Some flying clubs look to expand their membership in good times, then end up downsizing again during a financial squeeze. For one club in Reedley, California, right-sizing has been the answer for 50 years of affordable flying fun.
For the Bell Sky Pilot, the magic number seems to be four—but "five works fine" too, said Don Enns, who joined the club in 1970, and whose father, John Enns was a founder. The flying club is based at Reedley Municipal Airport, located just southeast of Fresno’s Class C airspace.
The club’s 1971 Cessna 172, one of several successor aircraft to the Bell Sky Pilots’ original acquisition, a 1952 Cessna 170B, flies approximately 80 hours a year, mainly above California’s Central Valley.
Enns points out with evident pride that the valley—which is prone to persistent ground fog this time of year—is known as "the fruit basket of the nation," and it also makes an ideal environment for general aviation flying. Take off and take in the view eastward, toward mountains that include Mount Whitney, the 14,500-foot peak that is the highest in the contiguous states. Or head west toward a favorite destination, Oceano County Airport, and "be on the beach on the Pacific in little over an hour," Enns said in a phone interview.
For the privilege of sharing this brand of general aviation fun, the Bell Sky Pilots pay a wet rate of $60 per hour (tach time) and $80 a month in dues; that seems to comfortably cover the fixed expenses of the club’s 1971 L-model Skyhawk that has been upgraded to a new combination of a 160-horsepower Lycoming engine and higher-pitched propeller.
The upgrade added a lot of pep to the old airplane, Enns said.
"It really takes off and climbs well, even with four people and full tanks now," he said.
Reedley Municipal is a "wonderful airport" situated in a college town of about 25,000 residents, Enns said. Aviation has a strong presence in the community: One of the offerings at Reedley College is an aviation maintenance technology program.
The energy and enthusiasm Enns projects while talking about the airplane and the flying club entirely deflects a realization that the retired elementary school teacher, whose classroom sat near the end of Reedley’s 3,300-foot runway, is a soon-to-be 83-year-old aviator who has been a Bell Sky Pilot for almost 45 years. Enns was also the co-owner of a Van’s RV-6A until about two years ago.
As for the flying club’s name: Bell Sky Pilots has nothing to do with a well-known helicopter manufacturer, or any other obvious namesake. However, if you happened to note that "Bell" has the same number of letters as the number of club members this flying organization considers ideal, you would be on to something.
As a local newspaper reported when covering the group’s fiftieth anniversary, the name was derived from the first letters of the last names of the four founding pilots—and what worked for four men named Boldt, Enns, Lepp, and Loewen still keeps pilots flying from Reedley today.
"It was cheaper to pool our reserves and share an airplane," Loewen, the last living founder, explained to the Reedley Exponent.