It almost invariably starts out simply. A half dozen or so pilots who are connected in some fashion—work, school, neighborhood, FBO customers—get to talking, and complaining, about their desire to fly more and the barriers to doing so. Most often the barrier is cost, sometimes it’s difficulty scheduling at the local flight school, others it’s simply a lack of airplanes to rent on the only convenient airport. As one grouses about the condition of the Warrior she rented last week and another complains that the flight school won’t let him rent an airplane so he can take a weeklong trip with his family, someone else peers into his coffee cup and says, “Why don’t we set up a flying club and run it the way we want?”
If at least half of those present are willing to do more than just run their mouths about the poor state of general aviation, the chances are that the group can form a flying club that can overcome the barriers to flight they’d just identified. The question is how to keep the club viable so that it attracts and maintains a healthy level of membership for financial well-being and is just plain fun. To find out, we spoke with officers and members of a number of clubs and looked back at the experience we’ve had in clubs we’ve been in over the years.
The Entity and Airplane to Pilot Ratio
Flying clubs vary between those that are operated as a for-profit corporation or LLC with the members being stockholders—and responsible for selling their stock when they leave—and those that are nonprofit organizations—501(c)(3) or (c)(4) were the two types we observed—where the members pay a fee to buy in. It’s usually not refundable. Both models seem to work.
We found that all clubs charged monthly dues. Our observation was that the monthly dues should be enough to cover all of the fixed costs of the club, otherwise its financial position can go downhill in a hurry with a couple of months of poor flying weather.
One of the biggest problems clubs have is internal fights over setting the amount of monthly dues and hourly aircraft rental rates. Pilots are notorious tightwads and they want to fly as much as they can for as little money as possible. They don’t like to pay big money out each month if they are not flying and some simply don’t give a damn about the financial condition of the club—if it folds, they’ll go somewhere else to fly. A club that has a climate of “we’re all in this together” seems to have fewer fights over dues and rental rates. One essential condition, in our opinion, for creating a positive atmosphere among members is to make certain that every bit of the club’s financial information and insurance coverage is completely transparent. The moment the members get the impression that the officers are hiding something, the willingness of club members to vote to set dues and hourly rates for the airplanes at rates that reflect the true cost of operation starts going away.
When club members can easily see that the monthly fixed costs are X, the officers are working to keep those monthly costs down and the number of members is Y and that all members are really paying their dues, then the process of setting dues at a level that covers those costs is more likely to be routine rather than contentious.
As background, we like the information the AOPA has on its website about flying clubs—it’s an excellent resource, particularly for starting out. We agree with its recommended maximum ratio of pilots to airplanes at 12 to 1. Club officers we spoke with said that if that number is exceeded scheduling problems start showing up. If the number goes below 7 to 1, the cost to the members becomes prohibitive.
Armand Vilches, president of Lebanon Flying Club based at the Lebanon, Tennessee, Municipal Airport, told us that when a club is organized, it should not make its bylaws its operating rules. We agree, because amending the bylaws often requires a vote of the membership and some sort of a supermajority, making what should be routine changes become a headache. Also, frequently amended bylaws tend to become a mess and there’s always confusion as to what is the current version. We agree with Vilches’ analysis: “Bylaws should be the club’s constitution and the operating rules should be a separate document—essentially the club’s laws.”
Board of Directors
Keeping a flying club on an even keel requires people who are willing to be involved in the day-to-day operations—everything from making sure bills get paid and new members get processed through assuring maintenance is performed on the airplanes. To keep costs down, that means the members have to be willing to volunteer and fill the needed positions that make the club work. At a minimum, there has to be a president, a secretary/treasurer (usually the most labor-intensive job), maintenance manager (depending on the number of airplanes, there may need to be more than one), website manager, safety officer and membership manager. Because of the time commitment of the position of president and treasurer and potentially the maintenance manager, it’s our recommendation that they be rewarded in some fashion—and that the membership know precisely what that is. We like something along the lines of an hour free flying time per month for the president and two for the treasurer.
We’ve seen that abused in clubs with officers given several hours of free flying time per month, which unreasonably drove up the costs for the members. We also noted that in those clubs the officers tended to be the same year after year and ruled things with an iron hand—until the club either folded or the members revolted.
We recommend term limits for board members—but suggest they be used cautiously as they can be a bad thing if too short. It takes some time for a person in a new position to learn it and become effective. Based on our observations and interviews, we think that a person should not be able to hold the same board position for more than three or four years—and can come back to it after an absence of two.
It’s the board’s job, in our opinion, to set the tone for the club—keeping actions transparent, encouraging members to fly and expand their horizons, setting up social events such as flyouts, making changes to the rules in an open fashion (and which can be overridden by a supermajority of the membership) and dealing with members who become problem children. The board has the difficult duty of suspending or terminating a pilot’s membership for anything from repeatedly not cleaning up an airplane after flying it to harassing another member through unsafe operations. We observed that when a member errs, a quiet meeting with him and a couple of the board members generally results in the member straightening out. (We also recommend that when there is a problem, the better solution is counseling the offender rather than imposing a new rule on everyone that represents playing to the lowest common denominator.) However, we’ve also observed that, pilots being human, there are some that feel so entitled that they don’t respond to counseling and the board has to have the power to take action to toss out the miscreants. One club has a procedure that allows a member that is terminated by the board to make a presentation to the full membership to tell his side of the story—and the membership can override the board with a supermajority vote. We think that’s a good idea for clubs that are small enough to have regular membership meetings.
One of the reasons pilots drop out of flying is that they get bored. They learned to fly because it looked like it was fun and cool. It is. Going out to the airport for just 30 minutes of touch and goes in the pattern isn’t fun or cool for very long. Successful flying clubs keep things fun and cool by organizing flyouts for dinners or weekend events—recognizing that cost is always an issue. We particularly liked a practice followed by some of the clubs we ran across: dinner flyouts with all of their airplanes. Each airplane would have a club instructor in the right seat, not being paid—the cost of the airplane was split between the two club members who do the flying. As most club airplanes are four-place and won’t really carry more than three adults, the other two club members split the out and back legs. For the leg home, after dark, the left-seater is the pilot with less night experience. He or she gets more night experience with a CFI in the other seat—a very good thing. The club members get a chance to socialize with others who speak the language of flight, make a flight that isn’t just grinding around the pattern and which may expand their horizons if they haven’t done much night flying or, if the weather cooperates, into IMC on an instrument flight plan.
We think regular club meetings are wise. The Lebanon Flying Club meets monthly for dinner and business. A member who misses three meetings has to have a chat with the safety officer. The Ann Arbor Flyers, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has regularly scheduled wash and wax days where the members get together to clean the fleet. That club has been around for 75 years and we’ve observed the camaraderie built through its regular member gatherings.
We found that every club we spoke with had wrestled with finding a way to allow members to schedule flights so that the most members could fly, members didn’t hog airplanes and members could take extended trips. The advent of internet-based scheduling programs has helped. The clubs that seemed most successful were responsive to the membership—especially as membership changed and the economy changed. Over the last five or six years as the economy grew steadily, clubs told us that members flew more and they had more pilots seek to join. That meant more demand for vacation trips, causing them to fine-tune their scheduling policies. We saw clubs that allowed members to schedule one long trip (not more than seven days), otherwise trips were limited to two or three days. Another allowed a max of three days unless the pilot went to the membership to ask for longer. We thought that was unwieldy but learned that it worked and that no pilot had ever been turned down. The bottom line was to keep the scheduling policy flexible and make sure that it is applied fairly. We did hear a bitter complaint from a former member of a club who said that at his club officers had the power to preempt the schedule and take a plane that was already scheduled. It was why he was a former member.
A major part of any flying club is training—for new ratings and recurrent. From a safety standpoint, virtually every club we spoke with required that instructors who desired to instruct in club aircraft be approved by the club’s safety officer. They also required that each club member take an annual—rather than biennial—flight review with a club instructor.
We found that a lot of clubs actively marketed themselves to people who wanted to learn to fly and so had an active subset of members who were working on the private rating. That led to discussions as to maintenance of the airplanes—the clubs found that to attract members the airplanes had to look good and everything had to work. If a radio were inop for any length of time, it angered members working on ratings, especially the instrument rating.
All of the clubs we spoke with wrestled with the cost of either keeping their airplanes looking fresh and modern through refurbs or replacing them periodically. We spoke with board members of the Michigan Flyers in Ann Arbor and were told that they recently needed to add another Cessna 172 to their fleet. It would be required to serve both as a primary trainer, instrument trainer and cross-country traveling machine for the members. The board members were surprised to learn that in the less than a year since they’d bought another 172, the prices had skyrocketed as the demand for them from flight schools went through the roof—they were looking at nearly $200,000 for one that fit the bill.
We heard from clubs that had a de facto policy of spending as little as possible on aircraft upgrades; they would let paint, interior and avionics go as long as possible. Former members of such clubs reported that it was almost impossible to sell their shares as potential members took a look at the ratty condition of the airplane and went elsewhere.
We also had a chance to look at the airplanes in the fleets of the Michigan Flyers and Ann Arbor Flyers—the former a mix of 152s, 172s and a 182 and the latter consisting of three Piper Archers and a Saratoga. While none were manufactured in the last decade and some were over 20 years old, all were in excellent shape—the result of the clubs being willing to budget for refurbs for interiors, avionics and paint.
Keeping the airplanes in good shape and requiring annual recurrent training was felt to be a factor in cost of insurance, according to conversations we had with board members who were involved with obtaining insurance for their clubs. We liked, and recommend, the approach taken by the clubs that made sure that the members, not just the club itself, were insured under the club’s policy. A pilot who spends the money to join a club should be covered by its insurance, in our opinion; she or he shouldn’t then have to shell out for renters insurance on top of membership costs.
In our experience, flying clubs develop their own personalities. Some become almost indistinguishable from commercial flight schools with little interaction between members; others are small groups that become so close knit that members form friendships that last for life. No matter what, personality conflicts are inevitable and philosophies as to how a club should be run—notably what upgrades should be made to the airplanes—differ. In an increasingly contentious society, we think a flying club should be a friendly place where members show courtesy and respect for each other so differences in opinion can be hashed out and resolved. Beyond making membership fun, resolving disagreements amicably can, in our opinion, affect safety. Airplanes that don’t get repaired because angry members refuse to spend the money can quickly cross the line from inconvenient to unsafe.
We recommend that clubs have an application process that involves a prospective member meeting the membership after filling out an application that the membership sees and making a very short presentation to the membership outlining why she or he wants to join. Afterward, in a secret ballot, the membership votes on the applicant. (We recommend that no one or two members have the power to veto applications as that can easily lead to denying membership because of the biases of a few.) Clubs that have applicants meet the membership before acceptance report that they felt that they’d avoided bringing in members who would not have had the appropriate level of respect for other members, safety and/or keeping the airplanes in good condition. Clubs that didn’t have such a policy reported that from time to time they had to throw out members who didn’t respect the airplanes and/or other members.
We’ve had some of the best experiences in our flying lives in flying clubs and made friends who we treasure. We’ve learned a lot from flying club instructors on days the weather went down, people who were scheduled to fly were in the office and an impromptu ground school developed to talk over an advanced subject that interested us. And, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we’ve also learned that when a club based at a controlled field throws a hangar party with beer for the members, that it’s wise to invite the air traffic controllers to partake of free beer. Somehow club airplanes always get good handling and it’s been known to help smooth over those inevitable times when a member gets a bit of fumble-mouth when talking with the tower.
Rick Durden holds a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.