As I walked into the flying club, the usual members were gathered around the clubhouse table and my friend Lewis was just wrapping up a story. “I was fast enough on Rollerblades to outrun a pit bull, but that’s when I started carrying a gun,” he said. The others nodded in understanding.
In most social circles, a statement like this might give pause. Reflecting on the mental image it creates, listeners might briefly evaluate the mental stability of the speaker and, indeed, whether said individual might present an imminent threat to any bystanders in the immediate area.
But at my old flying club in southern Michigan, it was just another Saturday morning around the clubhouse table. There, high-octane coffee and doughnuts packed with enough caloric energy to power a container ship fueled lively discussion. On that particular day, tales of armed Rollerbladers fleeing vicious attack dogs simply steered the conversation from one random topic to another as the lazy hum of Cessnas and Pipers wafted through the open window. On mornings like that, I’d grab a doughnut of my own, kick back, and enjoy the show. I loved every minute of it.
I joined the club in 1997, earned my private pilot certificate, and remained an active member for years afterward. It proved to be an incredibly fun means of receiving flight training, but it also served as a fantastic preview to the various challenges and benefits inherent in aircraft ownership.
The Joy of a Club
Prior to becoming a member, I spent a year or so working at a traditional FBO where a pilot could purchase fuel, rent various aircraft, and obtain flight instruction. The FBO was nothing special. It offered a small variety of aircraft for rent and stayed reasonably busy. As a fueler and line worker, I saw how the business operated, and I observed how it had the ambiance and charm of a dentist’s office; customers were friendly enough, but they were there to conduct business, not to mingle and have fun.
Occasionally, I stopped by one of the local flying clubs on the other side of the field and saw firsthand just how much the culture differed. Pilots would linger after a flight to catch up with other members and swap a few flying stories. Student pilots would pair up to quiz each other in one of the study rooms, and when someone would suggest lunch or dinner, a handful of other members would wind up joining them. It was a lively, vibrant place that injected flight training and aircraft rental with a fun culture and good times
When the time came to pursue my private pilot certificate, I naturally selected that flying club and learned it was more than just a fun social group. Each of the 300 or so members was technically a part owner of seven airplanes, ranging from a few 152s to some 172s, a 182, and the queen of the fleet, a Beechcraft Debonair. Checkouts and currency were taken very seriously, and despite the knuckleheading that went on in the clubhouse, a culture of safety and discipline dominated all flight operations.
Aircraft maintenance was taken seriously, as well. We employed our own dedicated A&P, and in addition to learning each airplane inside and out, he welcomed members to observe and learn alongside as he performed his various inspections and repairs. He showed us how the 152′s wing was attached to the fuselage with shockingly small bolts, and he explained how various issues had to be managed in the far more complex Beechcraft Debonair. This involvement added an entirely new layer of understanding to aircraft systems and maintenance, and his guidance helped us to develop operating habits that extended the life of the engines and consumable parts.
The Lessons of the Club
As it turned out, the club was a great stepping stone to ownership. As part owners, we were able to gain valuable firsthand knowledge about things like insurance, annual inspections, and preventative maintenance. Then, as we got checked out in the club’s various aircraft, we were able to explore the capabilities of each type and select the one most suited to a given mission.
For those of us who would go on to buy our own airplanes, all of this made us better informed and better prepared buyers. For example, a summer spent slogging about in a heavily laden 152 might have taught a club member that they would quickly outgrow such an airplane, and when the time came to buy, they would approach ownership with a much clearer understanding of how they’d actually utilize an aircraft of their own.
Similarly, a member with their sights set on someday owning a more advanced cross-country machine might discover that in reality, they tend to play in the pattern and explore small local airports instead. These lessons are far more economical to learn in a club environment than through the process of buying and selling various airplanes as you ascertain how you’ll actually utilize one of your own.
For a number of members, the club served as a permanent alternative to ownership. With better aircraft availability than a traditional FBO, it was easy to plan trips and schedule flights. The airplanes themselves were pampered by club members, so despite the steady use, they remained in great shape. When the time came for major repairs, costs were spread out among all members and absorbed by the club’s healthy maintenance reserve. The club provided many of the benefits of sole ownership while minimizing the inherent frustrations and economic hardships.
A Smaller Club Might Be the Ticket
Keep an eye on classified ads and your local airport’s bulletin board, and you just might find an opportunity to buy into a small group of owners. These partnerships often involve fewer than ten members and are another great way to enjoy the benefits of ownership while minimizing the expenses.
One such opportunity popped up in my neck of the woods a couple of years ago. For around $8,000, one could buy a 1/5 share of a 1957 Cessna 172. The monthly fixed cost was $95, and the hourly wet rate was $60. It was an IFR capable airplane with a nicely updated panel, hangared at a larger class C airport. Considering that you could sell your share for any price at a later date and likely recuperate your initial buy-in, this sort of partnership is among the least expensive and least financially risky means of exploring the world of aircraft ownership.
Anecdotally, it seems as though these partnerships often have one or two members who rarely fly, opening up aircraft availability and making it particularly easy to avoid schedule conflicts.
But in those days, as a student with correspondingly meager financial means, the flying club option proved to be the best way for me to get into the air, earn my ratings, and learn about ownership all at once.
The social aspect was the icing on the cake. Over the years, I joined others on various cross-country trips, including multiple trips to Oshkosh. We would occasionally hold spot landing contests and poker runs. By going along for rides in high-performance and complex aircraft, I received a good introduction to those types that later eased my own training. And by networking with other members, I was able to learn from their experiences owning and flying various aircraft types.
In the end, it was the combination of good times and pseudo-ownership that made my flying club experience so magical. Having experienced that combination, I can’t imagine ever going back to renting from an FBO. While some undoubtedly appreciate total isolation from the day-to-day headaches of aircraft ownership and maintenance, I came to appreciate the more immersive experience that can be had as a part owner.
Top that off with the Saturday morning crew gathered around the clubhouse table, solving the world’s problems and debating whether Lewis could in fact defeat any trained mixed martial arts contender in a street fight while wearing Rollerblades—and it’s an experience that no FBO can top.
Jason McDowell is a private pilot and Cessna 170 owner based in Madison, Wisconsin. He enjoys researching obscure aviation history and serves as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. He can be found on Instagram as @cessnateur. You can email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments you have.