Meeting and befriending fellow aviators is a true benefit of being a FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Program Manager (FPM). For those who have not met me or one of my fellow FPMs across this fruited plain, let me introduce our team. We are the FAA’s safety educators, reaching and engaging audiences through seminars and webinars.
Soon after a seminar in St. Louis, I received an email from Jerry Kiske, a regular attendee. He told me his flying club had a one-seventh share available for purchase and that the members would like me to consider buying it. I knew the basics of flying clubs, but I had never really looked into how they worked. Jerry gave me a copy of the club’s by-laws and a detailed three-page description of its 1978 Cessna 172 and cost information. Jerry named some of the members I might know. Many had attended our FAASTeam seminars and briefings, so Jerry didn’t have to convince me of these members’ commitment to safe practices. After doing my own due diligence, to include research, financial review, and (of course) discussion with Susie, my better half, I joined.
I can’t remember now which came first, my initial solo flight in the airplane, or the initiation barbecue at the hangar. As I got to know my fellow members over a charcoal grill, I began to realize how fortunate I was. When multiple people have a stake in an asset such as an airplane, squabbles and personal conflicts can crop up. Here, though, the chemistry among members and spouses was positive. It was as if we had known each other for years.
So what is the recipe for a great flying club? Here are a few personal observations as well as helpful insight from club president Ray Keith on how to make it successful.
First, let me stress that the camaraderie this group enjoys is part of a formula that Ray had developed over several years. The ingredients for a sustainable group include common needs, goals, finances, and personalities. Right off the bat, for example, the owners want to fly affordably. Aircraft availability is important, but nobody is willing to compromise safety. That means no quibbles if the plane needs maintenance or an inspection. Availability also depends on community spirit; being a good member and partner means never hogging the plane every weekend or for two-week trips. Everyone contributes as well by being accountable for some aspect of managing and operating the club. Naturally, I became the safety education officer.
Good interpersonal relationships are built on personal respect, and group cohesiveness means that members enjoy flying with each other to make the occasional expensive hamburger run or to work on skills. After all, being committed to safety means maintaining proficiency through practice and recurrent training.
Formula for Success
When it comes to safety, there are no secret formulas. So when I asked Ray to summarize what he has developed for our flying club, here’s what he provided.
🛩️ Safety first. The expectation is for all members to keep learning. Safety starts with establishing a club safety/education officer. This club airman is the final decision-maker on whether to ground the airplane. This officer provides direction on training and WINGS program updates. They are the club’s insurance liaison and track each pilot/owner’s currency and certification.
🛩️ Run it like a business, but remember that this kind of business also requires good member chemistry and a solid safety culture. Establish officers. Require all members to take some kind of active role in managing the group. These steps maintain a level playing field, and owner chemistry/engagement thrive when everyone has a responsibility. Check regularly to see if any factors are out of balance with the club’s capabilities.
🛩️ Establish by-laws that are objective and clear. This document is the foundation for a sound pilot/owner/club structure. It is specific and every pilot/owner must agree to it with a signature. By-laws should include a process to approve repairs, replacements, and upgrades to the aircraft and its equipment.
🛩️ Know the club’s limitations. How many pilots are too many? How many aircraft can the club manage? Which is best for the club: an aircraft rental program, or equity ownership shares? (Note: My club takes the equity share approach, which means that each member is an owner with a stake in aircraft care, maintenance, and risk management. The majority rules on decisions, and all abide by the outcome.)
🛩️ Establish a financial officer role to manage or track revenue, fixed and variable expenses, budgets, planning, and forecasting. This member needs to be detailed, conscientious, and a good communicator. This member must also be transparent in managing the club’s money.
🛩️ Select owners wisely. This rule has several important components: (a) Stay away from the “I’m looking for a cheaper way to fly” pilot. (b) Look for the right chemistry. Experience shows it is better to have a likeminded lower-time pilot than a 5,000-hour pilot with a “Top Gun” complex. You can change aptitude with coaching and training, but attitude is harder to change. (c) Select owners who are eager to join in for club meetings and socials, but also willing to clean up the airplane after each flight and to participate in clean-the-hangar days. (d) Look for like interests. Understand the type of owners you want and make sure the prospective member is a good fit. Check them out! If a prospective owner claims to be safety-conscious, do you see validating actions? Is there any history of regulatory non-compliance?
🛩️ Make sure a prospect’s flying needs align with existing members’ needs. Does the prospective owner want to make three overnight business trips per week? Does the member want to take the aircraft for an entire weekend every other week? Do owners want to allow month-long vacations that take the aircraft out of the region? It’s best to clearly understand a prospect’s ambitions for both flying (e.g., transportation? training? recreation?) and finances (e.g., upgrades to the aircraft) before admitting that person as a member.
🛩️ Establish backups. When any given member is on vacation, the club should designate another member to fill in as needed on the absent owner’s duties and responsibilities to the group.
🛩️ Keep the fun factor! General aviation includes less than one percent of the population. Enjoy the time in the air and around your fellow aircraft owners and new friends.
As you can see from the pictures from our club friend and photographer Carmelo Turdo, this group of friends were joined together from a common love of flying and from this flying club. I have since changed locations and reluctantly sold my share. I’m hoping to soon join a group that’s perfectly suited for me near my new home.
Notes from FAA Safety Briefing Editor Susan K. Parson:
Before I moved to Arizona in 2019, I spent over 25 happy years in a northern Virginia flying club that owned and operated a C182. Like Phil, I am still searching for the right fit in a new club. My previous club shared many of the ingredients in Phil’s formula for flying club success, starting with safety as a core value and recruiting members who wanted to be responsible owners, not renters. We operated as a limited liability corporation that owned the airplane; members owned shares in the corporation. New members signed a document committing to abide by both by-laws that established the legal structure and operating guidelines that specified rules for things like scheduling (e.g., a maximum of two reservations at any given time), proficiency (e.g., annual checks with the chief pilot), and procedures (e.g., dealing with mechanical issues away from home base). I strongly second Phil’s advice to verify that a prospect’s needs align with those of other members. In my experience, some of our biggest challenges arose from differing needs for the airplane. Lively discussions ensued when members who used the plane primarily for personal transportation wanted upgrades, while those who flew locally for pleasure and proficiency were more keen on keeping dues and rates low.
Phil Dixon is a FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) program manager in the Memphis, Tennessee Flight Standards District Office. A former designated pilot examiner, he holds an ATP certificate, is a flight engineer and flight instructor, with multiengine, single engine, and instrument ratings. He produces the FAASTeam’s “57 Seconds to Safer Flying” instructional video series to inform, educate, and persuade pilots to make good decisions. Watch all his videos on the playlist at bit.ly/57secs.