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Question of the Month: How can we identify some good guest speakers for our club meetings?

Ah…the birds are a-twittering, cherry trees are a-blossoming, oh…the sights and smells, the sneezing and itchy eyes…all the signs that spring is here and with that comes the opportunity for increased flying—and hopefully, increased social activity within your club.

As we have written about before, flying clubs are primarily social organizations, and a big differentiator between flying clubs and co-ownerships, flight schools and so on, is the camaraderie and social interactions that (should) take place in an active flying club.   We say “should” for two reasons: a. That’s what clubs do, and b. If you are organized as a non-profit corporation with your state (as all clubs should be), and especially if you are fortunate enough to have been granted IRS tax exempt status as a 501(c)(7) social/hobby club, then it is expected that you meet regularly to comingle and otherwise enjoy each other’s company in an educational and experience-sharing manner.

In these now-times of face-to-face (mask-to-mask?) meetings, one of the easiest ways to socialize is to include an educational element in your monthly club meetings.  As we all know, regular club meetings are essential to conduct club business, to keep members appraised of the club’s activities and operations, and to “hang-out” together.  Not only that, but there is money and safety to consider, so all members should want to be involved and have a say in club operations.  After all, a club that doesn’t have meetings, and especially one that doesn’t benefit from the skills and knowledge of its members, is really just a membership-based rental operation—and none of us want that.

We’ve also talked in the past about ideas for your club meetings and we are firm believers (by example) that all meetings of members should start with a safety section or briefing.  It doesn’t have to be a full blown “program”—and there is plenty of material out there for you to use.  It could be as easy as members sharing some experience such as “…there I was…”.  Notice that that we say to hold safety sessions at the start of every meeting.  Our reasoning is simply that safety should be first and foremost on everyone’s minds and relegating it to the end of the meeting, when everyone is in a hurry to go home, sends the wrong message.  Not only that, but more people will be awake at the start of the meeting!  Remember that we provide PDFs of the safety presentations we give to our clubs, in our monthly newsletter, Club Connector.  Check out the Safety section for some excellent material to share with your membership and don’t forget to visit AOPA’s Air Safety Institute (ASI) website for yet more material.

Back to guest speakers.  I recently visited family in England and, when there, contacted a flying club close to where I was staying…just west of London.  It is always good to learn about clubs in different locations and countries, so I offered to attend one of their meetings to talk about AOPA and how flying clubs work the USA.  They were really pleased with the offer and liked the topic…but apologized that the next available guest speaker slot was more than 11-months away. 

That got me thinking…here is a club with a well-defined social calendar that includes speakers, cook-outs, picnics and guest speakers, and these events were planned out a year in advance!  By the way, this is a club in the old sense of the word.  They own the grass airfield along with quite a few airplanes, and operate a really nice clubhouse with restaurant and bar, where members go to be with friends—and not only just after landing.

Regular readers will recall that we published a long article in the May 2021 Question of the Month, where we tackled the question:  “Is our Club Still Viable”. The article delved into the lifecycles, operations, and habits of clubs, that all conspire against the ability to keep members engaged, let alone being able to recruit new members.  A subsequent Question of the Month, in December 2021 wrestled with “What Can Clubs Do to Attract Younger Pilots? (Younger Pilots Speak Out Edition)”.  Both articles concluded that in order to survive, clubs must of course cater to the current membership base, but must be focused on recruiting and retaining new members.  Furthermore, in the December 2021 article, newly certificated pilots very clearly told us what they are looking for in a flying club—and social gatherings, getting involved and being a part of something, were as important as the club’s equipment. 

So…we see no downside to flying clubs cultivating their social/hobby club roots and offering the membership interesting and educational events.  Whilst you are at it, why not throw open the doors to non-member pilots for these events and most definitively for your safety meetings? Showing that you are a safety-minded and progressive club will go a long way to getting and keeping new members.

A word or two of caution, though, and we’ll expand on this at the end of the article.  If you do invite guest speakers to your club meetings, take the time and effort to do it properly and respectfully, and ensure that all club members know about it, and that they are expected to attend.

Let’s now list some ideas for guest speakers at your club meetings.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and please do let us know what you do differently.

  1. Local ATC staff. If the club is based on a towered field, the choice is easy! Contact the ATC manager to make the request. You’ll have to work within their busy schedule and shifts, but you’ll be amazed at what you can earn from the other side of the microphone. This is “a must” for new pilots in the area, where they can learn about reporting points, local procedures, and so on (for example, at KFDK, “start your base turn at the shiny farm”). Whilst you are at it, ask if they can accommodate a tower tour. Again, work around their schedules and don’t be surprised it you have to go in several groups—tower cabs are quite small in area.
  2. Wider ATC staff. If you don’t have a local tower, or even if you do, you’ll learn much from other controllers such as approach/departure and ARTCCs. If you live around military fields, MOAs and so on, see if you can get a member of the operations staff to talk at a club meeting. Knowing what these controllers would prefer you to do, rather than what you’ve been doing for years, can help with communications and traffic flow. This will likely be an eye-opening illustration of legal versus safe practices.
  3. FAA staff. All jokes aside, most FAA staffers really are there to help! An obvious starting point is your local FSDO manager who will be able to recommend speakers on a wide array of topics, including:
    • Accident reporting
    • Air carrier certification and operations
    • Aircraft maintenance
    • Aircraft operations
    • Aircraft permits
    • Airmen certification (licensing) for pilots, mechanics, repairmen, dispatchers, and parachute riggers
    • Certification and modification issues
  4. Another FAA speaker that all clubs should invite to a meeting at least once a year, is the FAASTeam Program Manager, known as the FPM. This important position runs the FAASTeam safety program at each FSDO and is staffed by an experienced aviator. The FPM is also responsible for the area’s FAASTeam Safety Representatives, who are volunteers—people like you and me—who give their time in the furtherance of aviation safety. Becoming a safety rep is quite easy, just a couple of training courses and discussions with the FPM, and it is extremely rewarding. You can find the names of the FPM, representatives and WINGSPros (reps who take extra training to help people navigate the WINGS pilot proficiency program), here.  We strongly advise that at least one member of your club—ideally the safety officer—becomes a FAASTeam representative.  Feel free to call me (Steve) if you would like more information: 301-695-2356.
  5. Continuing this theme, other wonderful sources of information and insight are your local CFIs and DPEs, especially if club members are working on advanced certificates and ratings. Listening to DPEs tell horror stories about the lack of preparedness of some candidates really helps you know what DPEs look for and so what you should study!
  6. AMEs are another source of topic and relevant information for pilots. Hearing (hopefully!), about the FAA’s guidance to AMEs on all classes of medicals and advice on healthy habits for pilots is insightful. Oh, and if you want some potential excitement, ask the AME to comment on BasicMed.
  7. Your airport manager. Even small fields have airport managers who oversee operations. Really small, rural fields may operate with a volunteer staff, whilst larger airports might have an airport board, or commission. Even larger ones may have an airport authority. Whatever the chain of command, there is someone who is responsible for day-to-day activities on the field and working with them makes good sense. Ask your airport manager to tell the club about the airport’s methods of funding, how it plans (and funds) airport improvements and so on. Offer to work with the manager to showcase the airport, perhaps with an Aviation Day, Wings and Wheels or other community event. At the end of the day, all clubs operate from “someone’s” airfield, so make the effort to listen and support.
  8. Moving up the ladder a bit, every state has a department that oversees aviation. It might be called the department of aeronautics, aviation department, or perhaps the aviation authority. This department is usually headed by a director who reports up to the secretary of transportation, who in turn reports to the governor. The aeronautics department looks after airport permits and inspections, planning, and also handles the allocation of state and federal funding for airport improvements. We suggest that you look around the department’s website and, in consultation with your airport manager, invite some of the staff to the airport. This might turn out to be a bigger event than a regular club meeting, in which case all airport tenants would benefit. In this case, and actually for other types of club meetings, don’t be shy to invite your elected officials at both local, state and national levels. Apart from a few rare cases, mayors, city councilors, county commissions, legislators, etc., generally, don’t understand general aviation, so make opportunities to educate them about the importance and economic impact of our local airports. Again, avoid surprises and always fully involve your airport manager when considering events like this!
  9. Contact your local National Weather Service office and ask to speak to the person who looks after aviation outreach. The NWS is a wonderful source of guest speakers, and they really like to interface with pilots, as we understand their language.  See this month's Resource Spotlight for more information on this valuable resource for flying clubs.
  10. Moving a bit closer to home base, other airport tenants can be a fantastic source of guest speakers. Your club probably provides business to maintenance shops, avionics experts, engine builders, and more, so tap into local expertise—they’ll be pleased to talk about their services, operations, and more, and club members will definably learn something in the process.
  11. Along the same lines, if your airport is close to manufacturers and suppliers of aviation equipment, invite them in. Think widely on this. For example, there is a local upholsterer near my airport that also specializes in refurbishing airplane interiors, seats, and carpets. If you are getting ready for upgrades, invite them to a meeting to tell you what, and how, they do it.
  12. If you are lucky enough to have an EAA chapter on your airfield, develop close relationships with them. More often than not, club members will also be chapter members, so make the most of it—and not only for good causes such as Young Eagles, but also to learn from each other. Many hands-on EAA chapters have members whose expertise will amaze you, and many flying clubs have very experienced pilots with (tall) stories to tell anyone who will listen! Set-up a schedule for reciprocal meetings—EAA speakers at club meetings, and vice-versa.
  13. To compete the baker’s dozen, don’t forget about your own club’s members and members of other clubs. If you don’t already have it, ask your members to contribute to a “talents and skills” list, where they can share their professional, amateur and hobby skills. You know them as Steve, but perhaps you didn’t know that they hold a Ph.D. in Electronic Engineering, spent years as a university professor, formed high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, ran a flight school…oh, and makes beer on the side! Talk with other clubs about exchanging speakers.  Perhaps your club is thinking of acquiring the same make/model that a club at an adjacent airport has operated for years.  What a great opportunity to invite that club’s maintenance and safety officers to talk about upkeep, things to look for during the pre-buy inspection, transition training, and so on.  Priceless first-hand knowledge!

Okay—you get the idea…the list can go on and on, and so it should.  Before we leave, let’s circle back to something mentioned earlier in this article.

Forgive the lecture, but if you go down the path of inviting guest speakers to your meetings, please be fully prepared to do it properly.  Generally, these speakers do not charge a fee and in fact will be out of pocket due to travel, perhaps grabbing a bite-to-eat before the meeting, and so on.  I’ve been doing speaking gigs (volunteer and paid) for many years now and I have personally seen both ends of the spectrum of courtesy and decorum—or lack thereof.

On one hand (the right one, so to speak), the hosts acknowledge the time and effort devoted by the speaker, they are grateful, attentive, offer to cover travel expenses and, more often than not, are pleased for the speaker to be part of the full meeting—they treat you as a guest!  There is always a single point of contact to look after the speaker, including welcoming them, introducing them, sitting with them and importantly for evening meetings, feeding them.  Such hosts always follow-up with an email or letter of appreciation and an invitation to return at some later stage.  Many hosts also provide a small gift of appreciation—perhaps a club hat or tee-shirt, or a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant.  Not necessary, but always appreciated.

Contrast this with the dark end of the spectrum.  Here are some of my actual experiences:

  • You arrive at the meeting location, but no one is there to meet you. In fact, all the lights are off. You wait for 15-mins convinced that you messed-up the date/time. You contact the host…Oh yeah…sorry, we had to reschedule the meeting…we’ll have you tomorrow though, okay?
  • You arrive at the designated time and the club meeting is in full swing and in full disarray. People are shouting at each other, some shove past you in a huff, and the atmosphere is toxic. Oh…Steve…there you are…welcome to our club meeting, we are all really excited to hear what you have to tell us about A-OPA. Umm…
  • Sometimes you arrive and no one meets or acknowledges you. You wander around trying to make small talk. Someone eventually strikes up a conversation. Hello, are you a new member? Oh…I didn’t know we have a guest speaker tonight…who are you, what do you do, and what are you doing for us this evening?
  • The club meeting starts, no one recognizes you and you sit through the whole discussion on bylaws, budgeting and old George forgetting how to land, again, and then you are noticed. Ah…here is our speaker from EAA (actually, AOPA), who is going to talk to us about weather (actually, ideas on how flying clubs should run their meetings and treat guests).
  • Have you eaten? I’ve been shown to corner of the room where there is a pizza box with one cold, congealed slice. No, thank you…I ate earlier (lie).
  • One pilot association was more interested in broadcasting the event on Facebook and other social media outlets than actually paying attention to the topic. Nothing quite like talking to a battery of phones rather than faces. Number of clicks, apparently, was their measure of a good club meeting. The club did graciously acknowledge the talk and presented a framed “Thank-You” plaque…with my name spelt incorrectly.

 

Alright…stop already, you cry.

 

Again, if you go down the path of inviting guest speakers, and you should as it adds greatly to many aspects of club life, please do so with a full commitment to make it a great experience for the speaker, as well as for club members.  Ensure that members know, in advance, who will be speaking, what organization they are from and the general topic.  Also remind members that speakers prefer a full house, and if they like the idea of guest speakers, then all members should make the effort to attend what is, after all, their club meeting.

As far as the right hand and left hand above, well, you’ll know if you are doing it right if a speaker offers to come back.  You’ll know if you are not doing it right if “sorry, my schedule is completely full for the next two years”. Oh, and if you know that the argumentative “I am one with the airplane” members will be attending, please remind them to behave themselves!

As always, fly lots and fly safely.

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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