Now taking off: 51st Aero Squadron flying club

April 5, 2013

The 51st Aero Squadron LLC, a new flying club based at Alabama’s Bessemer Municipal Airport, has taken possession of its first aircraft—a low time, 1979 Piper Archer II.

Founder Ed Murray began research on the idea in late November 2012. “We filed for LCC formation with the state of Alabama in January 2013 and brought home our first airplane on March 15, our official start date,” he said.

In coming up with a list of names, Murray said he started with what he didn’t want, ruling out geographic references or traditional aviation terms. “The Birmingham/Jefferson County metro area has no less than 24 unique municipalities and I did not want to make the club sound exclusive to any one area,” he said. “Also, I wanted something different so I ruled out some to the traditional aviation terms, like blue skies or leading edge.”

Murray did some military research and thought that reference might sound good. “I did not want to step on the history of any recognized military unit and found out that the term 51st had never been used for an active duty aviation unit and it has a ring to it,” he said. The squadron part came from the fact that a generally accepted number for one is 12, and the club had 12 charter members, he added.

The club currently has 12 members, with four other pilots indicating an interest to join, said Murray. “We are currently an equity club and have done the preliminary work to file for non-profit status,” he said. The club will file as a 501(c)(7), he added.

“One of the reasons I began this effort was our local airport fired the FBO and the city took over. They do not plan to offer aircraft rental or instruction, so I thought the club option was a good idea,” said Murray.

The hardest hurdle Murray said the club had to overcome was how to acquire its first airplane, which drove a lot of decisions. “Each of our 12 charter members contributed $1,000 to help with startup costs and to make a 20 percent down payment on our plane,” he said.

Murray said he got nowhere with aviation-oriented finance companies, who questioned the club’s structure and refused to make loans to startups. “I had lunch with a former student and former airplane owner. After hearing the idea of a club, he offered to help with the financing and he will be our thirteenth member,” he said.

One of the fascinating things Murray said he discovered when he began his research was the large number of clubs that had been in existence for 40-plus years. “From that discovery, I knew there was a financial model out there that worked, and I was fortunately able to find most of the details from their websites,” he said.

Monthly dues are $85. “This covers all of our fixed costs—the note on the plane, insurance, hangar rent, property tax, GPS database subscription fee, and our online scheduling program fee,” Murray said. “We charge ourselves $100 per Tach hour for the plane. This covers an engine reserve, maintenance reserve, a contingency fund, fuel and oil. We were fortunate to find a plane with very low engine time and a factory overhaul to boot.”

Thanks to a member that helped the club obtain insurance coverage, it can now offer flight instruction to students, said Murray. “We have two very experienced instructors, with more than 6,000 hours each and one airline pilot that will be getting his instructor certificate re-instated,” he said. “Only one of our charter members is a student pilot, but at least two of our members will be working on their instrument ratings.”

The club will host its first "Meet and Greet" event in April and will participate in the airport's open house the first weekend in May. “We also have developed a list of educational and informational sessions for our members,” he said. “One of our members is a FedEx First Officer on the Boeing 777 and flies internationally so I have asked him to tell us about his "typical" work day. We also have a Southwest Airlines First Officer on the 737 and a former USAF C-130 instructor so we can have quite a time just getting to know each other better.”

The biggest lesson Murray said he learned in starting the club was to figure out how to address aircraft financing and acquisition. “I came close to throwing in the towel a few times, but fortunately I did not,” he said. “All in all, it has been an interesting experience. However, I had the benefit of experience managing a military club many years ago, the benefit of being an instructor for 37 years, being an AOPA member for 38 years, being an airplane owner for 25 years, and the ability to tap a number of former and current students with the idea.”

Murray also reached out to Marc Epner of Chicago’s Leading Edge Flying Club via the AOPA Flying Club Network Facebook page for advice. “You will encounter a number of hurdles but you can overcome all of them with some common sense, a practical approach that recognizes the real expenses involved, and a diverse membership,” he said. “We have an attorney, a bank president, two airline pilots, an engineer, a few IT folks, and a couple of small business owners. We all love to fly.”

Want more information on flying clubs? See AOPA’s Flying Clubs page.

Benét Wilson

Benét J. Wilson | AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor

AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor Benét J. Wilson joined AOPA in 2011. She is working on her private pilot certificate.