A year of stewardship – managing a flying club airplane

After getting my ticket punched in November 2017, I decided to join a flying club to continue to exercise my right and privilege to fly a general aviation aircraft. Being part of a club would be a better option than renting from my previous flight school, as the state of the aircraft would certainly be much better. Full of anticipation and expectation, I applied to a local flight club, thinking, yes, this will be very cool.

172 before paint
The job? Take care of this airplane, on behalf of the club.

The flight club accepted my application and I joined with high hopes. After joining, I thought about how I could contribute to make this a great experience. Well, it just so happened that a few months after I joined the club, the club purchased a Cessna 172N and guess what? They needed an assistant plane captain. I thought, perfect, this shouldn’t be too much work…

Well, little did I know. Silly me, I should have asked a few questions before jumping feet first, like 1) what are the duties of an assistant plane captain? 2) how much time will I spend volunteering as an assistant plane captain? 3) will there be others to lean on for help when the time comes? 4) will a low time pilot be a factor for functioning well as an assistant plane captain? 5) what skills are needed to be an effective assistant plane captain?

The plane captain I assisted happened to spend a lot of time out of the area, wasn’t necessarily computer savvy, and was a bit of a curmudgeon (what old pilot isn’t?). When the plane arrived from its purchase, I was on-the-hook for delivering a letter to the club to welcome the plane into the fold. Thankfully, most of the content had been developed by the board members who had gone to purchase the plane. Had I been stuck with developing the content myself, that might have not gone over well, at least from an information point of view. The plane arrived on time and on schedule thanks to a few flying club members who decided to ferry the plane cross-country from the pick up location in Minnesota to our home base in Maryland.

When the airplane arrived at our home base, I thought: How exciting! Here’s the new plane!! Uh oh, now what?? Well, the poor 40-year old 172N needed some work, both on the inside and the outside. The logbooks were disorganized and given the flight club kept all documents on Google Drive, I thought it prudent to scan the contents of the logbooks, STC, ADs, and all manuals onto Google Drive. I did, and that was about as fun listening to my CFI explain FAR 61.51 in detail. It took a few weeks to get it squared away, but when I finished, I was glad that a) the documents were available to members online, b) I had finished  what I thought would take a lot longer, and c) I did a good job.

Next up on the list: tackle ADS-B. This particular plane came with a NavWorx ADS600-B UAT unit. For those unfamiliar, NavWorx called it quits a while back when the FAA required the company to provide proof that the GPS source met FAA standards. The fight between the FAA and NavWorx surprisingly ended the company’s existence. But the FAA kindly allowed an AMOC (alternative method of compliance), written by Ralph Capen, to apply to the version of the UAT unit in our new club plane. My mission, given I already chose to accept it, was to have the ADS600-B unit interface with the plane’s Garmin 430W so that ADS-B would comply with FAA’s 2020 mandate.

GAI
On final for runway 32 at GAI, testing out that pesky ADS-B Out system.

OK, at this point, I truly had no idea what I was getting into, and had I known, it certainly would have given me significant pause.

The calls, coercing, cajoling, and complaining I did while getting the ADS-B connected was a full-time job. Finally, after a local A&P connected the G430W to the UAT unit, doing some slicing, splicing, and dicing, and I interfaced the UAT console with my laptop and… nothing worked. Ugh, that went up like a lead balloon.

Well, what to do? I contacted the gentleman who wrote the AMOC and he kindly gave us several pointers on troubleshooting. So, off to figure out why the UAT wasn’t operable. One night, after rebooting the UAT several times, I called it quits. The next morning, not letting this obstacle beat me, I decided to give it one more go. Well, lo and behold, the UAT came up green. Relieved, thankful, grateful, and a bit surprised, I went up into the pattern to do a few loops.

That afternoon, after receiving an FAA ADS-B performance report, I sent an email to Mr. Capen telling him the great news, including the report. He indicated that, according to the AMOC, we needed to contact the Baltimore FSDO to ensure they were aware the plane was operating under a Global AMOC, and that we’d need to disconnect the power until approval was granted. Typical, I thought, but hey, it’s close to completion. After a bit of back-and-forth with the FSDO, approval was received and one more (huge) item on the plane was addressed.

Next on the list of to-do’s: get the plane painted and address several squawks. The maintenance officer – the guy in charge of all the plane captains and assistant captains – along with the board, had a particular paint shop in mind, specifically Dial Eastern States Aircraft Painting (DESAPI) in Cadiz, Ohio, the birthplace of Clark Gable, my father told me. Along with a CFI/awesome US Navy retired corporate pilot flying another one of the club’s 172s, we ferried the planes to Cadiz for work. I love flying over the mountains – in this case hills to the West Coast folks – but there sure is turbulence.

We were ferrying during the winter, and this ferry trip was the second one scheduled, after a previous attempt went scraped because of high winds and turbulence. We got the plane to Cadiz, had lunch, and turned it around to GAI, all in a day’s work. DESAPI did a fantastic job, and the plane looked awesome afterwards. During the process, I checked in with DESAPI over the phone intermittently, and they kept us apprised of the process, kindly sending pictures during the entire procedure. In addition to the pretty paint job, DESAPI addressed several squawks, including mending a glare shield that looked like the bellows of an accordion. The outcome: a great looking plane and one that had the club’s logo on the tail for some great advertising.

After paint
Looking good with a new paint job.

After the paint job, I coordinated a flight and an annual inspection in KCXY, along with addressing a few avionics squawks (autopilot). A few club pilots kindly ferried the plane to KCXY from Cadiz, and I flew another club plane up to KCYX to meet them. Thankfully, no major issues were found during the annual inspection, and the avionics shop addressed the autopilot issues without major downtime. The plane was back in service and available to members of the club to fly in late spring, which along with summer, is the busiest time to fly.

I look back, after having served a year and some months as an assistant plane captain and reflect on my stewardship. All in all, I would say I’ve helped with a significant portion of the work needed to get the plane in shape and club-ready. The experience of working with A&Ps, avionics shops, other members of the flying club, and the flying club’s board has been, without a doubt, a true pain in my tuchus.

All joking aside, as one of the club’s plane captains puts it, if you want the experience of owning your own plane without actually having to own your own plane, I would highly recommend joining a flying club and helping the plane captains or maintenance officers with their duties. The experience gives you a first-hand view of the types of issues that come up when owning and operating a plane, and, given you’re on-the-hook for providing a safe and well-maintained plane, you have none of the procrastination that might come from owning your own plane. Besides, the sense of service provides you with gratitude and certainly replaces any sense of entitlement that you might otherwise have as just a dues-paying member.

10 Comments

    • I wish, but seriously, no discounts Brian, and realistically, the reward for me was understanding what’s entailed in operating / owning an aircraft. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise. If / when I own my own, I’ll have a leg up.

  • Sean,
    I agree with you that being part of the maintenance crew for a flying club is a great way to learn about the airplanes you fly. I joined Walled Lake Flying Club in Pontiac, Michigan in 2014 and was fortunate enough to be elected one of three directors that assist in maintenance at annual and throughout the year as required. We are referred to as “the slugs”, otherwise normal guys with day jobs, but we consider that title a badge of honor because we get to work on airplanes! Three years later I became a co-owner of a Grumman Cheetah and the education I received at WLFC was and is invaluable. Thanks to our President (and mentor) Curt Martin, we know how to approach most squawks that occur and how to think through the process.
    Good work with your “new” airplane Sean. She is beautiful. Flying is even more rewarding when you know what’s moving as you push/pull things and flip switches in the cockpit.

  • Sean,

    I’ll second Brian and Steve’s comments.

    I was once told I’d need three skills to be a complete pilot 1) manipulating the controls, 2) understanding of, and facility with, airplane systems and 3) a good working knowledge of the weather.

    You’ve already got a leg up on 1) and 2) coming out of the gate – job well done!

  • We call them gripes…not “squawks”. A bird squawks, a flightless chicken squawks, your wife continually squawks, Air Force Zoomies on the country club flight line where they don’t get their white gloves dirty, where the General’s plane is parked, call them squawks. Navy, Marine, Coast Guard and Army aviators that I have spoken to…… call them gripes.

  • I too had the “pleasure” of serving on the board of a flying club. I was the treasurer for the 3 airplane and 40 member club for 11 years. Because of this experience, I learned a lot about ownership costs which allowed me to purchase my own airplane at a later date. I now own a Grumman Tiger with a good understanding of the costs associated with keeping it in safe and in airworthy flying condition.

  • Every pilot and maintenance person I have ever encountered calls them ‘snags’. But that is all outside the USA where English is a second language !!

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