When people are considering flying lessons, one option is often overlooked—the flying club. If there’s one in your area, learning to fly there may not only provide the training you need, it may also offer aviation-related social activities.
While clubs take several forms, the basic concept is to gather several interested pilots, an instructor, and perhaps a maintenance technician to share the ownership of an aircraft or the club. Because they share the costs among more people, clubs can offer lower costs over individual ownership.
Good management is key to a successful club, and clubs can be managed in several ways: by ownership of one or more entrepreneurs or by the members themselves. Clubs are often started, owned, and run as commercial enterprises. If successful, they come to resemble fixed-base operations (FBOs) that may offer fuel and maintenance.
Clubs can also be started as nonprofit groups, run initially by the members. Volunteers might divide up the chores—maintenance, scheduling, aircraft cleanup, and bookkeeping. As clubs grow larger, they can bring in professional management or elevate club members to paid positions as tasks overcome volunteer efforts.
Many aviation-oriented companies offer a flying club to employees as a benefit. Military flying clubs abound, but to belong, one must have some connection with the military; often membership in the Civil Air Patrol will suffice.
Like flight training, the available ground schools and training aids, such as video programs and simulators, depends on the club’s size and desires of their memberships. Some, catering to pleasure fliers and those who fly in conjunction with their business, don’t offer training. The only way to know for certain is to contact the club and ask questions.
How To Share The Fun Of Ownership
By Robert I. Snow
If you’ve never owned an airplane before, forming a partnership club with experienced owners is a good option.
If individual ownership of an airplane just isn’t in the cards right now, consider an affordable alternative—form your own flying club.
Two basic types of clubs exist. First there’s the “corporate” club, where a few core members own the airplane (or airplanes). Generally, those outside the owners circle buy into the club by paying a membership fee, as well as paying monthly dues. The dues cover each owner’s share of fixed costs such as insurance and the airplane’s tiedown or hangar rental. Each club member, including the owners, pays a per-hour fee when he (or she) flies the airplane.
Corporate clubs usually have large memberships. If that doesn’t suit you, a partnership club might meet your needs. Whether they form a corporate or partnership club, several pilots buy an aircraft as a group. Each pilot’s name appears on the registration.
If this will be your first airplane, forming a partnership club is an especially good option if the other members have owned an aircraft before. You can learn the ropes of ownership from them while you enjoy your aircraft. But like everything in life, partnership clubs have good and bad points.
The most important part of forming a club is knowing—and trusting—the other members. A club composed of four friends who already know they get along well should enjoy a long existence, especially if they buy an airplane that has been well-maintained. On the other hand, any dishonesty, or perception of dishonesty among the members, coupled with a maintenance hog that costs more than the members expected, can lead to problems.
Remember, you are trusting the other members to take care of your aircraft investment, just as they trust you to do the same. Clearly, you want to know something about the people involved, not only about their trustworthiness, but also their skill and judgment.
Your next question should be “How many members will the club have.” The answer depends on your needs and means. More members means each pilot’s share of the expenses will be smaller, but it also means more pilots will be flying the aircraft and availability may be an issue. It also means more opinions to weigh when the partners make important decisions. In most cases, a four-member limit seems to work well.
If you buy an airplane by yourself, you pay all the fixed expenses. With a two-member club, your share drops 50 percent. Add a third member, and you pay a third of the fixed costs, a 17-percent savings over a two-member club. If you add a fourth member, your share drops to 25 percent, an eight percent saving over a three-member club. Adding any more members doesn’t generate much savings, and it increases the chance of scheduling problems.
You can handle scheduling in several ways. Leaving a scheduling book in the airplane is the simplest system. You go to the airport and, if no one has scheduled it for that day, the airplane is yours. However, this system can be frustrating if one or several members live some distance from the airport. Another system is to give the scheduling book to one of the club’s members, and the other members call to schedule the aircraft, or see if it’s available. So one member doesn’t get stuck with this chore forever, the members can rotate the responsibility. Members can also use computer e-mail and automated telephone messaging systems for scheduling purposes.
A secretary/treasurer is essential to a smooth-running club. Somebody has to maintain the aircraft paperwork, schedule required maintenance and inspections, record and bill the members for the hours they fly. Someone should also collect the monthly dues that pay for the fixed costs, and, pay the club’s bills. This job entails a fair amount of work, and the member who does it should be compensated in some way, perhaps with free flying time.
Other policies the members must agree on include cleaning and waxing the aircraft and helping with owner-assisted maintenance. Will each member have to donate a specified amount of time, or will each member decide how much time to donate? If one of the members is an airframe and powerplant mechanic, will he do all the required maintenance? How will the club compensate him for his work?
You must establish a realistic means of billing each member for the cost of ownership. Fixed expenses, such as insurance and hangar, continue whether the airplane flies or not. The easiest way is to find out the ownership costs for the aircraft the club plans to buy, then divide the total by the number of members. The secretary/treasurer can bill each member’s contribution as monthly dues, or each member can deposit a lump sum in advance. This goes to an account reserved for paying the fixed expenses.
Estimate your operating costs next. Operating costs include planned and unplanned maintenance on the aircraft or its avionics, as well as engine reserve. An engine reserve is a per-hour contribution to the fund that will pay for an engine overhaul when it reaches its TBO (time between overhaul). To figure this contribution, divide the estimated cost of an overhaul by the number of hours left before TBO.
Operating costs—and how much a member pays per-hour to fly the aircraft—depend on how many hours the aircraft flies. To figure this, each member has to estimate his annual flight time total. Members also must decide how to deal with over- and underestimated flight times. For simplicity’s sake, expendables such as fuel and oil are usually best left to each individual to pay.
A word of advice on figuring costs. Add around 20 percent to your estimated numbers to cover unexpected or underestimated fixed or direct operating costs. It’s easier than getting the members to cough up the money if something happens. If the club has money left over at the end of the year, the members can decide whether to refund it, carry it over, use it to upgrade the aircraft, or have a party.
When everyone has agreed on the details of how the club will operate, what airplane to purchase, and all the other details such as insurance quotes, the next step is to write the club’s charter. This can be a delicate situation because some members may feel trust and a handshake are sufficient. In a perfect world, this would be enough, but we don’t live and fly in a perfect world.
A club’s charter, or written partnership agreement, should address as many possibilities as the members can think of. If nothing ever goes wrong, the charter won’t come into play, but if something does happen, the charter should spell out how the members will deal with it. Of course, each member of the club must sign the charter.
For example, who pays the insurance deductible if an accident occurs—the person flying or the club? What happens if a member wants out of the partnership? Can he sell to anyone at any price, or do the other partners have a say? What if one member wants to install an IFR-certified GPS, but the others don’t want the expense? What happens if a member cannot or will not pay his club bill? Finally, under what circumstances can one member sue another, or sue the entire partnership? Do you have some sort of mutual hold-harmless agreement?
The charter should also spell out the club’s decision-making process. For example, it’s time for the aircraft’s annual inspection, and the club treasury can’t cover the expense. Will the club up the hourly rate to generate the needed cash? Or will it assess each member an equal amount to cover the shortfall? The members need to know how they will decide such matters. Will you decide by a simple majority or a unanimous vote?
Most partnerships go through their lives without any of the above scenarios occurring. But you have no guarantees. The best way to address these problems is with a signed document, not a shouting match after the fact.
Owning an aircraft through a partnership club could be the most satisfying and least expensive way to go if you fly at least 50 hours a year or need some flexibility regarding scheduling. It’s also a great way to develop lasting friendships. But you should go into a partnership with your eyes wide open. Do your homework, nail down the details in a charter, budget the expenses realistically—and go fly.