Wheeling, Ill.-based Leading Edge Flying Club was born after a local flight school refused to see the benefits of local pilots trying to create a group.
In mid-2006, seven pilots were renting aircraft from a local flight school at Chicago Executive Airport (PWK), recalled president Marc Epner. “The owner wasn't into the social aspects of flying, which we wanted. Even though he had a beautiful technically advanced aircraft fleet, his rates seemed high to us,” he said. “We presented him the idea of starting a club, which included monthly dues, a social component, and a reduction in rates.”
The model showed a net gain to his business, said Epner. “He told us there is no way people would pay $35 per month just to fly his planes. After multiple presentations to him, the seven of us decided to go off on our own,” he said. “While we considered other airports, PWK was the most convenient and offered an exciting and active environment. We decided to stay at PWK and potentially start satellite operations if the conditions warranted it.”
When it came time to choose an aircraft for the fleet, the club's search took them to Waukegan Regional Airport, where a club there had older Cessnas and a brand new glass-panel Piper Archer. “The Archer was not flying enough for the owner, so we contacted him and presented him with the option of bringing the plane to PWK and having the seven of us fly his plane as a club,” he said. “He jumped at the opportunity. Others found out about it and started to seek us out. Our tag line, ‘Great Planes; Great People’ became the philosophy of how we would grow.”
As members have joined, some have asked to buy an airplane and put it in the club, said Epner. “The owners see it as a way to help the club and cut their cost of flying. We have a Cirrus SR22 and a Piper Dakota. While the Dakota is a 1979, it has a new interior, new paint, new engine, new prop, and a Garmin 650,” he said. “The owner will probably upgrade to glass at some point in the future. We also just added a Sky Arrow (built in Italy), which is our fun, ‘around town’ plane. The membership loves it.”
All of the club’s membership of 75 is based on word of mouth. “Our reputation is for having energy, passion, fun, great airplanes that are kept looking like new and a great membership family,” said Epner. “We have monthly breakfasts that attract about 40 people, who enjoy a free meal and lots of great aviation discussion. We have fly-outs and we encourage members to fly with other members and split the costs.”
The club actually has members that own their own airplanes, but joined for the community aspect. “As a result, we bring a bigger fleet to the FBO, who in turn gives us a discount on hangar and fuel. We pass that through to the owners, so they get a double benefit,” said Epner. “We have members that have no intention of flying, but love aviation and what we bring to the field. We don't employ CFIs, but we have member CFIs who are totally committed to their students, which adds to the allure.”
Members include Boeing 777 captains, designated pilot examiners, CEOs, and average Joes and Janes, said Epner. “We also encourage our members to bring their friends and family to events. It creates good will and future members,” he said.
The use of social media has become an important communications tool for the club. “It's how so many people communicate, so, we've just started to put an emphasis on our Facebook page. Another opportunity that came to light is sparkreel.com, a new place to store community-based video. One of our members created an aviation community, which has resulted in other members becoming active in posting video of their flights,” he said. “It has shown me the opportunity social media provides us to scratch all the itches our members want. We're excited to extend our reach using social media.”
Building a successful organization is about the right mindset, said Epner. “Remember that just like a business, you have to deliver value to your stakeholders. We're all volunteers, but we all want the same thing from the club,” he stated. “As a board, you have to deliver it. We think about the value that is delivered to the membership, the airport, the FBO, the CFIs, the owners, and the industry.”
The club can also deliver value to people not currently part of the airport community, said Epner. “We understand that our job is to make the pie bigger, not just our slice. If you have this mindset, it's amazing what can happen. Your reputation for delivering value will precede you,” he stated. “It's not about keeping a secret. And it's not about stealing other club's or flight school's customers. Some of our members fly with other organizations, and they have customers that fly with us. It's ok. We're here to have fun, not build a giant organization. With the right mindset and activity, the membership takes care of itself.”