Question of the Month: What Should Prospective Members Look For In A Flying Club, and What Should A Club Look For In A New Member?


The May 2021 edition of Club Connector featured a long Question of the Month: Is Our Club Still Viable? We’re pleased to report that this resonated well with our readers and we continue to receive many emails and phone calls on the four topics we wrote about in the context of long-term viability, namely:

  • Financial
  • Equipment
  • Membership
  • Procedures

In this edition, we’ll focus more on the all-important area of members from both sides of the table, that is, from the perspective of pilots looking to join a club, and then from the viewpoint of a club looking to recruit new members.   We’ll present ideas here in the form of an expanded checklist, but feel free to be selective in your approach.  In fact, that’s exactly what both “sides” should do—be selective, have an idea of what you are looking for and don’t just “follow the money”.  Remember, members pay the bills, fly the airplanes, are part of the social fabric and culture of the club, and are much more than just a source of income—“fit” is all-important and is a two-way street.

What to look for in a flying club…

We’ll look first from the perspective of a pilot looking to join a flying club.  Perhaps a newly certificated private pilot who is looking for a place to hone skills, learn from others, be part of an aviation social club and to take advantage of the cost benefits of shared ownership and operations.  In other words, they want to “Own their Aviation Journey”.  Drew and Steve recorded a series of Flying Clubs Radio shows on that very theme—you can find all the shows here.  Or perhaps a more seasoned pilot is looking for camaraderie and the opportunity of sharing costs with like-minded people. 

Okay—here we go…What should new members be looking for in a flying club?

  • Find a Flying Club:
    • Is the club listed on the Flying Club Finder? Most active clubs are listed to take advantage of having a whole page on the AOPA website dedicated to their club.  We constantly hear from clubs that the listing has helped them attract new members, so it works, but, like all websites, the information must be kept up to date. If the club entry looks dated or perhaps the contact information is stale, that is telling you something about the management of the club. 
  • Websites and more:
    • Does the club have its own website or social media page? Many clubs have websites, but the lack of one doesn’t mean that the club isn’t well run. Some clubs use social media as their main sites, for example, a Facebook page, where they post information about the club, share photos of fly-outs and so on. This is usually a good indication of an active club and one that enjoys social interaction. If a club does have a website, it is fair to say that a measure of its management is whether the page is kept up to date. An old-looking or stale site means that it is not being well maintained, so what other maintenance is the club not doing?
    • You are looking for a way to contact the club for more information—hopefully a phone number. Many club websites have sections dealing with “How to Join” but mature and transparent clubs will also list their bylaws, operating rules and rates, so you can get a good idea about the governance and operations of the club even before calling.  If the club requires a certain number of hours in total or in type, it is probably for insurance reasons, so don’t waste everyone’s time by applying if you don’t meet the requirements. 
  • Is the club viable?
    • Be specific when you ask about the number of members. In asking this, you are trying to get an idea of engagement and aircraft usage. How many flying members are there and how many are active? There is a surprising amount of detail around this, so we’ll refer you to the May 2021 Question of the Month: Is Our Club Still Viable? 
  • Cost structure:
    • If the club operates multiple planes, do you have to pay dues that cover the fixed costs of all of the fleet, or only the planes you want to fly? If the club operates very different aircraft, this has huge cost implications. For more on the idea of paying for what you fly, follow the links here, here and here.
  • School or Club?
    • If you are a student pilot or are thinking about becoming one, then you should be looking for a flight school, not a flying club. As we have written about many times before in Club Connector—flight schools get people flying, flying clubs keep people flying.
    • Some clubs do accept student pilots, but many have learnt that student pilots often join just to learn to fly, beat-up the aircraft at the shared expense of all members and then leave—clubs are more likely to accept you as a new member if you are a certificated pilot and plan on staying around for a while.
  • Training:
    • Ask about the club’s primary training policy. A high ratio of student pilots to certificated pilots has warnings written all over it. There will probably be high member turn over, the planes (that you co-own) will be beaten up, club insurance premiums (that you co-pay for) will be higher, and at some stage the club may suffer the wrath of the airport manager and/or FAA. Trust us on this one, as we deal with it all the time. If the club you are considering looks like a flight school, walk away.
  • Make contact:
    • What happens when you call or email the club? Does someone answer or get back to you in a reasonable time frame? Remember that club officers are volunteers so don’t expect an immediate answer, but if a club is truly interested in new members, you should expect a call back within, say, 48-hours.
  • First impressions:
    • What happens when you speak with a club official? Are they friendly? Do they answer your questions? Are they interested in you and what you will bring to the club, not just your money? Do they offer next steps, or do you have to ask?
  • Next steps:
    • If you’re still interested, you’ll want to attend a club meeting and meet members. Does the club hold regular meetings? How often? Will they allocate time for you to ask questions, visit the hangar to sit in the planes, and so on?
  • A welcoming face:
    • Does the club have a formal way of welcoming prospective members? We know of clubs that have “prospective member” meetings, where the board and candidates can mingle, but also get into details and get to know each other. Other clubs invite prospective members to their full meeting of members. Still others require that prospective members attend several consecutive club meetings so that all members have a chance to get to know the newbies. We think this is a really good idea, as a flying club is made-up of members, not just the board of directors.
  • Operations:
    • How is the club run? Day-to-day operations, governance, elections, etc. This should all be in the bylaws but ask anyway…it may be time to suggest that the bylaws are updated!
    • What are the overnight and multiday use policies? Most clubs encourage members to go on long trips, which is one of the big differences between being in a club and renting, but don’t assume that all clubs have completely free-for-all policies.
    • Ask around the airport about the club’s reputation. Chat with local CFIs, A&Ps and other airport tenants to get a flavor of how the club is perceived by the airport community.
  • Safety:
    • Chat with the Safety Officer and ask about the club’s safety culture and how is it reinforced. If a club tells you they don’t have a safety culture, they are really telling you that they do have one, but it is probably not a good one. Be warned!
    • Does the club hold regular safety meetings? If not, why not?
    • Are there proficiency requirements? We really like the idea of member proficiency, but some clubs misinterpret this and demand additional currency over and above that of the FARs. For example, requiring that members take a 12-month flight review. We don’t like this for many reasons and talk about it in Flying Clubs Radio Edition 8, as well as in the May 2020 Question of the Month. Bottom line, proficiency is what saves lives and reduces insurance premiums, so we encourage all clubs to have a pilot proficiency program such as the FAASTeam WINGS program. Steve and Drew are both FAASTeam Representatives, so please do ask if you would like more information: [email protected] 
  • Club structure:
    • Chat with the President or Secretary and understand how the club is structured. By this we mean the legal structure within the state of operations, and the tax status with the IRS.If this results in blank states, be warned! Flying clubs should always establish as non-profit corporations with their state and should always file annual reports and tax documents, even if they enjoy tax-exempt status with the IRS (which is a completely different and separate process than establishing the legal corporation).
    • You’ll also need to understand if the club is an equity club or a non-equity club. The Guide to Starting a Flying Club fully explains these different structures, and also how it affects member’s financial commitments and obligations.
  • The money:
    • Speak with the Treasurer and ask to see the accounts. Find out how the various fees, dues and rates are determined—and revised. Think about this from the point of view of sustainability—the club may be “the cheapest in the area” but are there enough reserves to cope with a string of maintenance issues, an unexpected AD, or perhaps an unanticipated engine overhaul? Be wary of dues and fees that are significant different from other clubs. The math here is quite simple—monthly dues must cover all fixed costs, and the usage rate must cover all per-hour costs and consumables. We won’t labor this further here, but if you find a club that is “a really good deal”, you should fully understand how they manage to do it and what happens if there isn’t enough money in the bank to pay for the unexpected.
    • When talking with the Treasurer, ask how the club files its annual reports and returns required by the state and the IRS. This is important! When you join a club, you become equally responsible for its obligations, so at the time of joining you’ll want to know that the club is operating responsibly and legally.
  • Maintenance:
    • Ask the Maintenance Officer to show you around the airplane(s).If you are accepted into the club, you will be flying these machines and, as PIC, will be responsible for airworthiness, so ask to see the logs and study them. Determine how the maintenance officer arranges routine maintenance. How are planes grounded, by whom and how are they returned to service?
    • What about handling maintenance issues when away from base? Is there a dollar limit that members can authorize without board approval?
  • Booking and dispatch:
    • How do you reserve club aircraft? Most clubs these days use one of the many online tools that are much more than online calendars. Many keep track of members’ flight review and medical dates, and most also have methods of tracking regular maintenance such as recurring ADs, inspections, oil changes, etc. Invoicing and billing may also be handled with these tools and so using them is a sign of a well-run club.
  • Test flight:
    • Are you still interested in the club, and is the club still interested in you? Great—now it is time to fly the club aircraft! The idea is to determine that the plane (and its equipment) is what you are looking for, but it also gives you a first taste of how the club functions. There are some traps here for both you, the prospective member, and the club, so let’s dig down a bit.
    • As you are not yet a signed-up nor checked-out member, you cannot act as PIC. Don’t try to argue the point…only members fly club aircraft as PIC.
    • This means you will fly with another club member. Many clubs have members who are CFIs. Now, there is no such thing as “Club CFIs” and if the club states this, they may be operating illegally. More on this in the January 2018 Question of the Month.
    • You should never be asked to pay for this flight. You should also never offer to pay. Either of these will move the club into the role of being a commercial operator and it would lose all of the advantages of being a non-profit flying club.
    • Let’s be really clear about this. If a club requires that you, a non-member, must pay for this first ride, then they are operating illegally, and you should walk away. The club should handle rides such as this as part of their member recruitment budget, and it should appear as an expense on the books. 
    • You should, of course, expect to handle the controls in the air, but don’t put the member-pilot in the position of saying no to you doing take-offs and landings. You are not a member and you are not covered on the insurance policy, so the risk will be all theirs.
    • The flight has two objectives.
      • Firstly, you want to determine that the plane is what you want to fly. Remember, if you join an equity club you will become a co-owner, which will involve a significant amount of money. If you don’t like it, explain why and look at other clubs.
      • Secondly, the club-member-pilot will form an opinion about your skills, proficiency, airmanship and safety, and will report back to the board or membership committee, who are perfectly within their rights to refuse you as a member if you don’t meet the required standards.
    • Don’t confuse this flight with the checkout that will come later, after you are accepted as a member. All clubs should follow a new-member checkout process, which will cover groundwork as well as one or more flights. There is a lot more information on club checkouts (and transitions) here and Flying Clubs Radio Edition 17.
  • Sign on the dotted line:
    • If everything has gone swimmingly, you’ll be invited to join the club. Most clubs will ask you to complete and sign an application form that clearly states that you understand the terms and conditions of membership, including being truthful about your experience, any accidents, and so on.
    • Some clubs will ask for references and others may perform background and credit checks. If this annoys you, then look for another club. Such a club will only go to these lengths if they've had bad experiences with previous members. Perhaps someone lied on the application form which bit the club sometime later, or perhaps a new member racked-up lots of flight hours and then disappeared. Either way, the club is just trying to protect itself and its members, so think of it as a positive.
    • You’ll then pay the joining fee, set up direct payments for the monthly dues and arrange your checkout flights.
  • Congratulations—you are a member of a flying club!
  • Now get involved.
    • There is always work to be done in a flying club, so jump in and contribute to the maximum of your time and abilities. Work with the social officer to plan events, offer to help with maintenance, be the hero that updates the GPS databases every 28-days, use your many other skills and your background to bring even more to your selected club and have a blast doing it!

    What to look for in a new member…

    We’ll now move to the other side of the table and think about prospective members from the point of view of the club and its existing membership. 

    Members are the lifeblood of flying clubs.  Without them, there is no reason for being, but there is much more to it than that.  New members will join an existing environment which will definitely have its own culture even if no one has written it down—actually, especially if no one has written it down, as a culture will inevitably emerge when a group of people get together. 

    We talk a lot about “club culture” during the very popular Flying Club Workshop series, so we won’t go into much detail here, other than to say that a culture consists of the values, beliefs, systems of language, communication and practices that members of a group have in common. 

    As well as continuing to present the workshops online, we are hoping to return to some face-to-face seminars in 2022. Note that we send emails invitations to the contacts listed on each club’s Flying Club Finder page, so please take a moment to ensure that the information is current for your club.

    Right—let’s look at some ideas for clubs that are actively recruiting for new members.

  • Don’t just follow the money:
    • Just as a pilot looking to join a club shouldn’t just follow the money and base their decision on cost alone, a club shouldn't accept any and everyone who applies, just because they will help with the finances. There is so much more that can be written about this, so again, read the May 2021 Question of the Month: Is Our Club Still Viable? article to see how numerous factors interact when running a flying club, and especially when planning for growth. This is important for clubs who are getting desperate for new members for whatever reason. The new members must not only be a financial fit, but a cultural and character fit as well. So, a flying club should be selective, but never discriminatory, when considering new member applications.
  • What does your club look like to prospective members?
    • Well, you can get some clues by reviewing the first part of this article, where we guide perspective members on what to look for and what to ask. The club’s membership committee (you do have one, don’t you?) can get ahead of the game by putting themselves in the place of an interested person.
    • Seriously, we do recommend that clubs of all sizes form a small membership committee comprising regular members as well as board members to create a framework for what you are looking for, and why.
    • When you’re doing this, write it down so it becomes the club’s policy for considering new members in the future. More information on how to make your club more attractive to new members can be found in the June 2021 Question of the Month.
  • Culture club:
    • How you go about this will be a direct reflection of your club’s culture. Different candidates are looking for different things. Some will consider club ABC’s formal policies and requirements as an indication of a well-run organization, whilst others may think it is stifling and bureaucratic. What matters is that you don’t bend your culture just to accommodate a particular prospective member. The culture has developed over time and new members must “fit”. So, how you go about determining fit? 
  • It’s bit like hiring a new employee:
    • It might be helpful to think of this in the same way that companies hire new employees. The parallel is quite striking. The company is looking for particular skills but also the right “chemistry” to ensure that the new person doesn’t contaminate the existing culture.
    • As we all know, there is a hiring process. The company advertises the position and describes what it is looking for. Interested candidates consider how their skills align with the requirements. Candidates then formally apply—they send a copy of their resume and a more personal cover letter. The hiring team then considers all applications, weeds out the ones that don’t match the requirements and eventually move onto interviews.
    • Interviews are a sort-of courtship dance where, over two or three sessions, each side gets to know the other, and both decide if they want to continue the relationship. It is important to have multiple sessions over a period of time to allow each side to relax into who they are, rather than who they think the other side wants them to be.
  • Two parts—measurable skills and intangible fit:
    • The same is true with new flying club members. There are technical requirements for membership that must be clear in the bylaws—things like minimum certificate level, number of total hours, hours in type and so on. This is easy to determine, so filtering-out those without the required credentials is usually straightforward, but you haven’t yet experienced the courtship dance, so have no idea about the cultural fit of the candidate.
  • Selection process:
    • We strongly advise a flying club to have a formal and documented process of interviewing all prospective members. Formal, so that it professional and documented to ensure everyone is treated fairly and consistently. Just as with the company case, interviewers should come from different parts of the club—board members, officers, as well as the general membership. It would be impractical in larger clubs to involve all members in the interview process, but not so in smaller clubs, where it could be argued that the impact of a new member is that much greater. 
  • Dance step 1:
    • Okay—nice in theory but how can it work in practice? Many clubs start by requiring prospective members to attend several consecutive club meetings so that members can mingle and start to breakdown the formal barriers by socializing with each other. 
    • Members share ownership and access to flying machines, so everyone should be really comfortable with each other in multiple dimensions. Not only that but flying club members are likely to stay around longer than the average employee, so you have to get it right!
  • Dance step 2:
    • Following this, when the candidate has been softened-up and is more relaxed, the membership committee should conduct more formal interviews to get into details of the candidates flying practices, what they are looking for in a flying club, and all-importantly, what the new member will bring to the club. Think about:
      • What skills will this person bring to the club?
      • How will the club benefit from having this person as a member?
      • Will this person fit in?
  • Things to poke at:
    • Drew’s club, the Free State Flying Club, in College Park, Maryland uses a list of to remind them of topics to discuss with the prospective member:
      • Aviation knowledge and experience
      • Education
      • Teamwork
      • Membership in other organizations
      • Skills and hobbies. Consider both professional and “amateur” skills, as both add huge value to a flying club
      • Goals of being in a flying club…digging into this can help ensure you’ll get an engaged member, and not a “renter”
      • Safety record. Anyone with an accident record is going to make it more difficult and more expensive (for all members) to renew the club’s insurance policy.
      • Financial stability
  • Background checks:
    • To be honest, very few clubs go to the trouble of requesting third-party background and/or credit checks. The ones that do have probably been burnt in the past—but think about it for a minute. Loan companies and banks perform credit checks when money is involved, and hiring companies perform background checks to corroborate a candidate’s written and verbal statements. Flying clubs involve money, and integrity is an important attribute for all members, so perhaps more clubs should think about conducting background checks.
    • At the very least, contact the people listed as “references” by the candidate. Just chat with them, verify the experience and background as submitted on the application form and get a sense of the person’s opinion of the candidate.
    • In terms of finances, the club needs to know that new members will pay on time. One way to help with this is to require all members to pay dues by direct bank transfer and to set-up a point-of-sale system for aircraft usage. Most club management tools, such as Flight Circle, offer credit card billing at the time the aircraft is checked in. Club treasurer’s love these systems. 
  • Welcome aboard…almost:
    • If everything has gone well, the club has a new member—but it doesn’t quite stop there.
    • Many clubs have an “onboarding process” to do two things:
      1. Help the new member navigate the ways and expectations of the club. Assigning a mentor is good way to do this but choose the mentor wisely!
      2. Have a “probationary period” during which both parties—the club and the new member—can decide over a period of say, 6-months, if the relationship is going to work. If you do this, make sure it is very clear in the bylaws and has been discussed during the selection process. Also, document what will happen if either party decides it isn’t working and be clear on what, if anything, is refunded, if the member leaves within the probationary period.
  • Talking of leaving:
    • In an article concerned with new members, it is a bit odd to be talking about members leaving the club, but this is an area where many clubs get into a pickle.
    • When a new member joins, everything is roses, sweetness, and light, but what happens if a member decides to leave the club, for any reason?
    • We’ve written about this before, but briefly, a club should document the leaving process in its bylaws, and not, absolutely not, refund anything. If your bylaws talk about refunding membership fees or that the club “buys-back” an equity share, then we strongly advise you to change them, as this can literally decimate an otherwise active club.
    • On the topic of leaving…if during the selection process a prospective member seems overly concerned about how people leave the club and what is refunded, it is very likely that they’re thinking short-term, which is not what a club wants or needs. This is especially true if a prospective member is not yet a pilot. They are likely wanting to join the club to learn to fly at attractive club rates and then leave, after beating-up the planes for 50 or more hours. The best ways to stop this are: a. Never refund anything, b. Accept only certificated pilots.
  • Checkout:
    • The new member is now on board and so it is time to get them checked-out in the club’s aircraft. We talk more about this in Flying Clubs Radio, Edition 17, “New Member Checkouts”
    • First off, review the club’s insurance policy for any limitations, such as time in type. If the new member needs more time, they should arrange to get it outside of the club.
    • Have a documented process so it is clear from the start what the checkouts will include and who will conduct them. We suggest that you develop a required reading list, and a quiz (per aircraft) that forces a deep dive into the PoH and the FARs. Reviewing the quiz will cover a lot of the ground portion of the checkout, but don’t forget to include specific airport operations, club expectations (e.g., fueling and cleaning the aircraft after use) and any other local rules.
    • For the flight portion, follow a checklist and ensure it is taken seriously. In an hour or so you’ll be handing the keys to the new member, so take the time to go into the idiosyncrasies of each plane.
    • One final thing on checkouts. Don’t be a club that mandates 60-day currency or 12-month flight reviews. Clubs that do this are effectively transferring currency responsibilities from the PIC to the club, which can (and has) resulted in liability lawsuits against the club if things don’t do to plan. Every club should be striving for member proficiency, not (just) currency.
  • Fleeting thoughts—A few other things to think about:
    • Keep an active waiting list of pre-approved candidates. Go through the whole selection process, extract fifty percent of the joining fee, so that you’ll be ready to immediately bring-on a new member if someone leaves. This maintains cash flow and keeps the planes flying.
    • If the waiting list grows beyond five, think seriously about adding a plane to the fleet.
    • Regularly review the mission and culture of the club, especially as new people join and change the mix. Many clubs do strategic planning exercises every two years or so. We cover this in detail during our Flying Clubs Workshops.
    • Be active in the airport and wider community—this is where prospective members come from!
    • Become known as a good and safe club. Open your meetings, especially safety meetings, to non-members. Steve and Drew are both FAASTeam Safety Representatives and hold club safety meetings as WINGS events. Much more on the topic of club safety and proficiency, here, and Edition 8 of Flying Club Radio.
  • Resources:
    • Don’t forget to visit our website and  review the Question of the Month archive, which is our repository of knowledge and best practices.

As always, fly lots and fly safety!

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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