Start small. Dream big.
Of all the challenges faced by individuals or groups who set the goal of forming and operating a flying club, one obstacle tends to rise above the rest as a potentially fatal impediment to success. That obstacle is ignorance. A simple lack of familiarity with how to establish a successful flying club and how to manage it once it is up and running, means a large percentage of folks endeavoring to form a flying club find themselves reinventing the wheel. Sadly, not all of them reinvent a smooth rolling version, either. Their missteps do not happen because they are fated to failure, but rather because they are simply not aware a roadmap to success exists. A roadmap that costs nothing, comes with considerable support, and includes a long list of Do’s and Don’ts that can save any club founder a boatload of time and money.
Rarest of all flying clubs is the 501(c)(3) tax exempt model that focuses their attention on education. Such flying clubs do exist, however, with great success and a sincere willingness to share their story of how the sausage was made in great detail.
The Gold Standard
Near the very top of the list of highly successful, well-run 501(c)(3) tax exempt flying clubs is the Lakeland Aero Club, of Lakeland, Florida. To the casual observer the club is both inspirational and perhaps even a little intimidating. Housed on the grounds of Lakeland Linder International Airport, only a stone’s throw from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a public high school focused on aerospace education, the club’s hangar and office space sits directly to the East of the pedestrian entrance to SUN ‘n FUN, the second largest aviation event held in North America each year.
It would be easy to come away from an encounter with the LAC believing they are the gold standard of tax-exempt flying clubs. After all, the Lakeland Aero Club’s home base is a 12,500 square foot facility that includes an expansive hangar filled with aircraft, two offices, a conference room, a lobby area equipped with multiple desktop simulators, a simulator lab space where a fully functional Redbird full-motion sim resides, and a constant stream of teenage members who flow through the building on a daily basis. They even have their own grass strip just outside the hangar door. Runway 8/26 is 2205 feet of grass on the south side of the airport, dedicated to the use of the Lakeland Aero Club and its members.
The mountain of expectations the LAC has built may seem high. And it is. But for all its benefits and successes, this organization faced all the same challenges any other fledgling flying club might encounter. The difference is, they recognized their weaknesses, corrected for them, and kept pushing forward no matter what.
In the first iteration of the Lakeland Aero Club their entire list of resources included just two elderly gliders that were on loan and a camper parked in a field to serve as their office and classroom. They’ve come a long way since then. Good leadership, a solid plan, and the ability to be flexible and creative when the situation warrants it has made all the difference.
Mike Zidziunas, who cheerfully goes by the less challenging, Mike Z, which is easier to spell and pronounce, is the president of the Lakeland Aero Club. Mike has been there since the early days, diligently working toward a brighter tomorrow, regardless of the challenges of today. If you ask him if there have been issues that needed his attention along the way, Mike will chuckle, his eyes lighting up like an excited kid. Oh, yes. There were problems. There are still problems. There will always be problems.
“We had about five or six kids,” Mike says. He is clearly entertained by the thought of the club’s humble beginnings, compared to where they are now. “I was teaching them to fly.”
Mr. Z is a pragmatist, but he’s also proven himself to be a capable leader, an ambitious fund-raiser, a patient teacher, and a man who has had a profound impact on the lives and careers of a long line of teenage members of the club who are very much aware they owe a good portion of their success to Mike and the existence of the Lakeland Aero Club.
A Productive Failure
Not that everything has gone according to plan over the years. In truth, the first version of the Lakeland Aero Club was envisioned as a method of providing primary flight training to high school students who didn’t necessarily have the means to pursue that training through traditional outlets.
“We thought that was going to be the purpose of the club,” Mike explains. The students were flying Breezer LSA’s back then. Mike was a dealer for the type, which made accessing the aircraft somewhat easier. It also didn’t hurt that Mike held a Sport Pilot Flight Instructor certificate and an A&P with Inspection Authorization. All of which might give the appearance that the LAC was off and running smoothly from Day 1.
As it turned out, providing primary flight instruction wasn’t the panacea the founders had expected it to be. “It created more problems than it solved,” says Mike. A rethinking of the mission brought about a change in the direction of the club’s activities. Recognizing that their goal was to mentor young people and find a way to introduce them to various aspects of general aviation in a hands-on manner, the club shifted their focus.
Today, and for several years now, the Lakeland Aero Club has put its efforts into restoring, maintaining, and flying aircraft. The members get their flight training at traditional flight schools, then use the club aircraft as time-builders. Mike and a small cadre of volunteers serve as the safety valves that keep their young charges motivated, well-directed, and safe in the hangar as well as in the air.
The result is a string of members and former members who are employed, as Mike explains it, in “almost every segment of aviation.” That includes former members who work in Air Traffic Control, as mechanics, and pilots. At least a handful have made it to the left seat of commercial carriers while still in their early 20s.
The club’s first aircraft restoration took three years to complete. In that time the young members of the club learned every aspect of how a tube and fabric classic is put together. The members did the work themselves under the watchful eye of Mike and a handful of volunteers. The club’s spacious hangar currently holds the three flying taildraggers they own. These are the primary time-builders the flying members use. A leased Cessna 150 also resides there, along with four additional aircraft that are actively being restored.
The members fly locally for the most part, but on special occasions they’ve flown farther afield. They’ve flown in a group from central Florida to Triple Tree in South Carolina, which is quite an undertaking. They’ve also flown numerous times the round trip to AirVenture and back. Mike flies in his personal aircraft, while teenage club members, flying two to an airplane, fly themselves the thousand miles plus in each direction.
Mentors R Us
Whether in the hangar or in the air, “we provide a level of mentoring that our members just couldn’t get at a traditional flight school,” says Mike. And while restoration work is key to getting the young club members involved in a meaningful way, “a flying airplane is a rallying point,” according to Mike. “It’s a symbol.”
It should come as no surprise that one of the great benefits the LAC offers its members is the chance to personally restore, maintain, and fly aircraft they’ve been involved with since the airplane was little more than a collection of tubes and tattered fabric sitting behind a run-out engine. “The pride of ownership from building that airplane is priceless,” says Mike. The dedication to the work exhibited by his adolescent membership suggests he’s right on target with that assessment.
Sean Stoltz came to the LAC as a shy, introverted fourteen-year old who had been exposed to aviation through his family, but had no significant personal experience with building an aircraft. Today, at the age of eighteen he holds commercial single-engine and multi-engine pilot certificates, with a taildragger endorsement. He serves as the club’s Vice President, reporting directly to Mike. Sean is a full participant at meetings of the Board of Directors, he serves in a leadership role in his dealings with his fellow club members and has aspirations to attend Embry Riddle Aeronautical University next year to pursue a degree in meteorology. His ultimate goal is to fly for NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) one day.
Sean is shy and introverted, no more. His time in the flying club has been a major factor in helping this young man do what others have done before him, and still more members will do in the years to come. They become confident, accomplished young men and women with solid goals and the tools they need to put serious effort into accomplishing those goals with an excellent shot at success.
In Sean’s case, he credits the LAC directly with helping him to mature and grow as an individual. The club, “has provided me with a lot of opportunities to come out of my shell,” says Sean. It is those opportunities that were not available to him prior to joining the club, the future hurricane hunter found to be transformative. “It’s the hands-on, close-knit community that really builds up the club,” according to Sean. Clearly, those same opportunities work for the group as a whole as well as the individual members.
For the interested observer, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the LAC’s existence is that they are not the least bit proprietary about their formula for success. In fact, they openly express their desire for others to steal their ideas, emulate their program, and find success in their own back yards.
That is important information. And In the interest of full disclosure, it is worth noting that AOPA’s You Can Fly Ambassador in Florida, Jamie Beckett, sits on the LAC’s Board of Directors. As a result, anyone with an interest in forming a flying club to serve high school or college age students, can easily obtain a wealth of information about how to do it, based on an undeniably successful club’s operations, by simply contacting the team managing AOPA’s Flying Club initiative. We can share every aspect of a winning formula with interested parties, from sample Articles of Incorporation, to advice on applying for an IRS 501(c)(3) tax exemption, to the process of working with young members to restore an aircraft to flying condition. We can even help with establishing standardization rules to help keep the whole operation running smoothly in the long term.
There is no reason the Lakeland Aero Club’s successes should be limited to that one club’s membership. Virtually any community can replicate their program and their triumphs to the degree that works for them. It is at least conceivable a flying club could not just meet, but possibly exceed the LAC’s amazing growth and significant achievements. All it takes is a single person with the drive and ambition to start the ball rolling.
As Mike Z himself so freely admits, “The key to success isn’t the money. It’s the commitment.”