In the summer of 1939 Lou Gehrig played his last game for the Yankees and declared himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. That fall the Nazi Blitzkrieg overran Poland. Gone with the Wind beat The Wizard of Oz for best film of the year, and 22 people living in upstate New York founded a flying club. (It’s also the same year AOPA was founded).
When the Penn Yan Flying Club started there wasn’t an airport to base its planes. But that wasn’t a big deal. The club didn’t have any aircraft. By December 1940 the club had incorporated, leased 30 acres of farmland to create an airport and bought a couple of Piper Cubs. And for 75 years since, the club has continued to operate.
Today the club has approximately 120 members, a fleet of five aircraft, and the airport has grown to include two paved runways. So how has Penn Yan been successful for so many years?
Club President Jim Alexander credits the founding members with creating a strong community, setting high standards that future members aspire to uphold, and for making some wise financial decisions over the years.
“I think a lot of it is it’s a family environment,” Jim said. “We’ve had a great core group that have been active in the club for many years, and because of their involvement and their vision and what they’ve seen in the past, they are the ones that have brought the club ahead through the years and ensured that it was successful.”
Many of those early members stayed active in the club for decades. In January, a longtime member who Jim believes joined the club in 1941 passed away at the age of 90. He was an active instructor until just a few years ago.
History of Tradition
Penn Yan is a town of about 5,000 people in the Finger Lakes of New York, about 50 miles southeast of Rochester. It’s a place that probably hasn’t changed too much since the 22 founding members got together because they wanted to learn to fly.
The mission then, as it remains today, is “To promote aviation through the conduct of a business which breaks even and enables members to fly safely and inexpensively.”
The club grew quickly, attracting as many as 86 members by 1942. It bought two Piper Cubs, had two hangars, a clubhouse and a part-time flight instructor. Despite the world being at war, the club continued to operate and grow, although it was necessary to have a guard at the airport 24-hours a day to watch over the aircraft, or remove the propellers when no one was there.
By the time WWII ended, the club had purchased the original 30 acres it had leased for the airport and added another 70 acres, expanding the airport to three grass runways. And in 1946, it put a $150 down payment on a new J-3 Cub, N6473H. That airplane is still in the Penn Yan fleet, 70 years later.
“We love that airplane. It’s an iconic piece of the club,” Jim said. “That was the first new airplane the club purchased. There are a lot members that learned to fly in that airplane. I don’t believe we’d ever consider selling it.”
In addition to the Cub, the fleet includes a Cessna 150, Cessna 172, a Piper Cherokee 180, and a Piper Archer II (which was AOPA’s 2008 sweepstakes aircraft that the club purchased last year from the winner).
July 4th Means Pancakes at Penn Yan
Another tradition that has continued for decades is the annual Penn Yan July 4th Pancake Breakfast. The club started the breakfast in the 1950s and today it has grown to a community event that attracts about 2,500 people each year. Think about that for a moment. A flying club with 120 members in a town of 5,000 residents hosts a fly-in breakfast that feeds half the town.
The breakfast is a fundraiser that helps the club subsidize the cost of operating the aircraft so it can honor its mission of providing inexpensive aircraft to fly. The Cub rents for $49 an hour, the 150 is $66 an hour, the 172 is $79 an hour, and the Cherokee and Archer are $89 an hour. Prices are Tach time, wet. An hour of flight instruction is $32 and the club has a simulator that is free to members.
“No matter how you look at it, you can’t go someplace else and fly for as cheaply as you can fly the quality of airplanes that you get at Penn Yan. You can’t do it,” Jim said. “There are other schools around that are getting $125, $145 wet, Hobbs time for a 172 and another $50 to $60 an hour for an instructor.”
Penn Yan has two types of memberships – active members pay a $300 joining fee, $46 a month in dues, and have flying privileges. Supporting members pay a $100 joining fee, $23 a month in dues, and don’t have flying privileges. About 40 percent of members fly regularly and many come from all over the region to fly with Penn Yan.
In addition to the Pancake Breakfast fundraiser, another way the club has been able to keep costs affordable is by establishing its own insurance fund for the hull value of its aircraft. Each member initially put in $100 and as new members join, a portion of their initiation fee goes into the fund. This has saved the club a substantial amount of money over the years, while still protecting the value of the aircraft.
Another wise financial decision was made in the 1990s. As the airport continued to grow, it outgrew the clubs desire to manage it with volunteers. So the club sold the airport to Yates County. The club kept 10 acres of property and has an agreement with the county for access. Since the county took over the airport it has added a 5,500-foot runway to the existing 3,200-foot runway.
“We benefitted financially from the sale of the airport,” Jim said, “but the guys and gals between then and now could have easily blown that money. Sometimes people bellyache that we’re the Penn Yan Accounting Club as opposed to the Penn Yan Flying Club. I think in a large sense that’s rightfully so. We’re in a good position financially.”
It’s the combination of sound financial stewardship with strong founding members who stayed active in the club for decades and mentored future generations that Jim credits with the club’s long-term success.
“We’ve been fortunate through the years. Through dues and wise investment moves we’ve been able to be solvent,” Jim said. “Where we are today is because of our founders. I think I speak for the vast majority of the members—we don’t want to disappoint them. When I sit there at a meeting as president and look out into the gallery there are members there who are past presidents—these guys that have been there 40 or 50 years. We owe them a debt, but also we want to live up to the standards they set for us. I’m fortunate as well that I have a board of directors that feels that way and wants to see this club continue to succeed.”
With the history, tradition, and community that has been built in upstate New York, the Penn Yan Flying Club is likely to be going strong for another 75 years.
|Name||Penn Yan Flying Club|
|Location||Penn Yan Airport (KPEO), Penn Yan, NY|
|Aircraft||1976 Piper Archer II PA-28-181 ($89/hr)
1972 Piper Cherokee PA-28-180 ($89/hr)
1976 Cessna 172 Skyhawk ($79/hr)
1977 Cessna 150M Commuter ($66/hr)
1946 Piper J-3 Cub ($49/hr)
Elite Simulator (free for members)
Rates are Tach time, wet.
|Joining fee||$300 Active members (flying privileges)
$100 Supporting members (no flying privileges)
|Monthly dues||$46 per month|