As a training provider, watching a student taxi away in one of your aircraft can be a little nerve wracking, especially if it’s their first time solo. The same can be said for a renter who hasn’t flown in weeks or even months. But you can have some extra rules that increase the chances student pilots or renters will be more proficient than basic FAA or insurance policy requirements. Adding a few tweaks to your operation’s student solo or renter policies can be done easily, and in some cases, such tweaks can even increase profitability.
Let’s start with FAA minimums. For student pilots, the maximum period a solo endorsement is valid is for 90 days, after which an instructor must again fly with the student and sign an extension of their solo privileges. This, however, doesn’t mean that a flight training provider and its instructors must allow students to go that long between flights and still be permitted to fly by themselves. In fact, a student pilot who hasn’t flown in 89 days and now wants to go do a little solo practice, while legal, is a bit scary.
There is nothing wrong with having a business policy that encourages instructors to include more restrictive requirements in their endorsements as well.
A flight training provider might choose something more like, “Students may be allowed to solo if they have flown with an instructor in the preceding 30 days,” that they “have conducted at least 10 takeoffs and landings in the make and model of aircraft within the last 15 days,” or whatever other combination you choose. I like to limit my students to having flown at least 10 landings in the last 30 days and having flown at all no longer than 14 days ago, or I go back with them for a checkup. This keeps what instructors have taught them from getting rusty or bad habits from developing as they fly on their own.
Advanced students seeking to fly complex or tailwheel aircraft are good examples for more restrictive solo or rental policies. In these cases, a requisite number of landings does more to enhance proficiency than just hours in a period of time. Consider a pilot renting a retractable gear aircraft for a long cross-country flight in which he flies six hours but only lands twice—at the destination and when he returns home. That type of flight does less for for the pilot’s skill proficiency than a pilot who spends an hour in the pattern doing eight landings practicing gear procedure skills. The same is certainly true of a tailwheel flight,
A few other restrictions include limiting students and renters from doing touch-and-go landings (not to be confused with any prohibitions on go-arounds, which are obviously encouraged when needed); limiting the length of runways able to be used; or requiring yearly rental “checkouts” instead of the every-two-year flight reviews. Requiring more restrictive solo policies for students and renters increases the interaction your instructors have with the customers, reduces the time periods possible between them flying on their own, and in general has the potential to increase students’ and customer’ proficiency when they operate your aircraft.
Why no touch-and-goes, you might ask? Many seasoned instructors will tell you that when students or pilots transition from landing to takeoff in a touch-and-go, they are more likely to miss important things. I agree. A touch-and-go forces a pilot into using less than full length runway for the takeoff, requires a quick reconfiguration of things like flap settings, and to a certain extent transitions a pilot’s focus from the landing to a takeoff attempt. Any of these things can compromise a good landing, so why not just ask your students and customers to avoid them? A good landing followed by a full taxi-back offers a full-length runway to use and a chance to properly run a takeoff checklist to avoid missing things that increase safety.
I recommend that you discuss and provide potential limitations such as this with your insurance provider. In some cases good policies that control your customer’s currency can positively affect your insurance policy. If not always in the form of a policy rate reduction, it may offer additional coverages or options otherwise not available. This is something you can share with your customers. Doing things that make your insurance better, less costly, or more likely to cover you and your customers in the event of an incident or accident can set you apart from the competition as a quality service provider.
Even the basic requirement of making renters fly at least three landings every 30 days to remain eligible to rent your aircraft solo keeps them more engaged with flying. You don’t have to make them fly 200 hours a year to stay proficient; just leaving them with shorter gaps between flying makes them safer statistically. It also means they are less likely to quit flying. The longer a person goes without engaging in an activity, the less likely it is that they will come back to doing it. Many pilots have stopped flying just because it got shuffled out of the normal activities for which they made time in their life. Give them a reason to keep coming back, and they are less likely to go away for good.
No one wants to see one of their customers injured or incur the costs with fixing or replacing a damaged aircraft. But from a purely business perspective, even minor damages to aircraft means down time. That is time during which that aircraft asset is not a profitable part of your operation. Avoid this to keep maximizing profitability by minimizing asset down time.
Find a couple customers who break those limits? Make examples of them by no longer offering your services to them. Word will get around quickly that your operation values safety and proficiency in its pilots. This can’t be a bad thing, ever.
When I owned an FBO that provided rental and training aircraft I recall landing at an airport with a shorter runway and finding one of our aircraft there that was prohibited from using a runway of that length. Every aircraft has different takeoff distance requirements, and in this case, we had set a limit of no shorter than 3,000-foot runways for use of our Piper Arrow for renters. When I landed in my Aeronca Champ at the airport that had a 2,400-foot runway and found our aircraft there, being used by a renter in contradiction to our aircraft rental policy, I went over and collected the keys that had been left in the plane by the renter. It wasn’t long after that that I got the call from our renter saying that “the keys had been stolen from the plane I rented!”
I played along a little bit, asking, “Gee, wow, where is the plane now?”
There was a pause before he admitted what airport it was at.
“I know,” I said. I told him it was me had grabbed the keys because I found the airplane at an airport that he was not permitted to use by our rental agreement and that I would be collecting the aircraft personally later. “No, I won’t be charging you for the rental,” I continued, “but you also are no longer welcome to rent aircraft from our business because you don’t follow our established policies.”
He wasn’t happy, and the story got spread around more of our renters, but since it was pretty cut and dry it set a tone with our customers that we really did expect them to follow our policies. When a policy is set to enhance safety, don’t ever feel bad about enforcing it—especially with customers who are actively and purposefully in breach of those policies.