The Great Debate: are flying clubs the answer?

In an industry that is battered by a variety of negative forces (fuel prices, regulation and demographics to name a few), almost everyone is looking for a solution. While some ideas look fairly hopeless, one concept that has caught on lately seems more realistic: flying clubs. AOPA in particular has been touting the advantages of clubs, and has plans to create a nationwide network of them.

flying club sign
Can flying clubs save general aviation?

The arguments in favor of flying clubs are appealing. Proponents say that, by pooling resources, clubs can reduce the cost of flying for student pilots and experienced flyers alike. Beyond this financial advantage, there is some research to suggest that flying clubs create a sense of community and camaraderie that is essential to keeping pilots engaged in aviation. With a built-in support network, regular social events and opportunities to share the passion for flying, a club can offer something that even the best FBO simply can’t match.

But it’s not that easy, say the skeptics. Not all flying clubs are good ones, so starting a club isn’t enough–they have to be effective. And there are many obstacles to having an effective club, from financing to insurance to maintenance. A good club also demands outstanding leadership, which isn’t easy to get. Some FBOs and flight schools don’t like flying clubs either, viewing them as a non-profit competitor.

What do you think? Are flying clubs an effective way to grow the pilot population and keep pilots active? Or are they just another well-intentioned idea that is destined to fail. Add your comment below.

47 Comments

  • I decided to join flying club this year. there are many reasons I can point to why:
    1-Cost: I did my initial calculation and figured out that if i fly more than 2.8 hours every month, then it makes financial sense to fly with club planes. Clubs are based on tach time, FBOs charge me based on Hub time.
    2-More planes to experiment: the club has more than 8 planes, in 4 types, starting with 152, 172, 182RG, piper archer and cirrus. I’m hoping to be able to learn and get my type ratings in all of those
    3-Learning opportunity: since there are many pilots in club and most of them fly for fun, I think I can hookup with more pilots and fly with them. that will give the opportunity to learn from them and spend more hanger time too.

    • What kind of formula did you use to figure this out? I’m in the same boat in that it is a substantial upfront cost to buy an equity share in a club I’m looking at and about $30 anhour in savings versus renting.

    • @Todd – You don’t get ‘type ratings’ (as per FAA nomenclature) in a 172, 182RG, Cirri, etc. You might get a ‘checkout’ for insurance/club liability reasons but you already have a ‘category’ and ‘class’ certificate…. Sorry for the nitpick but let’s get the terminology right!

      I have been in a couple of groups and I have mostly positive things to say, costs are lower, you get to meet and fly with some great people, we have regular safety briefings. I think we maintain the planes to a higher standard, they are generally better equipped, certainly more presentable and I get to choose the plane and group as opposed to taking what the FBO has on the line.

      The downsides are you still don’t own the plane which means that the plane(s) may not meet your flying profile. Even with a number of planes in our current club, not one of them has a working autopilot for instance. I personally believe single pilot IFR in IMC needs a working autopilot. Others in the group are more ‘old school’ real pilots don’t need an A/P types.

      This brings me to the second negative, the group can and usually is dominated by one or two players who have a disproportionate say over the governance of the the group.

      Thirdly, the group only works well if all the members participate. The last 2 groups i have been in had <50% of the members regularly fly the plane, show up at meetings or vote on issues.

      Lastly, I do not view group membership being significantly cheaper than renting from the FBO. What I do see is you typically get improved access to the plane(s) i.e. scheduling is easier, the plane(s) themselves are better equipped and you get to fly models that are not commonly available at the FBO, such as a 182RG or Bonanza, for instance.

  • One of the biggest driving forces for any industry is the communities, small and large, that support it. Yes, flying clubs are the types of small communities that can help the aviation industry grow, but execution is the common thread that helps or hinders its success. Strong leadership, an online presence with engaging content, and active community involvement are all necessary to promote the growth the AOPA is looking for. It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of national network the AOPA creates to foster these flying clubs.

    • It’s pretty simple – if all you ever wanted to fly was a 152, 172 or archer this would be a great idea. If you desire to fly something retract, HP, faster or with more load-hauling capability then you need to look beyond the normal FBO. The FBO is setup mainly for training and their fleet reflects this. I have 100’s of hours in 172’s and whilst it has wings, I can’t say I get too excited about getting in one!

  • Bill – My belief is that the Flying Club is successful because in most cases they are not-for-profit and therefore have what I would call more pure goals. Flying Clubs main goal is to get people flying and keep them flying. Whereas FBOs are looking to post a profit.

    As a result many FBOs cut corners that end up providing a less impressive offering to a student or a renter. A few weeks ago a new student walked into our club (Leading Edge Flying Club @ KPWK) to talk about learning to fly. Six hours later he walked out after having lunch with several members and getting his first flight in a GA aircraft (at no cost to him). The next day he signed up for flight training and is working on his ticket.

    Had he gone to a flight school or FBO I think he likely would have been given a flyer and asked to book an intro flight with a less than enthusiastic instructor and may or may not have pursued his dream. A for profit business often can’t justify the time to work with the student the way a flying club can.

    As you can tell though, I am biased!

  • Sometimes clubs are the only way to go. Take gliders for example. Ignoring the value of the great camaraderie that is nearly universal in glider clubs for the moment, consider the following. Unless you have a very expensive motorglider that can self launch, you need the infrastructure of a club to provide for tows, instruction, flight reviews, etc. A club distributes the costs of a tow plane, maintenance, aircraft acquisition, and facilities to make one of the most inexpensive ways to fly even more affordable. The glider pilots have had it figured out for a long time. Giving up a very small amount of freedom as an independent operator for a very significant improvement in value will keep more pilots in the air.

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for hitting on a point I missed. Adding value is key in creating engaging communities, not just in the aviation sector. Whether it’s monetary or intangible value, there has to be something a member can receive that they view has value. Great thinking on the glider part!

  • Flying clubs absolutely make sense.

    First, they’re a great way to ‘own’ a number of airplanes without the exorbitant expense of single-party airplane ownership or the pitfalls of partnerships.

    They also provide that essential sense of community. As a rental pilot I often feel like a stranger at the FBO, which is no fun since I give them a lot of money. Clubs make flying more social and therefore a lot more fun.

    Whether they’ll save the industry or not remains to be seen, but I think on their own merits flying clubs are a great thing. It’s nice to see AOPA putting some emphasis the idea.

  • I’ve seen two very different models of Flying club in my travels. One is the type i see more int he states which looks more like a VERY large partnership on perhaps more than 1 plane. With buyins and shares and so on.

    The Canadian lLying club model is closer to a Non profit FBO offering rentals and flight training as well as tie downs fuel and maintenance. Many of them have been operating continuously since 1928 as well in Canada. (The Government started encouraging the opening of flying clubs in that year and several as a result count that as their founding year)

    This Model offers access to the air for Under $200 a year assuming you are licensed and have a current medical and will have hundreds of members sharing a small fleet.

    I think the AOPA initiative may want to look at some of the Canadian flying Clubs as an example for the larger type of organizations

  • To Bill B’s comment, the FBO and the flying club used to work together. In the 80’s I ran the Beech Aero Club for Chicago Beechcraft at KDPA. Everyone loved it.

    We only ran into trouble when the family that owned the FBO decided there didn’t seem to be much return for them. But then, the way they measured success was by how many airplanes they sold.

    I’m also an instructor at the Leading Edge Flying Club at KPWK with Todd and I can attest to the fact that they do quite a bit right.

    Many people forget just how important it is to make a new person feel not only welcome, but that they really do have a good chance of earning the license they think they came for in the first place. The schmoozing Todd mentioned goes a long way toward that goal.

    We also supplement member interest each month with a breakfast where half the club seems to appear just to shoot the breeze about flying. And we even buy the breakfast.

  • Flying clubs may be the answer, but they need to offer something more than FBOs. I talked to my wife’s uncle, who is a CFI (but who unfortunately lives too far away from me to give me lessons) about tips for saving money on training and he mentioned flying clubs. Unfortunately, all the flying clubs around where I live cost the same or more than the FBOs and don’t seem to offer anything over them that I can determine. Now, if they were cheaper than the FBOs or had some other benefits, I could see myself using them, but there appears to be no advantage to them here.

    • Great point Lou. I can’t imagine how a flying club that’s no better than the traditional flying school can draw anyone in. Unless someone really wanted to fly a specific airplane, I can’t imagine why anyone would join and pay dues.

      • Well, this particular club does have a few nicer planes, such as an SR-22, but their basic trainers cost the same to rent as the regular flying schools. I suppose one could get their primary training at a regular school and then join the club just to fly the SR-22, but otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.

        • Don´t forget that clubs usually charge by Tach Time (depending on the RPM of the engine)and FBOs charge by Hobbs Time (2 diffrent types a.) as soon as you switch on the Master or b. counts as soon as the engine is running).
          1 hour Tach Time equals between 1.2 to 1.4 depending ob your profil … but as a student pilot you spend enough time on the tarmac with the engine idelling.

          On top Club CFIs usually charge less …and the Insurance covers more with less retention

  • I started and ran a medium size (100+ members) club when I was in college. It was a lot of fun with a wide variety of planes, comradarie and very inexpensive. I probably flew more per year at that point, on a college student budget, than I have since when owning my own planes. So what is the downside? In order to make it work, inexpensively, somebody has to donate a lot of time and that includes mechanics and instructors. When I was in college I could do that; it’s tougher when you have to work for a living. FBO’s are not getting rich renting out airplanes; it costs money to organize, clean and maintain airplanes. In a club if somebody doesn’t take the bull by the horns and just do it, it doesn’t get done. Some larger clubs are run more like FBO’s with paid help; I don’t see the advantage other than maybe some impersonal social gatherings made in an attempt to make it seem like a club.

  • Probably the perfect solution would be “super wealthy and no need to share!” You could buy anything you wanted and fly anywhere on a whim. But eventually you *would* miss the camaraderie! Sharing experiences and stories (and flying together accumulating adventures) is the real heart of aviation and “the secret sauce” of flying clubs. Also IMHO…If FBOs really “wanted to make money” they would have chosen a different business 🙂 There are usually great people here too, just the fun is harder to find.

  • It takes time and money to organize a business succesfully. Home owners assocations, not for profit organizations or flying clubs. The concept that profit is bad is ludicrous, profit makes organizations stay in business and invest on new equipment, offices, club facilities, rainy day things. Flying clubs need a good and generous group of individuals to manage and maintain aircraft, equipment and facilities, collect fees and financially control the entity. It takes money to cover direct and indirect expenses and the burden or business cushion. Flying clubs are not a home for the unemployed or the homeless. If one wants to fly one has to pay for it, if one wants to socialize try EAA, CAP, PILOTS ASSOCIATIONS. Tired of this pie in the sky crap.

    • Non-profit doesn’t mean the organiztion can’t make money, it just means the money they do make has to be plowed back in. For a flying club, this means updating airplanes, perhaps buying a simulator for club members, etc. Given what aviation related parts and equipment cost it’s not hard to use up all the profits on improvements.

  • I enjoy the camaraderie of clubs so much that I’m staying a member of mine even though I’ve purchased a plane and pretty much exclusively fly it. This is a huge part of the club experience for me.

  • Everyone brings up great points, and there’s obviously two sides to any debate, but there’s something missing. Some would say clubs improve the training experience/outcomes of student pilots. Those same people might say clubs have planes that are cleaner and look better (an important comfort factor to the pilot and passenger) and also may provide a supportive environment that is a critical piece of the puzzle.

    I happen to agree with them. One is where you shop, and the other is where you live. It takes us to that level. But I think it goes beyond that. A club is about community. It has less to do with the flying. The benefits of the club are evident when members have an off airport breakfast meeting, a Saturday night out on the town, or even a phone call. The club delivers noticeable value. No airport or airplane is necessary. The club provides the “glue” to make it a reality. While there may be exceptions, my experience is that it doesn’t normally happen in environments that focus solely on flying (and that can include clubs, but it shouldn’t). Certainly its aviation that binds us all together, and general aviation will benefit from our community, but until all organizations figure out the importance of community, I think the debate is over.

  • Myself and three other avid pilots and flying club members believe flying clubs are a key part of the solution. So much so that we have created the first ever scholarship to start a flying club. With the support from several well-known aviation industry partners, we are very excited to announce a scholarship for which the winning applicant will receive various forms of consulting, products, and services to launch a flying club and position it for long-term success.

    Details and other information can be found at: http://www.StartAFlyingClub.com.

  • My flying club made my dream affordably possible. From it came the opportunity to obtain additional ratings, experiences in many type aircraft, EAA, CAP memberships, service to the community with our fly-in breakfasts and friendships and memories to last a lifetime. They are still going strong. I wish I could find a similar club in the NW GA/ATL area where I am now located.

  • As the founder and past president (president for 10 years) of a small not for profit Flying Club in Ontario Canada, I can say it has been an excellent cost saving operation. I founded the club due to the continual change of FBO’s with no certainty that a plane would be available next week. The current FBO at our airport charges $380 with taxes per rental hour for a beat-up 172 and a bored instructor for an additional $80. We ask a shared cost member for $240. for a nice 177 and a hangar, all owned by the members so that a share is building equity and is resaleable. But, we do not have instructors or give lessons. This helps keep insurance costs down. Members can receive abinitio training with an instructor on our 177. Started with 16 members but have allowed that to drop to 10 now that we have paid off the mortgage on plane and hangar.

  • Given the need for plenty of volunteer time by members to hold down costs and the question of availability of aircraft when you want to fly, the club route doesn’t appear to me. There’s also the question of how individual members operate the club aircraft, i.e.,do they treat them as well as if they owned the aircraft? Who does the maintenance also is an important question and concern.

  • Sorry, but the flying club model will fail.
    I was a member of a large flying club in the Seattle area (you might be able to guess what company it was affiliated with) and found the rules and regulations overwhelming: Any money saved on the hourly rate was quickly overrun by mandatory training requirements. Part of what happens is that over time, and a few accidents, clubs become highly defensive about liability and insurance costs, thus insisting on extremely high amounts of recurrent training. The other part is that as the flight instructors end up essentially running the club (after all, who puts in more time there) they enact training rules more bent on lining the instructor’s wallets than serving the members. Other rules can take the utility out of an airplane.
    One rule was that, if you took an airplane anywhere, you were charged for several hours per day even if the airplane did not fly.The frustrations ultimately led me to buy my own airplane. I wish AOPA well on their efforts to build flying clubs, but it is a misguided attempt.

  • Jeff D — Sorry to hear of your experience, but I think it’s also a bit misguided to assume that the example you were part of is indicative of where all flying clubs are headed.

    They do make for some pretty interesting high points to keep an eye out for though. I’ve passed them on to the guys who run our club in Chicago.

  • I read all the comments and feel like I have been to a seminar. I was struck by the comments about the club needs to make new people/members feel welcome.

    About 15 years ago I had a group help me build a plane. Each week we would meet at a friends garage and work on the plane…people would get glue and paint on there hands…they had so much fun. This is the closest I have been to a flying club. I can clearly see the benefit to welcoming people and making them feel welcome it can’t be overstated. Thanks for a chance to express my opinion.

  • There’s a number of ways you can run a Flying Club.But to make it last,you need a motivated Flight Instructor,willing to help run things.And be very safety minded.With out a good motivated Flight Instructor instructing and overseeing the operation,forget it.

  • That is how my father started his flying over 50 years ago.
    He eventually went into a partnership and like it was mentioned above that can be a problem.
    However he flew for over 30 years and made me a lover of flying when I was 12 years hold.
    Flying clubs make GREAT sense and properly managed can be a great way to fly.

  • Edward,

    I read your post and while I agree that CFIs provide a ton of value, I respectfully disagree that a club can only survive if it has a leader who is a motivated CFI. There are plenty of flying clubs that are led by a motivated leader that is not a CFI.

    Its important to instill a culture that focuses on safety, proficiency and fun. I personally enjoy flying with pilots from whom I learn (CFIs and others), but the CFI does not need to be in a position of leadership.

  • Many years ago I was living in France, joined a flying club which is about the only way to fly there and got my license. After a year and a half I joined a larger club with more and nicer planes. Because of a law that gives non-profit status to clubs, and also allows them to not pay the value added tax on everything, they do have a cost advantage. Further because of the cost of flying in France, there is more hangar flying…more sharing the cost of a flight for a hamburger, more activities scheduled like trips where three or four pilots can each take a leg to reduce the cost yet all share the pleasure. The larger club had a paid and volunteer staff, paid and volunteer CFI members and everyone got along well. It is a great model for us to follow here.

  • Joining a successful flying club is usually a productive decision for a pilot who wants to fly on a budget. BUT starting a flying club, with the same goal in mind, is a far more difficult choice, both to initially accomplish and then sustain, than forming a co-ownership with several other pilots and a single plane. So an obvious question exists: Why does a flying club seem to be a constructive and appropriate way to solve the host of problems claimed for it when co-ownership already does not?

  • I must say that personally, I disagree with this article.
    I fly the airplane that I can afford. Today it is a Cherokee 300, twenty years from now, or sooner, it might be a Kit Plane. Until the FAA can work through current GA liability issues, Kit Planes is the only thing that is going to save GA. That is why they are the dominate GA aircraft being sold today. Honestly, I feel as if the FAA is killing GA and they want it that way.

    As the older certified GA planes keep getting older, costs continue to rise on newer aircraft. Increased costs continue to trickle down to older aircraft. I personally don’t know anyone that owns a new certified airplane. I have bumped into a couple folks in the FBO and have seen a couple on the ramp. I know a lot of folks with 25 – 50 year old planes and a bunch of new Kit Plane owners.

    Just my thoughts.

    • You got it new aircraft cost to much and the only people buying new aircraft have deep pockets.
      I don’t see anybody on this forum talking about Light Sport Aircraft.
      if the club has a LSA some of us old farts that the FAA wants to get rid of just because of our age, by demanding expensive tests can still fly on our drivers license.

  • I have tried to get back into flying since high school. The only way that I could have possibly met that goal is with a flying club. Not only is it a better financial option, I have better access to fellow pilots and mechanics (do not discount the value of a flying community).
    Our club rocks! We not only are a part 141 training facility but we are also active in promoting general aviation.
    We actively promote “Fly it Forward” and other promotional aviation organizations and causes.
    Our instructors are first rate and we have an excellent safety record. The social aspect is and continues to be a bonus…
    For what it’s worth, I would not be flying today if not for this organization…
    Wade

  • I firmly believe that the problem of “saving aviation,” as the caption notes, doesn’t have to do with whether people are choosing to learn to fly at flying clubs of at FBOs.

    What’s really needed to save aviation is marketing. At least in Oklahoma, a majority of aviation groups are horrible at it, FBOs and flying clubs alike.

    I’m not bashing anybody. Each group or company has their own challenges.

    What I’m saying is that if you don’t put enough effort into getting people in the community excited about flying, it doesn’t matter what kind of organization you’re a part of – we’ll just continue trickling along.

    • You can’t get the younger people interested in Aviation if all the Airports have big security fences to keep the younsters who just love aircraft and want to look at Airplanes OUT.
      I remember getting a ride just for washing an airplane.
      Anybody remember those days??

  • If you want to keep costs down, buy into a partnership with an instructor. He usually won’t charge you if he can log time instructing. Usually 3 to 5 partners work well and you have equity in ownership and rules and by laws on operations,availability, reserve funds etc. If one partner doesn’t abide by the rules, he can be voted out with his share of course. Anyway you do it flying isn’t cheap and if it really is not affordable to you then you picked the wrong hobby to fall in love with. Time to make more money or find another hobby.

  • After renting for 900 hours, I decided to join a flying club. The monthly membership fee and hourly rate were less than the airport’s FBO. The difficulties began with a dead battery in November, a starter rebuild, an annual that the plane passed, a new battery that also lost its charge during a flight, much discussion about possibly rebuilding or replacing the alternator. The airplane was unreliable for ten months. The engine was due for a $28,000 overhaul that would be paid for by the membership. I decided I had had enough and sold my shares back to the club. I am now considering purchasing an airplane.

  • Would it be possible to gradually list flying clubs in the Journal so that more clubs would be known and have more interested people join ?

  • Flying Clubs are great. First the cost is more resonable for us that are not affluent. second most flying clubs have older CFI’s that are available with expearance, that are not short timmers just out to build hour’s,
    I belong to the Father John Flying Club, based at Dalton 3DA in Flushing Mi. that have a lot of great people in it and the EAA Chapter 77.

  • Flying Clubs can offer a lot of things few FBOs will; at least in popular areas. The metro NYC area club to which I’ve belonged for about 15 years has a couple of fixed gear planes, and four high performance planes, including two Bonanzas. That’s pretty hard to get hold of at reasonable prices from an FBO.

    With a telephone and computer based reservation system, we can schedule – according to some limits – whenever we want aircraft and take them for several days with no minimum, which is tach time billing. (There’s a limit of 11 per / aircraft in club, so yes, sometimes it can be hard to get a/c on weekend, but again… there’s fairness / limit rules.)

    It’s a lot more affordable than owning yourself. As well, there’s meetings where even experienced folks can learn more about ownership from the issues each maintenance coordinator’s plane faces. And there’s help. Twice I’ve needed assistance form fellow club members. Once, before I got my IFR, I opted not to launch far from home and I found other ways to get there. A fellow club member helped me retrieve plane later. And another time, I had a bad magneto and opted not to launch over water. Another club member flew mechanic to field. (And I’ve done that for others.)

    It’s important to remember a club is just a bunch of ‘us’ who got together. Some of the comments above seem to treat them a bit like a service. Though some might be, clubs are typically member owned and run. Lots of work to start and work to continue them, but lots of benefits.

  • Flying clubs can be AMAZING for the social aspect of flying. I feel where they fail is that they try to compete with flight schools for student pilots to increase their billing. The same holds true for flight schools that try to target renters to increase their billing. These are two different mind sets of business skills and few organizations can pull it off well.

    Honestly, clubs should not be an option when learning to fly. Most are doing so illegally, check out the FAA Minimum standards for flight clubs – Page 10-5, paragraph 3

    https://www.faa.gov/airports/resources/publications/orders/compliance_5190_6/media/5190_6b_chap10.pdf

    (3). No flying club shall permit its aircraft to be used for flight instruction for any person, including members of the club owning the aircraft, when such person pays or becomes obligated to pay for such instruction. An exception applies when the instruction is given by a lessee based on the airport who provides flight training and the person receiving the training is a member of the flying club. Flight instructors who are also club members may not receive payment for instruction except that they may be compensated by credit against payment of dues or flight time.

    Also, Im not so sure it’s a great idea to have a part time CFI teaching me or my loved one to fly. Leave it to the professionals at a reputable flight school with full time with GOOD instructors that train day in and day out. Don’t cheap out on your education as a pilot, it could mean the difference in life and death one day.

    Just my humble opinion.

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