Question of the Month: How Can Flying Clubs Stay Modern?

Regular readers of Club Connector will know that we recently started a “competition” to answer two lingering questions—which clubs are (truly) the oldest in each state, and by extension, which club can claim the title of oldest in the country. As well as busting some myths and bursting some bubbles, this will allow us to better understand how “old” clubs have weathered the passage of time—and, by the way, we are talking about 7-8-9-10 decades.  We hint at early findings in this month’s Club Spotlight, but we have a feeling that this will be hotly contested as the word gets out.  We also expect to find some exceptions along the way.  For example, which of these old clubs have been in continuous operation?  Are there clubs that still operate their original airplane?

Anyway, beyond just the intriguing and being able to celebrate their achievements, we plan to speak with many of these “old clubs” to find out their secrets of success.  We’ll start this off in this month’s Club Spotlight, but in this QoM we’ll present some ideas that may help new and younger clubs survive the journey to longevity.

So, let’s pick at the notion of flying clubs staying modern. This of course has great application to mature clubs, but there is also an opportunity for not-so-old clubs to keep up with the times and so not have to undergo stepwise realignments with modern expectations and requirements, but before going too much further, let’s prod at the word “old”. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is of course the definitive record of the English language, there are some forty meanings of the word “old”.  Limiting ourselves to more modern interpretations, let’s go a step further and make some definitions for use in this article:

  • Old flying club: A flying club that has been around for a long time. Based purely on time.
  • Mature flying club: A flying club that has reached full functionality.
  • Young flying club: A flying club that has been around for a brief time. Based purely on time.
  • New flying club: A flying club that has not reached full functionality.

Thinking about the competition to find the oldest club in each state and then in the nation, we are in fact considering time—and time, as we know, is just a number.  If club A formed in 1921, then it is older than club B that established in 1922, but there are traps even with this simple math.  If club B has definitive articles of establishment, but club A does not, then which, really, is the older club? 

As we progress with this study and competition gets hotter, we will inevitably have to ask for proof.  In other words, we will be asking for documented proof of establishment, rather than just “common-clublore”.

Once we have an ordered list for each state, we might think that by interviewing the older clubs we might better understand how they managed to withstand the test of time, but on reflection, this probably isn’t going to tell us much.  It is highly unlikely that any of these clubs survived in any linear fashion—being all sweetness and light through the ages.  No, it is much more likely that they survived in fits-and-spurts, changing and modifying as needed, bending and adjusting to “the times”.   We will also probably find that these old clubs had to adhere to the hierarchy of needs that we presented in last month’s Question of the Month, which was all about club clubs staying healthy, but we now must consider the impact of time since, although the levels of the hierarchy probably apply equally across the ages, the details within each hierarchy were unavoidably based on interpretations of the day.

The only reason that these old clubs survived is that they adjusted to the times, perhaps even getting perilously close to the edge before realizing that they had to adapt, and this gets us to the very point of this article.  For clubs to become old, they of course must remain operationally and financially viable, but even more so, they must stay modern, the meaning of which is itself a moving target with the passage of time.  The “mods” of the 1960’s had absolutely no doubt that they were the epitome of modern, but looking back we are likely to wonder “What were they thinking?”

So be it with flying clubs.  We have written extensively in previous Club Connector editions about longevity, viability and other operational foundations that must be in place for a club to continue to exist, but in order to survive and fully meet its purpose, we must look another piece of the puzzle.

Staying Modern

As mentioned above, modern is in the eye of the beholder, and it is especially dependent on “the times”. Staying modern is, then, keeping up with the times, and rather than dwell on its meaning in the year 2023, I’ll try to be more general.

Let me illustrate.  On a recent commercial flight home, I watched the movie “BlackBerry”, which I enjoyed immensely, not least as I lived through that era and was in fact working in Silicon Valley on similar technology development projects.  Bear in mind that mobile phones existed well before BlackBerry, but their level of integration was unique for the times.  Having a BlackBerry device went beyond mere connectively and functionality—it was a status symbol.  The company (RIM) went from strength to strength and then…came the Apple iPhone.  The meaning of modern shifted overnight from a clicking keyboard taking up half of the device, to a unit with no physical keyboard, a (relatively) high resolution screen—and the rest is history, at least until the next stepwise innovation arrived on the scene.

So, rather than state that being modern is owning an iPhone 15, or installing the latest instrumentation in the plane, let’s say that it is using tools, skills, methods and equipment commensurate with the times and the application.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some ideas for flying clubs to stay modern:

  • We all do not know what we don’t know, and that is generational. Involve a cross section of members in regular strategic planning, including young (not just younger, but young) members. What is their understanding of modern?
  • Don’t fight it, embrace it. Just like with people, a club that does not accept the changing times will quickly be seen as a relic. This is what I mean by the fictional Pipes and Slippers Flying Club that I’ve mentioned in several previous articles.
  • The meaning and value of time is volatile and is constantly evolving. If you send a multipage discourse by snail mail to a 20-something, then don’t expect them to read it.
  • Communication and information are quite different. You can go red in the face trying to communicate, but if you don’t match the receiver’s frame of reference then no information will be exchanged. This has important ramifications in flying clubs. Take, for example, the need to urgently notify members of a serious maintenance issue. A modern way to tackle this would be to use a social media group application, like WhatsApp, but it will only work if everyone uses it. Should the club insist that all members install and use the app? Yeah, IMHO they should. In fact, if taken to a vote, it will probably result in a majority pass. Not unanimous, as there will inevitably be diehards, but it will be accepted by the majority as a step forward. Some members may get bent out of shape and threaten to leave. Okay then—unless the club agrees to set up a telegraph line, so be it.
  • On the topic of time, there is an increasing shortness of it—or so everyone has been saying for years. Of course, the units of time have not changed (over time), but what has is how we value it. A good example is monthly club meetings. Sure, a club may mandate in its bylaws that every member attends in person, but does this really make sense in our modern post-pandemic world? I do absolutely think that all members should attend club meetings in order to stay in good standing (it is a club after all), but really, does it matter if it is in person or via Zoom or whatever? Well, no—and yes.

    If every meeting is hosted remotely (I just do not understand how a meeting can be “virtual”—it either is or it isn’t a meeting!), then over time the personal relationships that are so important for any social club will become fractured.  I propose that a modern club should embrace modern techniques for general and regular meetings but require members to attend and socialize with each other on a regular cadence, say, every quarter.  I also suggest that clubs require in-person attendance at:

    • The Annual General Meeting. It is just too easy for remote members to hide and shirk from doing work and standing for board positions. I call this hiding behind a muted microphone. “Oh, sorry, my internet connection went down just as you were asking me to do something”.
    • Meetings with prospective members before bringing them onboard.
    • At least biannually (twice a year…biennial is every two years) safety standdown meetings. If you need ideas or a presenter for such meetings, give me a call.
  • On the topic of time management at club business meetings, make it interesting and cut to the chase. Start the meeting with a 30-minute safety slot—it is too easy to renege on this if it is relegated to the end of an LSM—a long, sweaty meeting.

    Modern clubs embrace safety and proficiency as a strength, not as a post-accident after thought.  As I have written about before, maintaining insurance coverage is an existential issue for today’s flying clubs, and modern clubs must, simply must, get ahead of this rather than whining that “someone should do something”. Take a listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 49:  Insurance Revisited.

    One way of containing verbal overruns is to allocate time slots and require that members must be on a list of speakers rather than everyone having free reign for their 2-cents, which often stretches to at least a dollar.   You want the people with good ideas and opinions to stay, but generally it is the ramblers who have the time to pontificate.  This is where a good chairperson is essential! 

    Remember, run your club as you would a business, but enjoy it as a social club—see: What Can We Do To Ensure The Longevity Of Our Flying Club.

  • A modern club uses modern tools and techniques. Using spreadsheets, paper invoices, accepting cheques (go on...I dare you...) in the mail and so on, means that the club is just one heartbeat (of the treasurer) away from disaster. Cloud based electronic record keeping using club management software (such as Flight Circle), keeping all financial records and transactions in an online accounting package…and more…is essential to a club’s survivability. Moreover, these are actually productivity tools and will greatly reduce the time and effort expended by officers such as the treasurer and secretary, meaning that more people might be willing to step up at the next elections to take on these vital roles.
  • Modern clubs are not bullies (see The Pros and Cons of Big Clubs) but instead understand their place, roles and opportunities in the greater infrastructure of aviation, and the wide and deep ecosystem of airports .Flying clubs are places for members to enjoy themselves and fly good airplanes without needing to aspire to take over the universe. Yeah...there is some history here.
  • As with life in general, modern flying clubs must realize that there is rarely an easy solution to complicated problems. If it is too easy, or seems too good to be true, then it probably is. For many ways that clubs can get into trouble by taking the easy way out, see: Be Careful What You Wish For.
  • It is pretty clear that, for a flying club to stay modern, it must include people to whom “modern” means today and tomorrow, not yesterday and yesteryear. Back in December 2019, the Flying clubs team interviewed several younger pilots to better understand what they thought about flying clubs. This gets to the very fabric of a club being modern—is a club “hip” enough to attract younger members who will become the mainstay of the club in the future?

    Without doubt, old and mature can only have survived the passage of time if they regularly attracted younger people to take the reins.  For a club that was established, in say, 1960 (which is actually fairly young compared with some seriously old clubs from the 20s and 30s), they will have gone through several generational shifts in membership.  With these shifts came new ideas and perspectives, as well as expectations.  It is truly interesting to hear of some old clubs that still operate the same aircraft bought so many years ago.  This is perhaps a big distinction between old flying clubs and say, tennis clubs.  Presumably, all members of the tennis club use modern rackets for the advantages of weight and power, whereas club aircraft may continue to appeal to a wide range of ages and experience.

    In the December 2021 edition of Club Connector, we captured our findings in the article: What Can Clubs Do To Attract Younger Pilots? (Younger Pilots Speak Out Edition. The takeaways from the article were that:

    • Young pilots want to be involved. Put them to work and allow them space to shape the club for a successful future.
    • Young members want to be involved in the governance of the club. Let them lose on revising the bylaws and operating rules. These documents, as well as providing the fabric for club operations, encapsulate the very culture of the club. Is it old, stuffy and bloated, or is it to the point and extends discretion to the board of directors?
    • First impressions are huge. Are exiting club members welcoming of new members? Is the onboarding process reminiscent of getting a job with the government? Are club documents and financials openly available for prospective members to fully understand what they are getting into?
    • Does the club make it easy and convenient to be a member and to fly the aircraft? Web based reservation systems and point-of-sale billing are standard for modern service organizations, so why not modern flying clubs?
    • Costs are important to all members, but probably more so for younger members. They likely have spent many thousands of dollars to get their pilot certificate, are paying off student loans, have rent and car payments to make, and so on. In other words, they do not have a lot of disposable savings needed to join an equity club. This is why we have seen such an uptick in a very modern alternative to traditional flying clubs—that of non-equity clubs, and it can be a win-win. Older members can better afford to purchase an aircraft which they then lease to the flying club. Club members do not have the burden of equity ownership but do have affordable access to an aircraft on a recurrent basis, rather than capital ownership.

      If your club is struggling to attract younger members due to the significant equity buy-in, think about adding a leased aircraft.  You’ll have to do some restructuring to accommodate such a change, but it is possible and “legal”, and will open up club membership to younger people.  The key to this is NOT to create tiers of membership, but instead have a common club membership where everyone pays the same dues to be members of the club, and then have different flying privileges that incur different dues surcharges and per-hour rates.  We have also recently heard of clubs that have converted from being an equity club to a non-equity one.  See Membership Tiers Will End in Tears and The Pros and Cons of Equity and Non-Equity Clubs for more ideas on this, and please call if you have questions.  Flying Clubs Radio Edition 25 is an audio version of the Equity and Non-Equity Clubs discussion.

  • Before bringing this article to a close, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention in passing a few other recent articles that together add greatly to the notion of flying clubs staying modern:
    • Firstly, the rather encyclopedic article that I penned in May 2021. The Question of the Month was entitled Is Our Club Still Viable? which turned out to be a rather deep dive into the factors that conspire against flying clubs remaining as viable entities. So, by extension, understanding what gets ‘em, will help us understand what keeps ‘em going.
    • Another relevant article is the August 2020 Question of the Month, How Can My Club Have A Say In Airport Operations? The argument here is that a modern club must keep fully up to date with all activities and developments on the airport. Trust me, I’ve seen this many times, so please ensure that at least one club member attends every airport authority meeting and reports back to the BoD. What could possibly happen? Well, as an example, at Bend airport just down the road from where I live, new (draft) airport rules were attempted to be “snuck in” and would have effectively shut down the fully legal and compliant flying club based there, as well as what amounts to a land-grab in shorting existing hangar leases. Long story, but the Friends of Bend Airport and your favorite aviation membership organization are working together to get this all straightened out—and we will.
    • An increasingly popular pastime involves ignoramuses trying to close airports based on some made-up concern or other—or simply that someone sees $$ signs in the development of prime real estate. “The airport is poisoning our community, so let’s shut it down…and oh yeah, if you insist, I’ll develop the site for you with really ugly townhouses”. I was going to say, “don’t get me started”, but as you can tell, it’s way too late for that.  Anyway, airports users, tenants and hence flying clubs need to keep up with this “modern” view of what we do and why we do it, so please reread the March 2021 Question of the Month, How May Flying Clubs Involve The Local Community to learn about options that might, just, someday, save the airport, and your club.
    • …and finally…take a listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 33, entitled, How Your Club Might Be Scaring Away Members to learn about the five top ways being unmodern may be the catalyst for a membership crisis.

There we go then…some ideas on how your club can “stay modern”, even if it happens to be one of the oldest in the nation!

As a reminder, to help us determine the oldest club in each state and then in the nation:

Send an email to [email protected]

Subject Line:  Oldest Club Entry

Body of email:

  1. Name of club: <Your response>
  2. State of operation: <Your response>
  3. Date of establishment: <Your response>
  4. Airport ID (three-character ID): <Your response>
  5. Your name: <Your response>
  6. Your email address (not the clubs, yours): <Your response>
  7. Your phone number (not the clubs, yours): <Your response>
  8. Been in continuous operation?: Yes or No
  9. With the same airplane: Yes or No
  10. If yes, make/model/year: <Your response>
  11. Comments:<Your response>

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]

Related Articles