in mind here that a checkout doesn’t give you carte blanche for every airplane in the system — you need a checkout for each model of aircraft you want to rent. They don’t take it to ridiculous levels — getting checked out in a 172M lets you rent a 172P no problem — but they do differentiate between “steam gauge” panels and G1000 based planes.

Before you get your checkout, you need to create an account on their website. Everything is done through the site, from checkouts to payment, so the account is key. Pop in your information (total hours, insurance info, billing details, the works) and you’ll be ready to start the process.

The first step in getting an OpenAirplane checkout is finding an authorized CFI to do it. OpenAirplane (hereafter known as OA for laziness reasons) designates certain people as an “OpenAirplane Check Airman,” and only they are qualified to perform the checkout. Luckily for me my local FBO at Boerne Stage had such a person available, and I was able to get checked out with them.

I initiated the process when I went to their page on OA, selected an airplane I was comfortable flying (one of their 172 planes) and clicked the big green “Schedule Checkout” button. Within a couple hours they had emailed me back, and we agreed on a time that would work for everyone involved (including their OA check airman). It was incredibly simple and easy.

The OA universal pilot checkout is basically broken out into three sections:

  1. Document review
  2. Discussion of rules and regulations (oral exam)
  3. Flight test (practical exam)

This should look very familiar to any pilot out there, since it basically mirrors the practical exam you took for your initial license. In fact, the exact same maneuvers and knowledge are required on the OA checkout as was for the FAA’s little test. There is just one slight difference, in that the oral exam also includes required knowledge of the OA agreement, operating rules, and policies.

The thing I was most concerned about was figuring out the OA rules. There was no quick reference guide available to thumb through or even a particularly reader friendly version, all that is available is this webpage which can be a little hard to find. If I had one complaint, it would be that OA should make that much easier to find and read — needing to click an expand each section individually is a pain. Its all common sense stuff though:

  • Planes need to stay within the United States, no joy rides to Mexico
  • You don’t pay if the aircraft isn’t airworthy
  • You can cancel without charge if the weather sucks
  • You need insurance
  • No letting passengers take off or land the plane
  • Don’t drop stuff
  • No acrobatics
  • No formation flying
  • No hand propping
  • No off-airport landings
  • NO KILTS! EVEN AS BAGGAGE!

Yeah, that last one stuck out like a sore thumb to me as well. No idea why its there, but I get the feeling that the guys behind OA aren’t Scottish.

After reading over the rules and regs, I arrived for my checkout with all the same accoutrements as my private pilot practical exam: current FAR/AIM, charts, and associated gear. At precisely the appointed time, the instructor arrived and we were off to the races.

The document review came first. I was prepared and brought every scrap of aviation related paper with me, but only a few things were really required:

  • Pilot’s certificate
  • Valid medical
  • Driver’s license
  • Photocopies of the front and back of the above three items
  • Logbook with current flight review
  • Renter’s insurance (minimum $250k per instance damage and per person, $1k for the aircraft)
  • Printed UPC checklist sheet

In my case, I had passed the FAA check ride a mere five days prior to the OA checkout so a current flight review wasn’t a big concern. But something the instructor told me made me glad that I had decided to hop on board with this system. The OA checkout needs to be done every 12 months, and it counts as a required flight review. So as long as I stayed with the program, I’d never have to worry about where to get a flight review or having it time out.

As far as I’m concerned, the checkout was a breeze. He shot me a couple random questions from the FAA regs (when you change your address, how long is your certificate valid? When do you need to inform the FAA?), we went over reading the sectional chart, and we discussed the OA agreement and rules.

Where this differs from the FAA check ride is that with OA, you aren’t familiar with the airplane you are flying. In my case, I had never flown this specific aircraft before and never been to the airfield in question before. My OA check airman walked me through the local procedures as we checked the airplane out, and once everything was in order we headed out to the local practice area for the maneuvers.

For the flight portion, everything is run exactly to the FAA PTS standards.  For a straight VFR pilot, this included, but was not limited to:

  • Steep turns
  • Emergency procedure
  • Short & Soft field landings
  • Cross country planning & diversion procedures
  • Slow flight & stalls
  • S turns & turns around a point
  • Unusual attitude recovery
  • Simulated VMC into IFR

Just like the PTS, there’s some wiggle room in how it is graded. The passing grade is “S” or “Satisfactory,” which doesn’t have to mean perfection. A slightly wobbly steep turn will still pass as long as you get it within the limits.

An hour and a half after we took off, we returned back to Boerne Stage and put the airplane away. After a little post-flight debriefing, I learned that I had passed and everything was A-OK. The OA check airman scribbled the words “UPC checkout pass” in the comments of my logbook, took a photocopy for their records, and sent me on my merry way. About a week later everything had been entered into the system, and a handy email was sent letting me know that I was good to go.

All said, it cost about $350 for the checkout. And next year, I’ll need to pay another $350 to do it all again. In my mind, with my personal situation, it absolutely makes sense to take one $350 checkout per year and be able to rent airplanes basically anywhere in the United States. I can’t wait to use the system for the first time in February to go fly around near New York City!

A couple things to remember, that I wanted to highlight:

  • Bring photocopies of your documents to the checkout, it will save time
  • Make sure your OA check airman signs your logbook for the flight, and endorses the line “UPC checkout pass” — they need a photocopy of this page with the endorsement
  • Just like the PPL check ride, the OA checkout is open book — bring everything and tab out what you might need
  • Payment happens through the OpenAirplane website, the FBO shouldn’t charge your card directly

Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is an instrument rated private pilot (ASEL), writer, and general techy nerd living in Austin, Texas.

2 thoughts to “Taking the OpenAirplane Universal Pilot Checkout”

  1. Hey Nick,

    Thanks for stepping up to get more value out of you pilot certificate by completing your Universal Pilot checkout with OpenAirplane.

    I’m glad you had a good experience, and appreciate sharing with folks here.

    I noted that getting through the rules may be a bit confusing. We’ll keep working on that. It’s really designed to get pilots to actually read the contract they are agreeing to when they fly with OpenAirplane.

    We posted a simple explanation (with a video!) on how it all work over here:

    http://pilots.openairplane.com/#how-it-works

    Plus a handy FAQ over here:

    https://openairplane.zendesk.com/forums/21941891-Support-for-Pilots

    But reading the contract is important too. If we have pilots just reading the guide, then they may miss reading the contract, which is why that we check that you’ve done that during the checkout. We’ll keep at it.

    I’m looking forward to you flying with us again. We’re adding more locations around Texas, and across the U.S. as fast as we can.

    Drop us a line or give us a call anytime if we can be doing more to help you get flying. We’re here to help!

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