Aviation Innovators: Rod Rakic

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AVweb interviews Rod Rakic, the co-founder of OpenAirplane, the Internet-based service that allows pilots to rent airplanes across the country, about the company and his vision for its future.

As part of AVweb's Features, we're starting an occasional series on innovators who are making a difference in general aviation—the young guns of GA, so to speak. We'll be doing interviews with them where they can talk about what they've done and their vision for the future of the area of general aviation where they are making a difference.

Today's focus is on Rod Rakic, co-founder of OpenAirplane, the Internet-based service that allows pilots to rent airplanes across the country based on one checkout, which is renewed annually. His concept of a standardized checkout—which also functions as a flight review—won over insurers, FBOs and flight schools. Until OpenAirplane, for a pilot to rent an airplane away from his home FBO, he or she had to get a checkout at the new FBO, spending several hundred dollars, before being turned loose to fly. Now, a pilot who has an OpenAirplane Universal Pilot Checkout (UPC) can rent the same type of airplane at any participating flight school or FBO almost anywhere in the country (there are limitations on mountainous areas) via OpenAirplane's website.

For the pilots who have long wanted to do a little flying while on vacation or a business trip, but the local checkout was too expensive, OpenAirplane has cut the cost radically. Now the pilot with an OpenAirplane Universal Pilot Checkout uses the website to schedule an airplane at a participating FBO, goes over the detailed local knowledge material for the FBO, airport and area, heads out and goes flying. Billing is through OpenAirplane. One of the most popular features of the service is that it doesn't cost anyone a cent unless a propeller turns. The pilot only pays if he or she goes flying.

10,000 pilots have active OpenAirplane checkouts and there are more than 300 airplanes available for rent at 94 locations across the country.  The company recently announced it had raised $500,000 in seed funding to hire more developers, accelerate growth and build new products. Rod sat down with us to talk about his background, the company he co-founded and his vision for the future. 

How long as OpenAirplane been running?

We started working on the concept and company in 2011. We incorporated the business in May 2012 and launched the Beta of the service with six locations in June of 2013.

What is your background in aviation?

I've been flying since I was a teenager. I started as a Civil Air Patrol Cadet when I was 12. My first job in aviation was as a lineman at the Port Huron, Michigan airport. When I was 16 I went to the CAP flight academy where I went through its solo program in a week. I spent the rest of high school working nights and weekends to put money into flight training. While other kids were trying to buy a car, I was trying to get that certificate. I earned my private pilot certificate while I was at Western Michigan University through its aviation program.

While I was in college I spent time working as the office manager at a flight school at Detroit City Airport. During the day I'd manage the flight school, then close up shop and grab the keys to a Cessna Skyhawk while there was still daylight and go log time.

Then everything else got in the way of flying. I moved into the public relations and communications program at Western and got my degree in telecommunications. I ended up going to work for a number of advertising agencies. The Internet and online experiences became my focus.

I picked up flying again in 2000. I was the classic rusty pilot, but I got back into it. After 9/11 I wanted to get more involved with my country. Active duty wasn't an option—I decided that Civil Air Patrol was for me. I rejoined CAP and got involved with emergency services. Eventually I served as a search and rescue team leader in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and then became a mission pilot. In 2012, I flew over the New York area doing photo reconnaissance following Hurricane Sandy in coordination with the Army Corps of Engineers.

I now have a commercial rating and over 1000 hours of flight time. I think the CFI rating is next.

What were you doing that caused you to come up with the idea of OpenAirplane?

In 2007 I started a social network for aviation called My Transponder. That introduced me to a large number of people in aviation that were accomplishing things but it didn't allow me to contribute as much to aviation as I wanted to.

In 2011 I thought about the fact that I'd always been a renter pilot. I sat down with Rob Mark, whom I'd met through aviation social networking. I talked with him about the idea I had about creating more access for pilots. The question I had was how to fix the problem of the underflying value of a pilot certificate. If the piece of plastic you have in your pocket turns off when you leave your home base, what is it really worth? What if we could apply the Air Force/Civil Air Patrol concept of a standardization and evaluation to general aviation? It exists in the military and some commercial ops and makes those operations safer—but it doesn't exist in Part 91 operations at all.

The project started with the intent of coming up with answers to the question, "How do we make private aviation more valuable?"

What if we could make access work better? What if we could make renting easier?

What response did you get?

Virtually everyone I spoke with said that it's a great idea but the insurance carriers won't let you do it.

What did you do?

I went directly to the insurance carriers. I pointed out the safety benefits of the stan/eval model used by the military and commercial carriers as well as how it reduced the accident rate for Civil Air Patrol. I also talked about the value of private pilots having renters insurance and staying proficient. I wanted to offer a carrot to pilots to take annual standardized flight reviews and to carry renters insurance—rental access across the country.

How did that work?

When I talked safety, I got listened to. Eventually one of the reps of a major aviation insurer said he'd go along with it. I went to gatherings of aviation insurers and spoke with underwriters. They saw the value in risk reduction and joined in. Having support of the insurers proved to be the key in launching OpenAirplane.

What happened next?

By the 2013 launch we had lined up some 5000 pilots who had expressed interest in the concept. Operators began to see that OpenAirplane was a way to get more customers who would be safe renters of their airplanes and who would take annual flight reviews. Internet technology allowed it to be easy for pilots and operators to find each other. We've been growing ever since.

What do you see for the future?

Aviation has some great opportunities and great challenges. The number of student starts is up. The product and experience we've created resonates with pilots. There is opportunity for operators to grow their business—not just slice up available business—by attracting pilots who are traveling to their area to rent their airplanes. The operators also make it attractive for their local pilots to fly with them for their annual Universal Pilot Checkout so those pilots can rent easily when they travel around the country. The idea is to grow the entire community and business of private aviation. The key to unlocking that is to get pilots off the couch and into the cockpit. That's the number-one thing we're focusing on as we grow our national network. We're always looking for more operators—for more great places to rent airplanes.

We're also turning our attention to the demand side—to get more pilots to get a Universal Pilot Checkout with one of our operators. The key is to ask pilots why they would get an old-fashioned flight review ever again when a 12-month UPC counts as a flight review and opens up your opportunities to rent across the country. We're pointing out that a flight review every 24 months doesn't statistically make you a safer pilot, but a UPC every 12 months does. If you're safer, you're more confident. If you're more confident, you're having more fun.

Before the Internet and insurance company participation, there were a few unsuccessful attempts to set up a nationwide aircraft rental program. This is a Hertz advertisement from 50 years ago.

We're also looking for ways to help our pilots with a UPC find more places to fly, to fly more often and have more fun. We're about making flying more valuable, safer and more fun for everyone.

What's available for rent through OpenAirplane now and what are you working toward?

Everything from single-engine nose and tailwheel airplanes through light twins. We offer mountain-flying checkouts. We're working toward helicopter rentals and are looking forward to seaplanes. I'm looking forward to the day when you can go to a hotel and rent an Icon A5 the way you can rent a jet ski or small boat.

What else is going on at OpenAirplane?

We've just started a contest—the pilot who flies the most number of hours out of the greatest number of different airports by March 27 will win a Lightspeed Tango wireless headset. Second prize is a Lightspeed Gann leather flight bag. There's more, especially for pilots that are using OpenAirplane airplane rentals for public-benefit flying organizations and operations. You can get all the details in the blog section of our website.

Rick Durden has completed two Universal Pilot Checkouts with and has rented airplanes through OpenAirplane. He is the author of Volumes 1 & 2 of The Thinking Pilot's Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It.