In this new social distancing world we are now living in, what’s better than to feature a social flying club that took off through social media. We’re talking about the Smokehouse Pilots Club, with more than 1,000 members on Facebook and growing.
Its purpose is to connect people who love aviation with each other to create opportunities to share information, and to promote safe, affordable, and fun flying. They don’t operate any aircraft and there is no membership fee, but Smokehouse does host monthly Fly Outs, Speak Outs (guest speakers) and provides a forum for pilots and aviation enthusiasts to interact through social media.
Using Facebook, what started as a few pilots organizing fly outs from Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) in northern Virginia has grown to a group with members from 37 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia representing every continent (except Antarctica), and every corner of the United States from Alaska and Hawaii to Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, and New York, with most members in Virginia and Maryland.
The club is proof of the worldwide community that is general aviation and the power of social media. Among the international members are countries with a strong GA presence – Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. But there also are members of the club from Costa Rica and Guatemala, India, Kenya, Russia, and Romania, not to mention Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
That global reach has allowed the club to continue to pursue its mission and thrive despite having to cancel events because of the inability to get together physically. The reason for this is the successful use of its Facebook Group. Prior to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the club effectively promoted the fly outs and speak outs through Facebook and created a community to share information, ask questions, and post photos and videos of aviation adventures. Currently, the club is using its social media community as a platform to host virtual events to keep members connected and engaged while the world is on lockdown.
A simple beginning
Prior to 2017, an aviator by the name of Billy Winburn was the driving force coordinating speak outs and fly outs for a small group of students. As time passed, Billy began to explore new ventures and created what is now Community Aviation. As Billy transitioned to other things within aviation, he encouraged the current members of the club to continue the tradition.
In 2017, a group of friends from the original club, based at Leesburg Airport started a Facebook Group where they would post information about the fly outs and speak outs, but they didn’t have an official name. The group met at a BBQ restaurant called Smokehouse Live, so they figured that was as good a name as any, and the Smokehouse Pilots Club was born. Gabe Muller is now the driving force behind the Smokehouse Pilots Club and their social media presence.
Creating a Facebook Group is easy to do, it’s free, and there are a lot of tools that allow your club to stay connected with members. In addition to features you’ll find on your personal Facebook page, like photos and videos, the Group page will list “Members” rather than “Friends” and has an “About” tab where you can describe your club and mission. You also can add documents like Bylaws, Operating Procedures, Aircraft manuals, etc. to the “Files” tab.
One of the more useful features is the Events page in which you can create events with all the pertinent information. Using this page, members of your group can respond if they plan to go. The Event tab also has a calendar, and when an event is created it is automatically added to the calendar. This makes it easy for group members to plan for upcoming events.
Of course, any member of the group can post photos, videos, or comments that other members can respond to. To control content, it’s a good idea to choose the setting where posts must be approved by designated moderators. Moderating a Facebook Group requires a lot of attention, so it is also a good idea to appoint several moderators who can be trusted to keep the content aligned with your group’s mission.
Smokehouse has several administrators who share responsibility for monitoring the page, approving new members, approving posts, and creating content. That includes posting a picture or question each day to keep members engaged, or creating the event posts to promote the fly outs and speak outs.
One of the keys to successful engagement of members online is in how leadership interacts with its members. Rather than just “liking” a post or leaving comment, Gabe said it’s important to ask a question to continue the conversation, which makes a passive post of a photo or experience a more dynamic interaction among members.
“I want to provide value via the engagement that's happening so when somebody posts something, I actually take another one or two minutes and comment on that,” Gabe said. “I’ll say, ‘Wow this is a fantastic picture. How did you take that? or ‘What did you do?’ so that you get the conversation going versus just doing what we all tend to do, which is just “like” it and move on with our day. I think the reason that Facebook for us is off the charts, is because of intentional engagement by asking questions of people. With the wide range of experience within our club, I am genuinely interested because you will always learn something new!”
Successful Speak Outs
The speak outs started off small, but they grew and the club would share them on Facebook Live to reach people who were not in the area.
“I wanted to reach the people who are not able to be here because they live in a different state or Germany or Japan,” Gabe said. “Let’s just reach the masses. That has been a game changer. If our current members are enjoying this community, then perhaps other aviators in this world will as well.”
Besides connecting members at a distance with valuable content, Facebook Live has given people who are in the area but weren’t coming a chance to see and feel what it’s like to be at the speak out. Ironically, that has actually motivated people in the area to attend the event in person, creating a greater demand.
“We’re using Facebook to drive attendance at these speak outs in a very passive way. It’s kind of cool,” Gabe said. “It’s given people a taste of it and they say, ‘Damn, I want to be in that room. I’m going to go.”
Setting up Facebook Live is simple. All you need is a tripod with an attachment for a phone or tablet, go to Facebook and click the “live” button to broadcast within your group. When you’re done, you can save the video so people who missed the event can watch it later.
Smokehouse goes a step beyond and provides a more professional set up with lights, speakers and a microphone to ensure the quality for those watching at home is just as good as those in the room.
Those that do come, tend to come early and stay late. The events officially run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month at a restaurant. People start arriving as early as 4:45 to get a drink or food and share each other’s company, and many stay after the program is complete to continue conversations.
“The cool part about the speak outs is we will be finished and there are pilots in that room until 11 o'clock at night,” Gabe said. “It's crazy in the way people hang around.”
One night after the speaker was finished, a retired airline pilot was talking to a young guy who just bought a Cessna 150. He was sharing all the things to be on the lookout for and teaching him all kinds of different things, Gabe said. “That's a win for the club because of the knowledge transfer that's happening, even after the presentation is finished.”
Each speak out has an agenda, which begins by welcoming new members and giving them the opportunity to introduce themselves and share a little about their aviation interests and how or why they joined the club. That is followed by an acknowledgement of any accomplishments, such as new ratings, and then there is a short summation about the past fly out. Once the business is complete, the guest speaker gives a presentation followed by a question and answer period.
Each speak out has a “Tate Talk” – a 10-minute safety topic presented by retired USAF Lt. Colonel Joe Tate. He was an Air Force One pilot who flew three presidents and was responsible for training other Air Force One pilots.
“We're never short on speakers,” Gabe said. They’ve had representatives from the FAA and NTSB make presentations, as well Vans Aircraft and Cirrus. An F-4 Phantom pilot spoke about his experiences and AOPA’s own Steve Bateman, Director of the Flying Clubs Initiative spoke before the group. There have been Air Safety Institute programs and some of the speak outs have been part of the FAA Wings program. Gabe recently became a FAAST team member, so there is a good chance there will be more presentations for Wings credit.
Like the speak outs, Smokehouse effectively used Facebook to spread the word about their monthly fly outs. Early on, most of the participants were from Leesburg, but the last three or four have attracted pilots based at other airports. “I would say that seven to nine different aircraft are coming from different areas depending on where we're going,” Gabe said. “The reason that's happening is because of the promotion on Facebook.”
Gabe keeps a running tally of who is going and what aircraft. For the March fly out to Williamsburg, VA, which had to be canceled, there were 24 or 25 airplanes planning on participating. Probably, five to 10 of them were from different areas. “I think that's happening due to the location of where we're going, and the awareness via Facebook, and how we're sharing it, that people want to go,” Gabe said.
For those who are leaving from Leesburg, Smokehouse will have a briefing in the terminal building the morning of the fly out. They’ll get an overall sense of how everyone is getting to the destination and then they’ll go to their airplanes and depart on their own. Once everyone arrives at the destination, “we’ll enjoy lunch together, typically get a picture together and take back off and go home,” Gabe said.
Not everything Smokehouse does is on Facebook. In January of this year, the club created a web site. One of the main reasons why is that not everyone uses social media. Through the website, people can provide an email to be put on a mailing list. In less than three months, the club has obtained 275 email addresses, “many of which are not Facebook,” Gabe said. “That's how they are staying current with what's going on with us. That's been a big help. We had to figure out how to communicate with these people.”
Anybody that signs up for that list will get the updates on the speak outs and fly outs, and other events the club hosts. Things like taking a tour of the Dulles International Airport (IAD) control tower or happy hours, which are now done as virtual events through Facebook Live and the video conferencing website Zoom.
The website also has been popular with members because it has all kinds of resources for people to use, such as planning tools and links to a variety of aviation organizations.
Hangar Flying by Wire
The use of technology and social media has allowed the Smokehouse Pilots Group to grow from 385 members in March of 2019 to more than 1,000 members today. It also has positioned the organization extremely well to continue to be relevant despite the fact that fly outs and speak outs are on hold until the country can get past the pandemic.
To replace the in person events, the club has been hosting virtual events. Since mid-March, the club has averaged at least one event a week. There have been two virtual happy hours where members joined either by Facebook Live or Zoom to get together to do some virtual hangar flying.
One member, Martin, has a goal of flying his Bonanza to every Class Bravo airport in the country. He recently landed at Dallas Love Field and shared that experience. Questions ranged from how many Class Bravo airports there are (37 apparently) to whether or not you need to get a landing slot in advance.
Another member had done touch and goes at Dulles Airport, landing on Runway 1 Center, and talked about that. While commercial traffic is off so dramatically, the tower has been very accommodating of GA pilots flying in, and it’s become a popular flight for pilots in the club, particularly those based in the northern Virginia area.
Other members include someone who works for the Potomac Tracon, and another who works the ramp tower at Dulles. Both answered questions during the two-hour chat from other club members about their jobs and shared what it is like to be in that part of the aviation system. The club has several CFIs as members and a few Designated Pilot Examiners, so Smokehouse held three “Ask a CFI” webinars where members could participate in a Q&A. They have been interesting exchanges where less experienced pilots could ask questions on study techniques, what a DPE is looking for, and how to best prepare for a check ride.
What the Smokehouse Pilots Club has done is create a global community of aviators and aviation enthusiasts through the power of social media. By using Facebook it has effectively promoted its monthly fly outs and in-person speak outs, while keeping members engaged through active and intentional posts and comments on its social media page.
Using Facebook as its foundation to reach members has positioned the club well for the new social distancing reality the world is facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through technology and social media, the Smokehouse Pilots Club is providing an outlet for members to stay connected, stay engaged, and share aviation knowledge and experiences. It’s proven popular and successful, and is a model other clubs may want to explore for themselves.