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Finding your peeps

Type clubs bring pilots together

After I landed at Clinton Municipal Airport (CWI) in Iowa in the summer of 2007, volunteers marshalled me past a long row of Cessnas and guided me into a parking spot on the grass between two of the runways.
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield

Before I had even exited my Cessna Aerobat, Wilbur, I was greeted with “Welcome to Cessna, Iowa!” from at least half a dozen pilots who were ready to help. “If you hand me your tow bar, we’ll push you back just a bit.” I sheepishly reported that I hadn’t packed a tow bar. “No problem—we’ll get one! Hand us your tiedown ropes and we’ll get Wilbur secured.” My guilty look sent them running for a loaner set that they kept on hand for people like me. I’m sure these folks already knew the answer when they asked if I had preregistered for the annual Cessna 150-152 Fly-In, but they graciously led me toward those who could set me up anyway. It turns out that buying an airplane provides admission to a community of those who own and have an affection for the same type. The kind folks I met that day I count as some of my dearest friends today.

As soon as I purchased my Cessna Aerobat, I joined the Cessna 150-152 Club to avail myself of their expertise as I learned my new airplane. This was my first experience with an aircraft type club, and I’ve witnessed over the years that such generosity is surprisingly common. And the benefits of membership go well beyond help for a slacker pilot who shows up completely unprepared to her first fly-in. Besides camaraderie and fun, these clubs serve as an ever-growing repository of information on the aircraft type and promote best practices for flying safety.

The Cessna 150-152 Fly-In, what the club calls the “Confab in the Corn,” features three full days of educational seminars on wide-ranging topics. When I attended, one expert A&P mechanic used a member’s airplane to highlight anomalies to watch for in a preflight inspection. Spot landing, Nerf drop, and scavenger hunt contests run throughout the event each year, which mean aircraft rarely stayed parked. While these contests are fun, each encourages flying precision and proficiency. The Confab finishes with a banquet dinner, awards ceremony, and videos that promote camaraderie and opportunities for practical jokes. For future aviators, they even offer the Wayne Westerman flight training scholarship that honors a devoted member who recently passed away. The Cessna 150-152 Club deftly combines education, proficiency, generosity and just plain fun.

Having experienced the amazing benefits that type clubs offer, I joined the American Bonanza Society (ABS) well before purchasing Niky, my E33C Acrobatic Bonanza. Like the Cessna 150-152 website (cessna150152club.org), the ABS website (bonanza.org) has information on all models of Bonanzas from the 1940s through the present so that prospective owners can make an informed decision on the best platform for the mission.

Within two months of ownership, I enrolled Niky in an ABS Service Clinic at which several technical advisors, led by Beechcraft expert Bob Ripley, inspected the airplane. I came away with a prioritized list of maintenance items that I should address to ensure I’d be flying my airplane safely for years to come.

Each month, the American Bonanza Society offers a webinar with wide-ranging topics, such as tips for IFR flying, modifications that increase aircraft value, and understanding the Beechcraft fuel systems. One that caught my attention featured their new Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Program (BPPP) Best course that qualifies for an FAA flight review. As my own due date approached, I logged on to the website to learn more. I’m a big fan of continuing education so the traditional hour of ground and hour of flight just seems inadequate. I decided to give the BPPP Best course a try.

The online portion consists of 25 videos that average about 13 minutes each and is included with ABS membership. Each video covers a single topic such as the electrical system, manual landing gear extensions, mixture theory, engine management during flight, and weight and balance considerations. The lessons are interesting and followed by a quiz that kept me honest. Because the videos were short, I could complete them when I had time and not suffer if several days elapsed between sessions. After earning my completion certificate for the ground information, I paid a reasonable fee to schedule the flight portion with a BPPP instructor, of which the ABS site lists more than 100 around the country.

I chose Travis “Buz” Witherington, who flies from the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (DKX) in Tennessee, and flew there to meet him on a beautiful morning last fall. Witherington began by reviewing the BPPP flight profiles I would fly and answered the many questions I had assembled on leaning techniques, emergency procedures, and manual gear extension. The ground session alone with this Beechcraft expert was worth the price of admission.

The maneuvers I performed were essentially those in a typical flight review: steep turns, slow flight, stalls, and various takeoffs and landings. But the BPPP syllabus goes beyond to include items important for Beechcraft pilots. Bonanzas are equipped with an electrically driven gear motor that is used to both extend and retract the landing gear. If that motor fails, the pilot must extend the gear using a manual crank located at the base of and behind the co-pilot’s seat. What’s more, the crank arm is only a couple of inches long so rotating it 50 times to extend the gear is tough. (There is a reason why doorknobs aren’t installed right next to the hinge—the force needed to open a door would be profound!) For Beechcraft pilots, extending the gear manually is a rite of passage that I finally achieved on our flight. Witherington coached me to use the autopilot to maintain a safe altitude and I chose an airspeed that provided a healthy buffer above a stall but not so fast as to increase my workload with the handcrank. I slid my seat all the way back and his seat forward to make the awkward reach a bit less so. Each 10 turns, I paused to increase the manifold pressure to keep constant airspeed that continually decayed from the added drag of partially extended gear. After about 50 turns of the crank, the green gear light illuminated, and we celebrated with a high-five.

During our ground session we discussed techniques for an emergency descent. A fire is one of the scenarios that might necessitate such a maneuver and I understood that high airspeed can be helpful to extinguish the fire but Witherington emphasized that some fires can’t be extinguished that way. The technique he advocates: lower approach flaps, extend the landing gear, flatten the propeller pitch, and commence a 60-degree banked spiraling turn toward the ground at 120 knots while looking for a suitable landing site. This result was an ear-popping descent rate of about 5,000 feet per minute. In case of a fire, every second counts so practicing this with a knowledgeable instructor is valuable.

At the end of this flight, I earned a completion certificate in the BPPP Best course as well as an endorsement for a flight review. After a wonderful lunch with Witherington’s friend and fellow flight instructor Scott Peters, the three of us hopped back in Niky. Witherington, along with expert advice from Peters, helped me extend my instrument currency with an instrument proficiency check. By arranging for additional instruction ahead of time, the BPPP program can assist with an instrument proficiency check as well. That day I extended my flight currency and proficiency and made two new friends to boot.

These anecdotes highlight just a few of the benefits of aircraft type club membership. The Type Club Coalition encourages owners to band together to promote safety in general aviation. The TCC website (eaa.org/eaa/aviation-interests/type-club-coalition) lists more than 30 type clubs. If you don’t see an organization for your airplane, the site offers a webinar on tips for starting one. Doing so will not only up your ownership and flying game but you’re guaranteed to expand your circle of friends.


Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor (aceaerobaticschool.com) and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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