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November 18, 2013
By Benét J. Wilson
The Nantucket Flying Association (NFA), created in 2004, was started by the grandson of an early Nantucket aviator who used to sometimes land his Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat into one of the island’s small ponds. The NFA considers itself a club despite not having any aircraft.
“With one or two fleeting exceptions, there has been no General Aviation, in terms of a flying club or a [fixed-base operator] FBO with rental aircraft at Nantucket Memorial Airport for around two decades,” said NFA President Chris McLaughlin. “A group of local pilots wanted to try and change the status quo. We were fortunate to have two Blue Angels air shows here, in 2004 and 2006, which really helped to energize everyone.”
NFA is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization created to promote aviation of all kinds on Nantucket Island. “We have a board of seven and a membership that approaches 100,” said McLaughlin. “We are beginning a new round of membership growth, and envision different `circles’ of membership, ranging from young aviation enthusiasts, at one end of the spectrum, to active fliers, to perhaps social members at the other end.”
McLaughlin considers NFA to be a flying club, albeit one in an interesting development process. “We were a big part of our two air shows. Marshaling in a C-17, and later holding down the Coast Guard helicopter during a squall, was great fun,” he said. “We have had a good number of social events, including some fly ins and outs over the years.”
But a year ago, the decision was made to breathe some life into NFA by varying the plan a bit, said McLaughlin. “Aviation had become moribund here, yet there are two yacht clubs, three golf clubs, and a wonderful community sailing organization which started out with three boats. They now have 160 boats,” he said. “So we thought it was time to broaden our appeal somewhat. We have sponsored free events, for anyone to attend, such as movies, guest speakers, and we run an excellent youth Aviation Camp, dubbed ‘The Sky's the Limit."’
In addition, NFA has airport barbecues, and have been actively seeking to base one or more airplanes at the airport for all to use, said McLaughlin. “That will return our inactive and aspiring pilots to the skies. But what about the next generation?” he asked. “With the rise of STEM educational initiatives, we decided that this would not only be a key to growing the next generation of aviation enthusiasts, but also provide an interesting new way to make learning in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fun and relevant. We are trying to get a BuildAPlane kit here, for instance, for our school kids to build.”
As a 501 (c)(3), the association seeks to, and indeed must have, a strong educational component, and aviation has much more to offer than just piloting, said McLaughlin. “From manufacturing to ATC to airport operations, and with the privatization of space, the rise of [unmanned aircraft systems], and projected growth of air travel, we feel that aviation is an excellent incubator for developing minds,” he said.
Nantucket was once almost a nation, with a fleet of whaling ships that sailed around the world, said McLaughlin. “We strive to have a fun and active aviation scene out here and it would, once again, allow Nantucketers to take a peek over the horizon and discover the great wide world out there,” he said.
The island’s year-round population is around 10,000, and swells to more than 40,000 during the summer, which shows a wide variety of piloting needs, said McLaughlin. “Historically, we have recruited by word of mouth but we are now embarking on a publicity based approach in local media outlets,” he said. “We want to recruit from both year-round residents, as well as summer residents, but our vision extends beyond the traditional flying club template.”
One of NFA’s big goals is to see the permanent return of year-round flight training for people of all ages, with aircraft rental included, said McLaughlin. “We are looking at all possibilities to see that happen. That includes the option of buying our own airplanes.”
But until then, the club is working with Pilgrim Aviation, based at Plymouth Municipal Airport, which has opened a rapidly expanding flight school. “We approached them to see if they would be interested in basing an airplane here. We have some unique issues here. Nantucket is called the Little Grey Lady, not only for the grey cedar shingles that cover all of the houses, but also for the blanket of grey fog that cloaks the island with monotonous regularity,” said McLaughlin. “Plus, the cost of living here is somewhat eye watering, so a full-time CFI has been a difficult thing to find.”
Pilgrim has been flying over to give lessons, said McLaughlin. “It has not been a streamlined process. Ultimately, we will find the right balance, but we do have actual aviating taking place, at long last, which is our goal.”
At this point, said McLaughlin, the club has several inactive pilots knocking off the rust. “But demand is exceeding supply. Our inactive pilots are restless, and our aspiring pilots are frustrated by the infrequency of chances to fly,” he said.
The club currently doesn’t charge for member dues. “But when there are good reasons to reintroduce fees, we'll do it, bearing in mind the idea of `circles’ of membership,” said McLaughlin.
Community outreach is a very important part of what NFA does, said McLaughlin. “Our lives are saved by Boston MedFlight helicopters. Our mariners depend on Coast Guard helicopters and SAR [search and rescue] airplanes. And if it doesn't get here by ferry boat, then it comes by plane,” he said. “The air taxis to Hyannis get you to the mall and McDonald's. No, there isn't one here. Shoe repair? That's right, it's on the mainland. And we have active Coast Guard Auxiliary and [Patient Air Lift Services] pilots, flying missions for the greater good. So we feel it is important to show the good that aviation can do for the community.”
In advising others forming flying clubs, McLaughlin said differentiate from the competition. “Offer stellar customer service, recognizing both the internal and external customers,” he said. “Your employees and volunteers are your internal customers, and they must be as happy as the external customers. Try to anticipate demand, offer quality, put your hearts into it.”
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