Question of the Month: Does the choice of aircraft, say a high-performance steed, influence a club’s culture?

The answer is mostly definitely “yes”, but the more probing question to ask is “How does the choice of club aircraft affect a club’s culture?”, and the answer to that one is the old aviation mainstay of “it depends”. It depends on the style of the club, the engagement of its members and many other factors, not least being the type of equipment the club operates.  So, let’s reword the question and ask:

What came first, the plane or the culture?

This familiar “chicken or the egg” theme is actually quite appropriate here, as you can look at it from both sides of the road that the chicken was, for some reason, crossing.

On one hand…

If a club starts with a very particular airplane in mind, then the culture of the club will emerge based on the airplane’ s capabilities and its support needs.  Starting a club with a high-performance single such as a Cessna 182 or a Piper 235 is likely to result in the emergence of a culture based around cross-country travel, as such a club will attract members who want to go places.  You can extend this notion to other types as well—the club takes-on a culture that aligns with the capabilities, quirks and features of the club airplane.

Now, any time a club operates equipment that requires additional ratings—or perhaps advanced certificates—it tends to naturally filter the pool of prospective members.  Imagine a club operating a big twin—or even a light twin, for that matter—and you’ll get the point, but that point is even further made when considering the increased needs and demands that such an airplane places on the club.  Bigger hangar, more expensive maintenance, the need to stay proficient to meet insurance requirements and so on all add up to increased cost of operations and hence a further filtering of the qualified prospective member pool. 

The same issue of filtering membership may play-out in a club operating a pretty simple airplane like a Champ or J3 Cub.  The need for a tail wheel endorsement (hence training and proficiency) will reduce the available pool of members to those who have—or aspire to— the endorsement, and that particular type of flying.

Taking this to an extreme to illustrate the point, I’m currently working on setting up an ultralight flying club just north of AOPA’s HQ in Frederick, Maryland.  More on this exciting new club in a future edition of Club Connector, but suffice to say that it will be made up of people who enjoying flying very different equipment compared with more “convention” clubs, and this will no doubt be reflected in the interests of its members, and so the culture that the club will eventually take on.

So, we clearly see that the way a club “thinks” and the make-up of the membership, will most definitely be influenced by the type of equipment in the club.

On the other hand…

Now let’s flip the coin and look at the situation in which most newly forming clubs find themselves, namely, a blank sheet of paper. The typical start-up club resolves around one or more highly motivated people with a vision broad enough to accommodate different perspectives and ideas.  As we have espoused in many of our resources, articles, workshops, seminars and radio shows, this is a pivotal time in the emergent life of a flying club. We encourage all nascent clubs to really dig deeply into the opportunity so presented—that of hammering out the intention, the direction, the belief structure…in other words, the desired culture of the club that will become ensconced in the bylaws, operating rules and behaviors of the club and its members.

At any one time, your AOPA Flying Clubs team is working with more than 50 individuals and groups who want to start flying clubs.  Over the years this has taught us that new clubs (and old ones for that matter) go through many phases and stages including short-term decision making and the longer-term patterns of any growing organization—that is, life cycles.

We work with our new clubs to encourage the initial openness that is essential to get all cards on the table.  When discussing this at our flying clubs workshops (more coming in 2021…keep an eye out for details), we play a simple game.  Imagine there are 5 founding members working to create a flying club.  Ask everyone not to shout their answers and ask “What airplane do you want the club to operate?”  Now ask them, one by one.  The first one wants a Cirrus SR22, the second, a Super Cub, the third an A152 Aerobat (fantastic choice) …and so on.  This is the time to get into the weeds on what the club, overall, really wants to do rather than what it dreams about doing, since dreams have a way of requiring magic money or pixey-dust, both of which are in short supply during the early phases of a clubs formation.  Many clubs emerge from this exercise with a clear(er) picture of what they want to be and then, based on this revelation, they are in a very good position to determine the makes and models of aircraft that align with their emergent culture.

As an aside, it is for these reasons that many clubs start with a Cessna 172 or a Piper P28, since they provide a reasonable compromise to the apparently contradicting factors such as fast versus economical, easy to fly versus fun to fly, and so on. Note that such a club is likely to be in reach of far more people, so its membership is probably quite diverse and inclusive.  Other clubs, nevertheless, emerge with a very defined idea of what they want to operate, be it a Champ or a Piper 235.  Yet others fully understand that they need three different airplanes to scratch the club’s cultural itch, as did flywyld based in Manassas, Virginia, who came out the gate last year with a Cherokee P28-180, a Stinson 108-3 and a Piper Lance!

As an aside to this aside, some of you may be thinking…what if I only want to fly the Stinson…do I have to pay the same as someone who flies the Lance?  We cover this in great detail in our workshop series, but for an example on how to create a fully equitable membership-based flying club, whilst allowing members to pay for different flying privileges, take a look at the flywyld’s airplane website.  For a wider discussion, email Steve or Drew at [email protected]

Finally, we leave you with an off-the-wall idea.  We all know in this time of high mobility that club member turnover can be quite high.  Well, that can change the whole dynamic of a club, so take the time to ask all members if they are truly happy with the current equipment.  Is it too radical to suggest that a club should consider changing its aircraft every 5-years or so to keep things interesting?  Without doubt, this depends on your culture…which, umm…brings us full circle.

As always, fly lots and fly safe.

Stephen Bateman
Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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