Many flying clubs have been around for decades. For some, that past can create a solid foundation that provides stability for years to come. For other clubs, as the years have gone by, so too has some of the organization, record keeping, and solid business practices needed for future success. To get back on track, the Gig Harbor Flying Club recreated itself and is seeing the benefits.
When Jim Mitchell became president of his flying club in October 2021, he and the newly elected board had lots of questions about club operations. As the club’s new leadership, they wanted to get a deeper understanding of the finances, maintenance practices and club organization.
He knew the non-equity club had been around for decades, leased four aircraft and had about 30 members. He also knew there were some longtime members who carried a great amount of influence and some officers who had been serving for many years that were getting older and were starting to have challenges performing their duties.
As the new board started digging into the finances, they found inefficiencies in how billing and payments were handled, inconsistencies with the lease arrangements, and errors in record keeping. The club took a few actions immediately to address some of those issues. A member was asked to double check all the billing and invoices to ensure mistakes weren’t made going forward, the board got Director and Officer insurance. One of the board members, Tom Curran, suggested the club reach out to AOPA for guidance and the board agreed. Tom reached out to Steve Bateman, from the AOPA Flying Clubs Initiative, and his efforts, along with Steve Bateman, were instrumental in many of the positive changes the club made moving forward.
For many years, one club member made most of the decisions and the board went along with it, without much discussion or questions. The club’s management was fairly casual and record keeping was not as detailed or organized as it could be. While this may have worked for many years, it was clear to Jim that it was time to update the bylaws, get some new board members, and bring a much stronger business organization to the club.
Things began to change when one of the longtime officers who were getting up there in years and had some recent health issues chose to resign. This allowed some other members an opportunity to serve and become pro-active members on the board.
As board members asked more questions, they were met with more issues that needed to be addressed. In order to move forward and reset the club’s organizational foundation, “the board determined we had to terminate the club and divorce ourselves from the old ways, and form a new club,” Jim said.
The first step they took was to seek AOPA’s input on the best organizational structure. “Through the efforts of Tom Curran and Steve Bateman’s counsel and advice, we decided a non-profit corporation made the most sense for us, and we also filed for tax exemption as a social club, under IRS 501(c)(7),” Jim said. The club considered hiring a consultant to help apply for the 501(c)(7) status however, Tom Curran had previous experience and had served on IRS tax exempt nonprofit board in the past. His expertise was instrumental in researching, establishing, and completing the required 30-page application without the use of a consultant, saving the club several thousand dollars. The completed application was hand-delivered to the state capitol and was approved in December 2022.
The club also surveyed the members as part of the reorganization and one of the things that came out of that was a new name—the Gig Harbor Flying Club. They opened a new bank account and the members voted to transfer money from the old club to the new one in the form of a donation, so they could close the old bank account. This completed the transition from the old club to the new one.
Most of the members of the old club chose to stay with Gig Harbor, although a few members of the old guard didn’t like the changes and chose to leave. At the time Jim became president (less than two years ago) there were 30 members in the old club. Today, Gig Harbor has grown to 50 members.
The new board led by Tom Curran, took on rewriting the bylaws, operation rules, and safety policy. “In the previous regime they talked about safety, but they didn’t enforce it,” Jim said. “Now we have mandatory safety meetings that you must come to every month. If you don’t come to three in a row or make them up, you get booted out of the club. There are certain things that are non-negotiable, and that is one of them.”
One of the bylaw changes included implementing term limits. Board members may serve a maximum of two, two-year terms in their position. They may continue serving on the board, as long as it is a different position. The goal was to prevent a “situation where somebody is going to be there forever and they turn into a dictator,” Jim said.
The new club also did a complete scrub of all the financial records. The board did a comprehensive study of the operating costs. The fixed costs, like the hangar rent and insurance were known, but the variable costs, such as maintenance were more difficult to estimate. “There were not a lot of records from before and we tried to look at all the maintenance costs for all the airplanes,” Jim said. “We tried to determine as best we could what our operating costs were.”
After the analysis, the club came up with the hourly rates and determined they needed to increase the dues from $60 to $75 a month. By doing so, they are building up a little bit of a reserve.
Another important change was how they do their billing. In the old club, the treasurer would email each member their bill at the end of the month, and everyone would write a check and send it in. The treasurer would then have to go to the bank to deposit the checks and then manually enter the information into a spreadsheet. That was replaced by Flight Circle about a year before Jim became president, but the club still collected money the old-fashioned way. This left room for data entry errors, as well as a greater likelihood that a member would forget to mail their check.
As the new board looked to improve operations, they chose to use the automatic payment function in Flight Circle. Some of the older members pushed back, but the board held firm and put everyone on autopay. Now everyone pays on time, and no one is delinquent on their payments.
All the finances are updated automatically, so the club knows how much money is in its account every month and no one has to manually enter the information, which has eliminated the mistakes in the bookkeeping. Getting the finances under control “has been huge,” Jim said.
Another big change was finding another maintenance shop. There are multiple maintenance shops on the field, but because of personality differences, the old club leadership chose to go to a more expensive shop. Once the new board began looking at the finances, they decided to check out the other maintenance facility on the field. What they found was astonishing – the new mechanic charged substantially less than what the previous mechanic charged.
Gig Harbor has fostered the relationship with the new maintenance shop and is now using them exclusively for all of the club’s maintenance. “It’s a night and day difference”, Jim said. “Now we’re saving the club thousands of dollars in maintenance costs and the work is so much better.”
As part of getting a handle on the finances, the club reevaluated the aircraft lease agreements. In the old club, leases had no expiration date and there were inequities between the leases for different owners. The board changed to annual leases that are reviewed each year. This will allow the club to determine if the aircraft agreement serves the club’s needs.
There is still a lot of work to do to reestablish Gig Harbor as a club with a solid foundation in terms of finances, operational procedures, and safety. But they are well on their way. By taking a step back and dissolving the old club, working with AOPA’s flying club experts, as well as bringing in new board members with a commitment to strong business principles, the Gig Harbor Flying Club is building a foundation on which to grow for decades to come.
Gig Harbor Flying Club
Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW)
1970 Cessna 150 (expected $90/hr)
1967 Cessna 172H ($125/hr)
2005 Cessna 172S ($135/hr)
Rates are Hobbs time, wet and adjusted monthly for fuel costs.
$75 per month