Airwork: Come Fly With Me

Internet’s World Aero Club matches flying buddies.

FLY0411_Airwork_675x871

FLY0411_Airwork_675x871

(April 2011) REMEMBER THE RIDE BOARDS at school? Students with cars would post notices of where they were headed during school breaks and invite other students to ride along. At the same time students looking for rides would post their trip requests. The system, with the notices thumbtacked to a bulletin board, worked well, and that's how Harry met Sally. But you did have to check the board frequently to ensure you didn't miss a ride.

Substitute the bulletin board for the Internet and cars for airplanes and you have a basic idea of the World Aero Club (worldaeroclub.org), which bills itself as "the international aviators network."

Oliver Schulz, an information technology manager and programmer who has designed Web-based booking engines, fleet management and reservation systems, was encouraged by some friends and fellow pilots to develop a simple website to be what was essentially a flight roster listing a handful of pilot friends who occasionally met at the local airport, rented an airplane and flew together. It was the success of that simple concept — and Schulz’s experience in Web programming — that led him to create the World Aero Club.

Schulz said, “The World Aero Club was really conceived as an effort to not create just another Facebook or typical forum website for pilots. Instead, we wanted to bring pilots together, physically, and have them fly together.”

Schulz cited several specific reasons for establishing the program: “Times are difficult, and a lot of folks out there lose their currency because they just simply can’t afford to fly anymore. Sharing flights means sharing costs, and that means flying becomes more affordable, and that, in turn, means folks fly more so they can stay current and more proficient, which increases their safety.”

He also pointed out that sharing makes sense economically, environmentally and socially, and “it’s flat out fun. It’s just nice to meet like-minded people who share your passion and with whom you can exchange your knowledge and experience.”

The WAC website went live in early September 2010, and within four months nearly 1,000 pilots had signed up for free memberships on the site and had begun sharing rides and experiences. WAC is solely funded by its founder and through voluntary contributions from its members.

There are a number of features that set the WAC apart from other ride-sharing sites, but the most useful is the flight dispatch system that automatically matches posted flights with posted requests for flights.

“It’s about creating a quasi booking engine or what’s almost a reservation system where every individual pilot or flying buddy can file their flights or flight requests with our automated dispatch,” Schulz explained. “The dispatch monitors all the entries and informs pilots/flying buddies about any new matches. Even a flight that can’t be matched at the time it’s entered will still be matched with a request that’s entered at a later time, and vice versa.”

When a member first logs on to the WAC website, a Google map is displayed with flights shown as green lines and requests for flights as red lines. Rolling the cursor over a teardrop-shaped place marker brings up details about the flight originating at that location.

Flights or requests for flights can be posted for specific departure and destination airports or for local flights, and for specific dates or “anytime.” Flights and requests with specific dates are dropped from the roster when a date falls into the past; “anytime” flights are retained on the roster. In the first four months of operation, some 342 matches had been completed.

Schulz said that, even if there are no flights on the roster that a pilot is requesting, he or she is still encouraged to file his or her flights or requests since that will make a matching flight or request that much more likely later.

A flight-alert function can alert pilots to any requests for flights out of or into their home-base area, even when they’ve not filed a flight request.

The list of flights and requests that have been filed show the dates (“anytime” or specific dates) and offer two “I” icons for specific information about the pilot or about the flight and a link to contact the pilot directly.

As an example, this flight was posted recently:
March 28 (Mon) Sparta TN to Lakeland Florida.

Clicking the “I” icon under “Flt Info” opened a window that contained:

Aircraft: Single Engine Piston
Origin: Sparta US-TN Upper Cumberland Regional Airport
Destination: Lakeland US-FL South Lakeland Airport
Pilot Remarks: I am flying to the Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, and returning on the evening of the 3rd of April to Sparta, Tennessee. Welcoming any flying buddy to ride along. I am likely camping at the airport for week with my eight capacity tent.

Schulz pointed out that it’s important for pilots to file their return flights separately rather than mentioning them in the remarks section of their flight information.

"Only filed flights and flight requests will fill the system with interesting options for all members," he said.
Another posting:

Aircraft: Single engine piston
Origin: Santa Rosa, US-
CA- Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport
Destination: Santa Rosa, US-
CA- Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport
Pilot Remarks: Looking for CFI to work on my BFR.

Or how about this one?

Aircraft: Multi-Engine Piston
Origin: Smyrna, US- TN, Smyrna Airport
Destination: Winter Haven, US-FL - Winter Haven's Gilbert Airport.
Pilot Remarks: Make the flight every month. Length of stay varies.

When members join the free site, they’re asked to complete a profile that can include their home airport, their experience, a photo and other information they want to share with other members. Members can also create their own photo albums to share their pictures with other members. The profile also shows your WAC “flight history,” and a Google map on your profile page displays all your past flights.

“Meet the Members” is another section of the website that lets members search for other members by name, region, airport and experience they have. If a pilot is unfamiliar with mountain flying, he can contact another member who is experienced at mountain flying, or can ask about tips on a particular area where he might be flying.

A “Flight Reports” section is where members can post information about flights they’ve made or destinations they’ve visited. “If a member is looking for a destination for the occasional ‘$100 burger’ or some scenic flight route or other noteworthy information about places or airports,” Schulz said, “this section acts as a clearinghouse of interesting experiences or useful information.”

The “Message Center” is the club’s own internal messaging system. “Think of it as the club members’ individual message boxes at the front desk of the club’s lounge,” Schulz said. “You can leave messages for other members or groups of members worldwide and retrieve messages that other members have left for you there.”

The “Sky Exchange” is a worldwide marketplace for members who seek to buy or sell aircraft, aircraft parts, equipment or accessories. But unlike with most classified ad sections, there’s no need to periodically check the listings, since the Sky Exchange, in a manner similar to the dispatch section, constantly monitors all buy/sell inquiries and automatically identifies matching requests. Members submit a request only once, and the automated search engine keeps watch for a match and, when it finds one, notifies both matching parties.

Schulz is encouraging flying clubs, flight schools and FBOs to partner with WAC. “Partners can feature the system on their own website with their own logo,” he explained. “It’s quick, easy and free. With only a few mouse clicks they can offer all the features and information on their own website under their own logo. We’ll provide them with a few code snippets to implant buttons or logos into their website.”

In the short time the World Aero Club has been operating, a number of improvements have been made to the site, many from suggestions made by members.

“The World Aero Club is an open project in which every member can and is encouraged to participate,” Schulz said. “Member feedback is wanted and greatly appreciated. Feedback can be posted publicly for other members to see and comment on or privately to the staff.”

The World Aero Club is a great way to increase the opportunities for us to spend more time enjoying the passion we have for flying. Whether pilots are looking for others to come fly with them or we’re looking for a chance to hitchhike a ride, the WAC’s matchmaking can get us together.