Aside from writing your club’s mission statement, choosing the aircraft you hope to operate may be the most important decision your club makes in its first years of operation. If your flying club is to be truly successful, the aircraft has to fit and support that mission statement and the real-life goals of the club.
Fortunately, it really isn’t all that difficult to choose an aircraft, find a good one, lease or buy it, and get underway as an operational flying club. Literally hundreds of flying clubs have paved the way for you. There are, however, some important considerations to keep in mind.
There is nothing regulatory that prevents your club from starting up with a twin-engine aircraft, or a seaplane, or a classic biplane that makes everyone’s heart flutter with joy when they walk into the hangar. Practical considerations, however, suggest those would all be poor choices for a club’s first aircraft. The expense of acquiring, maintaining, and operating them tend to outstrip the ability of most clubs to meet their financial obligations, at least in the formative years. More importantly, perhaps, the certifications, currency requirements, and basic skills necessary to operate those aircraft will leave you with a smaller pool of potential club members.
The most inexpensive, efficient, and practical aircraft for most flying clubs to start with is a well-maintained, previously owned, single- engine, fixed tricycle-gear plane. These aircraft satisfy most of the needs of the average start-up club, whether they are intended to be used to fly around the farm, as advanced trainers, as affordable flyers, or cross-country travelers. They provide comfortable and predictable flying qualities for a broad segment of pilots of all experience levels. They also enjoy a robust availability of parts and upgrades, including a long list of Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs), should your club decide to upgrade the aircraft. And they offer all that utility on a budget.
Choosing a proven aircraft that’s truly affordable, insurable, and maintainable for your fledgling flying club will give you a huge leg-up on the process of becoming fully operational and sustainable.
Once you’ve chosen the general type of aircraft you’re looking for, your club will need to decide if it wants to lease or purchase it. Either way, you may be surprised to find that locating a suitable candidate may be easier than you thought. The process does, however, require a bit of effort.
Unless you’re in a particularly out of the way location, there may be good aircraft available to you right on your home field. The key to finding them is to market your club and make your search known by your fellow pilots and aircraft owners.
Often, the FBO or airport administration will be willing to send a notice out with the monthly hangar rent bills or put a blurb in the airport newsletter that your club is looking for an aircraft. Somewhere in one of those hangars may be the airplane you’re looking for. All you need to do is let the owner know you’re interested and be prepared to negotiate terms.
The Titusville Flying Club in Titusville, Florida was unable to find available hangar space to store the aircraft they were hoping to purchase. By interacting with pilots and aircraft owners on the field and sharing their concern, they found two owners based on their home field who were willing to lease their airplanes to the club. Problem solved. The club now leases those two airplanes and utilizes the hangars they were already stored in.
Whether you intend to lease or buy, if your club has a Facebook page, or uses social media of some form, that’s a great way to inexpensively spread the word that you’re looking for an airplane for your club. There are a number of very good online services that may help you locate an airplane near home, or across the country—here a few to get you started.
AOPA also has an online marketplace, where members advertise airplanes for sale, and people look for co-owners. https://hangar.aopa.org/marketplace
After you find the airplane that you believe to be a good fit for your club, there are a few steps you will want to take to be sure it really is the airplane you want to operate. These are important steps, and while they do require a small investment on your part, they can save your club a substantial amount of heartache and money if you undertake them for your own protection.
Even if you’re intending to lease the airplane, it is worth knowing the condition of the aircraft. It is not unheard of for an aircraft with a pretty paint scheme and a beautiful interior to have serious flaws under the skin. Some of those flaws can be quite expensive to correct. So, get a pre-buy inspection using a mechanic of your choosing, not of the seller’s or lessor’s. This inspection is for your benefit, not theirs.
Keep in mind while you search, you’re not just looking for an airplane. You’re looking for an airplane with the specific bells and whistles that are important to you. How your club is going to use the aircraft may help decide what you want. Will it be used for training and local flying where high-end avionics may not be necessary, or will it be used for cross-country travel where a GPS with real-time weather would provide a benefit?
When shopping for an airplane, it is worth knowing which features are truly important to you, and which issues are not of significant concern. Faded paint may be less than attractive, but it may be a well maintained, perfectly serviceable airplane that would fit nicely into the club you’re building. On the other hand, you may find a gorgeous looking airplane that will cost you $40,000 in engine and avionics upgrades over the next 18 months.
If your club includes a highly experienced A&P mechanic who loves nothing more than being elbow deep in the engine compartment, then a high time engine may not be a detrimental issue for you. Then again, if you’re going to have to pay the market rate for all your maintenance needs, a high time engine may be a deal breaker.
Similarly, if you find a great airplane that has not complied with the ADS-B requirements, and has radios designed by Marconi himself, you can be fairly confident your club will need to perform upgrades that cost several thousand dollars in the near future.
If the cost of an engine overhaul or an avionics upgrade are reflected in a deeply reduced purchase price, then an airplane with a high time engine and ancient avionics might still be a good buy. Yet you would be wise to remember that upgrades of major components like these can easily cost more than the purchase price of the aircraft itself. So be wary and be well informed about the specifics of the exact airplane you’re looking at buying.
The savings realized by an inexpensive purchase can often be wiped out by the excessively high cost of repairs or upgrades. Knowing what you want in an airplane, and getting a good pre-buy inspection from a reputable mechanic is the best insurance your club can have against large, unexpected costs and frustrating downtime.
Everything is negotiable. Everything. Whether leasing or buying, you are not locked into any price or terms until you sign the necessary documents. Be willing to negotiate in good faith, and you will enhance your chances of getting the aircraft you want, at a price you can feel good about.
When negotiating the purchase price of an aircraft, be vigilant as to the actual condition of the aircraft, inside and out. Do not become emotionally involved with the look of the aircraft, or its history.
Review the aircraft logs in detail to see how frequently the aircraft has been flown, and how well it has been maintained. Make sure all Airworthiness Directives (ADs) have been complied with and that all systems are functioning properly. Look over the interior and sit in the aircraft. Ask yourself if you’re truly happy with the condition of the interior, as well as the look of it. If possible, fly it to see if it tracks straight in the air or has any unusual qualities that might not be evident on the ground. Anything you will have to, or want to, repair or replace after the purchase will add to the overall cost.
Do your best to be aware of those potential costs and, should you choose to make an offer, figure those costs into your offer price.
When negotiating a lease for a flying club aircraft, we recommend that the lease is for a period of no less than 12 months, and that it is exclusive to the club. That is, the club should enjoy “owner-like” access to the aircraft, and the owner can’t just decide to let friends rent the airplane outside of the operations of the club. This should also extend to the owner’s use of the aircraft, in that they can only fly it as a paid-up member of the club and that they abide by the same operational rules as other members, including payment of the same fees, dues, and aircraft use fees.
Virtually everything else you can think of is negotiable. The club can take on the cost of doing scheduled maintenance or leave that responsibility with the owner. The owner can require the airplane to be hangared or might agree to a tie-down, in order for the club to reduce their overall cost.
Typically, the owner will lease the aircraft to the club in exchange for a specified dollar amount per hour of operation. Some owners may also require a minimum number of hours to be flown per month, or per year. Others will set no minimum.
Again, be willing to negotiate everything. When the club and the owner come to terms on price, where the aircraft will be stored, how much insurance the club will carry, how the airplane will be operated, and who will be responsible for maintenance, you will be able to sign off on a lease that both the owner and the club are comfortable with.
If purchasing an aircraft is appealing to you, but the workload of searching for good aircraft, evaluating their condition, and negotiating a selling price feels daunting, there is hope. Aircraft brokers offer services that will limit your time investment to little more than letting them know what you’re hoping to purchase, setting a target or maximum price, and waiting for a phone call or e-mail to let you know they’ve found options for you.
Brokers may charge a flat fee for their services, or a percentage of the purchase price. In either case, they will take much of the work out of the process for you, and only present you with aircraft for consideration that truly meet your criteria.
Next Section: Running Your Club