Knoxville Flyers: A phoenix rising from the ashes

June 21, 2013

Tennessee’s Knoxville Flyers Inc., founded in 1968 and created to allow its members and their families to enjoy fun, fellowship, flying, almost didn’t make it.

Based out of Knoxville Downtown Island Airport, the club went through a rough patch in 2009 and almost shut down, said Knoxville Flyers President Brandon Ellis. “The year 2008 was a good one. We were at our full capacity of 60 members and had a waiting list,” he said. “But then the recession kicked in in 2009 and by October 2010, we were down to only 26 members.”

At the time, the club had three aircraft, with monthly dues of $75, said Ellis. “Our fixed costs, between hangar rental and insurance, gave us a break even of 42 members, so you could see [the] direction we were headed,” he said. “So we had to take quick measures to fix that, realizing we had a membership and airplane problem.”

Ellis attributed the issues to people and attitudes. “We had a small number of newer pilots and students, I was a student when I joined the club, and I had only had my license for four years,” he said. 

The club had matured, and older members said that one or two aircraft needed to be sold, said Ellis. “But a core group of us younger, newer pilots weren’t willing to accept that. Our aircraft had become older and were not being updated,” he said. “They were still mechanically sound, but just didn’t look good.”

So Ellis joined with other members to determine exactly what was going on with the club, and he chaired a revitalization committee. “I looked at other clubs with similar demographics. I wanted a better website with a focus on coming up higher in search engines,” he said. “I was also big on having club members spread the word about Knoxville Flyers, because if members were excited, other would be as well. We also did marketing, sold T-shirts, and touted our website.”

Ellis used the club’s monthly meeting to unveil the revitalization plan. “There had been a lot of gloom and doom, and the fact was we had a five-year plan with real numbers to move the club forward,” he said. “Just the fact that we had a plan and our board was behind it made members excited, the word spread, and our numbers started going up.”

One phase of the plan was to sell one of the club’s aircraft, a 1978 Cessna 177 Cardinal, said Ellis. “It was a tough decision. It was a popular aircraft, but it had become a liability for the club,” he said. “Not many were made, so parts were hard to get. So we sold it and replaced it with a 1997 Piper Archer last September.” The club also has a Cessna 152 and a 182, with a plan in place to eventually replace both, he added.

The biggest lesson learned by the club during hard times was don’t rest on your laurels, said Ellis. “If things are going well, have savings. Had past board members had plans in place to fund new or replacement aircraft, it would have helped,” he said. “We did have a capital improvement fund that saved us. We used it when fixed costs weren’t being covered. My goal as president is that future boards won’t have to deal with what we did in the past five years.”

There isn’t a buy-in to join the club, but members do pay a $350 initiation fee that goes directly into the capital improvement fund, said Ellis. Dues are $75 a month plus the hours flown. The rates are $64 an hour for the Cessna 152 wet, $99 an hour for the Archer wet, and $131 an hour for the Cessna 182 wet.

The club, set up as a non-equity nonprofit 501(c)(7), currently has 66 members. “It means that the nonprofit maintains 100-percent ownership of the aircraft,” he said. 

Ellis’s advice for other clubs? Know the demographics of its members. “If your members are older and they don’t know if [they will] pass medicals, you may want to have a light sport aircraft in your fleet,” he said.

But his biggest piece of advice is finding aircraft financing. “The hardest thing for a club to do is obtain financing without someone having to have board members sign on as personal guarantors for a loan, which no one is going to do,” said Ellis.

So seek out local banks because they can work with clubs, said Ellis. “Larger banks are slaves to what the computer tells them. So give back to your local community and form those relationships. We actually changed from a large chain bank to local bank and it’s been a great relationship.”

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.