What’s the secret to keeping a flying club airborne a long, long time? A group of pilots has been upholding a longstanding tradition of flying for fun in the heart of West Virginia coal country, and they evidently have some answers.
The New River Flying Club celebrated a golden anniversary this year. That prompted Gary Patterson, the club’s current president, to offer his thoughts on how the organization he has come to lead after completing his bucket-list project of becoming a pilot has stayed with it for so long.
Fifty years along, the New River Flying Club seems to have plenty going for it: an enthusiastic base of 15 members; a good rate to fly the club’s Cessna 172; rules flexible enough to go places and do things in the airplane; a scenic home base at the Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beckley, West Virginia; and world-class aerial sightseeing pretty much on the doorstep.
The flying club takes its name from a particularly scenic spot, the New River Gorge, site of the New River Gorge Bridge, a National Park Service entry in the National Register of Historic Places, and for any numismatist pilots out there, the image that graces a commemorative quarter released by the U.S. Mint in 2006.
The New River Flying Club’s 1980 Cessna 172N is the sixth aircraft the club has owned in the organization’s lifetime. Other makes and models have made appearances, but the club always returned to Skyhawks for their ease of flying and reasonable utility.
Add to that a “phenomenal” $75-per-hour rate to fly—with a member’s first flight of the month covered by the $75-per-month dues, Patterson adds—and the flying club seems to have achieved a formula that needs no tweaking.
Of the 15 club members, 11 are considered regular, or flying members, with three more participating at discounted rates as associates, and one afforded honorary status.
Jody Clowers, 77, is the club’s high-time pilot, with 3,000 flight hours. Other members have a range of experience down to about 75 hours.
The membership, an all-male crew at the moment, ranges in age from 36 to Homer Smith’s 81 years. Smith, who learned to fly in 1956 in Lewisburg, West Virginia, joined the club in 1969, two years after it was formed. He remains a flying member.
The membership includes a dentist, an engineer, a veterinarian, government workers, business owners, construction tradesmen, and retirees.
“The one common theme is a love of aviation,” Patterson said.
Club history credits Dr. Joe Jarrett and his wife Astri, of Oak Hill, West Virginia, with being “key drivers” of the effort to get the organization up and running, which occurred on Jan. 28, 1967.
“The only requirement for membership was that the prospective member be interested in promoting private aviation,” Patterson said.
A Flying Clubs initiative is a key component of AOPA’s You Can Fly, an umbrella program that pursues targeted approaches to getting general aviation pilots back in the air and building the pilot community. For pilots interested in learning about flying clubs in their area, finding one to join, or even starting a new flying club, AOPA has resources that can start them on their journey and guide them through to its completion.
Look no further than the club’s current president for an example of how a flying club can help someone live the dream.
Like many pilots, Patterson soloed on his birthday—except in his case it was his fifty-eighth rather than the traditional sixteenth as is permitted for powered aircraft.
The following year he earned his private pilot certificate at Albatross Air (slogan: “General aviation for specific needs”). Shortly thereafter, the semi-retired coal industry careerist who was educated as a mining engineer joined the flying club.
He has been making use of his reliable access to an airplane to build his experience flying from the 2,503-feet-msl airport in the undulating Appalachian terrain where the winds can be tricky.
“They taught me to pay attention to the weather,” he said.
New club members pay an initiation fee, dues, and the rental rate on the IFR-equipped Skyhawk when they fly.
There’s a checkout to be flown when you come aboard, but after that, basic FAA recency-of-experience and other applicable regulations apply to piloting the aircraft, Patterson said.
Scheduling is flexible enough to allow members to take the aircraft on the occasional extended outing, with some advance notice keeping it convenient for everyone.
These days the club is studying alternatives for adding Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment before Jan. 1, 2020, when an installation will be mandatory for flight in airspace where a transponder is now required.
The club is “very aware” of the issue, Patterson said, and once it has made its move it will apply for the $500 rebate the FAA is offering early movers on the ADS-B front—another way to keep flying affordable.
At an early March club meeting, a strong majority of the club was in attendance—a good chance to take a group photo in front of the club airplane.
Patterson is grateful to the folks who trained him for making him aware that the airport community included a flying club that could keep him in the cockpit and connect him with peers.
He says the club will be finding opportunities to reach out to the greater community with a simple message: “It’s a reasonable way to get in the air.”