Independent flight, as everyone knows, is only for birds, bees and billionaires. Mark Weyer is trying to expand that list.
His group, the Tailwinds Flying Club, is one of a growing number of nonprofits that are democratizing airplane ownership. Weyer’s mission is to make flying affordable for more people.
“Look at us — we are ordinary people,” said Weyer in the club’s Lake Elmo hangar, working alongside other club members.
The potential to fly — for the cost of owning a car — is driving a surge in airplane-buying clubs. Nationally, the number of clubs has jumped nearly 30 percent since January to 616, thanks to a club-founding drive by the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
In the Twin Cities metro area, there are 18 clubs, from Blaine to St. Paul to Lakeville.
The Tailwinds Club owns three airplanes, which its 39 members use for vacations, business travel or just for fun. One of them, a 2006 Cirrus SR20, cost $450,000 — well out of reach for middle-class pilots.
But members pay a fraction of that cost. The joining fee is $5,900, monthly dues are $130 and hourly rental is $46 to $77.
“This is a unique opportunity to split up expenses,” Weyer said. The clubs are emerging from a patch of turbulence.
Tailwinds was formed in 1968 with a single airplane. The club grew steadily until Sept. 11, 2001 — the day that changed airplane flight in America. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation’s airways were shut down. Immediately, Weyer said, insurance doubled to $10,000 a year for a single Tailwinds airplane.
After that, private flying was limited — and remains limited. “You still can’t fly within 50 miles of the president’s jet,” Weyer said.
Restrictions also apply when other government officials are flying. Small aircraft must avoid many stadiums when they are full of people.
“September 11 was the first time that our list to get into the club dissolved,” Weyer said. “The list to get in turned into a list to get out. It was kind of scary.”
Then came the recession, in about 2008. Members suddenly found themselves without jobs. The impact was felt at many clubs, including the Gateway Flying Club in Blaine.
“We had an issue when the economy was dropping,” said club president Chris Baye.
But in the past year, that club and others have been rebounding. Membership of the three-airplane club in Blaine has grown to about 34 — a number that has been holding steady or increasing.
In Lake Elmo, Weyer said Tailwinds now is attracting younger pilots. “In the past, aviation has been kind of an older man’s sport,” he said. Brenda Tibbs, flying club specialist with the national association, said many amateur pilots are taking advantage of the freedom to fly in America.
The restrictions on small aircraft in other countries are still much tougher than those in America, she said. Flying in this country is much cheaper — and so is learning to fly.
“It’s so much better here than in any other country in the world,” said Tailwinds secretary Barry Dayton.
Late last month, Dayton and Weyer worked on chores in the club’s hangar. Yellow lines veer around the concrete floor to show pilots how to exit the hangar, and tennis balls hanging from the ceiling show them where to park.
On one wall is a photo display of all the current members, which illustrates another lure of the club: the potential for making friends. Weyer said that five times a year the club has a “plane washing,” at which members maintain the airplanes and socialize.
The hangar has room for the Cirrus, a 1977 Piper Archer II and a 1979 Piper Cherokee Six.
The Cirrus is the most advanced, with a built-in parachute for the entire plane and air bags everywhere, even tucked into the safety harness.
The Cherokee is considered the antique. “People always point this out,” laughed Dayton, as he climbed inside. “It still has ashtrays.”
Bob Shaw can be reached at 651-228-5433. Follow him at twitter.com/BshawPP.