Flying Particles: Safe aircraft at a low cost

Flying club members work at Lawrence-Livermore National Lab

September 27, 2013

Five employees at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory banded together in the mid-1950s to start the Flying Particles flying club, based at Livermore Municipal Airport.

The club was incorporated as a not-for-profit entity on Aug. 1, 1957, that is now a nonprofit corporation organized and operated as both a flying and social club, said club president David Osborn. “Our mission is to provide safe aircraft at the lowest reasonable cost, and high quality instruction in a supportive community with a strong volunteer ethic,” he said.

The club has 111 members, including 13 instructors and 15 student pilots. It has five aircraft in the fleet, including ownership of a 1981 Cessna 152, a 1977 Cessna 172N, a 1978 Cessna 182Q, and a 1976 Piper Archer 28-181. It leases a 2011 Cessna 162 Skycatcher, the club’s first light sport aircraft.

The club’s member financial model has three pillars: the equity share, monthly dues, and hourly/reservation charges, said Osborn. “The equity share, $500 for student members and $2,500 for regular members, represents the part-ownership of the aircraft and is fully refundable upon resignation from the club,” he said.

The monthly dues, $25 for students and $80 for regular members, is a steady income used to cover fixed expenses, including insurance, hangar or tiedowns, annual inspections, and taxes, said Osborn. “The third part is hourly charges (wet/tachometer) to members that cover our variable costs (fuel, oil and filter, tires, and all maintenance other than the annual inspection),” he said. “A reservation charge, nominally set at one-eighth of an hour, is charged per half day an airplane is used by a member.”

The idea is to provide a disincentive to reserve an airplane for a week and park it at a nearby airport, thus depriving others from utilizing the airplane, said Osborn. “However, the reservation charge is small enough that it does not prevent long trips to other states, adventures that we encourage our members to take,” he added.

Flying Particles has seven classes of membership:  two-seat student (the lowest cost path to learn to fly), four-seat student (slightly higher costs to learn in the Cessna 172), instructor members (can instruct in aircraft but not fly them for personal use—instructor members pay no monthly dues), regular members (can fly all aircraft for which they demonstrate proficiency), family members (immediate family member of a regular member, pay only $5 a month in dues), light sport member (pays $40/month in dues, but may fly only the light sport aircraft), and inactive members who don’t pay dues and don’t fly the aircraft.

The club’s Cessna 152 is the lowest cost option for student pilots, said Osborn. “A student that completes training in the minimum 40 hours of flight time with 20 hours of instruction in a six-month period will spend just under $5,000,” he said. “More typically, a student who requires 50 hours of flight with 25 hours of instruction will pay about $5,800.

“Because we don't need to make a profit, we can lower the cost of flying compared to for-profit operations. Each of our pilots is an owner-operator, owning a share of each aircraft.”

The club’s monthly meetings usually are a presentation on an aviation topic.  Past presentations include "Spins: or how to keep the pointy end of the airplane going forward," "Weather in the Vertical," or "A trip to Death Valley in the Winter."

Flying Particles holds monthly wash parties to clean the airplanes with a free lunch for those who pitch in, said Osborn. “We do much of the maintenance on our airplanes ourselves. Any member can participate and learn the ropes of maintenance from our more experienced volunteers and our certified A&P,” he said. “This benefit of understanding what is under the cowl, and learning what to do if one of the common problems interferes with your flight, is a major benefit to those who seek it out, and one that is not easily achieved at a for-profit flying school.”

Osborn advised newer clubs to get advice from other well-established clubs or AOPA on how to structure governance and policies. “A 20- to 100-member club is quite different than a three-member partnership, and you want to design the club to provide the right incentives to each type of member so that they and the club each benefit from the relationship,” he said.

Decide on the airplane vintage needed for your club, said Osborn. “Whereas the operational costs of a 2008 C172 are not too different than a 1976 C172, the capital costs are dramatically different,” he said. “This choice (more money for newer airplanes, less money for older airplanes) is a critical one that will influence the kind of membership the club attracts.”

Finally, emphasize to potential members that a nonprofit flying club can reduce the fixed costs of flying while simultaneously forming a community where they can learn from fellow pilots and instructors, said Osborn. “The value of the community is hard to overstate—you will learn a lot from the more experienced pilots in the club.”