When people are madly in love, they usually want to share their joy and passion. When those people happen to be pilots and their passion is an airplane, they join a type club—in which others share their love for the Bonanza or a Cirrus or a Cessna 120 and also to soak up the latest technical, operational and safety tips. A type club in which pilots seek camaraderie around a series of machines probably sounds a little nuts to nonpilots. The drive to do so is actually pretty simple. Imagine trying to restore a 1967 Jaguar XKE. Who wouldn’t want to connect with other people around the world ready to help you avoid the pitfalls that caught them over the years? Just think airplanes.
In his work “The Efficacy of Aircraft Type Club Safety,” safety expert Jeff Edwards says: “One prominent goal of aircraft type clubs is also reducing aircraft accidents and improving safety within the fleet. Type clubs may also have a training arm that encourages and supports type-specific ground and flight training. These clubs can assist the [National Transportation Safety Board] and the FAA during investigations of aircraft accidents involving its fleet.”
The variety of type clubs is as vast as the GA fleet, old and new—including the American Bonanza Society (with nearly 10,000 members), the Citation Jet Pilots Association (with 1,280 members), the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (with 6,300 members), the Pilatus Owners and Pilots Association (representing 240 to 260 aircraft), and the Malibu M-Class Owners and Pilots Association (with 1,300 members) to name a few. Older, less-popular airplanes haven’t been left adrift, though, thanks to the likes of the Bellanca-Champion Club, Cardinal Flyers Online, Ercoupe Owners Club and T-34 Association. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s Type Club Coalition webpage includes a current list of clubs as well as tips on creating a club of your own.
Type clubs also bring people together through a variety of social activities, people who otherwise would have never known each other. Cessna stopped making the Cardinal series more than 40 years ago, so Rogers Faden joined the Cardinal Flyers Online shortly after purchasing his Cardinal RG in 2006 because “it’s a good, knowledgeable group. In addition to technical support for the airplane, they offer quite a few pilot activities. Because all my flying is of a social and personal nature, CFO’s activities really appealed to me.”
Most of the type clubs also find a ready audience at AirVenture each summer—except this year, when the show was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of today’s clubs offer a strong online-forum presence for members to share knowledge around the world. ABS, COPA and others provide regular training opportunities year-round all over the country to improve pilot proficiency. Most of those have migrated online during the COVID-19 chaos.
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Type clubs usually feature an annual get-together, in addition to training forums, but most all in-person events fell by the wayside this year. For CFO members, the traditional meetup begins in Winter Haven, Florida, during the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, where more than 100 Cardinals on the ground is not at all unusual. Because COPA is tied to a slightly more expensive airframe, their annual convention, known as Migration, often happens at some luxurious destination. Last year’s event in New Orleans drew more than 175 airplanes and 216 people. The Citation Jet Pilots’ 2019 convention in Colorado Springs entertained 520 people and more than 130 jets.
Type-club executive directors believe many of their members joined to learn more about the idiosyncrasies of their aircraft and become better pilots, leading to the age-old question: Do type clubs make for safer pilots, or are the people who join these clubs predisposed to focus on safety? There’s some—albeit anecdotal—information available that’s useful for drawing insights, because safety improvements don’t always depend upon technical expertise alone.
Not long after Piper introduced the popular 310 h pressurized PA-46 Malibu in 1983, enough owners were convinced of the need for an organization to share knowledge and experience that the Malibu Mirage Owners and Pilots Association was formed, with the name later changing from Mirage to M-Class. A spate of problems with the original Continental engine emerged early on, as well as the first in-flight airframe breakup occurring in May 1989. The next year, five more aircraft were lost in flight. The final straw for the FAA came on March 17, 1991, when a Florida thunderstorm spit out another Malibu in pieces, killing four people. The MMOPA learned that airplane was 200 pounds over gross at takeoff with a center of gravity 2 inches beyond the aft limit.
Believing the problem was the airplane itself, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive that limited the Malibu to VFR flight with the altitude-preselect and vertical-speed modes of the autopilot disabled. The FAA also ordered a special certification review of the airplane just months before Piper filed for bankruptcy in July 1991. MMOPA members discovered some commonalities with the accident pilots, including inexperience with high-altitude flight in high-performance airplanes. The group hoped to prove the problem was not the airplane but way pilots were being trained.
A special arm of the MMOPA, the Malibu Coalition, hired former FAA administrator Langhorne Bond to make their case before the FAA and NTSB. The MMOPA was also instrumental in expanding the Malibu initial training course to five days. The Coalition met with the NTSB to try to restore not only the Malibu’s flight status but also its market reputation with a clean bill of health, by attracting media coverage greater than that of the AD. The FAA released its SCR findings in February 1992 indicating the accident pilots were not properly trained to manage such a high-performance airplane in the flight levels and withdrew the AD against the Malibu. The MMOPA can certainly take credit for saving that airplane from extinction—not to mention the lives—because of the improvement in the training program.
COPA faced a similar scenario related to the airplane’s Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. While some pilots early on knew enough to pull the chute in tough situations, the number of fatal accidents began to climb in 2007 before leveling off briefly in early 2009. Then the numbers spiked again with 11 accidents in 2011 and eight fatal ones in 2012. Rick Beach, COPA’s aviation safety chair, said that at one point, there were “three accidents in a 24-hour period.” Beach said a look at the data COPA gathered seemed to show the accidents were happening mainly to non-COPA member pilots who’d rented a Cirrus at an FBO or flying club. “It became pretty clear that the standard way of checking somebody out was pretty deficient,” Beach said. “We were seeing inexperienced Cirrus instructors giving minimal checkouts of a couple hours, before some pilots created a smoking hole. That’s how expanding the quality of the Cirrus Standardized Instructor Program evolved.” Beach said COPA helped develop CSIP using some top-notch Cirrus instructors who were already teaching in the airplane. Beach is credited with the COPA slogan about CAPS, “Pull early, pull often.” COPA’s training efforts, in part, became focused on convincing pilots of the value of pulling the chute in an emergency rather than riding the aircraft down to the ground.
What COPA learned was that people who are not used to flying the Cirrus simply don’t think of pulling the chute when they get into trouble. The chute handle does, after all, hang from the ceiling above the pilot and out of the normal visual scan. Beach said: “By January 2012, the 26th CAPS pull occurred, which meant there had been 25 CAPS saves in the previous 10 years. By the end of 2014, there had been 50 CAPS events, 25 more in just three years. By the end of 2017, the number was 73 CAPS pulls and nearly 25 more in the last three years. Halfway through 2020, we’ve had another 24 CAPS saves, totaling 97 with 195 survivors.” The numbers speak for themselves.
While no one person or organization can turn a someone into a better pilot if the PIC isn’t motivated, aircraft type clubs and the training opportunities they provide—as well as the
experienced users willing to share their expertise in specific training scenarios—can go a long way toward moving a pilot well beyond the minimum standards asked for in a check ride to a place where they truly become one with the airplane they love.
This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide issue of Flying Magazine