Back in the 1930s, humorist Robert Benchley took up a silly if well-intended proposal to cut down on drunk driving by having gas stations refuse to sell fuel to drivers who were obviously intoxicated. (Apparently the country hadn’t yet come to grips with the amount of mayhem a drunk driver could wreak with the gas already in the tank.) Noting the range between “stately, dignified drunks” and drivers who were sober but mischievous (and maybe shouldn’t be behind the wheel, either), he wondered, “Short of marrying the driver, how is the gas-station attendant supposed to know?”
The same question applies to would-be airplane renters, and to borrow another of Benchley’s lines, the most common answer is, “Don’t you wish you knew?” A two-hour check-out with one of your flight instructors can probably weed out those whose basic airmanship simply isn’t up to the job. If the customer sets up a power-off stall by reaching for the mag switch, or thinks a career total of 85 hours in a Cessna 150 is sufficient preparation to fly your new Cirrus SR22 over the Rockies at night, it probably won’t be a difficult decision. But how do you guard against the rental pilot who shows up with a fat logbook and the self-discipline to play it straight all the way through the check-out, only to lapse back into his native insanity once free of adult supervision?
Even when the pilot’s background contains some clues, the operator is unlikely to hear about them in time. The pilot of a rented Piper Arrow attracted plenty of attention during his last few hours on earth, landing long, fast, and hard, then “firewalling the throttle and locking the brakes” as he taxied to parking with the tanks almost dry. He took on 10 gallons of fuel and two passengers and told the lineman, “Let me see if I can’t scare these guys to death.” Numerous witnesses saw the Arrow flying inverted with the gear down before it crashed into a lake, but only during the investigation did it come out that the pilot’s certificate had previously been suspended for doing aerobatics in an unapproved airplane on a Victor airway—or that he’d been put on probation as a student after showing his instructor videotape of the aerobatic maneuvers he’d attempted during a student solo.
While this is an extreme case, the accident report notes that his check-out in the Arrow—completed just four days before the accident—included more than 10 hours of dual. Had he really been able to hold it together that long, or had his check-out instructor gotten some unnerving insights into this man’s character?
More typical—and easier to prevent—are accidents arising from renters’ attempts to return the aircraft on schedule. Most FBOs have sensible policies and go out of their way to discourage their customers from flying in marginal conditions, but some renters still succumb to self-imposed pressure to get the airplane back or die trying. This may have played a part in the crash of another Arrow whose return had been delayed by thunderstorms; the pilot had been told to have the airplane back by 8:30 p.m. because he wasn’t night current, but he didn’t take off until about 10 minutes before 9 p.m. Likewise, the VFR-only pilot of a Cessna 172 requested a special VFR clearance to take off under an 800-foot ceiling at night, only to crash into a lake within 10 minutes. His rental contract specifically banned flight in conditions below VFR minimums. Both pilots died, along with three passengers in the Skyhawk and two more in the Arrow.
Is there an answer? Knowing your customers helps—if your instructors trained the pilot, you’ll have a better idea what to expect—but few operators can afford to turn down walk-in renters. Making it clear that getting the airplane back on time is less important than getting it back in one piece might not be enough to save it from the pilot who has to be at work in the morning, clouds or no clouds. If the best you have to go on is a gut sense of the pilot’s seriousness and competence as informed by a detailed oral exam and careful review of the logbook, you’ll still be ahead of that gas-station owner. Among the telltale signs that Benchley suggested watching for was the driver’s pointing to the tank and saying, “A pound of liver, please.” Thanks, Bob.