Welcome to the Flying Club

There are lots of ­reasons you might consider joining a flying club. The most often cited centers on the economics: A flying club with lots of members can offer many of the benefits of aircraft ownership without the hassles or expense of being totally responsible for the upkeep of one. At the same time, the rates a club charges for the use of its aircraft are almost always less than what you can find at the local FBO or flight school.

Maybe you fall into the category of a pilot who has earned his Private certificate and now you're wondering what to do with your newfound freedom as a licensed pilot. Perhaps renting your school's airplanes isn't ideal because students are clogging the schedule. And although you've combed the pages of Trade-A-Plane, you can't quite justify the cost of buying an airplane yet.

Of course, that’s not the only type of pilot who should consider joining a flying club. Maybe you used to own an airplane but decided to sell it. Or, even if you still own an airplane, you could think of membership in a flying club as cheap insurance for those times when your airplane is down for maintenance but you still want to fly. Most clubs charge a fee to join and nominal monthly dues, which gives you access to the club’s fleet of airplanes.

Even a brand-new student pilot can benefit from the flying club experience, since many clubs allow zero-time pilots to join and learn in club airplanes with club-approved instructors. The benefits of choosing this path are that learning to fly in a club airplane will normally be less costly than training with a local flight school, and the instructors in most clubs are members as well. That means there’s a better chance that your early mentors will still be around long after you’ve earned your ticket — and will probably even become your friends.

A while back when I was weighing my options about where and what to fly — and how I could get the best return for my money — I looked at everything within my budget. A few of the local flight schools I contacted flat-out told me they didn’t want to rent their airplanes because their schedules were chockablock with students. Great for them, bad for me.

I talked with a friend about going in on a share in a Bonanza, but I hesitated pulling the trigger, mainly because I'd just bought a house and most of my savings was gone. Besides, I had another option in mind that I wanted to take a closer look at first.

I'd been interested in the idea of joining a flying club for a long time. A few years ago I joined a boating club on the lake near my home and loved it. This club had four boats that members could schedule in advance. I paid one upfront fee at the beginning of the season, and after that the only extra cost was for the gas I used. The owner of the marina who formed the club told me he based some of the economics for the concept on what he'd heard and read about NetJets, the business jet fractional ownership firm founded in the 1980s by financial whiz Richard Santulli.

Club Economics
I contacted a few of the clubs in my area and quickly learned the ones I liked the best had waiting lists. I put my name on the list of the one I preferred, the 150th Aero Flying Club at Morristown Airport in New Jersey, and waited. Lucky for me, the club was in the process of buying a fourth airplane, and that meant it was expanding the membership from fewer than 60 pilots to about 70. I was in.

Each flying club has its own way of making the dollars and cents work, but here’s how my club does it: New members pay a one-time, nonrefundable fee of $250, plus a deposit, refundable upon resignation from the club, of $1,500. Each month, members pay $70 for the dues. The club has four IFR-capable Cessnas, with hourly rates that are wet (meaning the fuel is included) and based on tach time, not Hobbs — which can save a pilot a lot of money over the long run. Hourly rates for the airplanes are quite reasonable too: It costs $80 an hour to fly the lowliest of the bunch, a Cessna 172N; $92 for a slightly nicer 172N; $105 for a more modern 172SP (by far the most popular airplane in the fleet); and $130 for a 182RG.

Members are allowed to reserve an airplane for up to two weeks at a time. A maximum of four simultaneous reservations are allowed, which helps keep available aircraft slots from filling up. All scheduling is done online through a password-protected area at aircraftclubs.com.

The schedule can get pretty full in the summer, but because of the reservation limits, reserving an airplane for a long weekend or even a couple of weeks is no problem as long as the member can plan in advance. As is the case with many flying clubs, members of the 150th Aero Club are named on the aircraft registrations. That makes me and everybody else in the club a 1/70th owner of four airplanes.

Besides having access to multiple aircraft, there is also a social aspect to belonging to a club that I really enjoy. The 150th Aero Club was founded in the 1960s by a group of light airplane enthusiasts who were members of the 150th Air National Guard, giving the club its name. I’m told that in the past the club was a much closer-knit group — but these days members still manage to get together for dinners, and also hold a club picnic each June and fly with each other often.

Many of the club’s social and flying events are arranged by the vice president, Stephen Taylor, who caught the aviation bug a few years ago and tries to get up in the air with other members as much as he can.

“I love flying, and I love interacting with everybody in the club,” he said. “It’s so much fun to be around a group of people who love aviation as much as I do and want to fly together.”

The Mega Club
There are about 300 nonprofit flying clubs operating in the United States, according to flying-club.org. The largest is Plus One Flyers in San Diego, which has nearly 1,000 members and 61 airplanes based at Montgomery Field (KMYF), McClellan-­Palomar Airport (KCRQ), Gillespie Field (KSEE) and Ramona Airport (KRNM). That's a big club. So big, in fact, that Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Craig Fuller made a personal visit to Plus One last year to learn about what makes the group so successful. He came away so impressed that he encouraged other clubs to follow Plus One's lead — and that's exactly what's happening, said club Vice President Dave Eby.

“Our model is much different from most other clubs’,” Eby said. “We’re a nonprofit 502(c) organization, but we operate more like a business.”

Founded 26 years ago, the club’s philosophy centers on making dues affordable, offering a large variety of aircraft and keeping insurance costs low. Here’s how it works: Club members pay a one-time, upfront fee of $99 and monthly dues of $33.50. After attending a safety briefing, a new member gets checked out with one of the club’s instructors in the type of airplane he or she will fly. Hourly rates are wet and based on Hobbs time. Eby estimated its rental prices are about 25 percent less than what nearby flight schools charge.

The diversity of the Plus One fleet is truly something to behold. Members have the choice of flying Cessna, Piper, Beech and Cirrus singles, Beech and Piper twins, LSAs and even a nice Decathlon or Citabria. Rates start at $78 an hour for a Cessna 150 and top out at $295 an hour for a Piper Malibu.

Online scheduling is done through schedulemaster.com, where members are allowed five reservations at a time (plus one more if it’s made the same day). There is no restriction on how long an airplane can be reserved. Eby said there is also no cap on membership, meaning no waiting list to get in. The one catch is that you’ll be billed for a minimum of one hour of flying for each day that you have the airplane scheduled. Another caveat is that the fuel a member buys while away from home base is capped at $6 per gallon. That prevents the club from getting stuck with a large fuel bill because a member decided to pay $8 a gallon for fuel, say, at Las Vegas McCarran International instead of going someplace with cheaper gas — all to avoid paying ramp fees.

The club prides itself on imposing as few rules and restrictions as possible. It requires a check ride with a club instructor once per year, but that’s about it. There is one ironclad restriction, however: no flying to Mexico. “With everything that’s going on down there right now, we don’t want our airplanes going there,” Eby said. “One of our sister clubs had a Cessna 182 stolen right off the ramp at a Mexican airport.”

Eby said Plus One Flyers has a good relationship with its insurance provider, Chartis Aerospace, and as a result, members are provided with $1 million of liability coverage and $100,000 per passenger and no subrogation (meaning the insurance company has agreed not to come after individual members in case of a mishap). The club maintains a special insurance fund, Eby said, that is designed to cover 80 percent of a member’s $500 deductible. “That means if you go out and wreck a Cirrus on the runway, the most you’ll be out of pocket is a hundred bucks,” he said. “Our members appreciate having that peace of mind.”

By this point you’re probably wondering how in the world Plus One Flyers manages to offer members access to a fleet of more than 60 airplanes. Unlike traditional flying clubs, which usually own the airplanes in the fleet, Plus One leases airplanes from owners, who then become club members. Aircraft owners pay a management fee of $5 per flight hour and in turn lease their aircraft to Plus One, which cuts them a check for the hours flown. Most owners, said Eby, place their aircraft under an LLC, which provides certain tax benefits.

The check owners receive at the end of each month can help significantly offset costs. Eby said one Cirrus owner who joined the club and flies about 100 hours a year estimated that his hourly cost of ownership went from $400 down to less than $200 thanks to the revenue he receives from the club. The one downside of the arrangement is that once an aircraft owner joins the club, he or she is on an equal playing field with all other members. In other words, if an owner’s airplane has been booked for a two-week trip to Reno during the same time he wants to take the family to Catalina Island, he’ll have to find a different airplane to fly — the good news is he has 60 from which to choose.

Flying Club Roots
Flying clubs are almost as old as aviation itself. The concept really took off after Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo Atlantic crossing, when it seems everybody wanted to learn. In doing some research, I was able to find information about scores of flying clubs that existed in the 1930s through the 1950s. They all operated much the way clubs do today. For example, in the August 1954 issue of Flying, I read about a flying club in Ohio that charged members a $50 fee upfront, which gave them access to a fleet of several well-maintained J-3 Cubs and Aeronca Champs. There was a $15 a month service fee, and the rental rate was $3.50 an hour for the Cub.

Besides private flying clubs, many aviation companies, including Garmin and Cessna, have clubs for employees. The largest employee club is the Boeing Employees Flying Association in the Puget Sound area in Washington. This nonprofit club has 21 airplanes including Cessna and Piper singles, a ­Cirrus SR20 and even a Cessna 210 on floats. The club is intended for Boeing employees, but anybody can join. Share prices start at $550 with rental rates in a Cessna 172SP averaging $125 an hour. For comparison, one flight school in the Seattle area that we checked with charges $160 an hour for a similar 172.

Military flying clubs also abound, but to join you normally have to have some affiliation with the armed forces. Sometimes, membership in the Civil Air Patrol can suffice. The Jacksonville Navy Flying Club in Florida, as an example, offers the usual Cessna and Piper singles you’d expect to find at civilian clubs, but also has a Beech T-34B Mentor in its fleet.

An obvious benefit to joining a flying club versus buying your own airplane or even co-owning with a small group is that all maintenance is overseen by the club officers who are appointed to those positions. In some clubs, officers are paid for their time, while in others they receive compensation in the form of free flying. Either way, it frees the rank-and-file members from worrying that a repair will far exceed the money he or she has budgeted, as well as the hassle of having to call the shop and schedule repairs. Likewise, database updates, routine maintenance, annual inspections and all record keeping are overseen by club members who take on those responsibilities. And if you enjoy changing oil or fixing flat tires or keeping books, by all means, sign up to become a club officer.

Of course, there are some downsides to belonging to a flying club. One is that another member might have already booked an airplane you want to fly — or worse, none are available. You’re also bound to have personality clashes in a large club, and possibly even political infighting among members or factions. That’s all about learning how to get along with people, and not everybody will. You might also run into members who are serial troublemakers — guys who will constantly forget to lock the aircraft doors or leave trash strewn in the cockpit or who won’t call for fuel after they’ve flown. Sometimes, the best course of action in such cases is to politely ask — or even force — the offending member to resign.

If a member of Plus One Flyers does something dumb, he or she will normally be required to write about the experience in the club newsletter. “We follow Flying’s I Learned About Flying From That concept,” Eby said. The offending member, he said, must use his or her real name. If a member refuses, he or she is out of the club.

Novel Approaches
A brand-new concept that falls under the flying club umbrella is the recently formed Lakeland Aero Club in central Florida. Started by a group of pilots and other aviation supporters headed by Gulf Coast Avionics' Rick Garcia, the club's goal is to help young people earn their pilot certificates. The concept goes beyond traditional training by immersing the young adults in the club, not only the flying aspects but also in running a business by serving as club board members. If the students, mostly from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, can't afford to fly, there is a scholarship fund to help them out.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to join a flying club, it’s an experience many pilots can benefit from — and not merely in terms of the money you’ll save. Being around other pilots is a great way to learn and grow. Depending on your style, you can choose to lay low and do your flying alone, or you can recruit groups of pilots to come with you, and even get involved by joining a committee and running for a position on the club board.

Pilots are good people, and the ones I’ve met through my flying club certainly fit the description. There’s just something about hanging out with others who share your life’s passion that can make you feel more connected to this world. And once you join a club, you’ll probably never again ask yourself the question, What am I going to do with my license now? Once you’re in, the possibilities are endless.


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