Safety Pilot: Join the club

The benefits of flying together

February 1, 2013

Bruce Landsberg

Flying clubs are a great way to lower the cost of flying and upgrade the experience, which can result in increased social interaction. I’ve been a member of three large flying clubs and they’ve all been well run. The first was the Vandenberg Air Force Base Flying Club when I was stationed in California. The club had Cessna 150s and 172s and an Air Force control tower that presided over our comings and goings. We were always reminded to “check wheels down” when cleared to land—the Air Force has its procedures after all. The club, being protective of its insurance policy, focused on proficiency and procedure. In addition to the usual checkouts and required safety briefings, it had a great fog strategy. Vandy-land is located near Point Concepcion, which juts into the really cold Pacific. Warm air periodically comes in contact with cold water, so fog was an ever-present possibility. Frequently in the afternoons we would fly into the surrounding hill country and return to find the base fogged in. The nearby airport of Lompoc was usually cloud free, so the drill was to divert to Lompoc and hitch a ride back to the base, which was only seven miles away. The Lompoc FBO understood, the club understood, and we understood that there was no penalty or foul for doing the safe, smart thing. Somebody would pick up the airplane as soon as the fog cleared and there was no extra charge to do so.

My next duty station was Grand Forks, home of the University of North Dakota, which was just starting its now well-known aviation program. I was a graduate student there while monitoring missiles in the tundra and joined the UND Flying Club. Cessna 150s and 172s proved their mettle in that very cold country. The two seasons—July and winter—provided ample opportunity to learn cold-weather operations. Copious training was given on when, how, and where to fly. I don’t recall exactly, but I think we stopped flying when the mercury slipped under 10 to 15 degrees below zero. One learned about preheating and what to do with an occasional engine fire during starts (I never had one). Flight plans were filed on every flight and survival gear was mandatory.

One of the many benefits of club flying, verified by AOPA’s research, is that clubs may have more seasoned and less transient CFIs than might be found at a typical FBO. That can make for a solid training environment and a good incentive to upgrade ratings. Most clubs require at least an annual check instead of just a flight review every two years. Instrument proficiency standards are also often more stringent, and I got in the habit of taking a six-month instrument proficiency check.

My last club was the Cessna Employees Flying Club in Wichita, sporting new aircraft ranging from 152s to 210s. Naturally, we used the Cessna Pilot Center training materials and all members were encouraged to fly often and to train. It was my first exposure to a safety management system where there was a process for discussing safety and operational procedures in a non-threatening environment. Single pilots don’t really have a good way to implement that, but as soon as you have more than one pilot, the idea starts to make a lot of sense.

There are two words that can make clubs a great experience or not: consideration and leverage. Consideration is that that everyone leaves the aircraft the way they’d like to find it for their next flight: clean and functional. If something is broken but not critical, advise the next pilot on the squawk sheet or call him and the club maintenance officer if it is. Rental aircraft often are treated the way some people treat rental cars, but with club aircraft, it’s easy to find out who left the interior looking like a frat party the morning after.

Leverage is a courteous way of saying that the group decides what’s right and the lowest denominator probably is not going to be the decider. Don’t want to play by club rules? Hit the road, Jack! This applies both to maintenance and flight ops. Since everyone is invested financially, there has to be consensus on how the aircraft are operated. One large club requires anyone who’s had an “oops” that results in damage, to write up what happened for the club newsletter—and what they learned to not repeat the problem. If the club doesn’t maintain aircraft to your standard, maybe it’s time to move on.

A club can be a really great way to meet new friends, share expensive resources, and save money. AOPA has a complete guide to flying clubs on its website. The AOPA Foundation is helping AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community to expand flying clubs in the United States.