Want to fly affordably? Join a flying club. This advice is passed along regularly and is mostly true. However, there are several things to consider when thinking of joining a gang of other pilots in the commission of aviation and airplane, care, feeding, and ownership. Joining a flying club can be a fantastic way to fly in General Aviation. Things to consider when thinking of joining a flying club.
Is this a Good Deal?
I am president of a flying club where I live. My friend Wayne, who lives in another state, sent an email recently with a link to a flying club website near his home. He was looking for my input on whether it was a good deal and any other things he should consider. After replying with a rather healthy list of things, he suggested I share that information for all to see. Although this isn’t necessarily comprehensive, perhaps it will help you navigate the world of flying club membership.
Flying Clubs Vary
At first blush, flying club scenarios range from, almost too good to be true, to outlandishly expensive. Some have one airplane and others have many. Also, some clubs ask for a deposit in the hundreds of dollars, while others in the thousands. Let’s untangle some of the seeming chicanery of flying club voodoo.
Equity versus Non Equity
Beginning form a bird’s eye view, flying clubs generally fall into one of two camps, equity or non equity. Equity means exactly what it appears to mean; you buy a share of the club aircraft and are part owner. Generally, equity clubs are smaller, perhaps only one or two airplanes, because adding airplanes is expensive. However, in an equity club as part owner of the airplane, you’ll have more skin in the game and more of a sense of plane ownership relative to renting.
How the Sausage is Made
Our flying club is an equity club with ten to twelve members. When you join, you are added to the club insurance policy. There are modest monthly dues which handle fixed costs, such as, hangar rent, insurance, taxes, and if you have them, loan payments. The term ‘fixed’ regards whether the expense changes based on the amount of flying, and in no way implies the costs are static. After all, just like property taxes, those expenses seem to always be inching up. We also have a small hourly charge which accommodates projected variable expenditures. That’s way more sophisticated than reality. What ‘variable expenses’ means is, Murphy Law will come down the trail with his cousins and one strange sister, sit in the middle of your plan and stare at you awkwardly until you wince. I digress.
Variable expenses include, engine reserve accrual, oil changes, annual inspections, avionics repair, etc. Therefore, variable costs refer to things which vary according to how much the aircraft operates. The presumption is, the more the plane flies, the greater the wear and subsequently the amount of dollars needed for repair and upkeep. By the way, in our club that hourly rate is calculated off the tachometer, rather than the Hobbs meter. This can add up to a nice savings for you over time. Ask about that when looking to join a flying club.
Dry vs Wet — Rain or Shine
Our club is dry in terms of fuel, meaning members buy their own fuel. The is another way in which you can save. You have control over how you lean the aircraft mixture on the ground and in cruise. Therefore, if you are burning fuel less wastefully, you are directly benefiting your pocketbook. This is something you have no control over with a tanks-full, ‘wet’ arrangement. Unsure what to do with the mysterious red knob? In resources at the end I’ll link to an article by Mike Busch on AVweb. It’s worth some time, isn’t as scary as it seems. Furthermore, the data suggests proper leaning is better for the engine.
Airplane Maintenance — Owner and Technician
Whether or not you find yourself in an equity or non equity flying club, you will likely be interested in how the aircraft is maintained. We have a maintenance officer in our club, who performs oil changes and other owner allowed items. For more significant items, the local FBO is a maintenance facility and they handle those things. Often our maintenance officer prefers to have another person help with some tasks. This presents the opportunity for club members to become more familiar with the aircraft and literally get under the cowling. Some members aspire to solely own an aircraft in the future. For them, this setup provides a nice firsthand look at the glory and torment of owning an airplane. After all, even relatively simple aircraft can present you with sobering repair scenarios. Having seen these things in real life is invaluable for a future aircraft owner. Those not interested in owning by themselves can still become infinitely more familiar with the aircraft they fly, an experience no less valuable for them.
This is, hands-down, the number one most asked question when potential members contact me to discuss our flying club. How available is the airplane? We have a guest login for our plane reservation calendar. Potential members are invited to login and look around for. However, a bit of context that can help clarify what is seen on the reservation calendar and what happens in reality. First, the rhythm of how the plane is reserved and flown can be markedly different than rental aircraft. Often rentals are primarily going out on… uh, primary training, or at least some kind of training flight. Therefore, those planes are generally booked for an hour or two at a time, by various people, throughout the day and night. In the flying club, at least in ours, many people reserve the airplane to go somewhere. So, they may have the plane for an entire day, an entire weekend, or a few consecutive days during the week. Often, if you look at the following month, the aircraft may not be reserved at all, and most certainly wide open two months out.
Airplane Reservation Voodoo
There is a bit of consideration to be made in thinking about reserving aircraft in a club. Some steps, best done in a certain order. You’ll want to forecast your personal schedule, reserve the airplane, and then adjust to whatever the weather does to you — in that order. That seems simple, but I’ve witnessed countless people join our club and do exactly the opposite. They’ll look at the weather the current week, then the reservation calendar for the current week, and become frustrated when the plane is booked. Certainly, this highlights a trade-off between being in club versus owning an airplane outright. Hear me out though. If you own your plane by yourself, I grant you that your plane would likely be sitting at the airport waiting for you whenever the urge to fly descended upon you. While this autonomy is fantastic, if we are terribly honest, so many solo-owned aircraft do a great deal more sitting than flying. Often the sitting is chronic to the point of disfunction. You probably know of that plane or planes which serve as the sad ornamental jewelry of the aerodrome.
So, guesstimate when you want/need to fly, book the plane with some wiggle room on each end, then the only other large variable to contend with is the weather. Let’s face it, you can’t change the weather anyhow. Well, there was this weird cousin of mine who once claimed the ability to control weather. However, he was the same cousin who almost fatally injured himself with a grocery shopping cart. Grain of salt on that one then.
Rules of the Runway
While we are talking about reserving the plane, you’ll want to get a clear picture of the club policy regarding days away. That is, how many consecutive days can you book the plane? Or, how many days per month. In our club we have a setting in the calendar that prevents any member from reserving the plane for every weekend of the month. This prevents the other members from going full-Soprano on that guy. Beyond that, our club rules allow for booking the plane for three consecutive days. That can be adjusted when needs arise. Plus, you can take the plane for a full weekend to weekend trip once per year. This seems to work for us but can vary if a club is made up of people with markedly different flying habits.
Introverts and Extroverts
Something to consider, on the less technical side, is the social aspect of the club. Ask yourself what you expect to get out of a club experience, and if the club can provide said things. As with structure and policies, flying clubs can vary wildly in level of extroversion. For instance, our club is rather introverted. We each have a vested interest in affordable airplane access and facilitating that availability in the community. However, in all honesty, we lean a little toward ‘Get off My Lawn.’ On the contrary, some friends of mine a couple hours away have a non equity flying club whose members seem to be engaged in a perpetual hootenanny. At least it seems that way on social media. Social media is funny like that though.
So, ask yourself do you feel lucky… no that’s not. Ask yourself if a lot of community interaction in the club is important to you. If the answer is yes, does the club your thinking of joining imbue that? If not, perhaps you can join and change it so that it does. However, if the club is particularly antisocial it may not be a good fit. While our club isn’t especially social, most are open to sharing flight when able. The lawn though — off it.
Some Aviation Housekeeping
Before joining a flying club, read their bylaws and club rules. Note any questions and be sure to have those answered and a clear understanding at hand.
Also, while you will likely be added to the club’s insurance policy, you may want to consider coverage beyond that for your family’s protection. While I am not an expert in these matters, in an equity club for instance, you are part owner of the aircraft. A huge leap need not be made in order to envision permeating liability in the event of something unfortunate, even by another member. As we know, when the attorneys go looking for their target, no stone is left unturned. One day I’ll tell how that shopping cart incident with the weird cousin ended. Just something to consider.
One other item to be clear about is what to do when you have a mechanical issue while out of town. If you fly long enough, this will happen. When it does, you’ll be at an airport where there is no mechanic within a thousand mile radius. Just understand who to notify in the club and how to fulfill your responsibilities therein.
Putting It in the Chocks
All of this may seem a bit overwhelming. Perhaps not. If you’re a pilot, you’ve perused the FARs and didn’t run away. So, all of this shouldn’t deter you. Once you have the lay of the land, being in a flying club can be a fantastic way to fly. Aircraft availability can be great and sharing the expenses is pretty darn good too. Plus, if you’re like me, anytime you interact with another pilot, you learn something — and that’s priceless.
If you are looking for a flying club, AOPA has tool for finding one in your area. Don’t have a flying club in your area, AOPA has myriad resources for helping you start a new club. I’ll have links to each of these at the end of this article.
Joining a flying club can be a fantastic way to fly in General Aviation. If you have any questions or want to share something I didn’t cover, feel free to comment. Fly safe and tailwinds in all directions.
Other Flying Club Things to Consider
- Can you do a guest login to reservation website to check aircraft availability?
- How long has the club been in existence?
- Have they weathered large surprise expenses (ie., engine blows up at 1200 hrs). If so, how was that handled?
- Have there been special assessments (and ask for extra $’s from members). Is this a possibility in the future?
- What happens when you want to get out of club?
- Are you saddled with selling share yourself in order to get your share $’s out?
- Club Insurance? Are the planes insured for enough coverage to make everyone in the club financially whole in an event of a total loss?
- What are the rules concerning booking plane(s), max days out of town, etc.
- Is the club incorporated? Is there a board, officers, how is it managed?
- Are there currency requirements over and above those of the FAA (some clubs have these).
- How far in advance can you book a flight(s).
- Does the club have an instructor and are there any benefits therein?
- Any types of aircraft usage which are prohibited (such as for business furtherance)
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