A few months ago, I was at the virtual airport watching the aviation world go by through the picture window of the pilot’s lounge when a sharp-looking Grumman Tiger taxied in and shut down. The canopy slid back and two old friends, Jayne and Dan, based at an airport a couple of hundred miles away, stood up, stretched and stepped out of the cabin. I shot out of the lounge, down the hallway and out onto the ramp before they had descended from the airplane.
I had been talking with Jayne and Dan over the last year as they were guiding their flying club’s Tiger through a pretty involved refurb. I walked over to them and have to admit that my greeting was kind of perfunctory—I was taken by the superb paint scheme and was eager to see the new interior and panel. I was impressed. My friends’ flying club has a practice of keeping the airplanes that prove to be member favorites and they regularly invested serious coin to update them. It had proved to be a good way to attract new members—both established pilots and new students—and retain old ones. Even with regular refurbs, the hourly rates were less than what was available—in less attractive airplanes—at nearby FBOs.
Dan and Jayne tied down the Tiger as I was looking over the interior. We walked into the lounge, poured ourselves cups of the lousy coffee and sat down to spend some quality time talking airplanes.
Over the next several minutes I got the full brief on the refurb—this was one of the first flights since it had been completed and, so far, they were pleased at the way things were operating.
However, as we talked, I got the impression that Dan and Jayne were thinking about something other than the refurb and that the thoughts weren’t particularly good. I looked at Dan and said, “All right. You’ve got yet another excellent refurb, the parts and pieces are getting to know each other and the avionics work—so why do you two look like it’s time for a root canal?”
Jayne was first off the mark. “Yeah, I suppose it shows. We’ve got a club member who is doing stupid stuff with the airplanes and we’re going to have to throw him out of the club. We’ve been talking with him and hoping that he’ll get his act together but it’s not happening. I hate this sort of thing. We’ve got to get rid of him, but we’ve been procrastinating—sort of justifying it by saying that we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt when there’s really no doubt any longer. It’s been so long since we’ve had to 86 someone that we’re not acting as definitively as we should. Dan and I are two of the four officers of the club and I’m the chief instructor. We decided to make this flight and do some serious talking about what’s going on and what to do.”
“Wait a minute.” I looked at Jayne, “Your club covers discipline of club members in its operating rules; I’ve seen them. You have a serious problem child, you set up a meeting of the members or the Board of Directors, give the member 10-day notice of the meeting, hash things out in the meeting and then hold a vote—the majority of those present make the decision. What’s so tough?”
Dan stepped in. “One of the good things about a flying club is the chance to socialize with other pilots and make new friends. It’s tough to pass judgement on a guy you see every time you’re at the airport. All of the club officers are volunteers and having to discipline a member just plain stinks. I think that’s why we know what we need to do, but we’ve been dragging our feet. Plus, part of the problem is that this guy is really aggressive. He will never admit he’s made a mistake; everything that goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault. Plus, the times our chief instructor—Jayne—tried to discuss matters with him, he personally attacked her and her qualifications. Good grief, this guy is a 250-hour private pilot with an instrument rating and Jayne flies for the airlines.”
Jayne commented, “I think there’s also a fear that the guy is so volatile that if we expel him, he’ll sue us and we can’t afford that.”
I looked at them. “I can’t help but wonder if he’d sue you if he wrecks one of the club airplanes, survives and you don’t act as a cheerleader for him during the NTSB investigation.”
We talked for about 45 minutes before Dan looked at his watch and announced that they needed to get going. I walked out to the airplane with them and continued talking with Dan as Jayne did the walk around—it was her leg to fly. Before they started up, I asked that they let me know what the club decided to do.
The Wheel Turns
A month later Dan called me and let me know that before the Board had done anything, they’d made sure that they had directors and officers (D and O) insurance so if someone sued the club officers over a decision there would be insurance to defend them. They wouldn’t risk going broke for decisions they made as volunteer officers for something that they joined to have fun—a flying club.
He went on to tell me that they followed the club rules by calendaring a Board meeting for the purpose of addressing specific actions of the member—long delays in paying his bill, not cleaning up airplanes after he’d flown them and making some IFR and VFR flights in weather that was below the club’s published minimums. They gave the member a two-week notice of the meeting by arming all of the Board members with written copies of the notice and one gave it to the member when she saw him at the airport.
The member did bring a lawyer to the Board meeting—which was held in executive session. The member’s defense consisted essentially of “You have no right to question anything I do.” His arrogance got so bad a couple of times that his lawyer tried to calm him down. The Board voted to terminate his membership and informed him in writing.
Thus far nobody has seen the former member at the airport.
After I talked with Dan, I thought about some of the flying clubs and group ownerships I knew and how they handled membership.
The good ones required that a prospective member spend some time with the club members to see if there was a good fit. Clubs develop personalities and it seems to me that a prospective member needs to learn that personality and determine whether he or she will fit. By the same token, the club members have to try to get a feel for the prospective member. Do they have the same goals for a club? For some it’s building time as cheaply as possible, for others it’s getting ratings, while for most, in my observation, it’s having access to reasonably priced, well-maintained, clean airplanes for recreational flying, travel and skill level-up.
I’ve seen big fights in clubs where there was not care taken to assure there was a “fit”—most often it was between those who recognized that flying isn’t cheap and were willing to pay what it cost to maintain the airplanes in good condition versus those who were constantly complaining that the club was wasting money on the airplanes, that it needed to cut rental prices and it wasn’t worth the cost to fix little things that broke or wore out such as a turn coordinator, number two navcomm or a pilot’s side window that had a hole punched in it.
Some of the best clubs I’ve observed have a formal get-acquainted procedure for potential new members. The prospect has to give the club a check for the membership fee right away—but the club doesn’t cash it until the prospect actually becomes a member. It’s returned immediately if the prospect isn’t voted into membership. Monthly membership meetings are mandatory and are social—so members can stay acquainted and can meet prospective members. In one club there is a monthly day to wash some or all of the airplanes. If you don’t show, your monthly dues are a bit higher. A prospect gets the idea that this club’s members like clean airplanes—and is willing to follow the club rule requiring that the windshield is cleaned and bugs scrubbed off the leading edges after every flight.
What About the Deadwood?
No matter how careful a club is, some of its members will become a problem. There are those who never fly but pay their dues like clockwork. We claim to like them because they aren’t going to be competing with us for getting access to a club airplane. However, the fact that they don’t fly means that they may be a menace when and if they do. They have a tendency to suddenly show up and go flying on short notice. They also have a tendency to land on nosewheels or lose control on landing in a crosswind. In my experience, good clubs have—and enforce—rules that require dual instruction if a member hasn’t flown as PIC within a certain period time.
The opposite problem is the member who flies a lot but doesn’t pay the bill—or takes months to do so. To my knowledge, there are no flying clubs in the U.S. that are licensed as banks—they should not be in the position of making loans to members to finance their flying time. In my observation of flying clubs, I’ve noticed that the successful ones have procedures in their rules for dealing with members who are slow in paying their bills. (And every new club member has to sign a statement that she or he agrees to and will comply with the terms of the club rules and future changes.) Most have an escalating series of late fees—either a specific number of dollars or an increasing percentage of the outstanding balance. They also cut off the offending member’s ability to schedule, or fly, any club aircraft. That’s become easier as computerized scheduling has become the rule at more and more clubs.
Having said that, there are times that members simply stop paying their bills and cannot be persuaded to do so. I was in a club in which a member stopped paying his bills and had to be prohibited from scheduling and flying, even as he blithely explained that he certainly had paid—there must be some mistake. Under increasing pressure his excuses mounted, and we watched what we later learned was the classic behavior of an extortionist—smooth, charming, glib and utterly unwilling to admit that he owed the club any money. The club had to sue him in small claims court and then garnish his wages when he still didn’t pay. That’s when we found out that he owed money all over town and that we weren’t the only ones garnishing his wages.
For members who exhibit a general lack of respect for club airplanes, club members and/or club rules/FARs, my observation of successful clubs shows a common thread: The club has reasonable rules—not anal-retentive marching orders—and a person designated to counsel members on compliance. The person is usually the club president, chief instructor or a safety officer who is an experienced pilot (usually a CFI). The club, and the designated counselor, keep a written record of observed or reported transgressions by the offending member. It may be as small as a hangar door left open or failing to clean the windshield after a flight—the sort of small matter that can be the subject of counseling the first time and a $20 additional fee on the member’s monthly invoice each successive time. Most of the time, small matters such as that are because the member was in a hurry or got distracted. A chat with the offender often means the problem never happens again.
Then there are the true nightmares. I was in a club in which an instrument student filed IFR so he and two friends could make a trip in a club airplane on an IMC day. He was a few hours of dual away from his instrument checkride. He went up to the control tower to copy down his instrument clearance—telling the controllers that he wanted to make sure he got it right. The tower chief sensed that something was amiss and called the flying club (it had an office on the airport). The chief instructor was there and waited for the member at the airplane the member had reserved for the trip. The chief instructor informed the member that his membership was terminated immediately.
I’ve been told of a club member who would fill in some other club member’s name and club number on the paperwork after a flight in an attempt to have someone else pay for his flying time. There was no second chance for that member; he was gone. I was told by the member of a good-sized club that he was walking back from putting an airplane into its hangar after a flight when he looked into an open hangar he was passing. He saw another club member in the hangar, hitting his girlfriend. Shocked, the observer immediately called the club president. The club president called the offender who didn’t deny his actions—but said they were his business, not that of the club. The offender was kicked out of the club. Some years later the club president told me that he wished he’d been smart enough to go to the police a file a complaint and had been mentally kicking himself over not handling the situation even more aggressively.
More problematic are the members who simply don’t like rules and are constantly pushing them. If the club VFR minimums are a 3000-foot ceiling and five miles visibility, the member will insist on going when it’s 1000 and three. When called on it, he’ll point out that he was legal under the FARs and is so experienced that he doesn’t have to comply with the conservative club regulations.
In talking with people who have run flying clubs, I’ve come to be of the opinion that for those rule pushers it’s wise to address the problem the first time it comes up—usually with a directed conversation by the club designate for that sort of thing. It’s also important to document the event and the conversation. If the pilot does anything but admit that he screwed up and will make sure it doesn’t happen again, it’s time to start keeping an eye on the pilot. If his response is to try and deflect blame, claim that he’s so good that it’s OK for him to fly below club minimums and/or attack the club representative, do one of two things: Tell the pilot that he’s had his one warning and a second major disregard of club rules such as this will get him tossed out of the club so hard that he’ll bounce or immediately start the club’s internal procedure to expel the member.
There are those cases where the pilot can show that she or he got a forecast for weather that was above club minimums and the forecast didn’t hold up and the pilot completed the trip safely for the last 20 miles in WX that was well above FAR minimums but below club minimums. The pilot shows a good attitude about club rules, everyone goes away happy and the problem probably never repeats itself.
Flying Clubs are for Fun Flying
We join flying clubs to help cut down the cost of flying and socialize with other pilots—it’s fun. We volunteer to take on a lot of work without pay to make sure that the flying club runs smoothly—the airplanes are maintained, club finances are kept healthy, tax returns are filed, and members get guidance to help them fly safely. I’ve held Board positions in flying clubs and burned the midnight oil as a volunteer to make sure flying club business got done. It’s all been worth it. I’ve made the closest friendships of my life because of flying club memberships. I’ve been able to afford flying in some cool airplanes that never could have happened had I been limited to what was on the line at local FBOs.
At the same time, I recognize that there is an unpleasant side to flying club membership. Members have to self-police their club. While an individual member may not be on the Board of Directors and have the unpleasant task of dealing with rogue members, each member has an individual obligation to help make sure that club rules are set up to allow getting rid of the true deadwood in the club—and not those who are just unpopular or “different”—so as to maintain a high level of safety among the club pilots.
While a club member may not be legally liable following the crash of a club airplane flown by another club member, there is always going to be the question in the member’s mind: “Was there something I could have done to have prevented he accident?”
Ninety-nine percent of the time flying club membership is a pleasant experience. The one percent of the time it’s not pleasant is when you have an obligation to the future success of the club and the safety of your fellow members, and you have to get involved with the process of dealing with a member who is unsafe or disrespectful of the club’s airplanes and/or members. It may be the price you pay for less expensive flying. It also requires that you step up and deal with your obligation to assess the behavior of the member alleged to be a problem in a fair, unbiased manner, using the club rules for guidance and take the steps you objectively believe are right.
Losing a pilot friend to a crash and thinking to yourself that “I saw this coming” and not having done all that you could to prevent the crash is one of the most horrible feelings you’ll ever have in aviation. I know. I’ve been there. Alternatively, kicking a friend out of a flying club is a tough decision to make, but it may just keep him or her alive.
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author ofThe Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.