Question of the Month: So, You Want to Start a Flying Club to Teach Kids How to Fly, eh?

It is truly wonderful to talk with an aviator who has decided to give back to the community that is—or was—a big part of their life for many years.  Once a pilot, always a pilot is a general truism for those of us who have been fortunate to be part of the fellowship of aviators, and the force to keep general aviation alive and accessible is strong in all of us. 

At first blush, with all the advantages of shared costs, camaraderie, learning opportunities and more, it would seem that flying clubs would be ideal for involving youth in aviation—and indeed they are—all but the troublesome bit of setting up a club for the purpose of teaching (anyone) to fly. 

We’ve touched on the topic of learning to fly in flying clubs in previous articles and in a bit more depth in the recently revised edition of The Guide to Starting a Flying Club, but close on the success of Flying Clubs Radio edition 29 “So, you want to start a flying club to teach kids to fly, eh?”, we thought it timely to devote an edition of Question of the Month to this subject. 

Let’s first set the scene.

A key goal of the Flying Clubs Initiative is to help people start flying clubs and we have become really good at it.  We have helped more than 200 new clubs get started since the start of the program, at a rate of some 30 new clubs per year.  We also work with existing clubs to help them though the inevitable ebbs and flows of any membership organization.  In doing so, we have amassed an impressive library of resources for new and existing clubs, and we have developed unmatched hands-on experience on how to correctly set-up new clubs, and in revitalizing, and in some cases, resuscitating, clubs that have fallen on hard times.  We have also delved deeply into FAA guidelines, orders, rules, interpretations and letters of determination, and we have shared our findings in articles such as this one, in our seminars, webinars and workshops, and more recently in Flying Clubs Radio.   In a nutshell, we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two! 

After all of that trumpet blowing, it is important to state that we are not the “flying club police”,  except for controlling who gets listed on our Flying Club Finder tool, and for that we created our Standards, Values and Best Practices document.  Apart from that, how people set-up and run their clubs is entirely up to them—well, and the FAA, their airport manager and the IRS!  The best we can do is provide consistent, accurate and experience-based guidance on how to do things properly and in such ways that minimizes the risk of audits, or worse.  Now, we know of clubs that skirt the rules, some blatantly, some unknowingly and some who have either been given incorrect advice, or simply follow someone else’s incorrect model.  Either way, it doesn’t make it right, and with all of our resources out there for public consumption, claiming ignorance is probably not a good defense, especially if we have counselled the club’s founders and they still go their own, dark, way.

We have many examples of this, including people who state that they “own” or “invest” in multiple flying clubs, or commercial entities that are thinly disguised as flying clubs to get around some of the FAA rules, but in the context of this article, let’s restrict ourselves to clubs that “teach people to fly”.

We can almost see the sparks starting to fly, so let’s be clear that there is nothing in any of the FAA rules, or indeed our interpretations, which declares that members of flying clubs cannot and should not use club airplanes (effectively, their co-owned airplanes) for purposes of individual flight training.  Members can, and indeed should benefit from using “their” airplane for flight reviews, WINGS proficiency flights with a CFI of their choice, training for advanced certificates and ratings, and so on. 

The FAA most definitely and most clearly has rules about flying clubs not advertising flight training, learn-to-fly-with-us, introductory rides and all other types of operations that reach out to the public.  The FAA call this “holding out”, and even soliciting for members based on promises of teaching people to fly is forbidden.  For the full, unambiguous rules, see sections 2-8 on page 10-5 of the extracted Airport Compliance Manual, here.

Problems arise when flying clubs start to act and look like flight schools, but without the additional levels of authorization, compliance, inspections, etc. imposed (by the FAA) on actual commercial operators, in order to protect the general public. 

So, you may ask, how does a flying club start to look like a flight school? 

Here are a few ways that we see quite regularly:

  • When it holds-out to the public for any aviation services, such as paid introductory rides, sightseeing, selling gift certificates for rides and, yes, providing flight training.
  • When a club openly advertises flight training or states that people can join the club to learn how to fly.
  • The club uses the green “Learn to Fly Here” sign on their website or hangar.
  • When there is a “revolving door” of student pilots, who clearly join a club only to get their licenses, and then leave, and the club takes on another student.
  • When a club of ten people has nine student pilot members and one CFI. Even a 50 percent ratio of students to certificated pilots starts to look a bit suspicious.
  • When, in the full context of this article, a club starts, or changes its mission, for the purpose of teaching people to fly.

We can again sense people reaching for their keyboards but look carefully at the above.  It is perfectly reasonable for club members to use club aircraft for training, but the club should never state that anyone can learn to fly there and should never imply that the club somehow provides an airplane (and/or a CFI) for the purpose of learning to fly.  A member may book the plane and separately book (and pay) a CFI of their choice—this is just a member exercising their privileges to fly the club plane.

With the fifth bullet point above in mind, we are often asked about a good ratio of student pilots to certificated plots in a correctly operating flying club.  There are a number of responses to that question, depending on a few factors:

  1. If your club operates from an airport that has a flight school, then we advise you to leave all primary training to them. They are trying to operate a high-risk, low-margin business and they are an important part of the airport’s ecosystem. At some time or other, club members will be pleased to use their services—perhaps for transition training, flight reviews or access to their simulator. You get the point…we all need to keep the ecosystem healthy and should not knowingly encroach on each other’s turf. Yes, flight school charge more per hour than clubs because they have higher operating costs to meet the extra levels of compliance required by the FAA (and enforced by the airport manager), and, as a business, it is perfectly reasonable for them to turn a profit. A club that entices a member of the public to join based on the promise of learning to fly is being unfair, unethical and as we have seen above, is likely crossing a legal line.


  2. What if the club’s airport does not have a flight school? Well, as we have mentioned, a club could indeed have some student pilots as members, but three agencies may be watching. Firstly, the airport manager (of a publicly funded airport) is responsible for enforcing FAA and local rules and regulations and they’ll be watching for violations; secondly the FAA itself may get involved if someone complains that a club is providing commercial services to the public; and thirdly, the IRS may get very interested in a non-profit corporation (and especially one that has received tax exempt status) that is making money from sources other than members. So, be sensible. Perhaps a “reasonable” ratio is one student to every nine certificated pilots, but at the end of the day, it is up to you to defend what you do.

Another aspect to consider is the increased wear and tear on club aircraft when involved in primary training.  Club members should be very leery of having their plane, the one they use for cross country trips and advanced training, banging around the pattern with learner pilots.  Bear in mind that all members must pay the same fees, dues and rates, and everyone is equally responsible for maintenance.  Basically, other club members are subsidizing the higher operating costs incurred by student members and not everyone will be okay with this.  Ensure that your bylaws clearly articulate the club’s position on student members and that all other members agree to it. 

Yet another consideration regarding primary training in club aircraft involves scheduling.  Most primary training takes place on the weekend in order to align the schedules of the student and instructor, and that, of course, is just the time when other members want to use club planes.  Do you really want to have a club plane permanently booked out every weekend for the next 6-months?  Keeping a plane “in reserve” for the purposes of training also won’t fly, as that will absolutely cross the line of the club providing flight training. 

Some clubs, mine and Drew’s included, simply do not accept student pilots as full (flying) members.  Here is our reasoning.  If a club accepts a student pilot as a member, it is strongly implying that the student can use the club plane to learn to fly…why else would the student join the club, and why else would the club accept such a member, if not for them to use the club aircraft for flight training?  In our book, this crosses the line.

Many clubs are pleased to welcome student pilots as non-flying members during their flight training, which gives them the benefits of social involvement, until they earn their certificates and apply to be full flying members.  We’ll look more at the notion of social memberships in an upcoming edition of Club Connector.

This last point provides an excellent segue in the main thrust of this article, can someone start a flying club for the purpose of teaching people to fly? 

The short answer is categorially “no”.

If someone tells you that it is alright to start a flying club for the purpose of teaching kids (or anyone else) to fly is just plain misinformed and wrong.  Some will argue that flight training is “educational” and so a club should be able to form as a non-profit corporation with IRS 501(c)(3) charitable status.  Again, this is wrong, as there is simply no way that a true flying club can abide by the FAA rules and simultaneously obey the IRS rules for non-profit charities, even those that are educational in nature.  The main reason for this is that flying clubs are exclusively “members-only”, whereas charities are granted significant tax advantages because they are expected to provide services and outreach to the wider public.  To get even close to this, a flying club would have to show that it is providing educational services (that is, flight and/or ground training) to at least its members—and likely the public—which, as we saw earlier, is prohibited by the FAA.  There is no way around this, apart from lying on the IRS application form, and that will not end well.

Thankfully, there is a “no, but…” alternative that leads us to an even better means of achieving the same end—that of getting young people flying.

The solution involves separating the idea of funding flight training (getting kids flying) from that of providing a place for them to grow as pilots once certificated (keeping kids flying).  This is how it works:

  1. Firstly, establish a funding organization—a foundation, if you like:
    1. Set-up a non-profit corporation in your state, call it something like, WeFundKids, Inc.
    2. File with the IRS for tax exemption as a 501(c)(3) educational charity.
    3. This will allow you to accept tax deductible donations—just like when we donate to Public Radio, the AOPA Foundation, UNICEF, etc. You can now accept money, aircraft, equipment and so on, into the foundation.
    4. Now start a scholarship program that funds kids to learn to fly at a local flight school. Establish good relationships with the flight school. They’ll be delighted to work with the supply of new students and your foundation will be supporting a local aviation business. Win-Win.
    5. Make the scholarships competitive and have clear rules, requirements, and guidelines. The AOPA Foundation has lots of experience with scholarships, so call us if you would like some guidance.
    6. Alternatively, your foundation could help fund the AOPA Foundation, and you can request that the money goes towards our scholarships for kids. In this way you achieve your goal, but we do the work!


  2. Secondly, establish a flying club:
    1. Set-up a non-profit corporation in your state, call it something like, Kids Flying Club, Inc.
      1. If the club intends to own aircraft, it will be wise to accrue “reserves” for engine overhauls, ADs, etc., so it must bring-in more in income that it shells out in expenses. In this case, it is worth filing with the IRS for 501(c)(7) tax exemption, as a social/hobby club. Note (c)(7), NOT (c)(3)!!!
      2. If the club intends to lease aircraft, it might not be worth filing for tax exemption (and so save the $600 filing fee), as it is usually the owner of the plane that keeps the maintenance reserves, not the club.
    2. When they are training with the flight school, require the kids to join the club as social members to get fully immersed in aviation. Their scholarship could include dollars to help them pay the social member dues.
    3. Once the kids have earnt their certificates, they will apply to join the club and enjoy its many benefits, and, importantly, stay proficient using the club aircraft. Again, at your discretion, the scholarship could include, say, a few months of monthly dues and perhaps some money to help them pay for a period of proficiency flights.
    4. By the way, the foundation may receive donations of aircraft and then lease them to the flying club—in this way the club doesn’t own the planes, so making it easier, financially, for kids to join and leave the club.

There you have it:

  • You have established a method of funding to help kids learn to fly—CHECK
  • You have set-up a flying club—CHECK.
  • You have provided business to a local flight school, proving that clubs and schools are truly best friends—CHECK

By the way—The Guide to Starting a Flying Club contains more information on how to establish non-profit corporations.  All states are slightly different, but all have a “business portal” that you can use to set-up the foundation, and club, with a few clicks of your mouse.  It really is that simple!  Again, heads-up—do not go the path of an LLC.  Non-profit corporation is the only structure that makes sense for flying clubs and foundations.

We really like this approach to teaching kids to learn to fly.  It is an excellent model for reaching the desired goal—getting more kids involved in aviation and getting/keeping them flying, but at the same time, following the FAA’s rules, and supporting the local airport ecosystem.

In fact, we like it so much that we are working with our colleagues in the AOPA Foundation High School initiative to help start flying clubs at High Schools that use the AOPA STEM curriculum.  Stay tuned for progress reports on this exciting project.

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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