The Litchfield Hills Aero Club, based in Bethlehem, Conn., was created in the spring of 2013 after balloonist and club President Mick Murphy was looking for an economical way to do more ballooning. He also wanted to get more people involved in ballooning at the club’s Whelan Farms Airport.
The need is based on trying to grow the sport, said Murphy. “Whether learning to pilot the balloons or to participate in the social aspect of the sport, we need more people getting involved in [general aviation],” he said. “Ballooning offers the opportunity like no other aviation activity because your friends and family can join in the learning, camaraderie, and support the flight operations. It’s a real social activity that is fun for all ages.”
Litchfield Hills currently has six members, said Murphy. “We’re finding it harder than expected to get more members. It must be the [club’s] early morning hours,” he said.
The club was created as an LLC to make it more viable, said Murphy. “It’s a nonprofit flying club that each member owns an equity share of the organization,” he said.
The club’s fleet is currently made up of one two-place hot air balloon for training. “We started with hot air because most of the founding members have [lighter-than-air] ratings with flight instructing privileges,” said Murphy. “The long-term goal is to add a gas balloon to attract other certificated hot air balloon pilots to join the flying club and learn something new to remove the restriction and limitations.”
Murphy said it has always been his dream to fly in a gas balloon. “And the club approach is the perfect way for more people to get involved in gas ballooning,” he said. “It’s always exciting to learn something new and challenging! In addition we are developing plans to add a two-place hot air airship to the club.”
The club has a simple and affordable fee structure, said Murphy. “The flying membership is $2,000, with a nominal $60 per month maintenance fee. The fee covers insurance, use of the airport facilities, and a small amount is applied for replacement costs,” he said. “In an effort to attract those interested in learning to fly, it includes 10 hours of flight instruction with the membership.”
The social membership is a basic membership for those who do not wish to fly the club balloon, said Murphy. “The social membership is for those who don’t currently want to pilot, or learn to pilot, the club balloon but who want to participate in the camaraderie found within the club and ballooning,” he said. “Each member receives a copy of our monthly newsletter, the Q-Vent, which is full of news, stories, and details of ballooning events around the country and abroad.”
As for the cost of learning to fly a balloon, the first 10 hours of instruction are included in the initial investment, said Murphy. “After that, the cost is $150 per hour of flight instruction with the club balloon and club instructors,” he said. “We offer free ground instruction to all members with the exception of the two-day ground school,” which costs $385.
The club currently has four instructors and two students who have soloed; one has passed his private pilot written test and the other is scheduled to take it soon, said Murphy. Receiving balloon certification depends on the student’s availability and preparedness to learn to fly. “But I would say on average m it takes around 25 to 30 hours of flying time for a private pilot to have the proper experience and confidence,” he said.
Social media, local newspapers, and an announcement in the Atlantic Flyer are among the ways Litchfield Hills has put the word out to potential members, said Murphy. “We have listed the club on the Internet sites for flying clubs, including AOPA, and we have received several inquiries from the AOPA Club Finder, but have not converted any to new members,” he said. “We have received some push back from other online sites wishing us luck and advising us they won’t list our club because it’s not a fixed-wing flying club. Ballooning is still the oldest form of aviation yet still requires a fair amount of education and outreach.”
Club members have done presentations before church groups, the Young Eagles, and Civil Air Patrol wings with an offer—if they come out six times to support flight operations, they will receive a free ride or one hour of flight instruction, said Murphy.
For those interested in starting their own balloon club, Murphy advises joining the Balloon Federation of America and meeting local balloonists. “If you are already involved in aviation and thinking about starting a flying club, use the AOPA Club Finder and then go meet with the flying club,” he said. “They will be more than helpful to explain the pros and cons of the different types of clubs and you may just join the club you are visiting. We all need to get out and promote aviation, safe flying, and joining or establishing a flying club is the most cost effective way to enjoy aviation.”