As we all know, flying clubs provide some of the most affordable access to aircraft, but when most of us think about a flying club, we picture a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee. These are great aircraft and provide club platforms. However, what is truly wonderful about a flying club is the ability to operate more unique aircraft compared to what you’ll find at your local flight school. You may be thinking, “Oh, a Piper Cub or V-Tail Bonanza would be an awesome addition to our club!”
But what if you think even more outside the box? Think RV-6, Zenith 750, Sonex Waiex, or maybe even a Wag-Aero CUBy—all operating as experimental amateur-built (E-AB) using certificates under 14 CFR 21.191(g). Is it possible to operate an E-AB like these in a flying club?
Operating Rules for Homebuilt Aircraft
When the prospect of operating an experimental amateur-built (also commonly called a homebuilt) is raised in a flying club environment, you will often hear someone balk at the idea. Typically, their response is something like, “You can’t operate an experimental for compensation or hire, so we can’t have that in our club.” This statement is only partially true.
Experimental aircraft operations are governed by the specific special airworthiness certificate, which is assigned to the actual aircraft upon inspection by a DAR (designated airworthiness representative) or FAA inspector. 14 CFR 91.319 lays out several operating limitations for experimental aircraft, and several more are issued via FAA policy. The DAR or inspector issues a document containing all operating limitations for the aircraft, which must be carried aboard as required documentation. The operating limitations should not be confused with the POH or operations manual (if there is one).
The operating limitations for the aircraft are approximately 4-6 pages long. You will find a variety of cans and cannots in this document. It is in the operating limitation mirroring the language of 14 CFR 91.319 (a)(2) where you will read “No person may operate an aircraft that has an experimental certificate—carrying persons or property for compensation or hire.” Immediately folks jump to the conclusion that the aircraft cannot be put into a flying club, as the member will have to pay money to operate the aircraft. While this is true, the money being put into the club is used for maintenance, upkeep, engine reserves, etc.
Expenses are the same that an individual would need to cover if they owned their own aircraft. No parties are being compensated for the operation of the aircraft.
Now that we have established that you can indeed operate an experimental aircraft in a flying club environment, where the members cover the cost of their aircraft usage, the next question usually brought up is surrounding flight instruction in that aircraft. While a flying club cannot offer instruction to the public, club members may use club aircraft for individual training, such as a flight review. A very common misconception is that CFIs cannot be compensated for their services. This misconception often comes back to the operating limitations, where it states that the aircraft cannot be operated for compensation or hire. However, when it comes to flight instruction, the CFI is simply being paid for their time, not for the operation of the aircraft.
For example, a CFI charges $40/hour for instruction and the club rate aircraft usage is $50/hr. The club member books the aircraft for 1 hour and pays the club $50 to cover all operational costs. The member then separately and directly pays the CFI $40 for 1 hour of services. The club is not providing the aircraft or the CFI.
Another limitation to note is that Experimental Light Sport Aircraft (E-LSA) cannot be leased. This means that a non-equity flying club should not consider E-LSA aircraft for their fleet. There is, however, no language that specifically prohibits the leasing of an E-AB.
Other than the operation of E-AB aircraft in the flying club environment, one other top question people ask is the following: “How will operating an experimental aircraft impact my insurance rates?” For the most part, experimental aircraft are able to get reasonable flying club insurance coverage, especially the common kit-built models such as the Vans RV series, Zenith, Sonex, etc. For example, the Spirits of Aviation flying club in the St. Louis area operate an RV-12 and the club pays approximately $3,500 per year for insurance. Finding insurance for the more unique homebuilt aircraft, and one-off scratch-built aircraft, can be much more difficult.
With the diversity of homebuilt aircraft available to flying clubs, partnered with the fact that operating them in the club environment is relatively simple and similar to operating factory-built aircraft, your club should not shy away from the prospect of obtaining a homebuilt. Perhaps your club can even partake in a group build! As a member of a flying club myself, with both factory-built and experimental aircraft, I can confidently say that adding an E-AB aircraft to your club will excite members and motivate them to learn the skills necessary to safely pilot these fun flying machines!