Like most pilots, my primary training started at the local FBO. After a few months of the usual plateaus and valleys, I was progressing well and nearing the private checkride. But within a matter of a few weeks, all the instructors left for greener pastures and there was no one available to finish me off. In the meantime, the Cessna 150 and Cherokee 140 I had been flying were sold; there was nothing to fly and nobody to sign me off for the checkride. After a couple of months, the situation was resolved, and I managed to convince a pilot examiner I was worthy of a private ticket.
Fast-forward a few years. I joined a not-for-profit club associated with my employment, which featured a wide range of Piper products. I flew with that organization for a few years, until the economics changed and it was forced to relinquish its airplanes. Along the way, I learned lots about how a club manages finances, maintenance and operations. And about personalities. Sometimes, it’s not pretty.
Then I finagled my way into the Aero Club at a nearby military base. The maintenance and operation sides were much improved, and the club featured a wide array of airplanes, with at least two examples of each. The paperwork was a big downside, however. Eventually, that, too, fizzled out and I was back to renting at the local FBO. One day I was denied access to the airplane I had scheduled for a weekend trip because there was a thunderstorm nearby—never mind that I was instrument-rated and current, and the thunderstorm was 50 miles away, going the other way and not near my route of flight.
Soon, I became part of a five-person partnership owning a big Cessna single. It didn’t take long for one of the partners to total the airplane on landing. Thankfully, he walked away from the accident and the partnership insurance made me whole.
Next, a married couple offered to share access to their 172. I paid a share of the annual insurance bill (I was the high-time pilot and name-insured) plus an hourly fee, and bought my own gas. I ended up flying that 172 many happy hours until it could no longer accommodate my growing family. Then, another married couple sold me the airplane I presently own.
Along the way, I learned a few things about flying clubs and partnerships:
- A not-for-profit flying club or partnership is only as good as the people in it. If they don’t get along, important things—maintenance, finances, schedules—fall through the cracks. The social aspects are just as important.
- Successful clubs/partnerships have well-defined expectations of their members and some kind of penalty when those expectations aren’t met. Communication is key.
- Maintenance management and transparency are key elements. You shouldn’t be forced to take someone’s word for the airplane’s condition, nor put up with broken equipment.
- While liability insurance is important, so is ensuring you’re covered if the airplane is damaged while in your care.
- You may find some pilots don’t share your ideas about operations, leaving the airplane clean for the next pilot or returning it to base per the schedule. —J.B.
Evaluating Your Club
If you’re already in a club or partnership, it’s a good idea to reflect on your experience. Is the carpet coming up? How old are the airplanes? How is the maintenance? Do they get the 50-hour inspections done at the 50th hour? Is the equipment in the aircraft working properly? Are there a number of holes in the panel from equipment that has been removed and not replaced? How about wires hanging down behind the instrument panel? Interior screws consistently missing? Does the aircraft show signs that it has been regularly lubricated? What is your overall perception of the club?
Finally, is this operation run like a business? Sometimes people like the idea of a flying club more than the reality of the flying club. If they are looking for a tax shelter or a passion project, that’s great, as long as you understand they may treat it like their personal toy. However, if they get into something that they were not and are not interested in now, that’s a recipe for failure.
These days, I am not part of a flying club; I own my own airplane, a Daher-Socata TB-20 Trinidad. I’m an A&P-IA and I love working on it. I do my own oil changes, perform my own inspections, address my avionics when they go out. Yes, owning an aircraft demands much more of my time than renting or flying with a club.
Personally, my policy is that if it is on the aircraft, it should work. This means instrument lighting, a working autopilot if so equipped and a current navigation database. It means poring over airworthiness directives, service bulletins and service letters trying to determine if they apply to my airplane’s serial number. My entire family rides in this aircraft and I will not tolerate it not performing as well as the day that it rolled off the line.
What are your standards? Are they being met?