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Question of the Month: How Do We Prepare For The Upcoming Flying Season and How Do We Close Out 2023?

Let’s start with the last point first…

Closing out 2023:

In order to fully enjoy a whole new year of opportunity, flying clubs have some work to do.  This is the time of year for the Annual General Meeting and when board elections take place for positions such as President, Secretary and Treasurer.  More on the AGM and board elections, here and here. Moreover, given that this is the time of year when all business entities MUST file reports and returns, then you can see the trap…the new board doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.  The best solution to mitigate this risk is for the previous board members to mentor the new—especially the treasurer—but that doesn’t guarantee that it will be correct.  It might just proliferate years of previous incorrect filings.

Remember we are talking about state and federal agencies here, and ignorance can never be claimed as a defense.  “We didn’t know…” is not going to get you far, and anyway, if you keep reading this article, you will know and will then have the obligation to do it correctly!

I covered in great detail the topic of filing business reports and tax returns in the July 2023 edition of Question of the Month: “What Does Being In ‘Good Standing’ Mean For Flying Clubs”, and strongly suggest a reread of that article, but as this is a very important topic at this time of year, please read along as I summarize responsibilities, obligations and actions to ensure your club doesn’t “tickle the ire” of heavyweight federal and state authorities:

  1. If your club is set-up as a legal entity (which it should be and which is always done at the state level) then read on…if not, please call me, as we need to talk!
  2. How do you know if/how you are established?  Well, it is public record, so in a browser search for “Search for a business in <State>”.For example, “Search for a business in Oregon” returns the OR secretary of state’s site where you enter the business name.  Important—always go to a .gov website as there are scammer sites out there that look very official and want to charge you for things you can do for free.
  3. Every club that is established as a “business entity”, whether non-profit corporation or LLC, must file an annual report.  This informs the state that you are still in operation.  Go to your state’s business portal to learn how (and by when) you do this.  Depending on the type of entity, there may be a fee to review (and you don’t have an option).For example, in Maryland, the fee to file the annual report for an LLC is $300, whereas for a non-profit corporation (NPC) there is not a fee.  Yet another reason to establish as an NPC or do the one-time conversion from an LLC to an NPC.
  4. Next is corporate taxes.  If your club is set-up as a non-profit corporation, which all flying clubs should be, then here are your obligations:
    1. If you have not applied for and obtained a letter of approval to be exempt from federal income under IRS 501(c)(7), then you will file IRS form 1120 and the equivalent state income tax return for corporations.
    2. If you have filed for and hold a letter of approval for tax exemption under 501(c)(7), you won’t file a federal tax return, but will file a variant of form 990—the actual one depending on the club’s annual income.
    3. If you hold federal tax-exempt status, do not assume that this automatically extends to state income tax exemption—it doesn’t.  You must formally apply to the state’s tax board for state income tax exemption and receive a letter of approval from the state.
  5. Sales and use tax.  Many (probably the majority) of states have the notion of sales and use tax.  If you buy or use something, you get taxed.  Some states call it sales tax, but it means the same thing—the club should be changing members the tax rate when they use (fly) club aircraft.  For example, if your usage rate is $100 per hour, and the use tax rate is 6%, then you should be charging members $106 per hour and should pay the tax board the accrued taxes on some agreed schedule, for example quarterly.  Monthly dues should not incur sales tax, but we’ve heard of overenthusiastic tax collectors trying it on.  If you have questions about your obligation to collect and pay sales tax, first look on the AOPA State Advocacy website.  If you can’t find answers or are confused, contact AOPA Legal Service Plan on 1800-872-2684.  Youhave to be a member of the plan, of course!

    Some states will extend the federal tax exemption to sales and use tax, as well as state income tax.  There is only one way to find out—ask them!   We know of at least one club in Maryland that received an exemption from state sales/use tax, so it pays to find out.  Think of the savings if you are planning on adding to the fleet…x% of a lot of money, is a lot of money.

  6. As of January 2024, there is one more filing that has to take place, so please bring this to the attention of the club treasurer.  I’ve been writing about this obligation for over a year now, but we are now at time = 0 for this new mandatory report.  Every LLC, corporation, partnership or whatever must file the new FinCEN BOI (Beneficial Ownership Information) report.  As I understand it, it will be one-time for most flying clubs.  Lots of detail and links to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network’s BOI website can be found in the 
    December 2023 News from Headquarters.

Late news:  I recently submitted the form for my LLC—it took less than five minutes.  I am left wondering what will happen to the information, as there was not really very much to it.  Another example of bureaucracy living up to its name, perhaps?

Moving on to 2024:

Now that 2023 has been closed out, with taxes paid and reports filed, let’s change gears and look at how your club, its aircraft and its members can awake from winter’s frosty grasp.   What follows is a tweaked version of the April 2023 Question of the Month but brought forward to February in order to get things ready for the rapidly approaching flying season.  Folks in California and Florida will think we’re mad, but hey…we think you’re mad, too!

Many flying clubs in the nation have little choice but to do some degree of winterization of their airplanes.  This could range from: fitting blanking plates over part of the oil cooler and perhaps the coolant radiator (think Rotax), to partially and perhaps even completely hibernating the plane, involving engine preservation oil, jacking up the plane to avoid cold-induced stress on the tires...and more.  If the plane is not going to be used for an extended period of time, it is also a good idea to lube all hinges, rose joints (rod ends), and to grease the nose/tail wheel and anywhere else there are grease fittings.  Use a battery conditioner (absolutely not your auto battery charger) to ensure the battery stays healthy and well-conditioned during the long sleep.

Covering the airplane with dust sheets will help it stay clean, even in a nice warm hangar, but do your research carefully if you are thinking about leaving an engine heater on for the duration.  The internet has lots of good—and not so good—advice on this topic, so choose your “facts” wisely.

So, we see there will be some awakening maintenance that will have to be performed prior to the first flight of spring.  Even if the club’s pride and joy has been somewhat active during the winter, it is still a good idea to prepare the plane for the ensuing rush of reservations and flights.

Now that you are in a spring-cleaning frame of mind, it is a good time to review your club’s rules.  Bylaws get inflated and unwieldy over time, and operational requirements change as members and planes come and go, so what worked 20-years ago—and even last year—may now be woefully out of date.

The same is probably true for members and their proficiency.  Due to inclement weather, shorter days, cold and so on, many members may not have flown much during the dark days of winter, so it makes sense to design some sort of “welcome back” training to get everyone up to in a flying frame of mind.

Let’s take these one-by-one:  planes, members and rules:

Club Equipment:

The obvious pieces of equipment to consider first are the airplanes themselves.  The following suggestions are just that—suggestions—and are in no way exhaustive, and in no way replace or reset other inspections, such as annual, 100-hour, etc.  Think of this as a really in-depth pre-flight inspection because that is exactly what it is.   If you are not comfortable with doing this yourself, get your local A&P involved, but shadow them, so you’ll know more for next time.  See this month’s Safety Section for more ideas on preparing for flight after hibernation.

If the plane was winterized, then reverse the process.  Even if it wasn’t fully hibernated it is a good time to do an oil change, as the plane has likely been sitting more than usual.  I change my Bat’s oil every 40-hours or three months, whichever comes first, which is important for an O-235 to avoid condensation-induced corrosion, especially spalling (micro-pitting) of the cam lobes.  Read the service manuals for your plane’s engine and the applicable service bulletins from the engine manufacturers to get the details.  Guru Mike Busch’s articles on oil, oil changes, etc. are also worth re-reading—search the AOPA and EAA websites, as well as Savvy Aviation. Another good reason to change the oil even if it isn’t actually time, is to establish a baseline for the coming year.  Send an oil sample to your favorite analysis lab to get a picture of the present, but also as the new starting point for the year.  Of course, always change the oil filter and cut open the old one to look for particles.  If you find “metal” in the filter, refer to the engine manufacturer’s service bulletins for the next steps.  Don’t forget to inspect the oil screen (different than the oil filter) and reinstall it using a new crush washer.  Safety wire everything that could move but shouldn’t…so that it doesn’t.

While you are at it, you might as well pop out the spark plugs and give them a clean.  Again, getting a good starting point for the year.  As always when the plugs are out, use your borescope to inspect the valves, piston crowns and cylinder bore surfaces.  (I use a Vividia Ablescope VA-400 V5 USB borescope, but there are many to choose from).   Take photos, labeling them with what and when, to establish a baseline and to help diagnose any issues in the future.  When reinstalling the plugs, use the recommended anti-seize compound, replace the copper gaskets, and tighten to the correct torque.

Many club management tools (such as Flight Circle), allow you to set maintenance reminders, so create new ones and update existing ones appropriately.  This should also include oil changes, time-based recurrent ADs, IFR/VFR inspections, and so on.

When the oil is draining, it is a good time to inspect the airframe for pets, infestations, and other visitors.  Use a bright light and an inspection mirror as they like to hide!  Look for telltale signs such as droppings and nesting materials—see Mice Eat Airplanes.  Next, get out your lube and squirt away on hinges, elevator/rudder bearings, rod ends, etc.  Grease up the flap runners and nose/tail wheels.  Of course, follow the instructions in the aircraft’s service manual and use the recommended lubricants.  I find LPS-2 to be a really good general-purpose lubricant and I use a squeeze bottle (like a safety eye-wash bottle) and syringes to control application, especially in tight situations.

Change all filters.  Obviously, the oil filter when doing the oil change, but also air filters.  Wait, you cry, we did that at the annual at the start of the summer.  Yeah, exactly my point!  If you still use vacuum air-based gyros, then change the two filters under the panel…this is really cheap preventative maintenance.

With the cowlings off, use a “black light” (UV light) to carefully inspect all around the engine.  Oil leaks will bloom-up as white areas under this type of light.  If you find any leaks, understand and/or fix them…they won’t get less over time.  Whilst you are at it, check all hoses, baffles and so on.  Be especially vigilant for chafing—things rubbing over other things.  Fix this with clips or by using a buffer material between the surfaces.  Be careful when using standard zip-ties…the serrated surfaces can do more harm than good.  Take a look at GripLockTies—these are reusable and have a rubber sleeve so don’t chafe.

Then do a detailed walk around, checking lights (critters love to chew on wiring), orifices (pitot, static, air inlets, vents, etc.) and don’t forget to check the tires for wear and inflation.  Aircraft tires have very little volume, so even small temperature changes will result in swings in pressure.  Using nitrogen will help reduce the temperature-induced pressure variations.  When you are poking at the tires, use a bright flashlight to inspect the brake pads—many have notches that indicate wear limits.  If they are getting close, schedule replacement, as I guarantee that they will not get better over time!  As with all pre-flights, feel under the calipers and especially around the brake line fittings for leaks.  Again, things like this do not get better over time, so to avoid downtime during the busy season, get this type of maintenance taken care of as soon as possible.

Now, clubs often have additional equipment that is about to become heavily used. Don’t forget to service the tugs (gas and electrically powered all have moving parts), grease-up the hangar doors (the lessor is usually responsible for this, but best to check), look for frayed cables, and so on. If it squeaks, it needs grease! 

If the club does some of its own maintenance under Part 43, now is a good time to check the calibration of tools such as torque wrenches, various gauges that you may use, etc.  Yes—even if you are not an A&P, you are expected to use tools and methods that conform to the standards...remind yourself of this by curling-up with this article and AC 43.13-1B.  Chat with your local A&P to find a good calibration lab near you.

Members:

Prepping the planes for the flying season is fairly straightforward as they don’t have opinions.  Not so with members!  When thinking about an early spring safety program, be careful not to “mandate” too much.  Pilots, being pilots, will generally understand the need for ongoing proficiency training, but even so, many still moan about “having to do” a check out and/or fight review.  I personally view the flight review as Gift #1 from the FAA it forces us to fly with a CFI at least once every 24 calendar months, but even then, there is the “legal vs. safe” debate to consider. Even better is Gift #2 from the FAA—the GA pilot proficiency program known as WINGS.  More on this later.

I’ve written previously about the fine line between a club sincerely wanting to keep its members safe, and the precipice of mandating various requirements.  I’m being careful with words here for a reason.  Currency is always the responsibility of the PIC, and a club should never, ever, take on any obligation or responsibility for this.  Now, it is perfectly reasonable to use the features of your club management tool to remind members about their currency dates…medical, flight review, IPC, passenger and night currency, etc., and you could even prevent reservations if these dates are exceeded.  The club must never, however, mandate (in the bylaws or elsewhere) that members have to do annual flight reviews or fly with a CFI every 90 days, or anything else that second-guesses the FARs and/or removes full responsibility from each PIC.  This advice comes straight from the AOPA legal team and is all to do with potential liability if a club mandates something but then doesn’t have systems in place to enforce it—and something bad happens.  Now, the one time you might have to do this is if it is a condition of insurance, but even then, ensure that the bylaws clearly state that this is a condition of insurance, and that every member when acting as PIC is personally responsible for compliance.

Notwithstanding the above, it certainly makes good sense for a club to have a clearly defined safety culture and to suggest some actions for all club members to stay proficient.  In my book, if pilots fly enough to be proficient, then they should be flying enough to remain current according to the regulations.  I see absolutely no reason for any club to invent its own pilot proficiency program, as the FAA (yes, that FAA) has done it for us.  My advice is to encourage (rather than mandate) every member to have an faasafety.gov account, and to take at least one knowledge activity that offers WINGS credit and to fly with a CFI, at least once per quarter.  Think of this as a progressive flight review.  The knowledge activities could be FAA or ASI courses, quizzes, seminars or webinars, and the flying activities should use the lesson plans and worksheets found on faasafety.gov.  The FAASTeam has also done most of the work for us by providing Topic of the Month suggestions.  Have your safety officer check out these resources and by the way, encourage the safety officer, and other members for that matter, to become FAASTeam safety representatives—more information herehere, and here.  If you would like to find out more about the WINGS program, contact the FAASTeam Program Manager (FPM) at your local FSDO.  Use this form to find their contact info, or send me an email with a number for me to call you back—[email protected]

Whatever your safety program and system, start the year off right with a focused safety review.  You could have this as part of the first social event of the year (safety is a social activity) and include topics such as a reminder of club procedures, plans for the coming year, and a review of airport and other local procedures.  Keep it interesting by inviting a couple of guest speakers, for example, the airport manager, local ATC, your A&P and so on.  With great speakers comes great responsibility, so take a re-peek at the April 2022 Question of the Month: How can we identify some good guest speakers for our club meetings?

Okay, moving on…

Procedures:

I’ve written elsewhere that flying clubs are like neighborhoods.  They have life cycles and involve people from many different backgrounds, opinions and tolerance to rules.  The club should have a set of bylaws that establish the modus operandi of the club—its structure, governance, and responsibilities. There should also be a set of operation rules.  See the October 2017 Question of the Month: What is the difference between Bylaws and Operating Rules? and the follow-on article all about operational rules, in the November 2017 Question of the Month.

Just like with a neighborhood, times change, and people change, but also in flying clubs, the equipment—the planes—may also change, as may the operating environment…airport size, airspace and so on. What worked for the original members may well just be quaintly interesting for the club of today, and human nature is to ignore things that “clearly” do not apply to the club of today.

So, you see the trap here.  If rules do not make sense, then people ignore them and then there is little that can be done to maintain standards and good practices—anarchy and Normalization of Deviance prevails.  Okay, this is a bit dramatic, but the point is that rules have to make sense in order for people to (want to) follow them.

As y’all know, Cade and I interact with clubs on a daily basis—about 50-percent working with new clubs and 50-percent helping existing clubs.  Of those existing clubs, I’d guess that about 70 percent have no idea when the bylaws and operational rules were last reviewed and amended. 

Don’t think of this as a problem, but as an opportunity!  Gather a small cross-section of members (not more than seven and always have an odd number)—young and not so, newbies and oldies, officers and general members, and yes, even old George the club historian who can add background to some of the odd and very specific rules that were apparently so important back in the day.

In my experience, bylaws and operational rules get bloated over the years, as it is easier to add rather than reword.  Also, the distinction between the two documents gets blurred as things are added to the bylaws rather than the operations manual, and vice versa.  Do a line-by-line review and ask:  Why is this rule/statement here, is it in the right place, and does it still apply to today’s club?  This actually doesn’t take very long…and even the rewrite can go quite smoothly as long as you don’t involve the whole club with every nuance.  My advice is to amend the documents with input from a small committee, and then take the draft versions to the club as a whole.  Yes, there will be some discussion, possibly heated, but this is the democratic process in action, and just keep pushing for agreement.  Give a bit and take a bit! 

Next, have every member renew their vows.  Whenever documents change and become a new standard, have every member sign that they have read, understood, and will abide by the new rules and procedures.  Without this, enforcement will be impossible. Everyone must be equally bound by the new rules and procedures.  No exceptions, not even for “the plane whisperer”, that person who openly states “I am one with this airplane”.

How often should a club go through this process?  Well, I think there are two parts to consider…rather like an ATIS.  Firstly, a review of documents should occur whenever there is a significant change.  For example, adding aircraft (particularly if very different from the existing fleet), changes in the operational environment, and so on.  Secondly, even if there are no significant changes, a review should be conducted on a reasonable cadence—we suggest every two years.  The more often you do it, the less needs to be changed.

Reminder about the FAA’s 2023 Spring Training Workshops workshop.  It is quite long (just short of three hours), but worth the investment in time:  The FAA's From the Flight Deck LIVE Spring Training Workshop.  If you love this so much that you would like to view the 2022 workshop, well, you can find it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHRGOE9EG00.

I’ll let you all know in an upcoming Club Connector edition if/when I hear about a 2024 FAA Spring Training Workshop.

Summary:

Get cracking now on closing out 2023…it won’t go away and will linger, so get to it.

Now that the planes have emerged from hibernation and have had thorough pre-season inspections and maintenance, they are ready for the rush of spring flying.  So too are the members having been topped-up with relevant safety information and they are all following the WINGS GA Pilot Proficiency Program.  The club should now be equipped with a set of modern bylaws and operational rules that everyone is comfortable with and has (re)agreed to follow. 

This sounds like the recipe for a successful flying season.  Off you go, then!

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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