Aircraft Spotlight: Choosing the Right Plane for Your Club

Normally the Aircraft Spotlight article looks at a particular aircraft type and evaluates its suitability for operations in a club environment across six areas of particular interest to flying clubs and their members: Operating Cost, Maintenance, Insurability, Training, Cross-Country, and Fun Factor.

This month, we’ll look at the process of determining what aircraft a club should operate in its fleet. If your club is in formation, this is a critical step in attracting members and becoming operational. If your club has been around for decades, conducting a fleet analysis is a worthwhile activity every few years.

Choosing a club aircraft is a little bit like Goldilocks. On one end you could go with a glass-panel, high performance, IFR-equipped cross country aircraft. Or perhaps your members are more interested in staying closer to home and enjoying some basic, stick and rudder flying in a vintage aircraft. Or maybe the consensus choice is something in between.

Some members of the Columbia Aviation Association based in Aurora, Oregon are in the process of forming a flying club and it’s possible they end up with all three options (See this month’s Club Spotlight). If three isn’t the magic number for your club, we’ll walk you through how to determine what one plane is just right for you.

AOPA Resources

A good place to start your search for the right aircraft is by heading to AOPA’s Downloadable Resources for Flying Clubs where you can find Adding an Aircraft Checklist, along with many other tools that can help guide you in forming a club or keeping an existing club successful. The checklist outlines five simple steps to adding an aircraft.

If you’re a club in formation, let’s assume you have identified a group of founding members. If you’re an established club, you already have members. The process starts by looking inward and doing some prework by surveying your members about what they want in an airplane — are they looking for something with more seats, higher performance, IFR certified, retractable gear?

What type of flying do your members do?

A good survey question is to ask your members. “What kind of flying do you do?” Understanding whether your members are flying for a $100 hamburger, business purposes, or taking vacations with the family will help understand if your mission is aligned with the type of flying your members want to or are doing.

For existing clubs, in addition to asking members what kind of flying they do, use the data you have to assess club activity. Reviewing the information from your online scheduler will provide a picture of how and when the club aircraft are used. Do most members just fly for an hour at a time or are they booking the plane for the whole day? An analysis of the frequency and duration of members’ flights will provide valuable information on how the aircraft are being used and if they fit the mission.

Evaluate the Club Mission

After surveying your members, review the club’s mission. For existing clubs, this may change over time, and therefore could affect the choice of aircraft a club may want to operate. What’s important is that your decisions reflect the needs of the members. Some clubs are focused most on affordability, while others may be focused on providing modern aircraft with all the latest technology. Make a list of attributes that members want and then share them with everyone.

Create a Short List of Aircraft

Now that you are clear on the club’s mission and the type of flying your members want to do, make a list of aircraft that meet those needs. Consider things like desire, reality, and cost. For instance, if members say they want a taildragger, how many of them have their tailwheel endorsement? And for those who don’t, does the club have a tailwheel instructor for training? Sometimes desire and reality don’t sync up, sometimes they do.

The next step is to conduct a cost of ownership analysis. In addition to determining acquisition costs if it is an equity club, look at estimated costs over time for annuals, insurance, hangar or tie down fees, and operations, as well as availability and cost for parts. For existing clubs, reviewing the financial records for these expenses is always a good exercise to do from time to time to make sure your cost structure is meeting the club needs.

Another consideration for aircraft selection is whether the type will attract new members. For existing clubs, would having multiple aircraft or a different mix of airplanes result in more flying? For instance, if your members want to fly with their family and your club has a six-place aircraft, that could attract some members.

Another aspect to consider regarding costs are the avionics. Do your members want to fly a glass panel or a standard six pack? If the club has, or plans to have, multiple planes, do you want consistency in the panels across the fleet?

Having similar equipment makes it easier for pilots to transition between different aircraft, which helps with safety. It also makes it easier for the club to maintain the equipment when you don’t have to learn how to operate different brands or models of avionics. 

Acquiring the aircraft

Now that you have a list of aircraft that fit your club’s mission and your members’ flying habits, it’s time to create a procurement committee. Their job is to define the budget, determine financing methods, and find a plane! When assessing an aircraft, think about whether it meets the criteria you set and then be sure to look at damage reports, possible upgrades, maintenance issues like ADs, and insurance.

The last step on the Adding an Aircraft Check List is transition training. If it’s a new club, all of the members are going to need a check out. That means putting together the aircraft documents, developing a ground school to familiarize members with the aircraft and its systems, and making sure you have someone that can do the check flights.

Choosing the right aircraft for your club takes some time, and it should. This is a major investment, and you want to make sure the aircraft will meet your club’s needs. Following the checklist will help guide you, step by step, to gather the right information — the club’s mission, the type of flying members do or want to do, the operating costs of the aircraft, and how much they are utilized. A little investment of time on the front end will help get the club off the ground or keep an existing club viable and successful for years to come.

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