Type Clubs in the Digital Age

The Internet hasn’t killed type clubs; quite the opposite: They are thriving.

A group of Bonanza owners share the love for their airplanes at an American Bonanza Society convention. (Photo by American Bonanza Society)|

Around the beginning of factory production of airplanes, which happened a mere handful of years after the dawn of powered flight, it occurred to aviators that it was in their strong interest to establish groups of airplane owners and pilots within the overall pilot community. Aero clubs sprang up in Europe and North America as the aviation community and industry flourished.

As a growing number of airplane manufacturers established themselves, grew and even began to shut their doors, owners of legacy airplanes were faced with common, vexing problems, like getting proper support for their airplanes. As any airplane owner knows, when something breaks on a Luscombe Silvaire, for example, it’s a lot more likely that another Luscombe owner will know how to get it fixed than will the owner of, say, a Cherokee 140. Likewise, owners of like airplanes are able to share operating quirks (tricks for executing a successful crosswind landing, for instance); recommend reliable and experienced maintenance providers; and point out potential trouble spots to keep an eye on during next year’s annual inspection.

There was also a natural tendency for owners of Stearmans, for example, to seek out other owners of Stearmans to share the love of big, round-engine biplane flying. After all, everybody likes it when other people really understand them. Pilots are no different.

With these common needs, owners and enthusiasts began to form type clubs. The problem was, there were and are lots of different kinds of airplanes out there, so at any given airport there might be just one or two Ercoupes, Musketeers or Stinsons. The solution was to reach out around the country and around the globe to attract type owners, a process that, back in the bad old days, was done by snail mail.

This early system of communication made type clubs costly to run. With mailing lists to maintain, a newsletter or, in the case of big-time type clubs, a magazine to produce, events to plan and important information to disseminate, several full-time employees were required, and direct communication between members was scant.

With the growth of the Internet and digital media, the services type clubs provide can be offered online, and, consequently, the number of type clubs has exploded. These days, starting a type club is as easy as starting a Facebook or Yahoo group. Type clubs now range from small groups of local pilots who own the same types of airplanes and gather for $100 hamburgers to major organizations that provide technical support and great training options. And the explosion of the Internet has also allowed type clubs to disseminate information much more quickly than was possible with snail mail as the only form of distribution.

Many type clubs are similar to each other, but there can be big differences too. Some, like the Cessna Pilots Association, cover a wide range of models with thousands of members, while others, like the VG-21 Squadron, essentially cover one model — in this case, variants of the Varga Kachina (a handsome little two-seater with very few examples flying), with just more than 100 members. The Varga type club serves a particularly important role, as the company that built the airplane is long gone.

Other type clubs — like the ones that cover the Daher-Socata TBM, Piper Malibu and Pilatus PC-12, for example — are for airplanes that are still being built and supported by dynamic companies. And some, like the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association, were started at the request of the manufacturer. Type clubs come in different sizes and serve many different purposes. The common thread among them is the desire to connect, whether online or at a major airshow, where members of type clubs not only socialize but often also set up booths to provide information and recruit new members.

Early Type Clubs

Type-specific support is one of the many reasons type clubs exist, and it is the reason one of the earliest clubs, the National Waco Club, came about in 1958. Waco found the management of parts too costly for its business and handed over the responsibility to Raymond H. Bradley, who had purchased several Wacos from the factory. Since Bradley was the go-to guy for parts, a group of owners who were part of the Antique Airplane Association got together and asked him to lead a Waco group. Soon the National Waco Club was formed and quickly started a newsletter and an organized annual social fly-in reunion, which the organization still runs to this day.

The annual Cirrus Migration fly-in kicks off with an event the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association calls COPA Cabana. (Photo by Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association)|

Another early type club is the American Navion Society, created in 1960 to allow owners of North American Navion models to connect. Like many of the major type clubs, ANS provides technical information, maintenance tips and a newsletter, all of which are now available online. The society also has a parts store, which sells parts only to members.

ANS has taken the concept of an annual gathering to a different level. Its annual meeting is a nearly weeklong convention, which includes association-related meetings, efficiency and proficiency competitions and safety/tech sessions while also giving members an opportunity to vacation and have fun with like-minded people.

The format the ANS has followed, providing maintenance and technical support, a newsletter or magazine and a convention, is traditionally what type clubs have become known for. And while both ANS and the National Waco Club have nice websites with forums where people can get questions answered, some type clubs have morphed significantly through the years.

One early type club that has evolved and become a template for some clubs that emerged later is the American Bonanza Society, which surfaced in 1967 and became an immediate success, accumulating about 700 members in its first year of operation. Its service started as a four-page newsletter, which grew into a full-blown magazine with as many as 100 pages containing mostly technical information about Bonanzas, Barons and Travel Airs. Members can now access a library of ABS magazines and newsletters dating back as far as 1967 on the ABS website.

But the magazine was just the beginning. Like ANS, ABS started holding annual conventions in 1969, and in 1979 started its Air Safety Foundation, providing service clinics to help o­wners discover potential safety issues with their airplanes. In 1983, the ABS Air Safety Foundation started its successful Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Program, BPPP for short — a concept several other type clubs have adopted since. “About 20 percent of all accidents in Bonanzas and Barons occur in the first year of registered ownership,” said Tom Turner, executive director for the ABS Air Safety Foundation. “So it’s vital that the initial training experience is specific to the airplane.” More on that later.

In 1984, former ABS employee John Frank and his wife, Kristina, founded the Cessna Pilots Association, which claims to be the biggest type club today with about 13,000 members in more than 100 countries. While CPA came along nearly three decades after the first clubs started to emerge, it was still well-rooted long before the Internet found its way into households. Frank, who still acts as the executive director of CPA, said his organization primarily provides technical help to owners of all piston Cessnas with the exception of the Cessna 190 and 195.

“CPA employs mechanics with Inspection Authorizations who are pilots and also Cessna owners to assist our members in getting technical information, and that’s the main reason for our success and for the Bonanza Society’s success,” Frank said.

Before the Internet began to transform CPA, Frank experienced another positive change as his organization grew. He felt the FAA initially viewed type clubs as adversaries that existed to prevent or attempt to reverse airworthiness directives to ­simplify aircraft ownership for their members. But as type clubs proved that a large focus of their existence was to increase the safety of the airplanes they supported, the benefit of a cooperative relationship became evident. Now the FAA sends out airworthiness concern sheets (ACS) to give the members of type clubs an opportunity to contribute important information regarding an issue prior to developing an official AD.

Type Protection

One instance that elicited a long list of responses to an ACS was the safety concern with the Mitsubishi MU-2, which was threatened with being grounded due to its high accident rate. Jay Hopkins' "Dangerous Airplanes or Dangerous Pilots?," which Flying published in May 2008, reported that nearly 28 percent of the total MU-2 fleet at that time had been involved in an accident.

As the FAA was studying ways to address the issue, the ACS responses from the MU-2 community were essentially “begging the FAA: ‘Let us institute training. That is the real issue.’ And Mitsubishi had even asked that there be a type rating required,” said Dave Klain, Webmaster for the MU-2 AOPA type club.

After 25 years of holding its annual convention at the Mooney factory in Kerrville, Texas, MAPA now chooses a different location each year. (Photo by Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association)|

While the FAA declined to require a type rating, the result of the input from the owners and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which still fully supports the airplane even after it has been out of production for nearly three decades, was a Special Federal Aviation Regulation that mandates special training requirements for the MU-2. As a result of the type-specific training, the MU-2 now boasts the best safety record of any twin turboprop on the market, Klain said.

In addition to providing information about the availability of proficiency training and technical support, Klain said the MU-2 AOPA website provided valuable information to him even before he became an MU-2 owner. “I was very pleased because the numbers that I got in my first year of ownership have been within 5 percent of what I was told they would be,” he says. “And my cost to acquire the airplane was off by less than $300.”

Klain finds the MU-2 type club particularly valuable because representatives from the service centers are part of the communication threads in the online forums and mailing lists, providing reliable information in a timely manner. It is interesting to note that the MU-2 AOPA website lists nearly 300 registered users, about the same number of people as Mitsubishi lists airworthy MU-2s. While some of those users are service providers and enthusiasts, Klain estimates the organization reaches about 75 percent of MU-2 owners and operators.

Another enthusiastic club is the International Cessna 195 Club, which boasts 1,200 members, the organization's president, Larry Nelson, said — an impressive number since only about 1,200 190s and 195s were produced. The club's annual fly-in attracts very large groups of these beautiful vintage airplanes and, Nelson said, "There is no question that the 190/195 series is better supported today than maybe at any time in the history of the type."

Despite being an all-volunteer organization, the 195 Club has kept up with the times with a website that has a large database of well-organized information and a very active Hangar Talk forum where questions generally appear to be answered promptly.

The ability for a type club to quickly deliver information to its members is one of the greatest benefits Frank has seen with the birth of the digital age. “Say there is an accident and there is a problem that has to be addressed fairly quickly,” he said. “We literally can get ahold of our members within hours as opposed to weeks, as it used to be when we had to communicate with the magazine and mail solely. It’s a real boon to safety, this almost instantaneous ability to communicate.”

Builder Support

Instant communication through type clubs is particularly beneficial in the amateur-built world, which is one reason for the success of a Web-based type club named Vansairforce.net. Vansairforce.net is a terrific example of a website that has become a public forum for technical support. No matter what time of day a question is posted by an owner/builder, a response can be expected within an hour.

“A lot of times, somebody will be out in his garage and working on [an airplane] and he’ll be stuck,” said Vansairforce.net founder Doug Reeves. “He’ll just take a picture with his phone and put that picture up in the forums and say: ‘Do I have this backward?’ It may be 3 in the morning in Portland where Van’s Aircraft is, so their tech support obviously couldn’t answer the phone. And so a guy in Great Britain who is on his lunch hour sees the post, realizes he’s worked on the same part and responds: ‘Yes, you’re doing it right. I just did that two weeks ago.’ And that happens on a daily basis.”

Vansairforce.net is a perfect example of how a type club can grow online. Reeves started what he called an “online build log” in 1997 for an RV-6 he was building at the time. Today, Reeves claims close to 17,000 registered forum users and estimates about three website “lurkers” for each registered user.

Many airplanes gathered for COPA's 10th annual Migration at the Cirrus factory in Duluth, Minnesota, in 2012. (Photo by Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association)|

Vansairforce.net and other similar sites have also helped reduce the workload at Van's Aircraft. The RVator newsletter started in the early 1980s and was, said longtime Van's Aircraft employee and Flying contributor Ken Scott, "a place where we could inform, enlighten, inspire and occasionally lecture our customers and where they could submit stories, ideas and tips derived from building our product." Since this is exactly what many type club websites like Vansairforce.net are all about, the RVator was discontinued at the end of 2010.

And like many type clubs in the past, Vansairforce.net has likely also reduced the need for technical support from Van’s. “A lot of the time it’s the same question over and over again,” Reeves said. “A lot of guys can search my site and they can search for the part number. They’ll probably find two or three threads where people have talked about that before. And there might be a picture in there or a good description of it.”

Transformative Training

Like Vansairforce.net, the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association had the benefit of forming after the birth of the Internet. With more than 3,600 members, COPA represents about 65 percent of the active Cirrus fleet, said president Andrew Niemeyer. COPA is also unique in that the seeds of the organization were planted before the first airplane had even been delivered as deposit holders began connecting online. COPA officially formed in 2001, no more than two years after the first SR20 was delivered.

COPA was partially modeled after ABS, with an annual COPA Migration gathering. Training is a strong focus through the Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Program, which offers several weekend ground- and flight-training sessions annually, both domestic and international. The CPPP has been successful. COPA’s director of safety programs, Rick Beach, estimates that COPA members show up in fatal accident reports about half as often as non-COPA Cirrus owners, and CPPP participants are half as likely to be involved as other COPA members.

While the value of the training program is obvious, the $1,200 price tag for the full program, plus the cost of travel to and accommodations at the training location, are significant.

Likewise, ABS recently recognized that the cost of its BPPP training clinics was becoming an obstacle for owners. “Historically, the live events attracted fewer than 5 percent of our members,” said Turner. While the live clinics will continue to run, ABS leveraged the Internet to provide a low-cost option. In March 2012, the ABS Air Safety Foundation’s BPPP Online+Flight was launched, which allows Beechcraft owners to take the ground school portions online. There are 13 segments, 11 of which must be completed in order to qualify for the flight portion (a couple of segments are single-engine- or twin-specific).

“When you complete all those segments, you’re eligible to take the flight,” said Turner. “The flight is the same flight syllabus by the same flight instructors that provided the live course. ABS is actively adding additional flight instructors of the same high quality to serve even more of our members.”

The cost for BPPP Online+Flight is $495, which includes four hours of flight instruction by a BPPP instructor. ABS really took type clubs to the digital age by offering BPPP Online as a free Apple iOS app. While type clubs as a whole have not yet embraced the iOS world, COPA members can access its forums through an app for a cost of $4.

Since type clubs are largely volunteer-based and generally operate on a tight budget, it may take a while for some organizations to catch up with technological advances. But the digital age has already greatly enhanced the effectiveness of type clubs and has contributed to safer flying since critical information can now be shared much quicker. In many cases, if a type club member can’t instantly find an answer to a question through the organization’s websites, he can ask a question in a forum and likely get an answer the same day.

Although it is great to get everyone into a single room, the digital age also allows type club members a place to share the joy of their airplanes on a daily basis rather than having to wait for an airshow or annual convention. “I’ve met hundreds of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and I consider hundreds of people very close friends I wouldn’t otherwise,” Reeves said. “I have more friends in remote places away from me than I do here near me.”